Discussion: Educating Humans and Competing with Robots


A new term begins and, in the words of the wonderful Janet and Allan Ahlberg, ‘Gavin and Errol and Sophie and Sushma and David and Kate and Robert and Alison are…starting school.’ It is a time for the beginning of journeys and the making of memories. It is also a time, I believe, for parents and teachers to reflect on the value and purpose of education in the 21st Century.

In a recent BBC Radio 4 documentary on education, a group of experts were quizzed about the skills children will need to compete with a future workplace of robots. Their answers were thought-provoking and contrary to current political thinking. At present, politicians are pushing Science and Maths – STEM subjects – at the expense of the Arts and Humanities. Their belief is that a world of rapid technological advancement, leading to developments in the near future beyond our current imagination, will require the employment of large numbers of technical experts to run things. This is simply not the case. Science and maths are exactly what robots are good at. Indeed, according to The Economist, in twenty years time nearly half of all jobs might be automated. 

So if the Science and Maths jobs are among those that will disappear, what and how should children be learning to equip and prepare themselves for this brave new world? According to leading technology moguls, simply exposing children to technology may paradoxically make them less able to deal with a working world shaped by technology. The skills that will be valued in the future will be creativity, social skills, critical thinking, collaborative working and friendliness – everything that makes us human and distinguishes us from machines. Instead of learning abstract facts and remembering them to pass exams, students should be defending projects in presentations and building up their confidence in the context of team investigations and research. Problem solving in groups in other words. The children of today will need to respond, negotiate and empathically relate to social cues to help them thrive in a world of technology not slavishly interact with tablets and phones.

Being more and not less human is the way forward.

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