Re-designing education

December 2, 2016

Imagine that you’ve spent 12 years in elementary and secondary education, 4-5 years in tertiary education, and worked for the past 20 years on what you specialised in. You might be an engineer. Or a doctor. Or a lawyer. Suddenly you find out, that a computer is better at your job than you are. And you are replaced by a machine. Now what?

A lot of jobs are disappearing thanks to the relentless improvement of computers, machine learning and automation. In 1967 the cash machine appeared, and started to remove the teller from the bank branch. Since the 1990s, the internet has removed the bank branch from the street. Robots in factories work faster, harder, longer and make less mistakes than their human predecessors. Amazon just opened a grocery store with no cashiers – everything is done by the customer, using a smartphone app. In this The Economist article the cardiologist is being replaced by a computer, that makes less mistakes, and is therefore better for the patient.

It used to be that manual labour jobs were being innovated away with labour saving devices called machines. Then it was low-value repetitive tasks. But more and more, it is high-value repetitive tasks that are starting to disappear. While lateral thinking is perhaps not a computer’s strong side, the ability to objectively analyse and learn from all data, not just what happened yesterday, is an advantage that humans cannot compete with.

The problem is, that the educational system, is not ready to re-educate people in their 40s. Or 60s. But the way the world is developing, it is clear that we all need to be ready to have several careers during our life time, not just one. Switching from marketing to sales to human resources is, in this sense, easy. But what if you are a 45 year old lawyer, specialised in employment contracts, and find that computers are equally good or better at interpreting legal text and writing understandable contracts for a fraction of both time and cost? Or you’re an automotive engineer being out-engineered by a deep-learning algorithm? How do you retrain? How is it possible to handle the emotional turmoil?

The educational system that we subject our children to, is in principle still the same as it was in the 1950s. Sit down, learn these things, take these tests and proceed to the next level. As you get closer to your 20’s you are expected to choose a vocation or career and proceed down that path in the understanding that as you get better at it, you’ll earn more. You are not expected to be an entrepreneur, creating your own jobs as you go along.

Education needs to be fundamentally redesigned. Education cannot be just for children anymore, but has to take into account the whole lifetime, where re-education becomes a natural part of everyone’s life. However, that also requires financial planning in a completely different way. Kids, after all, have parents that feed and clothe them. But who do parents rely on, when they need to go back to school?

Yes, of course there are trends that are moving in the right direction. The “life-time learning” initiatives and online courses that allow thousands of people worldwide to partake in lectures that used to be limited to hundreds in one particular location. Technology is making learning easier and cheaper. But this all works for self-motivated individuals with a good grasp of current events and lack of illusion around what is happening in the world. However, what about those that are voting for protectionism, conservatism, save-our-jobs-from-globalisation, Brexit, Trump, (insert-your-own-nationalist-conservative-party-name-here) people? The spread of technology and globalisation is not going to slow down significantly, even if there are those that promise miracles.

Without fundamentally re-imagining and re-designing the role of the educational system from the perspective of the whole society and all age groups, it will not be possible to maintain today’s societal model. However, being optimistic, there are signs of change popping up worldwide. We just need to embrace them on a national and international level. But let’s not do it top down. Let’s design iteratively, prototyping solutions, testing them and implementing things that work quickly, instead of presuming that a group of educators and ministers versed in the old way of thinking can create the new model best.

Find out how likely it is that you will be replaced by automation here.