Education in the 21st Century


A baby born today will be thirty-something in the year 2050, nobody knows how the world will look in 2050. What should we teach that baby to help him or her flourish in the future?

A thousand years ago, there were many things unknown about the future but the basic features of human society wouldn’t change dramatically in a lifetime. In England most people were working on the land as serfs or villeins, only a small number of people could read, parents taught their children how to work the land, and wealthier parents taught their boys to  read or fight on horseback and taught their girls to be modest and obedient housewives. They were taught skills that would be needed in the near future.

The pace of change is ever increasing. Much of what kids learn today will likely be irrelevant by 2050. Too many schools focus on cramming information. This made sense in the past when information was scarce, and heavily censored,  but now we have a wealth of information at our fingertips. We are flooded with too much information, some agencies keep us busy by spreading misinformation and distracting irrelevancies.

Many pedagogues argue that what we should be teaching in schools are the four Cs:

  • Critical Thinking
  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Creative Thinking

In many schools the current methodology comes from the industrial revolution, a production line theory of education, where a group of children born in the same year are taught in groups of around 30 by a succession of adult teachers of various academic subjects.

I have been teaching English as a foreign language since 1994, sometimes in schools, sometimes with adults, sometimes with children. I have colleagues who use the new technologies for teaching students in China and other countries via Skype or other video chat applications. There are many apps useful in language learning like Duolingo and Memrise.

Language translation apps are getting better and better, it may be that in 10 years time we don’t need to teach or learn foreign languages, as we might all be using our smartphone or some new gadget, which will automatically translate our native language to the language of our choice.

This is me teaching in a traditional classroom in Opiza School, Tbilisi

Harari (“21 Lessons for the 21st Century” by Yuval Noah Harari) tells us the only constant in education is change and that the most important life skill will be the ability to “deal with change, to learn new things, and to preserve your mental balance.”

We may soon have computer implants to improve our knowledge, prospective parents might be able to request intelligence genes spliced into the DNA of their future offspring.

Through the centuries human life was divided into two parts: a period of learning followed by a period of working. Accelerating change plus longer lifespans will make this traditional model obsolete. Change is stressful, and after a certain age most people just don’t like to change. But if we don’t change we risk becoming  clueless fossils.

The adult brain is more flexible and volatile than was once thought, but it is still less malleable than the teenage brain. Reconnecting the neurons and synapses is a struggle, believe me, I am struggling to learn the Georgian language and it is proving far more difficult than the French I learnt in my teens and twenties.

As strangeness becomes the new normal past experience will become a less reliable guide. To survive and flourish in the new world, you will need a lot of mental flexibility and great reserves of emotional balance. Resilience can’t be learned from reading a book or listening to a lecture.

Technology isn’t bad. If you know what you want in life, technology can help you get it. The philosophers like Socrates and Laozi told us we must know ourselves. We have competition, the algorithms are watching us right now. They are relying on Big Data and machine learning to know us better and better. They watch what we buy and who we interact with, and feed us with suggestions of what we might like to buy in the future.

There are new schools like AltSchool in California, which takes a more personalised approach to learning, (here is a clip about their method: alt school) where each child is seen as an individual and has a playlist each day of what they can work on, the child has input into what is on the playlist and the order in which they tackle the tasks. The cost of this is initially very expensive but comes down with time and better technology.

Higher education is also expensive, the cost of university has risen by 1200% since 1978, a rate higher than any other service industry. Higher education is a massive industry reluctant to change. In 2015 the accountancy firm Ernst and Young dropped the degree requirement for its hiring programme, stating they had found “no evidence that success at university was correlated with achievement in professional qualifications.”

Here is a link to a TED talk about higher education on YouTube: The future of education is not what it used to be by Jack Delosa

Education is tremendously important but we need to take more responsibility for what we learn. So we can grow into the people we can become and contribute to the world and its many challenges in the future.

I would appreciate any feedback as education is a subject close to my heart.


