Although estimates of the impact of automation on the labour market vary widely, it is generally agreed that the ‘fourth industrial revolution’, and especially the advance of AI, is set to transform how we live and work. The question we wanted to address in the next in our debates series was what this means for education – particularly, for how we prepare the next generation of citizens and workers to thrive in a very different context. Will the addition of a few more classes on coding and machine learning suffice? To help us in our quest we brought together experts from the fields of education and technology: Rose Luckin, Professor of Learner Centred Design at the UCL Knowledge Lab; Gi Fernando founder and CEO of Freeformers; Professor Mark Bailey, High Master of St Paul’s School; and Baroness Sally Morgan, whose engagement with the education sector ranges across the compulsory and post-compulsory phases.The debate opened with a dystopian vision: dramatically increased amounts of data and data processing capacity, plus algorithms, mean that machines can learn much faster and much more accurately than humans can – AlphaGo is the commonly cited exemplar. On one reading, such developments suggest that a knowledge-based curriculum can only set humans up to fail. At the very least, they would seem to add a new dimension to the age-old ‘knowledge vs skills’ debate.
In fact, our panellists were reasonably sanguine about what was needed in response: there was a broad consensus that the education system of tomorrow required an adjustment rather than a entire paradigm shift. Young people would still require a ‘local cache’ of knowledge. Layered over that would need to be a basic understanding of coding and AI, as well as the data literacy that, the recent Facebook/Cambridge Analytica episode would suggest, is not yet there. Perhaps more challenging, layered upon that, the panellists suggested, would need to be the much more explicit development of pupils’ non-cognitive skills – empathy being the most difficult skill for AI to replicate (or rather, mimic), as well as resilience, creativity, teamwork, and so forth. At present, our education system doesn’t overtly assess these skills beyond the early years.
This begged the questions of whether such skills could be taught and, if so, whether schools should be the places to teach them. The answer from the panel on both was a resounding ‘yes’ – and that emerging technologies can help us in that task. Human beings, it was suggested, don’t actually understand themselves very well. HR and psychological expertise could help teachers assess and pupils better understand their competencies and personality traits. And AI can in turn help them to better develop and measure the very mind-sets, skills and behaviours that cannot be automated.
Where our panellists were less sanguine was on the question of whether schools have the space to deliver this more determined and systematic focus on the non-cognitive. Historically, the UK has prided itself on its creativity, on being a nation of inventors and entrepreneurs; our panellists questioned whether, for all the good intentions, the recent strength of focus on ‘the basics’ and on knowledge, with teaching becoming more didactic in the process, would perpetuate that for much longer. This brought us to a host of wider elements that will need to adapt if our education system is to be ‘fit for purpose’ in the brave new world that awaits: teacher education that prepares teachers to be socialisers as much as educators; accountability that isn’t largely based on exam performance; overcoming the STEM gender gap and the academic-vocational divide – and employers who themselves understand the implications of automation and AI for their (human) workforces.
There have been a lot of reports on the implications of AI of late, and our debate reflected some of the recommendations that have been made on what needs to be done to get ahead of the curve. As one panellist commented: ‘this country is very good at producing reports – we need to get better at acting on their analysis’. Otherwise, the robots might just beat us to it…
Watch the debate in full here.
Check out our next debates:
What if… we were able to say more about how the brain learns? – 15th May, 17:45
What if… we wanted all kids to love maths? – 12th June, 17:45