How Do We Educate Our Children For The Future?
Technology has transformed the world in myriad ways—some positive, some negative and all far reaching. As a result, there is barely an industry left untainted in its wake.
Education, however, has arguably not changed enough. In many countries, students learn subjects and pass exams in a manner that is almost indistinguishable from that of their parents. But the world they are graduating into—and in particular the array of jobs that will be on offer—is unrecognisable from that of the 20th century.
Robots, artificial intelligence and automation are no longer the stuff of science fiction films: they are, if not the present, then the very near future. Automation technology is already displacing employees, and that is only going to accelerate. All around the world, government leaders and industry heads are debating the future of work and the changes that will be brought by technology and automation. Meanwhile, the vast majority of pupils are still being taught subjects that would have got them a job in the 1960s—not the 2020s and '30s.
According to an analysis of 750 occupations by McKinsey, 51 percent of jobs are highly susceptible to automation, which means that even careers such as accountancy and law—traditionally stable choices for high achievers—could be under serious threat for the next generation.
New jobs in the tech sector will replace them, ensuring automation, AI and digitisation won’t lead to the mass unemployment as predicted by alarmists. But as jobs increasingly call for advanced skillsets, our education systems need to swiftly adapt.
Around the world, countries are intergrating coding and computer science into their curricula, with some children as young as five years old learning how to code in the UK, as per 2014 regulations.
Some Asian countries have been particuarly aggressive in making the shift. South Korea began addressing the issue as early as 2007. Starting in April 2020, the Japanese government will require primary schools to teach coding in effort to address its projected lack of tech workers, which the governments estimates will be 290,000 by 2020 and about 590,000 by 2030 if the IT market grows at a moderate pace, the Nikkei Asian Review reports.
China, meanwhile, has gone one step further. The Chinese government made AI a national priority in July 2017, and aims to make China the global centre of AI innovation by 2030. By 2020, the government expects "core AI" to be valued at RMB150 billion, and AI-related fields to be valued at RMB 1 trillion, the South China Morning Post reports. Already, 15-year-old students in Shanghai on average are three full years ahead of their peers in the UK or US in maths, Wired reports.
A former deputy secretary general of Shanghai's education commission, Zhang Mingsheng, predicts “digital information processing” will become central to China's national standarised test, the gaokao, and will percolate into every classroom for maximum crossdisciplianry thinking.
As well as teaching primary school-aged children what AI is and how to interact with it, Chinese online education companies are increasingly looking to AI to upend traditional classrooms. By replacing teachers with software, they are hoping to give more children access to high quality education in a country where the best teachers are still concentrated in major cities.
Hujiang, one of the largest online education sites in China, has gone so far as to use facial and voice recognition to capture students' expressions and therefore improve the interaction between pupils and 'teachers'.
This could lead to a major shift in what we consider educational hubs. Currently, in cities such as Singapore and Hong Kong, the wealthiest and most successful often send their children to boarding schools in the UK or US. But in the wake of this new technological evolution, will this change?
“Centres of excellence remain [in the UK], but increasingly, it feels, like we’re putting our children at risk of losing out to the robots,” writes Alex Beard, a former British teacher in an article for Wired. "Meanwhile, China is building on its strong foundations to ask how its young people can be high-tech pioneers. They’re thinking big – we’re thinking of test scores."
On the other hand, there is an argument for focusing on creativity. As machines take over all rote jobs, creativity will increasingly become the defining human talent. Other than the tech geniuses, who will control AI and automation, those who stand out in the future will be need to use their human imagination to think up original ideas and create new meaning in the world, because it is the one thing machines won’t be able to do. Seen in that light, should we aim to teach our kids about the power of creativity and individual thinking? It's a skill European and American schools have famously been better at fostering than most Asian ones.
At this point, it is very difficult to tell what the right path is—although one thing we do know is that education is an investment on which a return is guaranteed. The only thing that is certain about the future is uncertainty.