Work in the 21st Century

Employment is at a record high in the UK, the number of people in work in the UK has reached 32.54 million.

employment uk

In America, too, unemployment is at a record low. However, the position of many in employment is rather precarious with the gig economy, zero hours contracts and the lack of union representation. For those in school there is a strong possibility they might not have a job when they grow up. We have no idea what the job market will look like in 2040. Some believe within a mere decade or two, billions of people will become economically redundant. The threat is not immigration, the fear of which has been stoked by many in the media but automation. Humans have two types of ability:  the physical and the cognitive. Machines have taken over many of the jobs requiring physical labour like in agriculture, until now humans have retained an edge over  machines in cognition but that is changing. The much vaunted “human intuition” is in reality “pattern recognition”, computers analysing masses of data are becoming better and better at analysing patterns. The stock market is largely controlled by computer algorithms, which respond much quicker to market fluctuations than human stockbrokers.

CGP Grey put out an interesting 15 minute video in 2014 entitled “Humans Need Not Apply” showing how vast swathes of human jobs from drivers to doctors to musicians were potentially threatened by the growth of AI (Artificial Intelligence).  Humans need not apply link

Harari argues the threat to human jobs comes not merely from infotech but from the “confluence of biotech with infotech”. Two particularly important non-human abilities that AI possesses are connectivity and updateability. When a new medicine is introduced all AI doctors can be updated with the information at once. It would be almost impossible to update all human doctors about the latest medical developments.

work connectivity
from “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” by Yuval Noah Harari

AI could provide (by means of a phone app for example) better and cheaper healthcare for millions of people, particularly for those who currently receive no healthcare at all. Many doctors focus on analysing medical data and producing a diagnosis, this is ‘bot work. We will probably have an AI family doctor on our smartphone decades before we have a reliable nurse robot, nurses needing good emotional skills for their jobs. Indeed as people live longer, care for the elderly will probably be one of the fastest growing sectors in the economy.

Self driving cars are real, it is estimated that replacing all human drivers by computers is expected to reduce deaths and injuries on the road by about 90%. Most car accidents are caused by human error, computers don’t drive drunk or tired or send text messages while driving.

driving and texting a dangerous game
texting while driving

Jobs requiring specialisation in a narrow range of routinised activities will be automated.

Art and music is already being created and influenced by AI. I have a “Prisma” app on my phone which can turn any photo I take into a chosen artistic style using some clever AI.

Metro carriage renoir
A Tbilisi Metro Carriage given the Renoir touch with Prisma

An algorithm could know which biochemical buttons to press in order to produce a global hit which would get bodies onto the dancefloor.

AI will create new jobs: the US armed forces need thirty people to operate each unmanned Predator drone flying over Syria. In 2050 the job market might be characterised by human-AI co-operation rather than competition. During previous waves of automation, people could usually move from one unskilled job to another…from working in the fields to working in factories to stocking the shelves at Walmart. These changes required limited retraining but in the future humans in jobs will require much training and as Harari warns we may see the rise of a new “useless” class.

work useless class
from “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” by Yuval Noah Harari

AI passed a critical milestone on 7 December 2017, when Google’s AlphaZero program defeated the Stockfish 8 program at chess. Stockfish 8 was the champion chess program for 2016, Stockfish 8 had access to centuries of human chess playing and decades of human experience. AlphaZero learnt chess using the latest machine-learning principles to self learn chess, it played against itself millions of times to prepare for the match, millions of times in just four hours, going from zero to complete mastery in four hours without the help of any human guide. Out of a hundred games AlphaZero won 28 games, drew 72 and lost zero.

Change is stressful, the hectic world of the early 21st century has already produced a global epidemic of stress. We need to explore models for post-work societies. Harari suggests looking at Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities might give us some insights. They are poor and unemployed but Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men report higher levels of satisfaction than any other section of Israeli society. This is due to their strong community bonds and deep meaning they find in studying scriptures. If we manage to combine a universal economic safety net with strong communities and meaningful pursuits, losing our jobs to the algorithms might actually turn out to be a blessing.