“Education is not solely about acquiring job skills”

Alex Beard

Alex Beard, a senior director at Teach for All and former teacher, is reimagining learning and education. In the second part of our interview, he talks about changing society by changing schools, education for the 21st century, and the role of technology.

 Caroline Smrstik Gentner: What skills will our kids need in the 21st century?

Alex Beard: There are a few really basic things, such as being able to get up and talk confidently about a subject; dealing with failure; solving problems; knowing how to approach new things and new situations; recognizing your own strengths and weaknesses.

More specifically, I’d say:

  1. Think critically. Be able to analyze and evaluate sources of information: Who has power, and to what purpose are they using it?
  2. Creativity: the ability to imagine, play, and find self-expression in what you do.
  3. Cooperation: not just working in groups, but on a bigger scale where it becomes political, finding common ground, creating solidarity. We’re moving toward an open-source world, where we share ideas. And that’s necessary to tackle the really big issues we face, like inequality or climate change.
  4. The ability to understand and use the tools of today: data and algorithms. Not everyone has to be able to code, but everyone should understand what coding is and how it can be used to get from A to B. Why is data important, what can be done with it – the current discussions around Facebook are a perfect lesson.
  5. Emotional intelligence: the ability to pursue one’s own and the group’s well-being. Understanding how emotions work, how to build empathy.
  6. A belief in one’s agency: facing the world with confidence.

“We’re moving toward an open-source world, where we share ideas.”

CSG: In your book, you write that “human plus machine plus better process wins.” What do you mean by that?

AB: It was Garry Kasparov who said that. He was commenting on his experience with chess-playing computers. After he was beaten in 1997 by Deep Blue, there have been new tournaments which any combination of human and machine could enter – grandmaster versus machine, machine vs. machine, grandmaster vs. grandmaster. The winners these days are not the most powerful computers, or the greatest grandmasters, but actually teams of amateur players using multiple laptops. There’s no tool that doesn’t become more powerful in combination with a human.

For me this means there will never be an artificial intelligence that makes humans – including teachers – obsolete. We have the potential to use technology to solve complex tasks. Machines are limited in what they can do – the uses we humans can put them to are unlimited.

“There’s no tool that doesn’t become more powerful in combination with a human.”

CSG: What’s the proper role of technology in education? Why is implementing tech easier than implementing a new teaching strategy?

AB: Implementing technology in schools too often involves driving a truck to school, unloading a bunch of devices and wishing teachers good luck. I’m thinking, for example, about the electronic whiteboards in UK schools, which look impressive, but have added nothing to student learning. This was a great business idea, but didn’t do much for education.

But there are clever ways to use technology. Look at the example of Rocketship Schools in the US. Kids there spend sixty to ninety minutes of each day in the Learning Lab, drilling math and language problems in adaptive learning environments on laptops. Allowing machines to handle the repetitive drills frees up teacher time for other activities that only humans can do: one-on-one help for some students, or exploring new material with other students.

“There will never be an artificial intelligence that makes humans – including teachers – obsolete.”

Another good example is distance learning, like the programs being put out by Khan Academy or in Amazonas, which improve access to knowledge.

CSG: Is there a conflict between “learning for the workplace” and “learning” in general?

AB: If you force students to restrict their range of subjects too early, and then send some young people to the university and some to technical school, you may limit learning. Kids should be exposed to as much variety of experience as possible till they’re about 16, in order to be able to find their passion. Education is not solely about acquiring job skills, but finding meaning in what you do. It may sound like a utopian notion, but schools need to prepare students to do that.

“Kids should be exposed to as much variety of experience as possible till they’re about 16, in order to be able to find their passion.”

At the same time, the old hierarchy of cognitive jobs versus manual jobs is changing. Traditional white-collar work involves a lot of repetitive tasks; this clerical office work can easily be taken over by robots. But there are complex manual jobs that robots will struggle to do. Jobs in high-tech manufacturing, for example, now need well-educated people that can understand and operate highly technical machinery and automated processes.

Lastly, we could also imagine a world in which automation frees us up to have more leisure time – general education also needs to prepare people to thrive in this future, to be imaginative, to find happiness.

CSG: How can schools handle the “social learning” aspect appropriately?

AB: There’s a lot of debate now in the UK about the science of how individual kids learn. But school reformers tend to focus almost exclusively on content. They are often blind to the form of education. This is your experience as a student: You can be either sitting in a group with people, putting ideas together, or sitting quietly by yourself in a row with your head in a book.

“We can do a much better job of thinking purposefully about the kind of social learning that we want kids to engage in.”

In the UK, school is all about competing with others, being alone with your books and your tools, and about the authority of the teacher. This perpetuates a strange relationship between citizens and government at a societal level. We can do a much better job of thinking purposefully about the kind of social learning that we want kids to engage in.

There’s a school in London that has set out to do this. School 21 in Stratford emphasizes community and citizenship and what it means to build a strong society. The founders have built into the structures and rituals of their school all of the characteristics they wish to see in society. They have a non-hierarchical school model, with kids undertaking community projects as part of their work.

There’s another dimension to schools as a force for changing society, which has to do with social and emotional intelligence and well-being— this is a question that we, as adults, have only really been thinking about for the last couple of decades. Now some schools are starting to ask: What if we developed attributes in kids that contribute to a stronger, healthier world and promote well-being?

“We in the education system at large are yet to establish consistent and explicit approaches that will allow us to build the societies we want to see.”

Most teachers, on an individual level, have been doing this forever. Teachers care deeply about the social and moral education of the kids in their classrooms. But we in the education system at large are yet to establish consistent and explicit approaches that will allow us to build the societies we want to see.

In the first part of our interview, Alex Beard discusses institutionalized learning and how culture influences the way we teach our children.

Alex Beard Is a former teacher and self-described “Accelerated evolutionary.” He is senior director at Teach for All, a growing network of independent organizations working to ensure that all children have the opportunity to fulfil their potential. His book Natural Born Learners, a user’s guide to transforming learning in the twenty-first century, was published in April 2018. BOLD recently reviewed the book.

Read more about Alex Beard

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