The robots are coming

...and other thoughts about the education system

Learning doubles as one of life’s greatest pleasures and its greatest opportunities. It’s valuable for its own sake and the more you explore it, the more there is to be gained from it. Pretty fruitful ground for exploration, if you ask me.

Then there’s the little matter of the role that education plays in a functioning society — giving us some baseline collection of knowledge and convention, before the training wheels come off and we have to fend for ourselves. 

When you put it all together, it seems clear that few institutions offer as much leverage for influencing human wellbeing as the education system. (I’m thinking specifically of primary and secondary school.) An incremental improvement here could have compounding benefits for all of humanity that it touches. So let’s talk about the education system.

Full disclosure: I’m not in solution mode today. I’ll simply point out what I see as a few ‘opportunities for improvement’ — to borrow a phrase directed at me during my crayon-eating years — and leave the solutions to the experts.

Before I go further, a blanket statement that I feel totally comfortable making: teachers are awesome.

Teachers are the saving grace of the education system as we know it. It’s been my experience that your average teacher has some of the most genuine motives and highest integrity* that you’ll find in any profession. And I think that whatever lasting positive impact that school has on people is largely about impressions made by individual teachers, independent of the school system itself.

(*I guess the advantage of a whole profession being underpaid relative to the importance of its work is that it’s spared from attracting people who’d just be in it for the money… but I digress.)

Here are a few things that the education system — in my humble view — sucks at:

1. It optimizes for the wrong type of skill.

Many of our most highly regarded professions are practitioners — people whose job it is to know and apply existing information and techniques. They all got their start in our education system, which revolves around the same kinds of things. You succeed in school by demonstrating your grasp of facts and methodology, and then you get out into the world to put that skill into practice.

There’s just one problem: information is now a commodity, and any knowledge that can be encoded into technology will be, sooner or later. Nobody cares if you remember the four stages of mitosis, and soon enough a robot will be much better at diagnosing illness than any human doctor. 

(Oh, you thought it was just the low-skill worker that was on the chopping block as the robots show up to automate jobs/industries into oblivion? My guess is you’ll be more keen to see a robot doctor one day — with its non-humanly low error rate — than to be served at a five-star restaurant by a computer on wheels.)

Technology has us on a one-way path to a world where the only skills that’ll get you ahead — things like problem-solving, dealing with people and all manner of creativity — involve humans’ capacity for the abstract. And as it stands, our education system still skews heavily toward all things finite, tangible, discrete... y’know, the things that robots are good at.

2. It sells ‘high achievers’ a (slightly) fake bill of goods.

The education system — intertwined with social convention, to be fair — tends to embed certain biases into the way that students are treated. 

For students at the top of the class, the bias can be found in positive reinforcement and the types of careers that kids are steered toward. To encourage a high achiever to keep up the great work is not a problem of course, but there’s never much talk about “what for?”. Generally, the assumption is that the high achiever will parlay their success into a ‘good job’ — translation: money and status. (I wrote about this previously.)

A more helpful approach — for the world and for the student themselves — would be to more formally help kids explore a) what choices (in career or otherwise) are likely to lead to life satisfaction, and b) where the world most needs the talents of our best and brightest. Money and status might well be part of the picture, but the conversation should start one step broader than that — what exactly are we trying to achieve here? 

I’m sure teachers do a lot of this informally, but my sense is the school system itself could do more to help students think about what to aspire to, rather than presuming it for them.

3. It makes ‘low achievers’ of potentially very talented people.

This isn’t a plea for more coddling of children — lord know that’s the last thing we need. Instead, I’m making a claim of fact: that by filtering for a pretty narrow collection of talents, school overlooks and/or fails to cultivate many different kinds of talent. What’s worse is the likelihood that this sends lots of kids down a path of self-fulfilling prophecy — being directly or indirectly told that they’re not capable — who might otherwise have had serious talent in areas that school just didn’t uncover.

Have you ever watched someone who has an uncanny ability to communicate with people? It’s a superpower, full stop. How about that person with a sixth sense for all things mechanical? Or technological? A kid with these gifts will not necessarily bring home straight-A’s, but will do just fine (at minimum) in the world if they can make it out of school with their sense of self worth intact. 

We’ve all heard stories of successful entrepreneurs, musicians or other non-traditional career-types whose stories start with the fact that they got bad grades in school and were told they’d never amount to anything. These people often have a chip on their shoulder, which makes sense: they succeeded precisely because they were able to turn those judgements into motivation. 

Imagine all the rest — those for whom being told every other day from ages 8 to 18 that they didn’t have what it takes just caused them to… believe it. My guess is the world has lost a lot of potential talent to that sort of demotivation.

The good news is that the direction of travel in education as in everything else is toward decentralization. The upshot of that is that the same way you’re able to find a community of people online who share your passion for vintage Pogs, it should be easier and more likely over time that each person eventually bumps into the thing that ends up being their calling.