US Schools Are Leaving Students Ill-Equipped to Compete with Artificial Intelligence

We have long known that the robots were coming, but now that they are here, the mismatch between our modern education system and the technology-fueled workplace is glaringly apparent. As robots expertly perform routine tasks and increasingly assume broader workforce responsibilities, we must ask ourselves an important question: What is our key human differentiator?

The Power of Creativity

According to Boston University professor Iain Cockburn, who just published a new paper on the impact of artificial intelligence, the human competitive advantage lies in optimizing “what we can do better than machines, which is imagination, creativity, judgment.” In the paper, Cockburn and his colleagues suggest that it’s possible the robots will catch up to us soon in these realms, but they are not there yet. They write:

Instead, recent advances in both robotics and in deep learning are by and large innovations that require a significant level of human planning and that apply to a relatively narrow domain of problem-solving (e.g., face recognition, playing Go, picking up a particular object, etc.). While it is of course possible that further breakthroughs will lead to a technology that can meaningfully mimic the nature of human subjective intelligence and emotion, the recent advances that have attracted scientific and commercial attention are well removed from these domains.

If human imagination, creativity, and judgment are our primary tools for competing successfully with today’s robots, then it would make sense for current education models to focus on cultivating these qualities. The sad fact, however, is that most schooling is stuck in a 19th-century system of command and control, memorization, and regurgitation that may successfully train young people to be robotic workers but not innovative thinkers.

It’s Time to Adapt

Recognizing the inevitable effects of automation, artificial intelligence researchers have been calling for dramatic changes in the education of our youth since computers first appeared. One futurist was Seymour Papert, a renowned mathematician who became co-director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in the 1960s.

Papert was a critic of education models based on top-down instruction and passive learning. He believed that “the model of successful learning is the way a child learns to talk, a process that takes place without deliberate and organized teaching.” So firm was his vision of the ways technology could facilitate authentic learning, Papert foreshadowed the end of conventional schooling. In his 1980 book, Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, Papert writes that “schools as we know them today will have no place in the future.”

Of course, Papert’s vision hasn’t emerged. Other than the ubiquity of computers, most present schooling looks remarkably similar to schooling in the 1980s, and passive learning and a teach-and-test approach to education endures. American public school students now take more than one hundred required standardized tests from preschool through high school graduation—a number that has skyrocketed in recent years. At the same time, their creativity scores are plummeting. College of William & Mary professor Kyung Hee Kim discovered that American creativity scores have been falling precipitously since the early 1990s, with elementary school-age children experiencing the sharpest drop in creativity.

We should all be alarmed. If human creativity is our key competitive advantage against robots, and that creativity is declining, the forthcoming workplace disruption and job losses that will accompany increased automation will be more severe than they otherwise should be. Some educators suggest doubling down on efforts to foster creativity. John Maeda, the former president of Rhode Island School of Design, said in an interview:

I wouldn’t say [creativity] can be taught in the normal sense of adding knowledge and wisdom to someone. I would say instead it can be re-kindled in people—all children are creative. They just lose their capability to be creative by growing up.

But it’s not a consequence of growing up that causes creativity to decline: It’s our antiquated system of forced schooling that was designed to crush creativity in the name of conformity. As I spotlight in my upcoming book, Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom, young people who learn without school, or in other non-coercive learning environments, retain their natural creativity and curiosity. We don’t need to rekindle creativity; we need to stop destroying it.

To compete with robots, we need an education model that nurtures human imagination and ingenuity. Forced schooling is ill-equipped to do this, but models of learning without conventional schooling are ideally positioned to take on the pending robot challenge.

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No, It’s Not the Degree

I often see people say things like, “Sure, they say you don’t need a fancy degree to get the job, but then they hire people with fancy degrees.”

It’s not because companies are lying about not needing a degree. It’s because candidates are totally lame and uninteresting.

In a pool of generic, flat, 2D resumes and applications, the better formal credential will get more attention, because there’s nothing else to go on. In such a pool it’s also true that anyone who can show anything more interesting than a paper credential will also get more attention. That is a really low bar.

Degrees are incredibly weak, flabby signals. Anyone with average or above intelligence, drive, or ambition is undersold by the signal of a degree, since they are already capable of proving more with just a tiny bit of creativity and work.

Don’t blame the credential. Be more interesting.

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Dear Women: You ARE Your Body, And That Isn’t A Bad Thing; It’s Your Power

The mind/body duality is as fundamental to universal nature as masculine/feminine duality. If you don’t believe in masculine/feminine energy polarities or that there are “masculine” traits and characteristics as well as “feminine” ones, then maybe just stop reading because this article probably isn’t for you. If you do have a deep or even general understanding of this, then continue on…

When it comes to qualities and strengths of the mind and body, it seems fair enough to conclude that the mind is used for more masculine energies (reason, logic, intellect, etc) and the body holds more feminine energy (intuition, flow, sensing, where emotions are stored and felt).

