March 6, 2014

What Machines Can’t Do

Friends' 3rd graders at performing at a recent gathering
My favorite way to spend a Sunday – in the morning hours before my bleary-eyed teenagers emerge – is to brew a steaming cup of coffee and relax on the sofa with the New York Times.  The Sunday Times is a weighty tome that takes me all week to consume. My subscription comes with a nice bonus, which is online access to the rest of the week.  Sometimes, even the Monday paper includes a gem.

One Monday last month, Times columnist David Brooks offered his ideas on what human skills will become essential for our children and future generations. 

In an opinion piece entitled “What Machines Can’t Do”, Brooks ponders the skills we will need as computers become increasingly able to accomplish many routine tasks - and even some we consider more complex.

It is a vital question for schools and parents to consider. We are both charged with preparing students for their futures, supporting them to build skills they will need to lead successful lives. But what are those essential skills?

Brooks takes the position that some mental skills will become less valuable, specifically those related to memory, the ability to recite mass amounts of information on assessments, or the ability to process following a specific set of rules. He notes that even critical tasks such as picking stocks and diagnosing diseases are increasingly becoming the purview of machines.

But as machines accomplish routine tasks with greater and greater effectiveness, there emerge opportunities for other human capacities to flourish. First, he claims the future will reward enthusiasm. “The amount of information in front of us is practically infinite; so is that amount of data that can be collected with new tools. The people who seem to do best possess a voracious explanatory drive, an almost obsessive need to follow their curiosity.” The future, in other words, will reward those who have passion and commitment.

Second, he finds that while machines can instantly weigh the outcomes of an incredible number of options, “a human can provide an overall sense of direction and a conceptual frame. In a world of online distractions, the person who can maintain a long obedience toward a single goal, and who can filter out what is irrelevant to that goal, will obviously have enormous worth.” Humans, in other words, can be focused and strategic.

Next, he finds that humans can create systems in which people can collaborate – such as Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia. Many of the great advances come when people are able to
Kindergartner Sisi listening intently to her
4th grade sister Anna play the piano
think and work alone yet are able to share results with a group – and learn from the work of others.

Finally, he talks about the essence of creativity as an essentially human endeavor, describing it as “the ability to grasp the essence of one thing, and then the essence of some very different thing, and smash them together to create some entirely new thing.”

Brooks sees limits to the routinized thinking and working skills that emerged from a more bureaucratic era. In their place, he finds “it is precisely the emotive traits that are rewarded.”

The bolding of certain words above is mine. Those words are: enthusiasm, curiosity, passion, commitment, focused, strategic, collaborate, creativity, emotive.

Do the words sound familiar?  These are many of the goals we have at Friends’ for our students. They appear again and again throughout these blog entries, on our teachers’ web pages, in our narrative student reports, and in our admissions materials.  Our teachers encourage their students daily in these concepts. They make up the core of the character education and social emotional learning that Friends' is so well known for.

It’s no coincidence that they are also among the key traits I look for when I hire new teachers and staff.

Looks like I won’t be hiring machines any time soon! 

No comments: