Learning by Doing in the Age of Robots

“According to UNESCO, the number of people gaining formal educational qualifications in the next 30 years will exceed the gross total since the beginning of history. As a result the market value of degrees is tumbling. Something more is needed to edge ahead of the crowd” (Robinson, 2001-2011).

For years now, the U.S. education system has doubled down on the idea that the “Something more” students needed was more standardized content, more standardized curriculum, more standardized instruction, and more standardized assessment and accountability.  But this is not the “Something more” students need in order to succeed in a future where an increasingly global economy is shaped by an increasingly educated workforce and increasing automation, including artificial intelligence.  In a very short time, we have moved from worrying about automation such as assembly line robots to the realization that technology’s potential to replace human jobs is not limited to routine labor, but now extends to conceptual arenas once considered immune from automation. Simply educating more people is not enough, we have to rethink the whole idea of what that education looks like, and what goals we are striving to attain.

It is projected that by 2025, the earth’s population will total eight billion people, each with human ambitions, intelligence, and the need to both contribute to the collective good and to provide for their own needs. The global labor supply continues to rise while the net number of high-paying, high-productivity jobs may be on the decline. Our planet will be more connected and more competitive than the one we know today.  Massive stresses on a global scale, from climate change, to social and economic inequality, to resource scarcity will provide both challenges and opportunities.  Simply having a college degree or mastering a predetermined body of knowledge & set of skills will not prepare our students to turn these challenges into opportunities.  This is not the “Something more” our students need.

To turn these challenges into opportunities, our students need to be both equipped with a base of knowledge & skills, and be able to creatively apply these in the context of new, and complex situations.  We must provide students more chances to learn by doing, to develop a creative mindset, nurture mental elasticity and perseverance, and to invent or produce things that society values or that have intrinsic value in making the world a better place.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun’s book, Robot Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, advocates for the need to train the next generation of creators, rather than laborers, by enhancing skills that are innately, and uniquely, human.   When schools provide students the ability to collaborate and apply academics as much as possible in the context of real work environments, internships, and project-based learning applied to real issues, these students begin to experience the “Something more” they will need to succeed and thrive.

Humans come equipped with curiosity, and, as Sir Ken Robinson notes, schools often educate it out of them. In progressive schools today, we see success in the reawakening of that passion and thirst for learning.  Success is observable in our students as we see them eager to come to school so they can join with their peers and teachers in the pursuit of learning and creating.  Success is seeing these students demonstrate continual growth in their ability to think critically and creatively and collaborate effectively as they tackle real issues.  It is each student becoming more and more mature and able to understand the world around them and communicate clearly as a contributing member of society.  We won’t get there with a business as usual attitude.  It’s time to re-imagine schools, and create places where our kids learn by doing.  This is the “Something more” our students need and deserve from their schools.  This is the “Something more” that will prepare our students for the future.


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