In my opinion, one simple way to break down and describe what so many people call “the patriarchy” is to say it’s a society that fundamentally operates in a way that values the mind (intellect/doing) over the body (intuition/feeling). 

We see this played out everywhere, one of the most obvious and pervasive is the ideology of science and the use of charts, graphs, and measurements to “prove” if something is true or untrue. Science is typically seen as “fixed” and “settled.” There is no room for personal accounts, stories, things that are felt but not seen, etc.

This isn’t to say science is wrong or bad at all. I am simply suggesting that it might not be the ONLY means to discovery. Our dismissal of things like magic, energetics, intuition, and all things meta is a sign of masculine dominance, as these things were quite common and well understood in past times. Some radical feminists point out that the process and politics of modern science is a projection and influence of the western man’s values. Here is an excerpt I like from an article by Dr. Kelly Brogan:

Ever heard the phrase, “…the science is settled?” If so, it didn’t come from the mouth of a true scientist. Scientific dogmas create taboos – things you’re not allowed to ask about or talk about, let alone study and research. But science is not a destination…it is a process of discovery. Moreover, it is a means of studying and honoring the wonder around us and within us. When science is bound and arrested by dogmatic beliefs, it becomes an eviscerated religion that can be co-opted for political gain and control.

Rupert Sheldrake is a brilliant renegade scientist and theorist with this to say on the matter:

“We are, many of us, waking up from a several century long slumber induced by Scientism – the dogmatic belief in the dominant narrative of science as religion. As we wake up to nuance, to new science that defies the old, and to a complexity that often leads us to an awareness of all that we don’t know, those Scientism believers will become more and more uncomfortable. These people may be your family, your doctors, or even your formerly trusted media reporters. They may foam at the mouth and threaten violence at the suggestion that Scientism’s sacred cows (pharmaceuticals, bioengineered foods, industrial chemicals) are not what we have been lead to believe. Stay strong and reconnect to the elegance of a world of natural design, harmony, and regeneration.”

Another way we witness the unconscious cultural belief of mind > body is through this idea that women’s bodies are  “objects” and we should stop appreciating and wanting their beautiful, sexy bodies and instead pursue them for their mind/intellect/creativity. Again, not that the latter qualities are not important, but why isn’t the body seen as equally significant, desirable and powerful?

Ironically, it’s typically other women who I see most demanding to be noticed and recognized for the qualities they possess in their mind, while mocking and ridiculing anything body-centric, essential to female biology (which is a damn powerhouse), is focused on appreciating the female form, or uses intuition as a compass for living.

One might call this the real “internalized misogyny.” The deeply unchecked belief that the mind is more valuable than the body.

In a world where we are so divorced from our bodies and mostly live in the mind, the mind is seen as superior, and all of our ideas and advocating for reform are still rooted in these masculine values of systems, intellect, tests, logic, data, etc…

To me, the new feminism would be a return to embodiment. Yet, as it stands today, it seems we still generally believe the mind is the more sophisticated and trusted between the two, while we depreciate the body as the weaker one. Something susceptible that is to be feared and not trusted. Just a powerless “object” that acts as a distraction to men, couldn’t possibly know when and how to give birth, and offers no healing in and of itself.

I believe if women owned the power of their body, heart, and sex, and made embodiment their practice, that is to say, focused on radically changing “in here” rather than trying to change how everyone responded to us “out there,” then we would see shifts in our world beyond what we could ever imagine.

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How to Confront Big Changes in the World

There are two ways you can respond to unknowns and changes in technology, culture, politics, and society.

The first is to focus and worry about all the possible things these changes could do to the world at large, and fret over all the things you think and hope other people will do to make sure bad stuff doesn’t happen.

The second is to ask yourself what you can do in your own life in light of these potential changes.

The first approach quickly becomes a runaway train of fear and negativity.  It’s dangerous because it makes the second approach that much harder.  Fear and threat blind us to opportunity and optimism.  We’re stuck in reactive mode, which leaves little room for creativity.  It puts our energy and attention in a fruitless spin, spent on things we can’t control.

The second approach is amazing.  It takes a little time and patience, but when you tune out the stuff that’s beyond your control and stop thinking of hypothetical scenarios involving theoretical people, you can zoom in on your own life, goals, desires, traits, and resources.  The world opens up and you see the opportunity in challenges and changes, rather than pure fear of the unknown.

