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'Are we teaching our kids the wrong things?'

Futurist Dave Coplin outlined how we must restructure the education system to prepare children for a digital future in his keynote at the Digital Families 2018 conference. If you missed it, or would simply like to relive it, read his eye-opening speech below.

I’m trying to be the pragmatic optimist about the implementation of technology in our children’s lives certainly in the context of giving them the skills that they are going to need to thrive in the future. In a world where we are practically scaring parents, kids and teachers about technology, I’m trying to be a voice of reason. Think about the type of world they could create if we taught them how to take advantage of digital opportunities. Rather than scaring people about things like Fortnite, we should be telling parents what those things mean to our kids and how to build a better relationship with them (and Fortnite)!

Technology is merely an amplifier, it is neither good nor bad.

It makes good things better and bad things worse. And if we understand the role of technology in that sense, it really becomes what we choose to do with it. As adults, we live in a world in which technology has really ensnared us. We look at the challenges we face in terms of productivity and technology has not set us free in that sense. But if we think about why it hasn’t set us free, it comes back to what we choose to do with it.

We choose to replicate old-fashioned ways of working. Many of the processes depend on how we run our organisations which are often based on principles designed in the 19th century. Currently, we are just making those Victorian ways of working a bit faster and a bit cheaper. This was never the intention of technology.

65% of pupils in primary schools will go on to doing jobs that do not yet exist

We educate our kids to go into a Victorian world. Many of the facts we are teaching them are the same we were teaching centuries ago even though the world is rapidly changing. 65% of pupils in primary schools will go on to doing jobs that do not yet exist. I’m dreading the conversation I’m going to have to have with my son when he’s 18, if we carry on like we are. Essentially: ‘Look, I’m really sorry but we knackered up the economy and the planet is more or less dead and I couldn’t be bothered to give you the skills needed to solve those problems’ and he will look at me and say, ‘Well, what were you doing?’.

I don’t want to have that conversation. I want to say: ‘Look, we know that these problems exist but there is also this other amazing opportunity’.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) fundamentally changes everything. I don’t care where you live in the world, I don’t care what industry you work in, AI will change your life. We are using AI as a tool to help us do things like edit DNA. AI will change what it means to be human. That's how big of a deal this is.

It will transform things like languages. Why bother making my son learn a foreign language at school because by the time he is fluent that will essentially be a redundant skill? And of course, that is provocative and of course there are a lot of reason for why you should learn another language, but real-time translation is already here and will only improve in the years to come.

Scientists refer to this as the third computer age and it is important for two reasons.

One, because unlike computers to date, which must be told what to do, we no longer have to programme them and give them instructions. We teach them like we would our kids, we give them examples of the things we want them to learn and they do it as a result. That means we can train them to deal with ambiguous environments, rather than the classic binary logic model. A robot doesn’t really know what a human is, but it has seen millions of images of humans so it can recognise the difference between a human and say a chair.

Two, we live in this world of probability. We are used to being taught binary concepts, which is never the case when it comes to AI, you will only have a ‘maybe’. Say if I go to see the doctor and the doctor says: ‘Dave there’s a 68 per cent chance to you will get prostate cancer’. As a human being, how do I choose the correct course of action based on an ambiguous probability and these are the sorts of human skills that we need to build and grow.

We are teaching our kids the wrong things in the wrong way

The thing we have to understand about AI is that the power comes from the data but the problems come from the data too.

The four major challenges we are facing are: automation, the skills gap, big data, big secret(s) and humans breaking free of technology.

Automation will cause a disruption in the labour market and will make whole professions redundant, you will see large parts of established sectors like accounting and tax professionals weeded out. And then we need to think about what our responsibilities are to the people we have displaced. Our responsibility is to make them feel valued and equip them with the skills needed to keep contributing to our society.

We are teaching our kids the wrong things in the wrong way. Conrad Wolfram says that 80% of the maths we teach our children is irrelevant, we teach them to be calculators when they have access to more powerful calculators. And yet, what we don’t teach them to do is to ask the right questions or be able to look at what data they need to prove the theory they have is correct or false.

We also teach them a lot of knowledge in a world where they have access to all of these facts. We want them to store and retain facts. It is ridiculous and we should be teaching them wisdom rather than knowledge. Wisdom is the ability to think critically and the ability to deduce whereas knowledge is merely the quantity of information. Knowledge is knowing that Frankenstein isn’t the monster, but wisdom is knowing that he actually is. Think about it.

A child doesn’t need to know when the Battle of Hastings began, but he does need to know, when he goes online to find out, how to interpret that information, evaluate if it comes from a credible source and form their own opinion based on that information.

We humans walk around with about 188 different cognitive biases that are an essential part of being human and the way those biases find their way into the data that we use to train algorithms. We need to be aware of that bias and do our best to get rid of the bias. But it is only when we are aware of the bias that we are able to make good decisions. I use the example of fire engines. If I were to ask you what colour fire engines are, you would most likely say red. This is what we call geographical bias. In South Australia and Honolulu, they are yellow.

We have to equip our kids with very different skills than the ones we are equipping them with today. If we are only preparing our kids with the skills needed to operate the technology available at that point in time, we are failing. Given that I think there are three fundamental human skills that are required to be successful. These are skills that augment, accentuate and build on the technology. So if we humans are good at these skills, the technology can extend our reach.

Technology is merely an amplifier, it is neither good nor bad, it makes good things better and bad things worse

Creativity, empathy and accountability. Creativity is straight forward, we’re going to have a lot of problems and a lot of ambiguity and to solve these problems, we’re going to need creative people. We need artistic people because they think in different ways. One of the most important human mental states nurturing curiosity is boredom and in a world were we rarely allow ourselves to be bored, that is actually a massive problem.

The second skill is empathy. In a world where an algorithm can detect emotion, they must be taught how to process the emotions. So if it finds out that I am sad, it won’t be able to contextualise that, so I am going to need humans to interact with other humans in a way that they can understand is respectful, supporting and respectful of diversity, all those human attributes will be essential. The final skill is accountability. We need to understand that we are responsible for the outcome of those algorithms since it is our data they are using, so we need to make sure that they are being given the right type of data.

It’s down to us, the technology is merely an amplifier. If we want our kids to excel at using technology, we need to give them the skills they need make the best of it.