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Sam Chaltain: The Singularity is Coming. What Should Schools Be Doing About It?

Whenever I want to get a feel for the national mood, I look to Hollywood – and the films it thinks we’ll pay to see. In the post-911 malaise, there was the dystopian world of The Dark Knight. In the era of extended male adolescence, there’s just about anything from Judd Apatow. And now, in the shadow of the Technological Singularity, there are a slew of movies about humankind’s desire to transcend the biological limits of body and brain.

What’s the Singularity, you say? That’s the moment when the whole game board changes – the moment when artificial intelligence purportedly pulls even with, and then rapidly exceeds (or merges with) human intelligence. Hollywood’s best effort to portray it thus far is Spike Jonze’s Her, the unsettling story of a man who falls in love with his operating system, which also happens to be the first artificially intelligent OS (think Siri with a personality, and a conscience, and Scarlett Johansson’s voice). But there are others: Lucy, the film about a woman (curiously, also Scarlett Johansson) who begins to use 100% of her brain’s capacity; Transcendence, in which Johnny Depp plays a dying scientist who gives the Grim Reaper the slip by uploading his mind to the mainframe; and then, starting October 10, there’s Automata, a story about the moment man-made robots acquire a consciousness separate from their creators.

Not coincidentally, that film is set in 2044 – the year most tekkies predict the Singularity will occur. If this sounds too far-fetched for you to take seriously, consider that the person most associated with the theory, Ray Kurzweil, is not some crackpot scribbling manifestos from a cabin in Montana, but the Director of Engineering at Google – a company that has been buying up all of the most advanced robotics companies in the world over the past several months. And if that isn’t enough to get your attention, consider that the people who will be charged with making sense of this brave new world – young adults like Joaquin Phoenix’s character in Her – are not some abstract future version of humanity: they’re today’s Kindergartners.

Knowing just how much the world of tomorrow will differ for the kids of today, it’s curious that so many of our most passionate contemporary debates about school reform – from high-stakes testing to the achievement gap to the growing controversy around the Common Core – are about content knowledge. This fixation is a remnant of our Industrial-era model of schooling, in which the undisputed objective was to cram as much information as possible into the minds of schoolchildren.

By 2044, however – actually, a lot sooner than that – people will have near-instant access to the totality of human wisdom. What, then, should the schools of the future be designed to do? And how will they help today’s five-year-old navigate a world of unprecedented technological, ecological and ontological promise and peril?

There are a lot of possible answers, but here’s one that seems simple enough: start focusing less on what we want kids to know, and more on who we want them to become. And the good news is that lots of communities are already doing this – not by designing futuristic curricula or teaching kids how to build a better robot, but by recognizing that content is merely the means by which we reach a new endgoal, which is a set of skills and dispositions that can guide young people through life, and equip them to solve problems we can’t even conceive of.

At the Mission Hill School in Boston, educators have decided four characteristics matter more than anything else: forethought, perseverance, production, and reflection. At the MC2 School in New Hampshire, there are eighteen habits to work towards, from critical thinking to self-direction. At the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, it’s just five – inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection; and at Indianapolis’s Spring Mill Elementary, it’s a set of twelve that includes traits like empathy, integrity, andcooperation. I could go on.

What these schools demonstrate is that every school doesn’t need to aspire to a single, universal set of skills and dispositions; just that that every school needs to decide for itself, of all the characteristics the ideal graduate of our school could embody, which ones must they embody – and how will we know if we’ve been successful?

The latest research about how people learn affirms the value of this priority shift. As Paul Tough writes in How Children Succeed, “what matters most in a child’s development is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years. What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence.” Cal State University’s Arthur Costa makes a similar point in Learning & Leading with Habits of Mind: “We are interested in enhancing the ways students produce knowledge rather than how they merely reproduce it,” he writes. “The critical attribute of intelligent human beings is not only having information, but also knowing how to act on it.”

That’s right. And that’s the sort of mindset I’d like my five-year-old son to have at his disposal, whether he’s navigating his way through middle school, or making sense of a not-too-distant future we are only beginning to imagine – with Hollywood’s help.

(This article originally appeared in the Washington Post.)

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Sam Chaltain

Sam Chaltain is a DC-based writer and education activist. He works with schools, school districts, and public and private sector companies to help them create hea...