Take a deep breath.

Whether the world is being disrupted and displaced at a frantic pace or not isn’t the relevant question.  What about your life?  What’s happening there?  What do you want to happen there?  How can you work with changes in the world to help rather than hinder those goals?

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The Current Career Landscape in 8 Short Points

1. Young people mistakenly assume the way to start their career is to go into debt, spend four years taking tests, following rules, chasing grades and getting a degree.

2. Paper credentials won’t launch your career. Employers don’t care about degrees, they care about the right skills.

3. But you’ve gotta prove you have those skills. You can’t just tell people and expect them to believe you! You’ve got to be your own credential.

4. That means instead of padding a resume, build a portfolio of projects that showcase your ability!

5. Example. Cade Summers. 19, no degree, no experience, landed a great marketing job at a startup.

6. How? Gained a few key skills, made a portfolio of projects, researched the company, put together a marketing plan for them, and made a short video walking through it.

7. They were blown away by the creativity and initiative he showed while everyone else had boring resumes and degrees.

8. Young people get your hands dirty! Degree or not, get out of the classroom and start building something. Podcast, YouTube, website. You’ll learn more and be more interesting and impressive.

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What Educators Can Learn from “I, Pencil”

I am a learner—ordinary and extraordinary. I am ordinary because, along with breathing and eating, learning is a simple and foundational human action. I am extraordinary because throughout history my drive to discover has led to profound inventions that improve our world, from the wheel to the lightbulb, penicillin to the microchip. Learning is what I do.

Sixty years ago, Leonard Read, founder of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), the nation’s oldest free-market think tank, wrote a simple essay called “I, Pencil.” In it, he traces the production of a common pencil, revealing that even for so humble an object, “not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.” It is through an elaborate, decentralized, emergent, global process that a pencil is born. Read writes:

I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite, and so on. But to these miracles which manifest themselves in Nature an even more extraordinary miracle has been added: the configuration of creative human energies—millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire and in the absence of any human masterminding!

If no single person or centralized group of people can produce a lowly pencil, then how could we believe that a single person or group could produce something so magnificent as an educated human? We try. We believe that we can orchestrate others’ learning, breaking their natural will to explore by emphasizing conformity and compliance in early childhood and then filling their minds with the content we deem important. We pat ourselves on the back for being masters of others’ learning, for extirpating ignorance.

Never mind that much of what people learn in this top-down, coercive way is forgotten soon after it is learned. In a revealing study in the early 2000s of the Lawrenceville School, a top-ranked elite US private school, students who had completed a high school science class the previous spring semester were asked to take a watered-down version of the science final exam when they returned to school three months later. Over just one summer, the average grade on the exam fell from a B+ to an F.

We fool ourselves if we think our conventional system of education creates learners. It creates young people who, with varying degrees of success, learn to memorize and regurgitate arbitrary information to the satisfaction of a teacher or a test that is soon forgotten. It creates mimics.

In “I, Pencil,” Read concludes his story with a simple message: “Leave all creative energies uninhibited.” Don’t try to control the production of the pencil. That will most certainly result in an inferior and more costly good—if it could be created at all. Instead of directing the actions of others, let people be free to direct themselves. This leads not only to the human inventions that brighten our world and improve our existence but also to the actualization of personal fulfillment and agency that can only come with freedom.

For self-directed learners, their creative energies are uninhibited. They are not controlled by a mastermind or a group of omniscient rulers who believe they know what is best for others. Self-directed learners retain their creative spirit, that zest for learning which is so apparent in young children but is often eroded through years of forced education. These unschooled learners freely follow their passions and pursue their curiosities, supported by the resources of their families and communities and with a deep sense of personal responsibility.

In a society as rapidly-changing and technologically-fueled as ours, it is a mistake to think that any one person or group of people can decide what others must know to live a meaningful and productive life. According to the World Economic Forum, many of the most in-demand jobs and skillsets did not even exist a decade ago, and the majority of today’s elementary school children will work in jobs that have yet to be invented. We cannot pretend that we know what our children need to know, particularly as our children’s main competitors for the jobs of the future will be mechanical. To compete with robots, our children should be free to direct their own learning tied to their emerging interests in a way that retains their essential human qualities of creativity, ingenuity, and experimentation. Self-directed learning is the pathway to a free and flourishing society.

Free learners accomplish both the ordinary and the extraordinary. By unleashing the innate human drive to explore and discover, to build and synthesize—to learn—we ensure a future of both individual fulfillment and collective progress. Like a pencil, a learner is simple and complex, familiar and unknowable. All learners must be free to write their own story.

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