Why do we send our kids to school?

So, first up, this post isn’t very mathsy.  I’ve spent the last two days at Hay Festival where I have been thinking about things other than Maths.  This is a very healthy thing to do once in a while!

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It was my first time at Hay and I loved it. It lasts 2 weeks and offers an incredibly broad spectrum of discourse.  I went to 8 thought-provoking events over two days, but the one that had most relevance was titled “THE FUTURE OF THE PROFESSIONS: HOW TECHNOLOGY WILL TRANSFORM THE WORK OF HUMAN EXPERTS” by the father and son team of Richard and Daniel Susskind to promote their book.

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I was slightly skeptical before the talk.  I have heard more than one teacher quote the line “50% of jobs that today’s school children will end up doing don’t exist yet” (or 65% in this WEF report) like it is some incontrovertible fact implying that children are wasting their time going to school.  Another one is “our present education system was designed for the industrial age”. Again not very helpful and not really true. The 11+ used to be the point at which it was determined whether you would earn your living from a profession or a trade for the rest of your life. Fortunately our KS2 SATs determine very little in terms of a child’s eventual outcomes, which begs the question as to why we put them through it, but that’s a subject for another post…

I’m glad to say that neither of these clichés were trotted out.  The message was more nuanced. We are at the early stages of a significant long-term shift in working practices. A significant number of the activities carried out by today’s “professions” actually don’t require much human input and with increased computing power and AI they will, over the next 10-20 years, be automated. This significantly changes the attributes required to be successful in these roles. One of my favourite quotes from Bill Gates was used “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.” Following the recent victory of Google/DeepMind’s AlphaGo computer against the world (human) champion Go player there seems to be some sense that we are reaching a tipping point in this technology (here and here). Indeed it may not impact our lives significantly in the next two years, but in ten?  I don’t know about you, but I hope I’ll still be involved in teaching children Maths in ten years’ time.

On the one hand I am interested in the implications of this for our profession. I have no doubt that significant chunks of teachers’ time are spent doing things that could be done without the professional expertise and experience that teachers acquire during their years in the classroom. Marking is clearly the main area.  It would be great to see some improvements in handwriting recognition systems over the next few years.  In Maths this will require an even greater level of sophistication due to the “2D” nature of how maths questions are answered on a page and the use of various symbols and diagrams compared to the linear “1D” nature of a body of handwritten text.  Once the handwritten work has been digitized it will then need to be interpreted in an intelligent way to be able to evaluate and ultimately score the students’ work. This part might be easier in Maths than in essay subjects, but it will still require a level of AI and adaptive learning that probably doesn’t quite exist today.  Then, of course, if we actually want to provide some sort of formative feedback to our students rather than just a summative score of their efforts that is another bunch of very smart algorithms. I’d love to read more about work in this area.

But also, it is a valid question to ask, what does this mean for the current curriculum in school? What are we currently teaching children that is going to be completely redundant and what vital skills are we not building?  An audience member asked a similar question to this.  Messrs. Susskind’s response for what our curriculum should be focussing on was three things: 1, Creativity; 2, Interpersonal skills and 3, Empathy.  Personally I would add 4, Problem-solving and 5, Tenacity to the list.  However the problem with any such list is that it is an awkward amalgam of skills and personality traits.  As teachers, can we really be expected to teach empathy, for example? Maybe schools as institutions should be providing our children with the environments and experiences to develop these traits but it is fiendishly difficult to explicitly teach and when you start considering how you assess these things you run into a moral minefield.

Which leads me to thinking, how does Art do it? They have lots of experience in assessing creativity, for example.  Students attain GCSEs and A Levels in a subject which is all about creativity and this is assessed in an objective, criteria-based way.  We could all learn something from our colleagues in the Art department about this.

There was an interesting discussion and disagreement between the two authors about the role of coding in the school curriculum. Richard Susskind’s view was that coding was simply another item in the list of things that today we see as a skill but would soon become another process which would no longer need to be carried out by a human. We will be able to tell computers what we wanted them to do without any need for specialist knowledge of coding. Daniel’s view was that in his experience coding was a worthwhile exercise in its own right. The discipline and structure required by writing the code helps you develop a deeper understanding of the problem you are trying to tackle. I would tend to agree with Daniel. It really comes down to a philosophical argument about why we teach children anything, really and the difference between education and training.  I’d like to think we have greater aspirations from our schools than simply to equip students with skills to perform a specific job.

The reality of the British educational system and I would posit the reality of most education systems around the world today is that we ultimately always teach to the test at least from age 13-14 upwards.  Our society demands that our children earn qualifications as the one tangible thing that they take from their schooling into their adult lives. This is what defines their achievement in their education and what positions them in the hierarchy to come. This is what motivates students because they know this is what employers want to see and, for most children, employment is seen as the route to financial success and happiness.  To sustain this as a fair and credible system, our exams must focus on things that can be assessed with a suitable degree of efficiency and objectivity.  We need clear assessment criteria. These are made much clearer when we are assessing a correct answer or a correct fact or the use of certain key words. It gets much more problematic and subjective when we start trying to assess personality traits wrapped up within “Interpersonal Skills” for example.  So, much as we might bemoan how our education system does not equip our children with skills for the future, the current direction of travel towards more “rigour”, i.e. assessing students in an exam hall with a pen and a piece of paper will inevitably focus our teaching on the narrow sub-set of skills that can be tested in this way.  Combined with the EBacc and the implied devaluing of creative subjects such as Art makes any attempt to equip our students with these “future skills” seem like a tough thing for any school to attempt.





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