Blog Post — 8 Min Read

Education in an Automated Future: Part 2

(This is Part 2 in a series of blog posts based on a 2019 Ohio School Board Presentation given with Keith Millard.)

One of my favorite quotes comes from the scientists Peter and Jean Medawar:

Human behavior can be genuinely purposive because only human beings guide their behavior by a knowledge of what happened before they were born and a preconception of what may happen after they are dead; thus only human beings find their way by a light that illumines more than the patch of ground they stand on.

The quote neatly encapsulates a purpose of learning: Know what others have accomplished and journey through life with an understanding of how the future might be.

As I mentioned in my previous post, we may not know precisely how automation will affect the future of work. We do know it will have a rather significant impact. What, then, does this mean for K-12 education?

First, Some Assumptions

To keep the presentation guided by a few guardrails, Keith and I assumed two core purposes of education.

Schools orientate towards vocational outcomes.

This is not necessarily a good or bad outcome. It’s a pragmatic outcome. Parents want their children to become successful adults. Financial security is, quite rightly, tied to the idea of having a well-paying and stable job. School provides a fairly straightforward recipe for becoming a lawyer, a teacher, a mechanic, an engineer, and the like.

K-12 is best viewed as an investment in the future.

This concept is a bit fuzzy. What do we mean by “investing in the future”? Are we talking about an economic future? A future with greater civic responsibility? A future where folk are generally happier and live fuller lives? A future where humans colonize the moon? Investment is often tied to values, and values can vary between people and cultures.

That said, we argue as a general concept, educators are about helping young people “find their way by a light that illumines more than a patch of ground they stand on.”

Exploring Critical Questions

Our conversation focused on several critical questions. Beyond some of our thoughts, I was struck by how many of the attendees carried insights (and anxieties) in reflecting on the questions. Everyone senses the change. How should education respond?

Curriculum on Phones

Do We Think Intentionally About Curriculum Design?

How thoughtful is the design of the curriculum (in all fields) in taking into account automation and trends within technology?

Given the constant limitations of time educators face, should we be teaching things that a machine can do versus understanding how data that influences decisions in human behavior?

Are we trapped in a historical mindset of teaching curriculum? Why four years of math in high school? When algorithms live in my Apple Watch, might it be better to learn data analytics rather than calculus? To me, curriculum still appears very rooted to a 1940s world.

Is process thinking – the ability to look at complexity and automate processes – missing from many curriculum maps?

In a future where automation is the reality, are schools causing harm by failing to challenge legacy thinking that hampers actual educational redesign?

Do the accountability systems used by states accurately measure (and/or correlate) to the shifting vocational values of the future job markets?

While I love the question, I suppose one should ask if this is even possible? It might require resources beyond the capacity of your average department of education. That said, it strikes me that many accountability systems are rooted in testing and testing is rooted in assessing broad, “coverage based” curriculum.

There’s also the question of how assessments work. They themselves are automated processes! If we’re seeing the greatest job growth in areas outside the norms of automation (because such jobs can’t be automated), but an automated assessment tool is defining accountability, might we have a catch-22?

To what degree are we aware of automated tools that are driving topics we teach into obsolescence (or of lower importance)?

The answer to this question is likely varied. To honestly answer it, educators need to be dedicated to understanding and following trends with technology and the world. This is challenging as it falls in the “one more thing” bucket. Yet this is important.

Consider language arts. After writing this post, I will run my words through the application “grammarly”. My various errors, word choices, and phrases will be matched against an intended audience and correlated against a vast data set to tell me how to write. Writing is certainly important. Learning to write is essential. But have schools looked at writing in the context of algorithms augmenting (and, in some cases, replacing) learning?

Do our local communities think it is important for schools to consider and react to the impact of automation?

This, too, is likely varied. Some communities are acutely aware of the impacts of automation. Others may be more rooted in a traditional understanding of the role of school. The dominating model in the United States is one of local control in education. How well do local citizens, businesses, and families understand these trends? How empowered are they to impact and react to automation?

Now What? Some Recommendations

Part 3 of this series will explore some recommendations we have for K-12 in light of increasing automation.

Full Series

Education in an Automated Future: Part 1

By |November 26th, 2019|

Advances in technology. Increasing automation in all sectors of society. And the creative destruction of capitalism. What does this mean for K-12 Education? This is part 1 of a series of posts derived from a presentation delivered during the 2019 Ohio School Board Conference.

  • Feature Image

Education in an Automate Future: Part 2

By |December 12th, 2019|

We may not know precisely how automation will affect the future of work. We do know it will have a rather significant impact. What, then, does this mean for K-12 education?

  • Light in the Water

Education in an Automated Future: Part 3

By |December 13th, 2019|

Today’s kindergartners will likely enter the workforce around 2037. With automation quickly changing the world of work (and the world at large), what might education look like in order to adapt to the future?


About the Author:

Zach Vander Veen is the VP of Instruction at Abre.