Home > Uncategorized > From Pre-K to Career Preparation Courses the Message is the Same: Ignore Easy to Test Skills

From Pre-K to Career Preparation Courses the Message is the Same: Ignore Easy to Test Skills

July 31, 2017

With the past week I’ve read two articles that I find heartening. How to Prepare Preschoolers for an Automated Economy”  from today’s NYTimes by Claire Cain Miller and Jess Bidgood and The Key to Jobs in the Future is not College but Compassion from an Aoen post earlier this week written by Livia Gershon both make the same point. Schools overemphasize the skills required for college entry and the use of technology and overlook the most important skills required for the economy today and in the foreseeable future: empathy, collaboration, problem-solving, compassion and caring.

Both articles look at how schooling needds to change given the automation resulting from technological advances. The NYTimes article talks about the earliest years of schooling in that context:

Technological advances have rendered an increasing number of jobs obsolete in the last decade, and researchers say parts of most jobs will eventually be automated. What the labor market will look like when today’s young children are old enough to work is perhaps harder to predict than at any time in recent history. Jobs are likely to be very different, but we don’t know which will still exist, which will be done by machines and which new ones will be created.

To prepare, children need to start as early as preschool, educators say. Foundational skills that affect whether people thrive or fall behind in the modern economy are developed early, and achievement gaps appear before kindergarten.

But the article then emphasizes that teaching “foundational skills” must go beyond those currently offered in the curriculum of most public schools which are dictated by the standardized tests administered beginning in third grade.

Teaching social and emotional skills is fashionable in education right now, but it’s been part of high-quality teaching for decades, and randomized trials over time have shown how important it is to adult success, said Stephanie M. Jones, a professor of education at Harvard who studies social and emotional development.

If you raise and educate kids to be flexible, problem solvers and good communicators, they can adapt to a world that is new,” she said.

This is natural to the way preschoolers learn, said David Deming, a professor of public policy, economics and economics at Harvard. They flexibly move from the art area to the block area during free play; they build structures and make collages; and they share toys and try again when they mess up.

A big challenge — and one he said is essential to preparing children for a labor market in which routine and individualized tasks are being automated — is making sure this style of education is not lost in higher grades, when teachers turn to lecturing and standardized curriculums. Just as preschoolers learn math by operating a pretend store instead of doing work sheets, he suggests high schoolers learn government by staging a mock Congress rather than reading a textbook.

“You’re learning to work in groups and be creative, and that this problem you’re facing today looks like a problem you faced in a different context a year ago,” he said. “That is a process that is very hard for artificial intelligence to replicate.”

Ms. Gershon’s Aoen essay drills more deeply into the flaws of our current economy that undervalues care-giving professions which, in turn, works against the strengths of those raised in the working class and the strengths of females:

It is becoming clear to researchers that working-class people tend to have sharper emotional skills than their wealthier, more educated counterparts. In 2016, the psychologists Pia Dietze and Eric Knowles from New York University found that people from higher social classes spent less time looking at people they passed on the street than did less privileged test subjects. In an online experiment, higher-class subjects were also worse at noticing small changes in images of human faces…

It can be hard to wrap our minds around the notion that emotional work really is work. With the very toughest, very worst-paid jobs, like working with the dying and incontinent, that might be because those of us who don’t have to do the work would rather not think about how crucial and difficult it really is. In other settings, often we simply don’t have the professional language to talk about the emotional work we’re doing. Smiling and nodding at a client’s long, rambling story might be the key to signing that big contract, but resumes don’t include a bullet point for ‘tolerates inconsiderate bores’. A lot of the time, emotional labour doesn’t feel like labour. It’s also not hard to see that highly educated, mostly male, people who develop and analyse economic policy have blind spots when it comes to skills concentrated among working-class women.

In effect, Gershon is arguing that our current economy has set a vicious circle in place whereby the very skills needed in an automated world are undervalued making those jobs less attractive. And this vicious circle will be hard to break since so many jobs depend on the implicit belief that more education is required for success, which may not be the case at all:

Another problem is that the question of how to help low-wage care workers make more money is invariably answered by: ‘give them a better education’. Policy designers talk a lot about ‘professionalising’ direct-care work, advancing proposals for things such as ‘advanced training’ on diabetes or dementia care. Recently, Washington, DC decided to require childcare workers to have a bachelor’s degree – a move one school-district official said would ‘build the profession and set our young children on a positive trajectory for learning and development’. Granted, anyone working with older people with disabilities, or with small children, might benefit from studying research on the particular needs of these groups; and widely accessible college education is a good idea for reasons that go far beyond vocational training. But assuming that more time in the classroom is key to making ‘better’ workers fundamentally disrespects the profound, completely non-academic skills needed to calm a terrified child or maintain composure around a woman playing with her own faeces.

The US economists W Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson call the belief in more schooling as the solution to every labour problem the ‘education gospel’. As Grubb argued in a 2005 talk, having more education tends to help individuals find better work, but that doesn’t make schooling a good overall economic strategy. In fact, he said, 30 to 40 per cent of workers in developed countries already have more education than their jobs demand.

And here’s an irony: the “solution” to the need for the future workforce to have more empathy is… you guessed it… more education programming! Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is spreading across schooling at all levels. But after describing the expansion of SEL programs, Ms. Gershon concludes that their spread may be limited by our standardized testing ethos:

SEL programmes in the US explicitly teach students strategies for developing empathy, managing their own emotions and working with others. Kids practise using affirming language with each other, they collaboratively design rules to govern the classroom, or use mindfulness to improve their understanding of their own mental processes. Researchers are finding that such programmes help students to adopt more positive attitudes and behave in more socially appropriate ways. Many school districts have already adopted SEL programmes, and last year, eight US states announced a collaboration to develop statewide SEL standards.

But the conversation around SEL puts a glaring spotlight on the limited value we place on emotional skills. Often, the programmes are marketed only as ways to reduce violence, not methods for developing crucial human abilities. And in academic environments where testing pressures and back-to-basics rhetoric often crowd out ‘softer’ subjects, they might appeal only insofar as they encourage kids to ‘get themselves under control’ and sit still for a long-division lesson.

Her concluding paragraph captures an overarching conundrum of “progress”:

Technology-driven efficiency has achieved wonderful things. It has brought people in developed countries an astonishingly rich standard of living, and freed most of us from the work of growing the food we eat or making the products we use. But applying the metric of efficiency to the expanding field of emotional labour misses a key promise offered by technological progress – that, with routine physical and cognitive work out of the way, the jobs of the future could be opportunities for people to genuinely care for each other.

At some point, efficiency is no longer a “good”, it is a problem… and when we apply efficiency metrics to immeasurable qualities we can end up with superficial changes,  a veneer of empathy and not the genuiine caring for each other needed to move forward as a civil culture.

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