On December 21, 2015

Stop educating students for jobs that won’t exist

Technology will increasingly provide efficiencies—plan accordingly

By Alan Shusterman

The robots are coming—and they may put your friendly neighborhood retail staffer out of work.

Home-improvement superstore Lowe’s recently began employing robot sales assistants in its stores. The robots can answer questions in multiple languages and take customers directly to what they’re looking for.

Lowe’s isn’t alone. In hotels, hospitals, restaurants, and newsrooms, robots are taking jobs from humans. Johnson & Johnson, for example, recently won FDA approval for Sedasys, which automates anesthesia for procedures like colonoscopies. Momentum Machines has developed a robot that can make a gourmet hamburger in 10 seconds. A hotel in Silicon Valley uses a robot bellhop to deliver luggage to guests’ rooms. There’s no question that advances in robotics and artificial intelligence will have a significant impact on the labor force—and not just for blue-collar workers.

Unfortunately, America’s schools haven’t been paying attention. They’re still using outdated methods to train students for the very jobs the robots are taking. Our schools must start teaching children skills that robots can’t emulate, like emotional intelligence and problem-solving.

One-third of today’s jobs are predicted to be replaced by machines by 2025. University of Oxford researchers think that number will reach 47 percent by 2033. Will all this lead to a dystopian future, with massive unemployment and the machines in charge?

If history is any guide, the answer is no. Agricultural technology allowed farmers to produce far more while employing fewer people. Office computers made armies of stenographers obsolete. But each “job-killing” technological advance also greatly increased productivity and created new job opportunities.

Rather than fight the future, schools should prepare the next generation of workers for it. That future will require workers to think creatively, deepen their emotional IQ, and integrate technology into everything they do. Schools should address the learning priorities of the future in three major ways.

First, they can embrace project-based learning, which empowers students to develop their creativity and problem-solving skills. Students might be asked to develop public-health responses to disease outbreaks or conduct an archaeological dig. These sorts of tasks have far too many variables for even the best artificial intelligence to handle.

Second, schools can use social-emotional learning to improve students’ emotional intelligence. The approach teaches students how to better understand emotions, develop empathy, foster positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

For example, the “4Rs Program” (Reading, Writing, Respect, and Resolution) incorporates emotional intelligence training and conflict resolution into language arts classes. Students in the program use books to discuss conflict resolution, perspective-taking, and more. Research shows that these students exhibit less aggressive behavior, are more socially competent, and experience fewer depressive and ADHD symptoms.

These social-emotional skills won’t soon be replicated by robots. Even the most sophisticated android won’t soon be able to express excitement about a product when trying to make a sale or recognize when a colleague is being overworked.

Finally, if we’re to beat the robots, we’re going to have to join them — or at least know how to work with them. That means doing more than just sticking technology haphazardly in classrooms. To truly prepare students, schools must make tech an integral part of assignments. In the future, technology—robots included—will become an even more common part of the workplace. Employees will have to understand that technology to succeed.

Schools must change to prepare students for this future—rather than continuing to educate them for jobs that won’t exist.

Alan Shusterman is the founder and head of School for Tomorrow, a Silver Spring, Maryland-based nonprofit, independent school for grades 4 through 12.

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