Making Way for Modern Ideas

“We have to get a lot smarter, faster.”

Yeah, thanks for that! Here I was having a nice casual call with my colleague Susan Einhorn, and she pops this comment out. But you know, she’s right.

I mean if we’re even vaguely serious when we talk about the explosive growth of information that is now available to us, and the exponential rate of change in the modern world around us, frankly it’s a logical consequence isn’t it?

But how do we do that?

Well, one thing for sure, if we think the answer is to simply read more books more often and faster, then we’re doomed to a rather dull existence, and well, that’s not really being a lot smarter is it?

No, to me the real problem is deciding what really matters, and what’s really worth knowing…and doing so in the context of the modern world we live in. So how about we think for a moment about the implications for our schools.

I mean, you all know how it goes. Oh, someone has decided our students need some ‘Maker Time’ or an ‘Hour of Code’…just because…well just because. (Btw, if the ‘why’ of any of this was genuinely worth doing, then the last thing we should be doing is putting an absurd time limit on it. But that’s for later.)

So what do we do? We just ADD this ‘new stuff’ to our current schedule, and try and squeeze it in between math and reading time…or whatever. Yes, it’s always all about addition, so rarely about subtraction. Because after all we can’t let go of the Curriculum Scriptures.

If we do truly believe the world is changing, then it seems contingent upon us to stay relevant by keeping up with the modern ideas that are emerging at such a rapid rate. To do that we have to make way for them by letting go, subtracting, removing some of the legacy content that too many have held onto for too long.

So what are some of these modern ideas and why should we be thinking more about them?

Well, let’s start by stepping off the deep end and consider for a moment the whole span of study that fits under the banner of artificial intelligence, which includes computational thinking, algorithms, robotics, machine learning and even neural networks and the associated deep learning.

How are we doing in that space right now in schools?

Relevant? Well, let’s try a brief primer on the topic.

Whether we are aware of it or not, AI is already a big part of our everyday lives. Whether it’s in the music choices we make, the books we have recommended to us, the roads that are chosen for us by our GPS app, or those annoying ads that now pop up in every browser. But then that’s only a tiny part of it.

You can then, of course, move to self-driving cars, the robotic Roomba vacuum cleaners or Robomow lawn mowers, premium toys such as Anki’s Cozmo, natural language processing, computer vision, and handwriting or speech recognition. There are examples aplenty, but think of the real-time translation now available in Skype, or by using Waverley Labs’ Pilot earpiece, or Microsoft’s announcement this week that its conversational speech recognition system has reached a 5.1% error rate, its lowest so far. This puts its accuracy on par with professional human transcribers who have advantages like the ability to listen to text several times. All this, of course, has given rise to AI moving into the home through Amazon’s Echo or Google’s Home, and I guess you’d agree it’s definitely becoming an integral part of our lives.

Oh, and if you don’t think it impacts your professional life, ask Sarah Wysocki, who in 2012 infamously became one of the first teachers to be “fired by an algorithm.” Sarah’s students scored lower than predicted on the “value-added” tests of the IMPACT teacher evaluation system that D.C. adopted in its relentless quest to reform their schools. Houston teachers are facing the same challenge this year. Why make hard decisions when a computer will do that for you…right or wrong?

But then that is just the tip of the algorithm iceberg. While most of us have been passive observers of all things AI for some years, the time has certainly come for us to not only better understand how, why and when it is impacting our lives, but more importantly, our student’s lives.

These examples call for us to be better informed, and of late there have been some excellent resources released. You could start with our colleague Audrey Watters who has been writing about machine learning for quite some time now, and you will also find this recent series in Medium is a great reference and very accessible.

To dig even deeper and better understand the challenges in this field, it’s also worth having a look at the AI Now team’s report. But before you do, take time to watch this video of an overview of their symposium in which co-convenors Kate Crawford and Meredith Whittaker address the key issues they have concerns about including social inequality, ethics​, labor and one that is easy to overlook, healthcare.​ If you want to hear more about ethics and AI which might be topics for older students, this is a great discussion on the topic between Joi Ito and Iyad Rahwan of the MIT Media Lab.

Finally, just as you’re coming to grips with the big ideas here, give yourself twelve minutes to listen to Cathy O’Neil’s TED talk about algorithms. She begins by saying:

“Algorithms are everywhere. They sort and separate the winners from the losers. The winners get the job or a good credit card offer. The losers don’t even get an interview, or they pay more for insurance. We’re being scored with secret formulas that we don’t understand that often don’t have systems of appeal. That begs the question: What if the algorithms are wrong?”

And the real question, how would you know and what could you do about it?

(Btw, Cathy’s recently released book Weapons of Math Destruction is also well worth a read when you have time.)

So what does all this mean? Well, it’s about relevance, it’s about context, and it’s about helping our kids make sense of the modern world in which they live.

Where do you start? While I’m sure that most of you can see untold numbers of entry points, here’s a really simple one. Have your kids take a look at this recent article about Taylor Swift’s decision to be more selective about who gets priority ticketing to her concerts. Then maybe ask them how that might be done, what the criteria are and what ranking each might have…and whether and why they agree with her decision. It obviously doesn’t have to be about Taylor Swift who is likely to have a very limited following across some age groups, but you get the idea of where this might go.

So AI is but one rather significant modern idea that we need to find space for in our classes. What others can you think of?

For me, despite the zealotry for STEM, I’m still often disappointed to see how little space we give to topics such as genetics in our science classes, let alone seek to amplify some of the bigger ideas in science by leveraging the technology access so many of our students now have. And surely by now all of our science in schools should be inquiry based, with options for significant long-term cross-disciplinary work.

Taking a different path, you might also consider whether literacy in your school embraces those that Audrey Watters discussed in our recent White Paper, Rethinking the Definition of Literacy, or those she references that are outlined in the Mozilla Foundations’ Web Literacy site? Modern ideas around literacy are challenging many of the assumptions and practices of the past, and it is critical that we make way for them within any modern learning environment.

And then there’s mathematics. I’ve discussd this previously and lamented our nostalgia for memorization and rote recall when leading mathematicians such as Conrad Wolfram are pleading with schools to embrace modern mathematical ideas, and allow students to engage in higher order mathematical thinking leveraging the technology that is now available to them…and the list goes on.

So how do you make way for all that? What are you going to let go of?

How can you reshape your focus with your students so that you can embrace these modern ideas and the practice that it requires?  This is a time for reassessing not just the “how” of modern learning but also the “what.”

But truth be known, if you’re like me, you’re probably just hanging on to all this new knowledge by your fingernails, and as exciting as that is, it does bring us back to Susan’s suggestion that we certainly do need to get a lot smarter, faster.

Smarter about how we keep abreast of these emerging modern ideas. Smarter about how we make sense of them and make choices about their relevance for our students, and faster because our schools have for too long nostalgically hung onto legacy models  and change is well overdue.

Let’s find a way, to make way for the modern ideas that are now part of our modern world.

Keen to hear from you in the comments below, or in discussion in our Modern Learners Facebook group.

Image Credit: by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Bruce Dixon

Modern Learners and Change School co-founder Bruce Dixon has spent the bulk of his career developing programs that assist governments to make effective use of technology across their education sector. His strategic work has enabled governments to better manage large scale personal technology deployments, and ensure outcomes that drive both school improvement and ultimately transformation.

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