Rethinking education for an age of automation

I have written recently on how I think work will change in future. Production costs for goods and services will decline significantly as work is automated but there will be an enormous dislocation in the jobs market with millions of jobs being automated out of existence and other jobs will change as automated assistants are introduced.

This does not have to mean the ‘end of employment’. New opportunities in, as yet, unthought of areas will come into existence and we can, if we choose to do so, invest the proceeds of automation in job creation rather than the enrichment of the already wealthy. But, to do so, we will need to completely rethink what we mean by ‘education’.

Formal education, in most countries, is generally seen as something that happens to people in the first quarter of their life. After people reach their early-twenties, support for formal education ends. Their is little or no government support and, often, students older than 25 are simply not catered for by college and university courses.

This model is simply unworkable in a society where automation is developing and more and more ‘traditional’ jobs are automated. If people who are displaced by automation are to have a meaningful existence, there must be opportunities for them to learn new skills and to retrain in new areas.

The first key requirement, and perhaps the most challenging requirement for the ‘education system’ to take on board is the need for continuing, lifelong adult education. Without this, we are condemning a significant and increasing fraction of our fellow citizens to a life of unemployment.

The reality of lifelong education is that people will have to take responsibility for their own education. Yes, there must be government and employer support but, much more than now, self-learning will become essential.

Our current educational system, at least in the UK, has never been much good at helping people to ‘learn to learn’. If anything, this situation has got significantly worse as educational institutions are judged on how many of their students achieve high grades in national examinations. This government idiocy, which is a largely meaningless measure of the quality of a school or university, has meant that students are taught to pass exams, not to develop skills in learning.

The second key requirement, therefore, for a future education system is teaching students how to ‘learn to learn’. Without these skills, students will continue to be deluded by superficial educational packages offered by charlatan ‘education providers’.

Much of our educational system currently involves the imparting of ‘information’. While there is no doubt whatsoever that some information is vital. a great deal of educational time is spent telling students about things they could simply find out by other means. ‘Information-oriented’ jobs are candidates for automation so we need to re-orient education away from information towards (a) core skills and (b) creativity.

So my third key requirement for education is to define and focus on core skills, with a particular emphasis on encouraging and developing creativity in students.

Core skills are an essential basis for learning and for making sense of the vast volumes of information that we are faced with; creativity is one thing that distinguishes people from machines. The ‘creative industries’ will be one area where there is scope for expanding employment opportunities and we need to provide lots more opportunities for students to develop their creative abilities.

What constitutes ‘core skills’ is a controversial issue and I won’t go into this in much detail in this post. I’ll mention only one here which is sadly lacking even in many so-called educated people such as journalists and that is what might be called ‘critical numeracy’.

Critical numeracy is the ability to look at conclusions drawn from data and assess whether or not these conclusions are reliable. It means understanding that the value of an ‘average’ can be quite different depending on whether ‘average’ refers to mean or median; it means understanding that statistics is about populations and that because 3% of a population has condition X, this is NOT the same as saying that an individual has a 3% chance of developing condition X.

I will revisit these requirements and discuss some of their implications in future posts.

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