Education in the New Machine Age

Nobody can deny that we’ve entered a new era of technological progress. The so-called Digital Revolution^ is but the latest in a series of intellectual milestones that started with the Industrial Revolution^. However, there’s something special about this era: exponential development. Our technology advances faster than ever before.

It’s not only board game players that lose to software algorithms^. It’s all of us^. It’s not that we’re stupid; far from that. After all, we created the software that is right now outperforming us in an ever-increasing number of areas, eliminating jobs across all industries.

But the human brain is perfectly capable of adapting to the intellectual explosion going on. The problem is that our social structures aren’t. And there’s a very simple reason behind that…

Education

Our children are our future. Cliché? That which is a fact of nature cannot be cliché. But there is still a long way to go until we can claim that we truly have integrated this knowledge. Yes, we all know that our children will write history. Despite this, when the educational system is examined thoroughly, it’s obvious that most governments and societies on Earth see education as just a way to teach children to behave.

As this article^ points out, “education’s goal seems to have devolved into facilitating the creation of a homogenized population, which has impacted everything from the job market to mental health.” Children are being taught the dos and don’ts, some skills so they can contribute to society, and then served some special sauce consisting of various forms of indoctrination (be it religious, nationalistic, materialistic – anything that can impair their decisional capabilities and make them easier to control).

That strategy worked for a while, but its days are numbered. We live in an age when vulnerable people can be manipulated by foreign agents instantly, through the Internet. We need look no further than the Russian interference in the 2016 USA elections^.

This is an age when almost everything can be (or will be) automated, an age when the push of a button can bring down entire nations^. We need empathic, creative, open-minded people that can keep up with the rampant technological development; not only to harness it, but also to defend us from those that would misuse it.

We can’t afford to have madmen in control of nuclear buttons. We can’t afford to have megalomaniacal CEOs in control of software that can easily cripple our economic ecosystem^. What we need is a generation of brave explorers that think beyond borders, race and culture.

It’s only a matter of time until certain societies on Earth realize this. It is those societies that will prevail in the current phase of evolutionary competition on this planet. Those that manage to educate their population to take full advantage of the technology at their disposal will give rise to the next superpowers.

Agile Education

We have entered what one visionary calls the New Machine Age^. I highly recommend watching the 12 minutes video I just linked, or perhaps this article^. There, Erik Brynjolfsson explains how even though software can outperform humans, the winning combination is when both software and humans work together. In his words, the key is to “race with the machines”.

The current educational system has advanced a lot in the past centuries, no doubt about it. Every decade or so, it takes one small step forward. But now that our technology leaps ahead year after year, it’s time to unshackle our children’s minds. So, how do we do that?

The educational platform of the future can no longer be tied to update cycles longer than a month. Even in developed countries, the slightest of changes to what students are taught still take around a year until trickling down to educational institutions. That, simply will not cut it in the coming decades.

In the software industry, there’s something called agile software development^. In a nutshell, it’s a method for building a product through an iterative approach. The methodology facilitates product development through quick cycles of experiment, fail, learn, implement, improve. When executed correctly, this ensures that the product is kept up to date from both a market requirements perspective and also from a technology perspective.

In contrast with that, we have our current educational system, which is, at best, sluggish to adapt to market demands while in the same time woefully behind when it comes to what’s technologically possible. This isn’t surprising from a system that is, for the most part, stuck with a conveyor belt mentality.

It’s true that in the past 150 years education became available to many more^ social categories. Unfortunately, the way the expansion was implemented has more than one resemblance with a 1900s factory – one of the reasons is probably because it is around that period when governments realized they’d better educate their population so that their nations can be more productive.

There are, however, some countries that are slowly but surely dismantling the industrial education model; for example, Finland^. Such countries have understood that the educational platform has to be updated to meet the challenges of the Digital Age.

Goodbye Industrialized Education

The classroom of tomorrow isn’t comprised of a bunch of students studying the same material, being subjected to the same exam questions and then benchmarked in futile, wasteful contests. The classroom of tomorrow is a team of cross-disciplinary minds that solves challenges; each bringing their own skills, but relying on tutoring and technology to gather and integrate exactly the required knowledge to reach a certain goal.

The teacher of tomorrow isn’t a slave to a platform, blindly reciting from The Book and then throwing countless hours out the window rating duplicated work. The teacher of tomorrow is a capable leader that knows what challenges to throw at a team in order to stimulate intellectual growth and skill development based on real life needs. And just to be clear, art is a real world need too.

It’s interesting to note that both kindergartens and universities have educational models that are reasonably open and challenging. But everything in between has, in most countries, been reduced to a steady and boring destruction of potential^. Children wait too long until they can be part of a team addressing real-world problems.

Throughout the past century wiser people have thought about changing the educational system, with varying degrees of success. There is an education philosophy called constructivism^. There were attempts to integrate technology into the classroom. Some attempts failed short because of lack of funding (it’s expensive to train teachers, and even more expensive to train leader-teachers).

Other attempts failed due to gross miscalculations. Remember the $100 laptop^ that was supposed to unleash children’s minds? Unfortunately, throwing technology around without a systemic paradigm shift does little else than to disrespect the environment and cause cultural pollution.

But most of all, the timing just wasn’t right. And that’s about to change.

The age of educational enlightenment is about to dawn, of that, I am convinced. It is an evolutionary need that will burst into existence with unstoppable force. The first societies that manage to bring their educational systems up to speed will reap unimaginable rewards.

Empathy and tomorrow’s criminals

From education, straight to crime. How’s that for a detour? I’ve written at length about the dangers posed^ by the irresponsible use of technology^. One problem that arises when training high-performing teams is that those same teams might one day turn into the villains terrorizing society. Fortunately, there’s a human ability that, if properly cultivated, can greatly reduce the risk of us being hurt by destructive tendencies.

I’ve also written at length about empathy^. I believe that the only mandatory subject in the schools of tomorrow should be empathy. We simply cannot build a free high-tech society without empathy. Sure, perhaps a police state solution such as the one China envisions might work for a while. But punishing the inherent mischievousness that comes in the same package with human curiosity will always end up stifling innovative capability.

This is evolution’s catch 22: the smarter you get, the greater the responsibility becomes. And there’s no way to hide from that responsibility either. If you tie yourself up to a tree just to make sure you won’t drown, that will also mean you won’t be escaping any hungry tigers that might be lurking in the jungle.

Here’s to the next generation of teachers, students and problem solvers. May you prevail through the most glorious of challenges. May you prove that it wasn’t all in vain.

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