The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes

Figuring Out What to Teach in Light of an Uncertain Future

“How do we prepare students for careers and a world of work that will, in many ways, be something that we can hardly imagine let alone predict?”

Donald Deshler | June 19, 2015
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A teacher does her best to prepare and teach her students for their future careers.

One of the most frequently cited instructional design principles is that of “backward design.” In essence, this principle is operationalized when we focus our teaching around learning outcome goals. That is, at the end of a unit or course of instruction, what do we want our students to learn and to be able to do? In contrast, we sometimes get off track when we focus primarily on specific activities we want students to do or things we want them to read on a day-to-day basis. When this occurs, the means can become more important than the end.

What kinds of skills will best serve students to be successful?

This approach to instruction (that is, designing what we teach in light of outcome goals) makes sense. It is especially appealing when we take a “long view” of the learning process and think about the world that our students will be encountering after they leave school. What will that world look like? What kinds of skills will best serve students to be successful? What knowledge will serve them best? Answers to these kinds of questions, while challenging, always seemed manageable…until I read Martin Ford’s new book The Rise of Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future.

Ford contends that advancements being made in technology have been so dramatic and are happening so quickly that major disruptions are taking place in terms of the kinds of skills and dispositions that workers will need to be successful in the future. He describes a future in which the jobs and careers that we see as being central to our way of life and understanding of the world to no longer exist – or are transformed in dramatic ways. How workers will need to think about, prepare for, build, and engage in their careers will be much different than our current approach to the world of work. The unthinkable changes described by Ford are being driven, in part, by Moore’s Law – the simplified version of which states that the overall processing power for computers will double every two years. However, it is much more than merely the processing speed and power of computers, it is the way in which the very nature of technology and the processing of information itself are changing.

Many news articles are computer generated by taking new data and combining it with historical data

Among other things, computers now have the ability to continuously process massive streams of “unstructured” data (that is, information from a wide variety of sources – e.g., emails, web searches, documents, purchasing decisions, movement patterns, etc.) and to “make sense” of these data. Previously, the processing of “unstructured data” could only be done by human beings. Computers are now capable of doing tasks that have been reserved for highly trained professionals. For example, radiologists underwent years of specialized training to read MRIs, ultrasounds, and x-rays. Computers are gaining the capacity to read such images with an amazing degree of accuracy. They are also capable of writing sophisticated narrative text. Many news articles are currently computer generated by taking new data (e.g., the scores and plays from a just completed football game) and combining it with historical data and trends that are available in large databases to generate a coherent narrative. Some computer scientists estimate that within 15 years over 90% of news articles will be writing algorithmically.

Another notable trend described by Ford is machine learning---that is, a technique in which a computer churns through data and, in effect, writes its own program based on the statistical relationships it discovers. As computers process more and more data, its program is continually refined and becomes “smarter.” Thus, overtime, the capacity of machines expands and, in turn, its ability to solve the kinds of problems it is designed to solve improves. Ford describes a broad array of other technological developments and projections that will transform our lives in ways that we thought not possible.

So back to where we began on using the principle of “backward design” as we make plans for what we teach students in our classes in the years ahead. How do we prepare students for careers and a world of work that will, in many ways, be something that we can hardly imagine let alone predict? Clearly, the answer to that question is not a simple one! However, I think three elements of this complex puzzle are the following:

First, make the study of emerging developments in the world of technology a required part of the curriculum for those in teacher preparation programs. Similar information should be made available to parents so they can better understand the world that their children will be facing when they leave school. Second, students must be better prepared to emotionally and psychologically deal with the speed with which their world will change, the uncertainties and even chaos that may result from the instabilities caused by being displaced by a piece of technology. Finally, make sure that the law for fastening seat belts remains intact…the ride ahead will require them!