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How should we design the School of the Future? (Part I)

26 February 2016

If robots divide us

As some Anglo-Saxons people are used to say, it's difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.

In the case of the School, I do feel particularly uncomfortable, as I am not a specialist in this field.

However, I believe I could offer a few ideas to think about it, thanks to my personal experience, combined with the one as a father.

Also, I have a privileged observatory point, which is coming from a professional life spent in the Information Technology, working for all of the most important IT Enterprises on a worldwide basis.

Actually, in today's world we are observing an extraordinary transformation of the economic, social, and working environments, driven precisely by those very Information technologies. Why shouldn't the education world be impacted as well?

The macro-economic data is making us believe in an apparently steady wealth growth, which is currently in place and possibly sustainable over time. The US and worldwide GDP keep on growing exponentially, and so the income per-head, although not at the same rate. The unit products prices are decreasing, and the quality of the production output is improving, and much as the produced quantities.

Even though this is not the first impression you'd have out of Italy and most European Countries, these are facts.

However, in spite of this apparent wealthy situation, we are inclined to admit that there will be more technology, but much less jobs, at least in the way we are conceiving them today.

Still, why should we talk about this while disputing about the school of the future? Well, because to design the school of the future, we should ask ourselves how the jobs of the future will be, given that one of the primary tasks of a good school system is to prepare the youth to their work-life.

When I am claiming that these times are truly extraordinary times, we may have an initial skeptical reaction. We may observe that in human history we have always had changes, and that there is nothing really new here.

However, if we looked more carefully, we shouldn't miss that the current transformation has some uniqueness: as an example, never like in the past century have technologies been able to learn new skills: reading, writing, driving, 3D-producing, etc.

On his book "The second machine age", Andrew McAfee (the attached picture is taken from the February 5, 2014, FT article on this very topic) speaks about the two major innovation factors which are the foundation of the current transformation: the arrival of the "intelligent" machines & the connection of potentially everybody on the planet through a common digital network.

We should carefully study these phenomena as they may lead to great opportunities, but also dramatically impact our societies.

We are not talking here about apocalyptic scenarios where humans may even get dominated by robots.

On the opposite, we must get ready to pragmatically govern or even anticipate potential social changes.

In the US, a study by Charles Murray (on the book "Coming apart") has turned the lights on the respective deterioration and improvement of the quality of the lives of a blue collar vs a manager with a College degree. We are talking about very practical things, such as the probability to obtain a stable - or at least a full-time - job, to have a long-lasting marriage, to have children raised in a two-parent family, to actively participate in the Country’s political life, or ultimately to finish in jail.

Well, while before 1960’s the lives of these two people were developing very similarly, from then on the very advent of these new technologies has steadily generated a gap in their quality of life, with a significant deterioration in those who didn’t know how to leverage these technologies.

This gap is a sign of the so-called "digital divide”, which we should aim at reducing as much as possible.

Still, the risks are not only from a social perspective. They are getting over-emphasized by the economical risks: also the economy has globalized thanks to these very technologies, which have in turn made it particularly vulnerable. It’s what we have experienced from 2008 on.

In summary, if these new technologies are surely representing a great opportunity for our lives, they may also threaten the today’s jobs, and surely the tomorrow’s ones.

We shouldn’t be afraid of changing, and question ourselves: how to get ready? How to add value in the work environment of the future? How to take the driver seat for leading these changes?

As Alan Kay (Computer Scientist, Fellow of American Academy of Arts and Sciences, National Academy of Engineering at the Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center) said “the best way to predict the future, is to invent it”. How could we then do it?

We’ll talk about it on my next post on this subject.

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