Across the country, many children will have started school for the very first time last week. Their parents and carers may have watched them toddle off, unfazed, into the Early Years playground, or fought to unpick their tiny clutches and re-attach them, like some reluctant koala, to the friendly but unfamiliar adult greeting them at the classroom door.
As we reflect on such milestones in childhood, it is worth pausing to gaze at the long road ahead. The majority of children starting school today will live to see the twenty-second century and more than a quarter of them will become centenarians. Artificial intelligence is likely to transform their future employment and may even assign the idea of ‘having a job’ to the history books. Domestic robots may run their household, manage their finances and even remember to put the bins out the night before collection; socialising will continue to be conducted mostly online, as it is already; the most favoured forms of entertainment will likely take place in virtual or augmented realities; and factual knowledge – that highly-prized and measurable commodity peddled in school since the days of Gradgrind – will be instantly available at the press of a button or the mere thinking of a question, when the answer will be dropped telepathically into the questioner’s brain by their life-long, simulated pet pooch, a descendant of Siri.
If the adult lives of the children in our schools today will be dominated by leisure time, as many predict they might be, how then are we preparing them for this new world? How are we helping them to protect themselves from information overload and anxiety or a lack of purpose and direction? How are we equipping our children with the self-discipline and creativity they will need in order to find meaning and purpose in an adult life of leisure, when robots take up the mantle of work and leave them with time on their hands?
Defining your worth by your work is a burden still carried by people of mine and my parents’ generations, and a century of antecedents before us. When I was at school in the 1970s and 80s we believed the myth that good things only came to those who studied hard in school, achieved good grades and then worked hard nine to five. The question, ‘What will I be when I’m older?’ hung over our heads and put a stop to playfulness from the age of about fifteen onwards. But ask an employee of a high-tech company today and I suspect the lines between work and play are blurred for them. Ask a creative entrepreneur and they will probably tell you that it is not how hard you work that brings wealth and opportunity, it is how you connect people together and then motivate them, how you imagine different futures, how bravely you embrace change and whether you can create solutions before others have even perceived a problem. AI can optimise but it can’t create, only we can do that.
If a revolution in education is coming, let it not only be based on what AI can do for us; let it be driven by what we can do that AI can’t. May it force us to re-discover the facets and capacities that make us human. May we redesign our schooling system so that it values creative thinking and innovation as much as literacy and numeracy.
For it may not be the children’s arithmetic, verbal reasoning or knowledge retention skills that enable them to prosper in an AI-dominated world – computers will always outperform us in all of these disciplines; rather, it will be their tacit knowledge that shapes the life stories they write for themselves: knowledge that is not so easily verbalised or measured, but gathered via our senses, learned through observation and imitation, and influenced by our cultural inheritance and life experiences. These are the things that really matter because they make us who we are and who we could become.
As a new school year begins, what a tremendous challenge for school leaders like me: to find ways of nurturing the ‘deep-down-things’ that make us human and that will ultimately bring success and fulfilment to the children who started school this week, long after we have all retired.
First appeared in my monthly column in the Bury Free Press, Friday 7th September 2018