Forklifts and Formulas

How to Face the Digital Future Without Fear is the title of this talk, presented by the RSA and cross-posted over at Teaching Excellence.

Why would you need to learn facts?
Because everybody has – within millimeters of their skin, at most of the time they are conscious, a device which enables you to get to, down those pathways, pretty much any fact you would want to get. In fact, these devices have become so intimate that they have become, for all intents and purposes, a slightly slower version of your memory. It’s a laggy part of your brain.

Does Mr. Hammersley wants me to answer that question?  Or is he posing it as rhetorical?  Or ironic?

I’d like to say that I have more answers than questions tonight, but this video got to me.  This is mostly a ramble.

It’s not the first time the device question has come up in my world.  Last spring, a senior – a student I particularly liked, and quite an artistically talented one – was complaining about having to attend school during the last few weeks.  I saw his point.  He’d been accepted to a great college, was acing his classes, and just didn’t see the point of continuing the lecture and quiz routine in 45-minute chunks.  In homeroom, one morning, he pulled his cellphone out of his pocket, and, in good spirits, challenged, “Ms. P., everything you ever learned in school, I have in my pocket.  So why do I have to show up anymore?”

It’s a great question, one I haven’t really stopped thinking about since.  When I brought this up at a faculty meeting, a colleague commented that he would have taken the phone away, thrown it on the floor and smashed it, and asked, “How smart are you now?”  I think he missed the point.  Even though my student’s observation was posed in the realm of complaint, I was impressed at how… accurate… it was.  And, the more I read and learn along this path, it seems that lots of educational leaders are asking the same question as my student – with a few more fancy words.

So, as a teacher, I need to beware algorithmization.  I get that.  It’s not a new idea, and it’s one that a smart worker, in any profession, should be thinking about in this century.  Dan Pink cautioned us about this back in 2005, in A Whole New Mind:

Last century, machines proved they could replace human backs.  This century, new technologies are proving they can replace human left brains.  Management meta-guru Tom Peters puts it nicely saying that for white-collar workers, “software is a forklift for the mind.”  It won’t eliminate every left-brain job.  But it will destroy many and reshape the rest.  Any job that depends on routines – that can be reduced to a set of rules, or broken down into a set of repeatable steps – is at risk.  If a $500-a-month Indian chartered accountant doesn’t swipe your comfortable accounting job, Turbo Tax will.

But Hammersley also states:

We’re starting to now see, because of this increase in computing power, is not jobs being replaced by robots… ’cause craftsmanship is actually quite hard to replicate… but professionals being replaced by AIs… because flowcharts are really easy to replicate.

(Funny, the title of this blog…)

Teaching involves routines, sure, and many models of assessment involve flowchart-like systems.  And using purely the memorization of fact as the basis of those assessments… well, yes.  I see how that professional task could be replaced by an AI.   But that’s not what we want to model for the generation who is going to have to sort through it all, right?  Do we want them to see that sort of “professionalism” as an ideal?

See, I guess I see the job of teaching as a craft.  Craftsmanship is actually quite hard to replicate.  The craftsmanship of teaching?  Getting to know the individual student.  Figuring out what a child’s motivators are – what ideas or methods are going to make him want to learn.  Seeing the whole picture, and supporting a student who is seeking balance.  Sorting through group dynamics, and crafting peer groups that are going to challenge, push, and support each other.  Developing creativity, which can be taught, but has no formula.  Helping a child to develop non-cognitive skills – and the deeper I get into Paul Tough’s book, the more he’s got me convinced that these may be the most important part of learning.

Let’s come back to that dangerous question that Hammersley posits:

Why would you need to know facts?

[Soapbox time.] Because human interaction is rich and complex and involves an exchange of ideas – ideas rooted in facts, ideas that lead to new facts.  Because if we spend too much time preparing for an unknown, algorithmic future, we miss out on a real and rich present.  Because human beings need to know how to talk to each other, and we need something to talk about, and a box with buttons gets in the way.  (Because, in South Africa, I couldn’t use my device, and I still needed to know the facts about Zulu customs, AIDS transmission, and how fast enamel paint dried.)  Because if we cook all of the ‘expert’ out of expertise, leaving only wilted reliance on a device, we’re cheating ourselves out of the joy and pride that comes with knowing something.  (Because my ceramics students now know who Bill Strickland is and what he had to offer.)  Because most people need to learn about lots of things in order to find what it is they truly care about.  Because the metacognitive process of learning – yes, that includes factual learning – helps us to develop persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence.

Hammersley states that we need to get to know our present in order to look more clearly at our future.  On that point, I’ll agree.  The best teachers know that students come to school with a multitude of ‘presents’ — as many different stories, challenges, and aptitudes as there are seats in a classroom.  An algorithm is way too easy for the challenge of this craft.  And we can predict as much as we like about our collective future, but any one of these students has the power to change it – for himself, for his community, even for the world.

Going to fall asleep to some Matthew Crawford tonight.


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