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Adapting High School Education For The Emerging Age of Robots

Jack Goodman

Jack Goodman

May 25, 2016

Yesterday I sat around a conference table with a group of my colleagues to discuss a topic that's critical for our organisation: innovation. There were team leaders from all the key areas of our business - not just technology and product design - but also marketing, client services, new business development and tutoring services. Several people were joining the conversation from locations across the country via video conferencing.
We spent an hour engaging in a lively, focused debate about the culture of our company and how we can best leverage it to encourage good ideas from any corner to "bubble up" and to improve the way we do things. We're doing this because we recognise that technology is driving change at such an enormous rate that if we don't consciously use all our collective brain power to stay ahead of the curve, we're likely to find ourselves in a ditch on the side of the road (and apologies for that mixed metaphor, for which my colleagues will tell you I'm (in)famous).
This process made me think again about a new documentary about education I was fortunate to see last week - Most Likely to Succeed. The film - which was screened at my kids' public high school in suburban Sydney - follows a group of teachers and students at a high school in southern California that is experimenting with a radical rethink of how teachers should teach and how students learn best.
The guiding principal behind High Tech High (that's its actual name, by the way) is quite simple: Our society is currently experiencing the initial tremors of what will become a global earthquake of automation, artificial intelligence, computerisation and robotisation that will forever change the landscape of our working lives. If we want our children to have a hope of navigating a world where autonomous machines drive us around, monitor our health and address our medical needs, autonomously build the products we need and deliver the entertainment and services we want to consume, then we'd better change the way they learn.
And how does a traditional high school in the US - or Australia, for that matter - convey information? In general, we use a methodology that was developed over a century ago to support the education of workers for our emerging industrial economies. We needed workers who could work in factories, and so our schools came to resemble assembly lines, where students would work in 1-hour time blocks, learning discrete subjects - English, mathematics, chemistry, physics, history, geography - in set orders through their teenage years.
High Tech High's guiding principle is that a factory-modelled approach to schooling doesn't teach the "soft skills" that are going to be essential as we enter the age of robots. Creativity, collaboration, teamwork, presentation and communication skills are going to be the things that distinguish humans from the increasingly capable machines of our emerging world. To teach these skills High Tech High is delivering its curriculum via a "Project Based Learning" methodology.
                 Students studying at High Tech High. Image: fastcocreate.com
What does this bit of jargon mean? Put simply, High Tech High brings teachers from different departments (think maths and geography or English and chemistry) to create challenges that students, working in teams, have to solve creatively. At the end of the project, the students present their work - in whatever format it has taken - to their peers and their parents at an open evening. That's their equivalent of our end-of-term exams. In the film we get to see students building machines out of gears and levers that are intended to represent, by physical movement, the forces that lead civilisations to rise and fall.
Prior to screening the film, our school's principal told the parents in attendance that he wasn't planning to turn our high school into High Tech High, but that he and some of his senior leadership team were trying to apply many of the ideas to improve student learning. After the film we had a brief discussion during which it was clear all of the parents were excited by the prospect of our children getting to experience some of these new approaches. And here our principal reminded us of the challenge such change represents. For him and his leadership team, the hardest part of the process has been bringing teaching staff on the journey.
This should come as no surprise. For professional educators who may have been working in a particular way for a decade, two decades or longer, to experiment so profoundly with the way they work is more than a little confronting. To their credit, while many teachers have initially expressed reservations, some of those most reluctant to change have actually dipped their toes in the water (there I go again with the metaphors) and been surprised at the pleasantness of the experience.
It reminded me that there's only one thing harder than change. And that's not changing. Because if we sit still, in our work, in our thinking, in our schools, or as a nation, we're going to see the world pass us by in what will feel like the blink of an eye. (Sorry!)

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