Last week started with me sobbing to my (new) doctor about my increased feelings of despair, lack of energy and motivation, and general sense of mental and physical exhaustion. It ended with an unexpected sense of euphoria and renewed purpose, which I can credit solely to the Education for a Changing World symposium that I was fortunate enough to have been invited to attend. I don’t share this portrait of my psychological rollercoaster for sympathy, empathy, or voyeurism, I share it because it was a genuine experience and something I know I must document for my future self, for when the reality of life as a teacher, mother, wife, author, and passionate perfectionist human overwhelms me… for those days when I feel that all I have done amounts to nothing, and that no matter how much I give it will never be enough. I’m recording this for future me.
I loved that I was invited to a symposium – just like I loved being invited to a roundtable earlier this year… there’s something about the names of both that (for silly me) is powerfully Romantic and evocative. Upon receiving my invitation to the roundtable by Secretary Mark Scott, I was overcome with thoughts of knights and grand adventures, noble deeds and fierce battle alongside brave colleagues… I even joked that I was going to wear armour and carry a sword. Of course, I didn’t do that, and the event didn’t live up to my vision (through no fault of the organisers), as life often doesn’t. However, clearly not one to learn from my experiences, when I received the symposium invitation my imagination flared again – I saw myself immersed in rich dialogue and debate, surrounded by very clever people eager to discuss very big ideas. I saw myself as an ancient Greek, sipping wine and listening sponge-like to the visions of those much smarter than me… and (thankfully) this is what I experienced on day one of the symposium. There was dialogue and drinks aplenty! The second day, whilst far less academic in its focus (and a totally dry event), brought me into contact with some incredibly talented educators – I was sat at a table with some of the loveliest people I have met – and also had me listening to some very insightful talks. So, my aim for this post is to try to reflect a little on each of the components that made up the symposium, and to (as Yeats would say) hammer it all into some type of unity, to help me better understand what it means for me as a teacher, as a leader of learning at my school, as a mum to two teenage boys, and as a human being. If you continue to read, I hope you find something within this post of use also.
N.B.: Please read the information about the symposium on this website to help contextualise my reflections below: http://educationchangingworld.com.au/
Day One – 2pm-7pm, Carriage Works
Secretary for Department of Education, Mark Scott’s Opening Address
The thing I like about Mark Scott is that he doesn’t mess around, preferring to clearly articulate his message without faffing about. The focus of his opening address is not new to most educators (especially those who have been following him during the first year as secretary) – basically he is worried about how we are going to change the way we teach to make sure we are catering for the new mindset and skillset that next year’s kindy kids need to have acquired before they leave school and emerge into a workforce unlike anything we have ever seen (or can honestly even properly predict). Once again Scott reinforced the important role that education plays in shaping society and its future citizens, whilst also acknowledging that there is no more complex, demanding or important institution than the education system. The complexity and inherent diversity within the institution where highlighted as challenges that we must embrace as we begin to consider how we will reimagine schooling in the coming decade. I personally loved his call to fight institutional and cultural inertia – we can’t sit back and expect someone above us to identify and fix our problems on our behalf – we can’t expect that solutions will be easy, that they will be centralised, uniform or swift. Scott reminded us that the impetus to change is coming most forcefully from outside of the education system – from the business world, as the begin to enthusiastically (and, sometimes even uncritically) embrace AI and automation. Finally, it was heartening to hear Scott acknowledge the incredible innovation already happening in schools that have long identified the need to move away from the traditional industrial model of education – those who have not sat back and waited passively for direction from above before ‘tearing apart the traditional vision of schools’. It is this that I will continue to remind all who represent the DoE, including Mark Scott, as we move from conversation to action – we cannot have our creativity and freedom as educators (those who know our students and our communities the best) curtailed by systems, tools, programs or structures designed by people from ‘without’. Lasting, quality, meaningful change does not come from above or without, but from within. What we need as educators is support – in the form of money, networking between schools (plus also cultural institutions, business, the tertiary sector, government), modelling and increased visibility of schools running proven successful programs), and access to quality resources (like free online courses, leadership training or mentoring, a range of digital tools/ICT programs not just one imposed upon schools). The one size fits all approach to schooling is naive and dangerous, and as this was part of Scott’s speech, I hope it is the one thing to which he definitely sticks.
