Automation and artificial intelligence are reshaping the economy. That much is clear.
But many of the country’s top minds are sharply divided over just how disruptive technology’s impact will be, and just what kind of job market today’s students will eventually face.
To help K-12 educators and policymakers make sense of the debate, Education Week talked with leading experts in the fields of artificial intelligence, computer science, economics, education, and history.
We asked each a common question:
How can K-12 schools prepare for the uncertain future of work?
Here’s what they said:
Hadi Partovi | Founder, Code.org
Don’t get him wrong, says Partovi, whose organization is leading a massive push to bring computer-science education to every U.S. school. Understanding fractions will always be important.
But if schools want to prepare students for jobs that aren’t going to be automated, he says, they need to shift their emphasis away from rote practice, and towards conceptual understanding of both content and problem-solving processes.
“In the real world, we don’t calculate by hand any more,” Partovi said. “We should teach something like long division by teaching that it’s actually an algorithm, and then encouraging students to think about what they can use that algorithm for.”
Paul Osterman | Economist, MIT
For a 2016 study, Osterman talked with manufacturing employers across the country. Overwhelmingly, they wanted workers with the ability to read an instructional manual, do community-college level algebra, and get along well with co-workers.
As a result, said Osterman, who used to run workforce-training programs for the state of Massachusetts, it’s misguided to think today’s students will be unemployable if they aren’t all advanced computer programmers.
“Focus on basic skills,” he advised.
Ansley Erickson | History and Education Professor, Teacher’s College, Columbia University
When arguing the future of work will turn out fine, technologists and economists often point to education’s role in easing past upheavals in the U.S. economy. The switch from agriculture to industry, for example, was smoothed by the expansion of high school, the argument goes.
But Erickson says history’s lessons aren’t quite so neat. For one, she says, high schools at the turn of the 20th century weren’t really organized to teach kids the skills they needed for the factory floor—future managers and secretaries actually benefitted most. And the new educational opportunities were also unequally distributed—African-American sharecroppers, for example, often weren’t granted access to the industrial economy until its decline had already begun.
“This is a new version of an old question,” Erickson said, “and the answer always leaves out some workers.”
Michael Chui | Partner, McKinsey Global Institute
Chui says not to believe anyone claiming they can accurately predict what jobs will still be around, or what precise skills students will need, in 15 years.
Instead, he said, schools should focus on two likely realities: The world is going to be inundated with data. And as a result, most occupations will continually evolve in unpredictable ways.
“Knowing how to ask provocative questions, use data to make decisions, and evaluate imperfect information will be increasingly valuable,” he said. “And going forward, learning can’t be something you do only in the first couple decades of your life.”
Stephen Wolfram | Computer scientist and founder, Wolfram Research
Increasingly, Wolfram says, we live in a world of networks and data and computing tools that give once-unthinkable powers to even young children.
As a result, he believes, the most valuable traits moving forward will involve the curiosity to ask big questions, the drive to understand those questions deeply, and the knowledge about how to translate ideas into code.
“Computational thinking is the new liberal arts,” Wolfram said. “It’s lovely when kids realize that they’re using general knowledge they’ve learned elsewhere and turning it into something that can be said to a computer.”
Laura Arnold | Associate commissioner, Kentucky Department of Education
In helping turn Kentucky into a national leader in career-and-technical education, Arnold has used data about local labor-market trends to guide decisions about what workforce-development programs schools should offer.
But it’s hard work: Employers tend to be focused on their immediate needs. Schools have a hard time developing courses around medium-term opportunities, like robot maintenance. And the long term is just so uncertain.
“We don’t have reliable data on jobs 20 years out,” Arnold said. “The best we can do is create strong career pathways and hope they evolve.”
James Paul Gee | Literacy studies professor, Arizona State University
From poverty to climate change to the rise of fake news, the world is in real danger, Gee believes.
But rather than trust students to use technology to address such challenges, he sees schools buying textbooks and focusing on preparation for jobs that soon may not exist.
“Schools need to focus on developing morally good people who can deal with complexity and collaborate with others to make things better,” Gee said. “That’s certainly better than saying, ‘Let’s prepare Johnny to program AI [artificial intelligence],’ when that AI will turn around and program Johnny right out of a job.”
Tess Posner | Executive director, AI4All
Posner doesn’t foresee a robot apocalypse. But the former head of President Barack Obama’s TechHire initiative does believe artificial intelligence will reshape just about everyone’s daily life.
That’s why it’s so important that schools help expand the universe of people building, researching, and making policy around AI, she says. And her new nonprofit believes the best way to make that happen is by moving computer-science education beyond discussions of technology and programming techniques.
“Focus on applying artificial intelligence to human and social problems,” Posner advised. “When you teach kids to program robots that mimic self-driving cars, ask what the impact could be for an aging population.”
Osonde Osoba | Engineer and researcher, RAND Corp.
Artificial intelligence isn’t just changing work. It’s being used to automate important governmental and policy decisions, control the flow of information we receive, and reshape how we buy and consume products and services.
As a result, Osoba said, it’s more important than ever that schools not lose sight of a basic truth: Public education has always been about creating good citizens, not just training new workers.
“As AI is more widely deployed, students need the ability to think critically about how decisions are made,” he said. “That means understanding statistics, mathematics, and algorithms.”
Martin Ford | Author, Rise of the Robots
Ford sees three realities, all of which will likely appear bleak to educators.
Schools right now are preparing students for the jobs that are most vulnerable to automation, he says. Structural problems in the labor market mean that even if every kid could get a top-notch education, there still might not be enough jobs to go around. And no amount of investment in schools or job training will be enough to overcome the challenge, he believes.
“A big disruption is coming for society as a whole,” Ford said. “and it may be that we can’t educate our way out of it.”