Why education is challenged by Artificial Intelligence

Feature image “Electric Neuron” flickr photo by philosophy_rebel  shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

It’s not what you think.

We will not be sending our children to schools staffed completely by robots anytime soon. While AI’s processing capacity may mean that they provide access to unthinkable amounts of data within mere milliseconds, teaching is so much more than simply presenting information for students to absorb. Good teachers know this.

The recent program The AI Race featured on the ABC  and went for 55 minutes; you can view it here on ABC iview if you are in Australia. 

The AI Race was an interesting 55 minutes, but of the entire program, one phrase uttered by AI expert and scientist, Professor Toby Walsh summed up for me the most pressing aspect of AI for education, about 44 minutes in.

While responding to a comment that more people will need to learn how to work with code (not actually code, as computers will be able to do this far more accurately than any human), Professor Walsh states:

“I disagree that we are going to have to work with the machines necessarily; the machines are actually going to understand us quite well. So what are our strengths? What are our human strengths? Well those are our creativity, our adaptability and our emotional and social intelligence.”

Margaret O’Neill, the host of the program asks: “How do people get those skills?” Professor Walsh laughs, and looks discomfited, but O’Neill probes, “Well, if they’re the important skills….”

Professor Walsh replies: “I think the curriculum, at schools and at universities, has to change, so that those are the skills that are taught. Those skills are barely taught if you look at the current sorts of curriculum. You have to change the curriculum so that those become the important skills.”

This exchange ends, and the conversation moves on. But I didn’t. He’s right. So right.

Future Skills

According to this interactive site accompanying the program, teachers will find that AI will replace only 22% of the tasks currently involved in the role. Yet, teachers are not only concerned about their own employment. They are also charged with preparing students for future participation in the workforce; and this is where AI is going to impact most powerfully. Creating new curricula to meet this change is going to take a complete flip in mindset; one that realises in the 21st century and beyond:

“hard skills are really temporary skills. They come and go according to the economy and the state of technology. Today, we need very few people who know how to shoe a horse. Soft skills are permanent ones.”  Harold Jarche (for more, read his excellent post)

The Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) have produced an excellent series of reports, outlining how the workforce is changing and what skills and capabilities young people are likely to need in order to thrive in the ‘New Work Order’. Their findings echo what Professor Walsh and Harold Jarche suggest; problem solving, creativity, teamwork and critical thinking are among what they label as ‘enterprise skills’, demand for which is already on the rise.

These findings are not limited to the Australian context. Even the World Economic Forum suggests complex problem solving and critical thinking will be the first two skills wanted in 2020. Futurist Stowe Boyd presents an even more compelling list. His number one choice? Boundless curiosity.

How are we responding to these findings? How might we respond in a creative and innovative way, that allows students to develop the skills and capabilities they need, alongside the relevant content that they must still know. Because yes, I agree with Amy Burvall, who says in her most recent blog post “in order to connect the dots, one must first have the dots”. It is a dangerous dichotomy (Amy’s words again) to believe that we should have either complete content based curricula or complete inquiry curricula – we need both. For some reason, this bamboozels a lot of people. Perhaps it is because it is easier to live in a black and white, either:or world.

Connected Learning for a Connected World

One way we could begin to address this is to introduce connected learning into the way we frame pedagogy. The Connected Learning Framework by the awesome Mimi Ito and colleagues outlines in extensive detail how this might happen, and The Educator Innovator Network are collecting amazing stories of how it is already happening in pockets across the United States. But this is a huge leap from the traditional classroom. Implementing a connected learning approach is not something you do overnight; not even the most dedicated connected practitioners would consider this.

So while becoming familiar with connected learning, why not, as Nicole Mirra suggests, begin to slowly engage with what she identifies as “the commitments of connected teaching“. I am positive that many of you already are, and just haven’t named it as such. These include:

  • COLLABORATION: Connected teachers work collaboratively.

  • CURIOSITY: Connected teachers bring an inquiry mindset to classroom practice.

  • COURAGE: Connected teachers give up some of their control over the learning experience.

  • CIVIC ENGAGEMENT: Connected teachers engage their students in public life.

  • CARE: Connected teachers share their interests and learning with their students.

These commitments provide a stepping stone from the traditional isolated model of teaching where the teacher operates, alone, within the four walls of the classroom, as the key source and ultimate controller of the learning. Embracing these connected teacher commitments encourages students to become curious about learning what interests them, and requires the teacher to give up some of the control, as the ownership of learning is transferred to the students. In a connected classroom, students, not teachers, are doing the thinking. They are actively problem-solving, seeking answers to questions they have initiated and creating networks (with peers and beyond), taking advantage of new media to do so. They are working on interesting, meaningful problems. They are developing those enterprise skills, their adaptability and their social and emotional intelligence as they engage with authentic content. So yes, there is content. It might even (is probably) drawn from the curriculum – that is, if the curriculum has interesting, meaningful content within (I am sure know it does!)

We cannot continue the broadcast model of education, where students are passive receivers of information distributed from a central source. There are too many competing sources of information which are far more up to date and far more engaging (sorry, teachers, but we can’t compete with so many exciting choices – I know world history has never seemed as exciting as when condensed by John Green (apparently)).

Instead, we can embrace a connected model of education, which flips the curriculum from a hard to a soft skill focus, and which involves the how of learning as well as the what. Robots are good at content. We are good at a whole lot of more complex things – and we need education that focuses on this reality: and fast.

2 thoughts on “Why education is challenged by Artificial Intelligence”

    1. Indeed we are already seeing this happen in some areas of education and other sectors. However we have not yet reached the point where AI can replicate the social emotional responses an educator offers. There are many tasks that can be completed more effectively by machines, and this is why we must direct our focus towards developing critical literacy, and strengthening what were previously known as ‘soft skills’ – complex and non-repetitive responses which only humans can offer. Thanks for your comment.

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