Dr Fang Chen – AI and Our Future
Straight up having a woman as the first speaker was awesome – not only that, but an incredibly intelligent and inspiring individual well selected to speak on the positive impact that artificial intelligence is already having in our world. It was timely that Chen spoke about cognitive load as a lot has been made of it in edu Twitter lately thanks to a recent CESE paper, and Chen highlighted how AI has the capacity to manage cognitive load to allow humans to focus more on what we are good at such as creative problem solving. She highlighted the benefits of machine learning – the capacity to combine large sets of data to create a wholistic visual of a system, something many teachers would like to take advantage of when considering the diverse data sets often collected regarding students (wellbeing, academics, extra-curricula, engagement). I think the big takeaway from Chen’s talk was that we need to be really optimistic about the potential relationships between human beings and AI, and that there is no need to be afraid of what is to come.
Professor Peter Cook, QUT – AI and Automation
If you’ve seen Most Likely to Succeed, like I have (almost ten times), then you wouldn’t have found anything very new in Cook’s talk. He started off with a focus on robots beating humans at games (like Go), but made it very clear that despite these impressive wins and the very real likelihood that soon computers will be smarter than us, that we need not be afraid of that possibility. Currently robots are not like those presented in dystopian science fiction films, and it is a long way off before they could get to replicate human beings. Despite the fact that automation has resulted in many job losses – specifically those where people were employed to operate machines – Cook believes that automation brings with it potential job creation which we must embrace. One moment that I found very interesting in Cook’s talk was his passionate plea for us to challenge the introduction of what he called ‘robots in care’ citing concerns regarding the ethics of putting the care of our loved ones into the hands of robots. The ethics of AI and automation has been a central focus across all of the papers commissioned by the DoE for the Future Frontiers project, which I have particularly enjoyed. All authors, like Cook, have advocated for a renewed focus on the explicit teaching of ethics and philosophy to counter the very real possibility of large corporations creating quite ghastly AI ‘solutions’ to perceived problems in a society devoid of ethical regulation. It is here that education must move beyond cold curriculum content descriptors, and embrace teaching the whole child, the future citizen, to ensure our future heads towards utopia, not dystopia.
Marita Cheng – 2012 Young Australian of the Year, and technology entrepreneur
I didn’t write down the name of Cheng’s talk, but I do know that it centred on her impressive experience with designing technological solutions for social problems. I was particularly interested in the overseas cadetship (I think it was?) that she did with about twenty other young entrepreneurs from around the world where they were given this challenge: create something that will positively affect the lives of a billion people in the next ten years. This project (a bit like a hackathon, or Shark Tank) resulted in the creation of the app aipoly.com which provides verbal descriptions of visual data (like photos and video) for people with vision impairments. It’s pretty amazing, and Lee and I were both excited about the possibility of using it in the classroom for a range of uses, Lee was particularly keen on it for Stage One early readers. Cheng also spoke about her current work with telepresence robots – basically it is like Skype or Google Hangouts on wheels that the viewer controls so you can tour spaces in real time from the comfort of your home, school, office etc. They are already being used by students who are in hospital to allow them to ‘move’ around their classroom as if they were there in real time. We got to try this out at the break, with Lee and I chatting with a teacher in Dunedoo – it was pretty cool seeing her control the robot to change her viewing angle etc! Feng spoke about the important role of consulting with the user when designing a piece of technology, as this ensures that it effectively addresses their needs and solves the identified problem. This got me thinking about how in an institution like the DoE we so often fail to ask the users – the students, teachers, parents, school leaders – what they want when introducing something new (especially technology) and this is unfortunate as it often results in distress and frustration, creating more problems than it solves.
Genevieve Bell – On Managing Machines
One of the themes of the symposium was articulated nicely by Bell – ‘robots don’t want to murder us all’. I must be honest, I haven’t listened to Bell’s Boyer Lectures yet and therefore didn’t know much of her or her work before this talk. It didn’t take long for me to be an instant fan of her – she showed herself to be what I always admire in people: witty, knowledgeable, insightful, genuine, and wise. I particularly loved Bell’s talk because of its focus on the impact that innovation has on social structures and systems. She looked back briefly at the history on innovation since the Industrial Revolution, and posed the provocative question: if technology-driven revolutions have historically led to new education systems, then what does that mean for our current system and what does our future hold? She articulated the need for thoughtful discussion about what our new applied sciences system might look like, emphasising the need for a system that prioritises autonomy, agency and assurance. This conversation must bring in our social scientists, not just our technologists – specifically our philosophers, sociologists and our anthropologists. Bell’s talk was over much too quickly, but her final words continue to resonate with me and will for some time: We have a huge responsibility to do, and be, and think a little bit differently. Schools have a great power to shape the values of the young people in our care, but so too does society have the power to shape the focus of education, thus impacting the types of values we teachers impart (both implicitly and explicitly) in our young people. Bell highlights a concern we must all be cognisant of – technology (through business interests) has the power to restructure society and if we let things go to far without public conversations about that power, it might be too late for us to have a say in the type of future we want.
