But Who Will Design The Robots?


In one of his always interesting “Disruptions” column in the New York Times, Nick Bilton held forth on how robots are replacing workers at Amazon and elsewhere. These robots, a researcher at Johns Hopkins told Bilton, “will help augment people’s abilities, allowing us to use robots for things humans cannot do.” And, the Hopkins guy adds, we will always “have to have someone who builds the robots.”

Columnist Bilton is upset for the workers who will lose their jobs, but his column is also a wake-up call. I read it as an implicit critique of a narrow curriculum that puts aside just about anything that encourages the imagination in favor of ‘the basics,’ meaning basic reading and basic math.

Stressing the basics is no way to make sure that we will produce people to design, build and operate robots, or create the future in other ways. We need schools that encourage the imagination, that allow and support deep learning, and that fan the sparks of creativity — not stomp out the fires.

In the East Bay, new approaches to education are taking shape.

However, a narrow and unimaginative curriculum is not a new phenomenon. Just as armies are supposedly spending their time getting ready to fight the last war, many schools and colleges seem to focus on preparing young people for the day before yesterday — and have been doing so for a long time.

I have some direct experience in this. In the late 1960s, I taught for two years at a historically Black public college, Virginia State, in Petersburg, Virginia. For a privileged young white man from New England, it was a life-changing experience.

One sociological lesson stuck with me. The college stressed vocational training for its students, most of whom were the first in their families to attend college. While some studied to become chefs and barbers, a very popular major involved computers, which at the time were still pretty new. These students were being trained to be key-punch operators! (Ask your parents!!) It didn’t take a wizard to know that, in a very short time, absolutely no one would be able to make a living as a key-punch operator, but that didn’t slow down the training program. Disrupting that assembly line would have required more than foresight; it would have meant sticking one’s neck out and challenging the comfortable status quo –remember, this was Southside Virginia, not a safe place for African-Americans to challenge the system. Easier and safer to prepare students for yesterday than to make waves and risk one’s own career.

I’ve often wondered what happened to those young men and women. I hope they found other work, and other opportunities to learn new skills.

What about today? Not only are we not challenging the status quo of ‘basic education,’ we seem to be cutting to the bone and getting rid of ‘frills’ like the arts. While I am hearing and reading stories about larger classes and fewer ‘non-essential’ programs in lots of places, Texas seems to be leading the way in cutting education (big surprise).

But, wake up, folks. The arts are basic, as this report from Florida demonstrates. Some of you may have seen our piece for the NewsHour on this topic:

So what do we do about a narrow, boring curriculum and the failing schools that generally seem to accompany that approach? It takes courage to challenge the runaway train of the current approach. As the metaphor suggests, standing in front of a train is not a recipe for a long life. The money and the power are with the status quo.

Some corporations are getting involved, although maybe not as a direct challenge. If you watched the Masters Golf tournament, you saw ExxonMobil commercials about improving America’s competitive position in math and science. That company’s foundation has spent millions on math and science education. (I also liked that many of the ads said ‘Support our Teachers,’ a too-rare message these days.)

Better news comes from San Francisco. Some high tech entrepreneurs there are resisting school-as-usual and getting their hands dirty trying to change things. Right now they seem to be involved because they have children of their own, but let’s hope they are intent on helping other people’s children as well. Let’s hope these interesting approaches to schooling become models, not just boutique luxury items for the privileged.

Cursing the darkness never did anybody any good. Let’s celebrate — and copy — those who are lighting candles to show us the way.

5 thoughts on “But Who Will Design The Robots?

  1. We’re not so far away from the 9/11 Commission Report that we should already be forgetting that a major weakness that allowed that disaster to occur was a “failure of imagination,” John, but as you rightly point out … we have.

    I heard Diane Ravitch speak yesterday, and she made the point that the US has been worried about “the crisis in public schools” for decades. And still, here we are, leading the global economy. So I ran home and launched Google’s book-search engine (a smart robot!), and found this gem, that I think relates to what you’re written:

    “The popular attack upon the enriched modern curriculum usually begins with stigmatizing all the new subjects and methods by applying to them collectively some such epithet as ‘fads,’ a term especially chosen that that the argument may start with a prejudice in its favor. The cost of each ‘fad,’ such as drawing (Heaven save the mark!), signing, or the study of nature, is then carefully figured out, and the public is invited to contemplate the frightful waste of good money upon ornamental work. ” (The Dial, March 16, 1896, “A Crisis in Public Education”)

    There will always be people drawn to creativity, who find their way to become the designers of robots. But how many more *could* there be, with the right encouragement? For the individual child who doesn’t receive the education that sparks imagination, it can be a crisis, sure; but for society as a whole, it’s a lost opportunity. We’ll never see the genius that *could* have come from that child, with the proper encouragement.


    • It’s wonderful. I hope millions will watch it. But what did his teacher think? Was she/he curious? That’s the part of the story that is missing..


  2. Forget what the standardized test results show; in most cases, they don’t really test what’s important anyhow. I truly believe there are better approaches to effective learning AND with an environment that encourages creativity as well as the intrinsic motivation so important to the effective learning. For example, an approach to the core knowledge associated with the standards might be the flipped classroom pedagogy, with the reinforcement via PBL approaches to multidisciplinary driving questions. This combination or others will provide the truly effective learning that also stimulates creativity – and in turn provide exciting and interesting experience that will pay dividends for career success and the lifelong learning also key to that success.


  3. Was thinking about what I enjoyed in school as a youngster in the early 60s. What really got me hooked was Blue Birds and Camp Fire Girls. I learned how to pitch a tent, cook food over an open flame, dig a toilet pit out in the woods – dirty, fun stuff. We also did community service projects with my group – everything from making valentines for the elderly and visiting care facilities to volunteering for a week at the local zoo.

    When both parents work, there are fewer volunteers available to provide creative, after school guidance for additional inspiration that helps form children’s attitudes about the future and their place in the community.

    I volunteer because I was a Camp Fire Girl (corny as it sounds). I learned to seek beauty, give service, pursue knowledge, be healthy and appreciate hard work – lessons that are not taught during class time nor are they usually available in most school site after school programs. It was also an escape from a troubled home and I learned that not all fathers drank until they had screaming fits and threw things at their loved ones.

    Seeing another way of life, other opportunities, other places to go and experience the great outdoors (not just read about it) by camping with our group and at summer day and sleep-over camps. Kids learn about life by experiencing life.


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