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Robot-proofing our kids

Robots are having a media moment. It seems like everywhere I turn, the specter of robots replacing human labor at a massive scale–and the fear that engenders–is reaching a zeitgeist. Last week’s New Yorker cover shows a human man begging for change on a sidewalk while busy robots walk by in a rush hour scene. One robot drops a few gears into the man’s outstretched cup.

I said to a colleague at MFI recently with some bemusement, “Did you ever think that a primary element of your work would rest on trying to understand how robots are likely to replace human workers and what we should do to be prepared for it?” Surprise: he hadn’t expected that, even as recently as a few years ago, and neither had I.

Yet here we are

MFI didn’t come into this arena as futurists or technophiles (or technophobes, for that matter). We came to this because we want to help Michigan be a prosperous state, and have confronted with the reality of the economy in the U.S.

We also have a special concern for ensuring that future prosperity is open to everyone; no group of people should be locked out of opportunity. It’s today’s children that will face this increasingly unpredictable economy. The achievement gap between poor and affluent children has become more pronounced in recent decades and threatens to leave a huge segment of our population without access to family-supporting jobs.

A race with the robots

So I read with interest “What should I teach my children to prepare them to race with the robots?” by Kristen Millares Young–a journalist, mother, and someone who cares about equal access to opportunity–in the Guardian. While the contexts of Seattle and Detroit are wildly different, the income-based segregation, the withdrawal by many families from public education, and the insufficient educational funding from the state are the same story.

I wholeheartedly agree with her concern that, “I must prepare my two- and three-year-old sons to race with the robots, and not against them.” She’s too right, and she describes the thorniness of these issues–wrapped in issues of justice, equity, racism, gentrification, and community–in a way that resonates with me.

But the answer isn’t technology education alone

Her conclusion that what this requires is more science and technology in classrooms falls short of the mark. It’s not a bad goal, but it’s not the highest goal. For one thing, technology quickly becomes obsolete, so teaching “technology” itself has a short shelf-life of relevance. Even more worrying, in our work with Detroit high schools, we saw multiple times how technology is often applied in schools teaching non-affluent kids as essentially a substitute to high quality teaching, while the stronger evidence suggests that all kids learn best when they are in strong, trusting relationships with their teachers. Technology has been misused as a cost-saving measure in too many Detroit schools. So I have concerns that we haven’t yet figured out how to use technology in a way that actually benefits kids—and in the meantime, we’re using kids of color in poorly funded schools as guinea pigs.

But the more important point is that to really make your kids “robot-proof,” what they need is not to be good with computers, but to have skills that robots don’t. We believe the most accurate and complete framework for those skills is described in the book Becoming Brilliant by Kathie Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Golinkoff. These skills are confidence, communication, collaboration, content, critical thinking, and creativity. Pat Cooney wrote a great summary on this blog on these skills and the relationship to technology in classrooms. Certainly science and technology instruction can be tools to help build those skills, but only if those inherently human skills are the end goal of our education system.

You can read more about our recommendations for education reform in Michigan—based at least partly on robot-proofing our kids—in our recent report, “A Path to Good-paying Careers for all Michiganders: Improving student outcomes in education, from birth to college.”

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Sarah Szurpicki

Sarah is a policy associate for Michigan Future, Inc. and partner at New Solutions Group, LLC, a consulting firm devoted to smart, collaborative, innovative approaches for organizations serving the public good. At New Solutions she focuses on urban policy, strategic planning, and education and has led the firm's work on projects with the Michigan Municipal League, Let's Save Michigan, and Michigan Future Schools.

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