In case you’re unaware, I’ve just published a book that explains the role of knowledge in thought. Rather than rehash the arguments in depth (there are a series of chapter summaries here) suffice it to say that no one, no matter how intelligent they believe themselves to be, can think about something of which they have no awareness. It’s literally impossible, but I’ll pause for you to give it go if you’re unconvinced…
We can only think about things we know, and, the more we know the greater our capacity for thought. It therefore follows that if we want young people to be able to think critically, creatively and collaboratively they need to know more. We could just complacently pat our selves on the back that all the information they’ll ever need is conveniently available on the internet, but anyone who believes children will use their time to learn about abstract, difficult problems without considerable input from knowledgable adults to patiently explain and redirect wandering attention either hasn’t met any children or is unscrupulously optimistic.
Children – especially teenagers – have a motivational bias away from the abstract and the culturally specific towards the concrete and the universal. (See here for a detailed explanation.) Left to their own devices they’ll mess about at the margins of human culture and be unlikely to learn much from the accumulated wisdom of the tribe.
Why say all this again? Because despite repeating these arguments tirelessly, no one seems to be listening. In the space of 24 hours we have had the TES reporting primary school headteacher, Andrew Hammond as saying, “AI can regurgitate facts, so why teach pupils to do it?” and Chinese business magnate Jack Ma at the World Economic Forum saying… pretty much the same thing.
Robots could replace 800 million jobs by 2030.
“Everything we teach should be different from machines.”
— Vala Afshar (@ValaAfshar) January 23, 2019
Here’s what Jack says:
Education is a big challenge now. If we don not change the way we teach, 30 years from now we will be in trouble because the way we teach – the things we teach – our kids, are the things from the past 200 years – it is knowledge based and we cannot teach our kids to compete with machines – they are smarter. Teachers must stop teaching knowledge, we have to teach something unique, so that a machine can never catch up with us. These are the soft skills we need to be teaching our children: values, believing, independent thinking, team work, care for others. These are the soft parts. Knowledge will not teach you that. That is why I think we should teach our kids sports, music, painting, art – to make sure human are different. Everything we teach should be different from machines. If the machine can do better you have to think about it.
I’m sure Ma is a very bright man and there’s no way I’d risk telling him how to go about being an entrepreneur. When it comes to business, Jack Ma knows far more than I ever will. In the domain of business, I’m an idiot. Sadly, in the domain of education, Ma is shockingly ignorant and because of this he strings together emotive buzzwords which, from a distance, look a little bit like a logical argument.
This is how expertise works: the more you know about a subject, the greater your store of knowledge, the better your judgement and intuition. The more likely you are to see creative solutions, to solve intractable problems and to think critically about unreconstituted nonsense.
Let’s take a moment to examine Ma’s comments. There are some things I agree with: we should definitely teach children about sport, music, painting and art. And, in a world where algorithmic learning can out compete human being in many areas we must be mindful of how young people will find meaning in the future. But there are somethings he says which are wrong. First, machines are not smarter than people. Machines are dumb precisely because they don’t possess knowledge; all they can do is process information. Yes, they can do this bewilderingly quickly, but they know nothing. It takes a human being to make sense of a machine’s predictions, to decide whether to put them into operation or whether they’re meaningless. For a clear-eyed critique of the concept of artificial intelligence I recommend reading Gary Smith’s The AI Delusion.
Instead of teaching the knowledge of the past 200 years, Ma would have us teach the soft skills of “values, believing, independent thinking, team work, care for others.” Well, like everyone else, I want children to care for others, be able to work in teams and to think independently. I’m less sure about values and belief because these depend on what we value or believe in. Everyone, no matter how depraved has values and beliefs. I think what Ma might means is that he wants young people to share his values and beliefs but this seems contrary to the desire for them to be independent thinkers. The danger of teaching children to think independently is that they’ll end of disagreeing with you.
But let’s agree that independent thinking, team work, caring for others are universal goods that we all want. How do we teach independent thinking? What are children going to think independently about? As we’ve seen, you can’t think about nothing. Does it matter what they think about then? Would MA be happy for them to think independently about the narrow confines of their immediate experiences? If, as I suspect, he’d prefer children to think independently about more important and pressing concerns then they’ll need knowledge of the world. You cannot outsource the contents of your mind to a machine and remain independent. To be independent we must have the resources we need inside ourselves. If resources are external then we are, by definition, dependent on something outside ourselves.
Teamwork’s a bit easier though. Working collaboratively is a biologically primary adaption that humanity has been capable of for tens if not hundreds of thousands of years. We’re so good at it that no one has to explicitly teach it to us, we just pick it up from interacting with others. If you want children to work together on organising a football match or a party, just leave them to it. But, probably, Ma would like young people to be able to collaborate of projects of greater significance. He’d probably like them to work together to do stuff like cure cancer, eradicate poverty and hunger and reverse climate change. Sadly, to be able to work together on these sorts of projects children are going to need lots of knowledge – the very stuff Ma would like us to stop teaching.
But caring for others: surely that doesn’t require knowledge? Well, that’s an interesting question. Caring for others who are like us, is something that comes pretty naturally. In fact, so naturally that it comes with well established downsides. Our ‘groupness’ is at the root of all compassion and most evil. Having empathy for people like us usually comes at the cost of making us less empathetic for people we see as not like us. (For an enlightening discussion on this I recommend reading Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy: The case for rational compassion.) The only antidote to this kind of parochial thinking is, you guessed it, knowledge. The more we know about other people – how they live, what their concerns are, how they’re like us – the more we’re likely to care for them.
If we want a world like the one Ma and Hammond imagine, we really are going to need to change both the way we teach and what we teach. We need to understand more about how children learn and think. We need to understand the crucial importance of knowledge and stop uncritically trotting out the tired cliché of “regurgitating facts”. No one wants children to rote learn lists of unconnected facts. Instead, if we want children to thrive in an uncertain world we need them to know as much of the vast legacy of human culture as possible and to be practised at using it to think critically, creatively and collaboratively.
I pause for a response.