Replaced by Robots?
First some background. When I was eleven I was given an IQ test. I must have passed since I was sent to a different kind of school, than most of my classmates. This was post-war England and someone in the British Government had woken up to the fact that Britain had lost an enormous number of men between 1914 and 1945 and urgently needed to train replacements.
The scale of the problem was huge. In a little over 30 years, Britain lost almost a million men and women in the First World War, and almost half a million in the Second World War, out of a population of roughly 45,000,000. Not only had Britain lost a lot of men and women, soldiers and civilian, but there had been a large number of non-fatal casualties that rendered the victims ‘unproductive.’ And the vast majority of all casualties of war came from the ranks of young undereducated men and young educated men. Losing 3% of the best and brightest in a single generation was rightly seen as a national security issue.
Britain had been left with an alarming lack of suitably trained young men and women to fill the gaps left in the civil service, medicine, law, education and business. Compounding the problem, prior to 1945 those jobs were reserved for people with the education that only wealthy parents could afford.
The 1944 Education Act, the brainchild of Lord Butler, came about after he wondered, why not start educating the plebeians such as me as well as the patricians? Hence my IQ test.
That IQ test was my last encounter with structured testing that measured how much I had retained. Upon entering into the Grammar School – a cap, a blazer with a badge and shiny briefcase in hand – at age eleven I discovered a world of questioning and answering and then questioning again.
Along with questioning, written essays were the currency of my experience. The essays we wrote in answer to questions were not the end of the discussion either, to be marked with an A- or a C+ and recorded in a ledger of progress. No, they were the beginning of a dialog. You see, at the end of each essay we had to write the initials Q.E.D. and sign our name. Quod erat demonstrandum, loosely translated as “I proved it.”
What happened next was a discussion. Had I indeed proved my thesis to the satisfaction of my teacher and crucially my classmates? I would find out as they all declared open season on my ideas: never on me. “What more proof do you have?” “Where are your sources for that statement?” I could either defend my thesis or I could not. And it did not really matter. I was learning to think.
It was no coincidence that my teacher choose to frame his interactions with me as questions. “What on earth gave you the idea that I am here to do all the work involved in you becoming an educated man, Mr. Terego?” Yes, I was addressed as Mister Terego for the first time ever at age eleven. “What on earth makes you believe that I am here to educate you?” Same question different phrasing.
After a couple of years I knew it was hyperbole; of course they were there to teach me. They were after all members of a teaching order of the Roman Catholic Church that specialized in educating the underprivileged. They had taken a vow to educate me – just in the Socratic way.
The point of the question about whether or not my teacher was there to teach me was this: I began to realize that I was part of the equation; a teacher plus a student – me – plus the other students were all complicit; we were a team engaged in a project, and that project was to learn how to think; how to make meaning. The ultimate goal of education.
He did not say, “I’m not here to teach you.” He questioned me. What did I think about the situation? And in doing so started me on a lifelong love of learning.
It is my mission in life to breathe new life into this style of teaching. The Socratic style where a question is asked and answered, and then iterative questioning and answering takes place until all are satisfied that a valid, well thought-out opinion has been formed.
Those same teachers did not spend a lot of time on making sure I memorized facts: the periodic table, multiplication tables or irregular verbs. Instead they lit the lamp, and then I understood the need to memorize those facts; I bought into the idea, and gladly memorized the facts, mostly on my own time as part of my homework. The classrooms were largely for discussion. Today we would call this a flipped classroom.
In those classrooms I learned how to think, and how to value thinking. I learned how to make meaning by uncovering how I felt and what I believed about subjective –unprovable – issues such as the true role of a teacher. By using facts and newly-discovered information through questioning, and then synthesizing the two, I learned how to come to an informed a point-of-view.
In those days I thought everybody had the benefit of that kind of Socratic education. How wrong I was then. I am even more in the wrong now. Let me explain.
In the 1960s a new technology came along – the Optical Character Recognition scanner. OCR changed schools forever, and not for the better. Suddenly, a cheap device could check how well a student did on a test. All the schools had to do was to re-format the way they transmitted knowledge. As long as the questions asked could be answered by a student filling in the ovals alongside multiple choice options with a #2 pencil, the machine could replace grading, an admittedly tiresome chore historically reserved for the teacher. This was the thinking: Much cheaper to use OCR, and the teacher was relieved of a chore. Literarily a no-brainer.
In the history of the computing revolution dating back to the 1950s no other institution, enterprise or organization has ever been asked to change the way it conducts its business to suit the limitations of technology. If a computer salesman – and I was one – showed up at any enterprise and told them they could buy the technology but they would have to change the way they conduct business, he would be shown the door. Not the schools. They swallowed the OCR ‘solution’ hook, line and sinker.
The truly horrifying law of unintended consequences in all this is that the only way OCR can work is on facts. So, the schools decided to only teach facts: that way they could have metrics on performance and demonstrate mastery of facts. Obviously it has not worked out for the best. We are even failing at teaching and testing facts; if we were scores would be going up.
Compounding all this is the fact that employers want employees who can think; memorization and retention is no longer a requirement, it is a given; the floor not the ceiling.
The USA has not seen 3% of its population lost to war, but it has seen them lost to inadequate schooling. For 9,000,000 of our best and brightest the only education they have known is memorization and test-taking. This as the world braces for the Fourth Industrial Revolution with the onrush of Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Data Generation, Robotics and more, all adding up to the fact that 47% of all jobs in the USA are at risk for being replaced by a machine.
There is only one solution: add Critical Thinking, Collaboration, Problem-solving and Communications to the curriculum. That is going to take a grass roots movement.
Alex Terego After 40 successful years in the hi-tech business, during which he participated in all phases of computing, beginning with IBM and culminating in selling his voice mail company, Alex became an early thought-leader in 21st Century skills development. He developed his Terego Method™ when teaching Critical Thinking at the Thunderbird School of Global Management and the Eller Graduate School of Business at the University of Arizona.
The program is now available at no cost for schools. Click to see this narrated video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KnumpVhywfs It is an investment of seven minutes of your time to discover how you can teach students to think for themselves and in teams.
Follow me on Twitter @alex_terego