Millions of years back the only driver of change and adaptation was evolution or the gene. Then around 70,000 years back, Homo Sapiens evolved to speak a complex language, with which they could communicate abstract ideas. The advent of language and writing allowed us to codify, exchange and preserve knowledge efficiently. Prof David Christian, the creator of Big History course, calls this ‘collective learning’ and it implied that we humans no longer had to rely on snail-paced ‘genes’ for change, instead ‘memes’ (ideas) became a potent tool for surviving and thriving on the planet.
By using this collective knowledge we humans learnt to augment our muscle power. First, we invented stone and metal tools, then we domesticated animals, after that we harnessed steam, followed by electricity, and made machines do all our heavy lifting. Towards the end of the last century, we started augmenting our mental prowess too, by inventing computers or intelligent machines.
The next giant leap in this trajectory is Artificial Intelligence. As Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, explains: if you learn some technique to improve your driving only your driving improves (and even if you share this knowledge on the internet, only a few other humans will learn it). However, when an autonomous vehicle (driverless car) learns a new manoeuvre that makes driving safer, this knowledge can be instantly transmitted to all autonomous vehicles.
From genes to memes, we are now taking the next leap, to technology-based knowledge acquisition and instant dissemination (temes?) – where the machine learns by itself (called deep learning) and can update that knowledge instantly to all other machines. You can extrapolate the autonomous vehicle example to all other areas where AI is augmenting or replacing humans, be it medicine or creative expression, and contemplate the social and economic consequences this will have.
The key question for us humans now is: what knowledge, skills, and dispositions learnt today, will help students flourish in such a future?
To put the problem in perspective, in India alone, it is estimated that for the next decade, every month, about a million young people will turn 18. They will all look for a job (or entrepreneurship opportunities). Whether they succeed will depend on whether they are in competition with the intelligent machines, or has the right education prepared them to make artificial intelligence their friend?
In the 1960s, economist Milton Friedman was at a worksite where a canal was being constructed. He observed that the workers were using shovels instead of bulldozers. He enquired why machines were not being used? A government bureaucrat explained that it was a ‘jobs’ programme and the objective was to employ more labour. Friedman has said to have quipped – ‘so why don’t you give them spoons instead!’
Policy makers today seem to be keen on taking a similar Ostrich like approach, ignoring the fundamental issues and instead making an argument for low-skills jobs with minimum wage. While for those at the very bottom-of-the-pyramid some such government scheme is and will continue to be necessary, our education policy should take cognisance of the looming paradigmatic shift in the nature of the economy and focus on imparting an education that ensures meaningful employability or entrepreneurship for all; an education that equips students of all hues to be able to live a healthy and joyful life.
My own journey in imparting life skills essential for thriving in the 21st century has been a fascinating one. Four years back, when I first started conducting workshops on 21st-century life skills, I used to take a very direct approach. I would explain dispositions of a good learner, self-directed learning skills, learning to think, learning to be and other life skills with the help of examples, stories, and discussions.
With experimentation, I found that a learning activity or project-based approach worked much better and I started conducting field trips and doing projects like making newspapers where students first formulated insightful questions, then went on a quest to find answers and used these inputs to write articles and create a newspaper. I would also explain ways to make learning fun, like using stop-motion animation to demonstrate the understanding of a topic.
Lately, I have added another dimension to my learn design. The projects and tinkering activities students do are around cutting-edge themes like electronics, sensors, robotics, 3D and virtual reality. Life skills like curiosity, imagination, abstraction, critical thinking, observation, formulating insightful questions, creativity and problem-solving are embedded in the learning activities and projects. I have done so because these technology oriented themes, I believe, better equip students to be future ready by getting them familiar and comfortable with trends that will dominate their lives.
Besides these science and technology themes, to help students learn different modes of thinking and thus enrich their perspective, I am also working on projects ideas like thinking like a historian and other liberal arts projects. Later I plan to focus on themes like entrepreneurship which will help students learn how to create ‘value’ and unlock the commercial potential of their knowledge and skills. Initiative and leadership is another theme I would like to include in my repertoire.
Most important, for the Learning to Be life skill, that helps students become deeply aware of their own self (physiology, psychology and energy), I am imagining projects and activities that lead to the creation of an Operating Manual of Me!
I believe, Learning to Learn, Learning to Think and Learning to Be, are the RGB of life skills. Like the three primary colours red, green and blue can be mixed to create any colour, these three skills, once mastered, can be used to cultivate any desired disposition, learn any life-worthy knowledge, and hone any timeless lifeskill.