Teach the Arts to Overcome Robot OverLords!

Following on from last week’s blogpost, I’d like to draw your attention to a speech given by Jack Ma at the World Economic Forum earlier this year.

Jack (also known as Ma Yun) is one of China’s most successful, powerful, wealthy and philanthropic business leaders who lectures widely about how to, in his own words, “help more people to make healthy money, 'sustainable money,' money that is not only good for themselves but also good for the society. That's the transformation we are aiming to make.”

He has a slightly different slant on the present challenge to education. Whilst totally behind the argument that a knowledge-based system regurgitating the facts of the last 200 years is outmoded, he states that the danger we face comes from automation. His point of view is that as it’s possible that robots could replace 800 million jobs by 2030, so we shouldn’t be trying to compete with what machines can do better than us, but rather concentrate on the areas where humans excel - where robots cannot follow.

His conclusion is the same as many of us who want to see major change, despite coming at it from a different angle and background. 

Values, believing, independent thinking, teamwork, care for others, creativity are the areas of focus he cites as desirable for the future - and guess what? He advocates teaching sports, music, painting, art: soft skills and creative competencies learned through experiential activity rather than needless repetition by rote.

I want to see these things too, primarily because I believe that a life spent learning, always being interested in learning more, is a life well led, and I don’t think today’s education system instils this in our children - quite the opposite.

To my mind, the slight differences in motivation for change are unimportant, and I’m thankful if it means more voices coming together to persuade the powers that be that we are currently failing our children, and that it has to stop.

Change Gonna Come

Recently, the CBI (Confederation of British Industry) released a statement criticising the current education system in the UK for being too focussed on testing, results and tables. The result of this, they claim, is that children are not learning the skills that are required of them by the world of work.

The backlash consisted of many and various claims that a knowledge-based curriculum is essential, and that many other countries who apply this system have proven it’s value and effectiveness.

A regular component of my conference talks on education is a segment where I show a list (compiled from many independent surveys) of the top ten attributes that businesses say they are looking for in future employees. Here it is:

1.  Communication

2.  Teamwork

3.  Self-motivation / drive

4.  Organisation

5.  Flexibility

6.  Decision making

7.  Time management

8.  Hard working

9.  Dependable

10. Problem solving

Like the CBI, my point is always that these competencies are under-valued and under-taught in our current education system.

However, it’s tricky to teach any of them in isolation - you need a context within which you can offer the opportunity to practise each and every aptitude. 

The go-to area for developing everything on this list is the arts, but as we know, all things creative are well out of favour with our Ministry of Education. Like many of you, I think this is an appalling error in judgement. But all is not lost.

Even if you cleave to the traditional knowledge-based curriculum, and the current focus on STEM subjects, it’s possible to advance expertise in these top ten skills through the way the curriculum is taught. Giving children more opportunities to learn independently, to organise themselves within group tasks, to generally behave more like they will be asked to do in any workplace, can only be beneficial. 

When asked, youngsters themselves are crying out for some applicable context in their learning. They want to learn about the issues they will have to deal with (and are perhaps already starting to have to negotiate) in real life. 

Can we not incorporate teaching about tax, about housing, about credit, about starting a business, about benefits, or just all the daily binds of the daily grind? It’s much more interesting and easy to learn things when you can understand the application. 

A change is well overdue, and more and more voices are joining the call for a major shift. Surely it’s only a matter of time before we reach the tipping point.