Machines are Rule-bound and Standardized, Our Students Need to be More than Machines

Digital image of machine clones

I am an educator, a professor, with a vested stake in education. Having participated in many ‘Future of Work’ think tanks, summits and worry sessions, I’m persuaded that our formal systems of education are preparing students to be out of work when they graduate. Asking the simple question, “what can people do that machines won’t be able to do in the foreseeable future?” shows that common educational practices seem primed to turn our kids into replaceable machines. I’m certainly not the first to express this concern, but we seem to be using our educational innovations to make things worse, not better.

A picture of a report card.
A picture of a report card.

One completely outdated practice that contributes to this is grades. Our systems of assessment, rewards, marking or grading promote the notion that all students need to be ranked on a single scale and need to reach the same learning outcomes. We have indoctrinated them so well, that the goal most students articulate by the time they reach university is “to get the best grades”. When I asked a group of teachers how they knew whether a student was a good student that would do well in life, the majority said by the marks. Yet we know that marks are not an indicator of future success.

Anything standardized and easily measured can be replaced and optimized by machines. We are corralling the amazing diversity of students that enter formal education toward the same redundant endpoints. We have even resorted to using AI and learning analytics to optimize this standardization.

STEM graphic
STEM graphic

In high school and college, when we offer choices in terms of learning directions, we valorize the formulaic topics such as STEM, and promote standardization as a sign of quality. STEM topics are also the first topics to be mastered by machines. If we can express the formula, we can teach the machines the formula. If we can precisely document the process and steps, we can instruct the machines to follow the process more efficiently and precisely. What won’t be replaced in the foreseeable future is the unexpected, uncertain, non-formulaic, non-linear work that requires continuous human judgement and creativity. These are all the topics we generally discourage students from pursuing.

Human difference is our greatest asset and the key to our survival. Our “diversity, equity and inclusion” (DEI) efforts fight for equal treatment for under-served, protected groups. We measure equity through performance in standardized tests. I fear that we have unintentionally sacrificed student diversity in the struggle for equality.

Our DEI efforts fight to include excluded groups of students in systems not made for them, that are not constructed to meet their needs, thereby setting them up for a much harder time, if not failure. Even if we still have the misguided goal of getting everyone to the same place, people start out in different places and need different paths and different ways of getting there. A better approach would be to create an education system that can leverage, value and reward the diversity of perspectives and help each student reach their unique potential. This will compel us, as a society, to cover much more ground, remove more blind spots, and build more choices into our systems.

We need to show students how to differentiate themselves. The conventional, complacent, dominant, established patterns are usually the first to go extinct when our world is disrupted. It doesn’t make sense to fight to become something at the cost of abandoning or suppressing our uniqueness.

Our formal education systems still ‘socialize’ inconvenient human variability out of our students. We shape them to be conformant and rule-bound. They are taught to defer to authority without question and perform their role within the established hierarchy. We also teach them to see their peers as competition rather than as collaborators or team members. We mislabel collaboration and resourcefulness as cheating, because of the outdated notion that our students’ minds are made to store information, and not for independent thought, critical analysis and creative teamwork.

Machines are rule-bound (unless they break down). Our students need to be more. We fail to help students to develop a moral compass and hone their human and humane judgement. They are not given the dignity of risk, nor are they taught the incredible learning value of failure and mistakes.

By removing human difference and variability we also put our collective survival at risk. Our educational trajectory and rewards implicitly teach students to see the world as something to be exploited, rather than as a connected, single organism. We fail to teach them that they have a collective responsibility and individually unique role in ensuring the survival of this precarious miracle.

Formal education is failing our students and our world. We need to do much, much better.

**Please note this work is licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License**

Director, Inclusive Design Research Centre, OCAD University