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Learning to live in the time of AI

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Photo by French fine art photographer Vincent Fournier, taken in Barcelona, Spain, in 2010, as part of The Man Machine series, showing “speculative fictions”, where artificial creatures interact with humans.

To the three basic pillars of any education system – reading, writing, arithmetic – we must now add three others: empathy, creativity and critical thinking. These skills, usually acquired outside school, must be included in school curricula, as artificial intelligence (AI) becomes part of our societies.

Leslie Loble

In Australia, 300,000 children begin their school journey this year, in 2018. Graduating from  school in 2030, they will spend most of their working lives in the second half of the twenty-first century – some may even live to see the dawn of the twenty-second century. The pace of change wrought by advancing technologies makes it increasingly likely that these children will live and work in a world that is radically different from ours. Education systems must move swiftly to anticipate and adjust to this change if these future generations are to thrive. 

New South Wales is the largest school education sector in Australia, with over a million children and young people attending some 3,000 schools. In every classroom, every day, a teacher instructs and guides these students toward their future. But at a system level, especially one of this scale, change can be slow to evolve, even with the mounting and clear urgency that new technology brings.

This is why the New South Wales (NSW) Department of Education initiated Education for a Changing World in 2016. Examining the strategic implications of  technological advances, this comprehensive project aims to stimulate and inform necessary reforms in curricula, teaching and assessment, and to orient the entire system towards a more innovative approach.

Since the project began, the Department has engaged with global leaders from the economic, technology and academic spheres, deliberations which led to the publication of Future Frontiers: Education for an AI World  in November 2017. The book explores the future of education in a world with AI, and the skills needed to thrive in the twenty-first century. Some of these thought leaders got together with educationalists, non-government organizations (NGOs) and policymakers at an international symposium in late 2017 to discuss how to use new technologies and tools to support teachers and improve student outcomes. The infusion of new ideas led to a unified commitment to reform.

The new Rs

The three Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic – are the foundation of all learning, but today’s students need additional core skills and important non-cognitive skills such as self-efficacy. The pace and breadth of technological change demands a deeper understanding of concepts, and a great deal of resilience, adaptability and flexibility for students, teachers and education systems as well.

Human skills will be more important than ever in the new world taking shape before our very eyes – critical thinking will be one of the most powerful skills that education systems will impart to students.

For the time being, these essential skills can be acquired through extra-curricular activities, where we learn about cooperation, goal-setting and planning, for example. Discipline and team spirit could be developed through sports, creativity through drama, critical thinking through debate, and empathy through fundraising for the Red Cross or volunteering at a youth group.

The challenge is how to create this wide range of opportunities for all students, how to value them as legitimate experiences and integrate them into our curricula, and how to assess students in these domains – which were previously not considered part of school education.

One thing is certain – the future will demand that children develop connections with one another and foster a sense of community, citizenship and collaboration based on empathy, which some believe is a key competency for the twenty-first century.

Interpersonal competencies are increasingly recognized as a crucial component for education systems around the globe. Organizations including UNESCO and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) are developing frameworks, standards and assessments for intrapersonal competencies, and concepts such as global skills to support greater cross-cultural collaboration. In Australia, a set of general capabilities including critical and creative thinking and intercultural understanding were included in the national curriculum in 2009 – since then, many jurisdictions have added  them to their own curricula. 

The Education for a Changing World project has highlighted the imperative to foster innovative education practices that will lead to widespread gains across the system. Already, these novel practices are springing up across the education community, seeking to motivate, engage and challenge students, and to harness the potential of advanced technology to lift their performance. Some of these practices have a stronger evidence base than others, which makes it difficult to distinguish which ones are the most effective.

AI in the classroom

Drawing on lessons from national and international innovation best practices within the private and public sectors, the NSW Department of Education is examining how to better support educationalists to develop and accelerate innovative ideas. The aim is to establish new ways to create sustainable and scalable methods to extend the learning, capabilities and achievements of our students.

AI offers significant potential within education, if used wisely and if it serves the needs of educators. Already, there are AI-based systems that can support personalized learning, freeing up teachers to focus on individual student needs and educational leadership. These systems are able to monitor student engagement and progress, and potentially suggest adjustments to content.

It is crucial that educators are in the driver’s seat when it comes to designing and developing AI-based systems. Teachers and school leaders must play a critical role in defining a clear purpose for AI in the classroom, and be trained to understand and utilize it effectively. Students must also be involved in decisions about the use of these technologies and educated about the ethical frameworks that accompany their use. Their future will depend on the policies and approaches that are adopted now. 

Learn more

The Education for a Changing World project

Photo: Vincent Fournier

Leslie Loble

Deputy Secretary in the New South Wales Department of Education, Leslie Loble (Australia) has led strategy, reform and innovative delivery in Australia's largest and most diverse education sector for nearly two decades. She was awarded the Australian Financial Review/Westpac Top 100 Women of Influence in 2013 for her positive impact on Australian public affairs and in recognition of her role in education reform.