‘Robots Are Coming For Your Children’

I recently read this article written by Audrey Watters on 

We Need to Rethink How We Educate Kids to Tackle the Jobs of the Future.” It’s a core refrain in “the innovation gospel,” one of those arguments that certain pundits and politicians really lean into. You hear it all the time, accompanied by a standard set of justifications about the pressing need to reform education: something about the “factory model of education; something about radical shifts in the job market in recent decades; something about technology changing faster than it’s ever changed before. And almost inevitably at some point, this statistic will get invoked: 65% of children entering primary school today will end up working in jobs that don’t exist yet.

All of these claims play pretty fast and loose with the facts – with the history of education, with the history of technology, and with the history of work. All of them. But the point of these sorts of stories is never historical accuracy (although certainly citing a number – “65%” – gives them all the air of science and truth).

What makes this narrative about the future resonate, I think, is that it taps into the fears many feel about the future, about their children’s future. This isn’t simply a matter of “robots are coming for your jobs.” They’re coming for your kids’ jobs.

The future for younger generations does seem particularly grim: “millennials” carry more student loan debt than their parents; they’re less likely to own a home; their employment rates have been slower to recover after the recession; they earn less money. Oh, and then there’s global climate change.

This narrative – robots are coming for your jobs (and your kids’ jobs) – involves tasking schools with retooling so they can better train students for “the jobs of the future,” although to a certain extent, workforce preparation has always been what (part of) the education system has been expected to do. A sense of urgency about financial precarity – now and in the future – might raise the stakes these days. Really, it’s no surprise that fears about an unsettled, uncertain economy are used to shift and control education’s mission, and it’s no surprise that parents go along with that.

‘All our nurses now have degrees…unfortunately nurse Pilbright’s is in the expressive arts!’

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the occupations that will add the most new jobs in the next decade are personal care aides (754,000 new jobs), food service workers (579,900 new jobs), registered nurses (437,000 new jobs), home health aides (425,600 new jobs), software developers (253,400 new jobs), and janitors and cleaners (233,000). The fastest growing occupations are solar photovoltaic installers (growing by 105%), wind turbine service technicians (growing by 96%), home health aides (growing by 47%), personal care aides (growing by 37%), and physicians assistants (growing by 37%). But just one of these occupations seems to dominate the storyline of how schools should prepare students for the “jobs of the future.” And it sure isn’t “everyone should learn nursing.”

One of the notable elements this year of both the “everyone should learn to code” narrative and the “we need to be training students for the jobs of the future” story was how young this is all supposed to start. “How to Prepare Preschoolers for an Automated Economy” read a New York Times headline in July. “A Toy for Toddlers Doubles as Code Bootcamp,” said another NYT piece, this one profiling a $225 programmable wooden block toy. “PBS Show Will Teach Preschoolers How To Think Like Computers,” Edsurge declared this summer. And then there was the President’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, who penned an op-ed in The New York Post in October explaining “Why we need to start teaching tech in Kindergarten.”

No time for play, kids. Get to work.

Robot Teachers

Which families will have a “robot butler” or “robot nanny”? Which students will have a “robot teacher”? The questions surrounding equity and algorithms should be paramount. But too often, there’s simply an assumption that more technology means “progress.” (And “technological progress” is so readily confused with “politically progressive.”) “‘Eton for all’,” NewStatesman wrote about robot teachers in October for example, suggesting that they would mean “everyone gets an elite education.”

Spoiler alert: they wouldn’t. The whole article here.

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