When It Comes to Learning, Are Your Children Living in the Matrix?
“Would you rather learn something real but go through a struggle to learn it or be made to think you are learning something real when you really are not?” This is a question I asked all of my English classes on Google Classroom. As a teacher, I was curious as to what they would write. I had been noticing a trend in my school that many students were put off when they were presented with a challenge. Many students would ask me for another type of assignment. Usually, the assignments my students requested were basic in nature and did not require challenge. So, I thought, “Would my students rather be made to feel as if they were learning?”
Nobody wants to be made to feel as if their learning is just a simulation or fake, especially teenagers. They keep it real after all. And, predictably, almost all of my students said that they would rather go through the struggle to learn something real when answering the Google Classroom question. Many of my students even suggested that it doesn’t “make sense” to be made to feel as if they were learning.
But, there was one student (there always is) who wrote that he would not want to go through the struggle. His reasoning was that all things could be learned through repetition without any struggle at all. Hmm…This made my teachery sense do a little overtime.
“Blah!” I thought. “Is that how any student would want learning to be? (Once you’re a teacher, you realize that students aren’t as exciting as television and movies portray them to be.) So, I did some hard thinking and researched some crazy ideas to figure out an important point, students in America are being hardwired to thirst for repetition while, in the future, there are two things students will need to learn that repetitive tasks will not really help them with, compassion and empathy.
Often, I like to have my intuition take over and simply allow it to search (YouTube, google it…). One time I was led to different Ted Talks on YouTube regarding artificial intelligence (I guess judgement day is inevitable). One speaker on artificial intelligence, Volker Hirch, an investor focusing on AI, from a TEDXManchester event discussed how “anything that has repetition…a machine can, in theory, do…better.” I connected to the idea because I try to encourage my students to contemplate similar ideas. In my classes’ Google Classroom, there is even a section of assignments that I call “Everything Changes.” The point being that young people need to be able to adapt to a world that will be very different from the one we live in today.
“Ah ha!” I thought. “This is the exact type of thing I want my students to see!” (I’m not sure they would all care about it, but I like to make myself think so.) I felt students should realize that jobs which involve a lot of repetition eventually will not exist. They shouldn’t be preparing for a life that will not be there when they are ready to live it. Included in Mr. Hirch’s list of jobs that will be threatened by AI are drivers, farmers, delivery people, security guards, construction workers and cooks.
The thought of machines being able to eliminate the need for these jobs can be scary, even if you are an adult. What would be the point of humans then? Will the human race atrophy just like a muscle that is not used?
Well, I don’t think the future needs to be so scary. It should be an adventure that we embrace. In his presentation, Mr. Hirsch mentioned four attributes humans can possess which would be difficult for machines to replicate — love, empathy, creativity and critical thinking.
Students should be taught to appreciate all four of these traits in our education system. Afterall, in the future, qualities emphasizing repetition are not going to maintain the same high status as they previously held. So, the question becomes, “What are young people of today learning?”
Creativity and critical thinking can be argued about until the argument becomes dizzying and love is difficult to quantify. So, let’s focus on empathy for argument’s sake. I think we can agree that understanding the emotions someone else is feeling is important to society. However, a Michigan University study of college students from 1979–2009 conducted by Sara Konrath shows college students from 2009 were approximately 40 percent less empathetic than college students surveyed decades previously. In addition, professor and researcher Jean Twenge, after analyzing data from the 1980s, 1990s and the 2000s, concluded that those born in the 2000s are more narcissistic.
OK. Schools must be making adjustments to ensure that young people will be ready for the future. Wouldn’t you think? Not so fast. Initiatives such as No Child Left Behind and Rise to the Top have placed an emphasis on standardized tests that is unprecedented. Even a recent PDK/Gallup poll showed that the public believes there is too much focus on standardized tests. Think that standardized tests can show that learning equates to preparedness for the future? Let’s take a look.
I would like to take some time to show you a few questions from a New York State Social Studies Regents exam. It is the January 2018 Global History and Geography Regents Exam. Keep in mind, students need to pass one global social studies Regents exam to graduate in New York. As you peruse the questions below, imagine that you have a child in a New York State high school. Then, think upon the question, “Is this exam demonstrating real knowledge of social studies, knowledge my child can use in society?” Also, consider if your child is gaining skills in empathy by preparing for these questions.
The first question will bring you back to middle school. It’s a fact or opinion question. Answering this question requires no knowledge of social studies, only what is a fact and what is an opinion. Learning about the motivations behind the Green Revolution would be valuable, but it is not necessary to answer the question below.
The second question is asking about students’ knowledge of a historical figure. However, it is not necessary to know anything about Toussaint L’Ouverture to successfully answer the question. A somewhat resourceful student should be able to tell that his name is of French origin and that the only country below that has a connection to France is Haiti.
I would think that it would be important to understand what it would be like to live under the influence of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. However, the below question does not test for this understanding. A fairly sharp student should be able to tell that the only things mentioned in the graphic organizer are social and educational services. Not to mention, the other answers have no relevance to the graphic organizer.
There are many more questions such as these on this Regents exam and on practically any Regents exam New York State students will take. It is hard to imagine that young people would learn anything about empathy from studying for questions such as the ones above. I’m not sure young people would learn much of anything preparing for such questions with one exception. Students could definitely learn how to manipulate a poorly constructed test.
Well, then, how can young people learn skills in empathy? Studies have shown that reading fiction helps readers understand the psychology of the characters. Or, why not have students complete assignments in which they have to consider the circumstances historical characters go through? There are many possibilities.
With a proliferation of artificial intelligence on the horizon, it is time for those who teach to prepare. However, those who teach don’t have to be in the teaching profession. Really, empathy and compassion can be taught by parents, bosses or just concerned peers, among others. Still think that the influence of AI has been overblown and that you can keep all the repetition you are used to in your life? Tell it to the self-driving taxi that comes to pick you up after routinely hailing a cab.