Automation and Education – a comic strip essay

My curriculum map ended the year with a survival unit, and took it very literally: essays and texts about urgent, life and death situations. Good stuff, actually.

But I wanted to make the survival unit part of my year-long unit on the purpose of education (which I’ll be writing more about later). Students often complain that what we are teaching them is of no practical survival value in the real world. I wanted us to investigate this idea.

I also wanted to address the idea of real-world survival skills: both what it takes to survive in the harshest of circumstances, and survival in the society our students will likely find themselves in. My search for additional essays to read led me in two different directions. One direction led to the past, to an essay about how out of touch we are with surviving in the wild: “Professor Caveman” from The Atlantic Monthly. It led to some interesting discussions…

The other direction we explored was survival in the not-to-distant future, where 47% of our current jobs could potentially be automated. The essay we read was “Automation and Anxiety” from The Economist.

The essay, and the resulting discussions, lead us to realize that the current trends in education are maybe a bit misguided. What follows are the comic strips I drew in the wake of this unit, and while not every strip happened as written, they all address issues we discussed in class.

I am not making this up. We are literally training students to write like robots. We need to teach them to write like human beings. Robots can’t do that.

This point really struck home for me, and for my students, as we considered the Common Core’s obsession (well, David Coleman’s obsession, really) with “Nobody cares what you feel.” And there was near universal agreement that schools generally kill creativity – in teachers and students. Yet those two areas, emotions and creativity, cannot be automated. We are doing the opposite of what will make students employable.

Some people challenged me on this strip. I’m not saying all vocational training is bad. I’m saying we need to carefully consider which careers we train for. Many careers will be going extinct – and soon. And even where vocational training is valid, education should be more than job training. Read this excellent essay, “Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers” to see why.

This idea, that the most important thing to learn is how to learn, should be obvious. But apparently it’s not. And we are killing curiosity and motivation to learn in our culture of high stakes testing, skill and drill, and boredom. But I’ve only been saying that for 17 years.

This strip ended my series about automation and education. I am proud to say that it is based on a real event from my second period class on the last day of the unit. It’s one of the best compliments I could get as a teacher.

I’m not a robot.