AI and the Future of Life and Work Panel: Genevieve Bell, Andrew Charlton, Daniel Petre, Toby Walsh – Moderator: Mark Scott
This panel was probably my highlight of the whole symposium – it was what I imagine being at a screening of Q&A would be like, except the debate was always in good humour and not undermined by individual agendas. It was awesome getting to hear from Toby Walsh, and I do wish that he had been given his own talk on one of the two days as he is so engaging and knowledgeable. One of the best things he said was ‘the future is the product of the decisions we make today’ and I know this will stick with me personally, as a reminder of how I can shape my own future, plus that of others through the choices I make. Part of the conversation was about the dispositions that people will need to thrive (and by this the panel really meant, to some extent, to stay employed) with a strong focus on emotional intelligence. I liked the example of medical specialists, like those working in radiology or pathology, being replaced by AI whereas the demand for GPs will increase, since humans don’t want their diagnoses coming from robots. Another provocative question raised, this time by Bell, that I find important for educators given our government’s current obsession will collecting ‘learning data’ was ‘Is productivity the only metric we would like to tell us how well society is progressing?’ She garnered lots of applause from the audience for this observation, hitting a nerve with the educators in the room who too often are told by ‘those above’ that what counts as important measures of student progression is standardised test scores – we all know this is a heap of shit. In relation to this comment by Bell, Walsh pointed out that too often in this discussion about AI and the future of work there is a perverse imbalance in favour of discussing formal work – that is paid work – to the detriment of the many hours of unpaid work done mostly by women in society, as well as the very important work (like creative or social pursuits) that are a significant part of human experience.
Moving on to the second half of the panel the focus was on higher education and its capacity to provide the worked needed for future professions, with a specific discussion around those desirable dispositions for those facing an uncertain and dynamic work future: collaboration, communication, storytellers, can manage through ambiguity, risk and diversity within work teams. It was cool to hear storytelling listed as a desirable skill – it made this English teacher very happy! It also led to a discussions about the increasing (continued?) valuing of the Arts – all on the panel agreed that STEM was insufficient for future success, and that it had honestly been introduced into the political and business landscape as a (failed) proxy for thinking skills. (Everyone needs to read Peter Ellerton’s paper on Critical Thinking and Collaborative Inquiry – it is bloody brilliant, and powerfully articulates why we must move away from a culture of teaching for learning towards one that centres on teaching for thinking. I love that paper!) Bell made a great observation that we can teach abstraction and pattern recognition through poetry as well as we can through coding (with the latter, in my opinion, far more cold and detached from human experience, lacking the much needed ethical dimension)… I already planned a project with Lee to introduce his students at MEPS to some really great complex poetry! Yeah for Keats, Dickinson and Shakespeare in Year 5! Yeah, I was that one person who clapped loudly when Bell spoke so fondly of poetry and its role in education – word nerd alert!
Some final points from this panel worth noting – there wasn’t any acknowledgement of the cool stuff young people are already doing in online spaces (such as fanfiction writing, contributing to the booming bookstagram movement, nurturing their own learning networks via YouTube tutorials, collaboratively solving complex problems in MMORPGs… the list goes on!) which is an ongoing frustration for me as the mum of two teenage sons immersed in these incredible spaces; the tyranny and malfunction of NAPLAN and the HSC were only given a cursory glance when prompted by an audience member; the hypocrisy of saying in one breath that the burden of developing important future skills shouldn’t fall entirely on the shoulders of schools and then in another breath saying that school is the best way to stop your kids watching too much YouTube and playing too many games (that was Andrew Charlton) and the increasingly problematic relationship between consumerism and our technologised future.
Well, it’s now 10pm on Sunday night and since I have to run a workshop on Project Based Learning for 20 teachers tomorrow morning (to help them educate for the present, and for the future), I better stop writing and get some sleep. Yeah, I didn’t get to day two of the symposium, sorry about that – maybe I’ll get to it before the end of the week, we’ll see. I hope you can get a sense of why I have been unashamedly gushing about the symposium on Twitter – I just genuinely enjoyed the two days, maybe it was influenced by my mindset heading in, being in need of some filling up with intellectual discourse and some hope for the future, I don’t know, but I do know my comments are sincere.
Oh, and also, about 3/4 into this post I realised that you all have access to the live stream of the talks I just summarised, haha – what a fail! Oh, well, I’ve posted links to them at the bottom so you had to endure my ramblings before finding the hidden gold – sneaky! 😉
Finally, here is a link to all of my tweets from the two days: