As part of the professional development in my current school, they gave us a book for us to discuss. This book that was chosen for us was Education Forward: Moving Schools into the Future, edited by David Price. This book is a collection of essays by “a group of distinctive voices” who are “UK citizens who have been involved in education for a long time.” This group doesn’t “claim to represent everyone,” but they “include authors, former government ministers, classroom teachers, parents, entrepreneurs, CEOs, school governors, university professors, and school leaders.”

Considering the number of essays in this book (16), it’s probably worth it to note that most of those categories of people who were supposedly involved in the book’s essays are singular instead of plural. It’s also worth pointing out that only four people have any formal inclusion in education as teachers, university professors, or school leadership and that one of those people has two essays (and that two of those people wrote one essay).

So, really, it’s a book by people who don’t have experience in the world of education and don’t really know what schools are. It’s also a book by people who view children as resources and workers, not as people.


Premises

This book likes to pretend that it has a lot of different goals and topics to discuss, but it doesn’t. It starts off claiming that we are “implementing ‘strict discipline procedures’” but then complaining about how we won’t let children have gum in the classroom (because many students put it under desks and chairs, and that’s kind of unhygienic) or how we won’t let them use their phones as calculators (but forgets to consider either distraction or cheating).

But ignoring the silly complaints about so-called strict discipline (while they ignore genuine examples of over-the-top discipline, particularly against children of colour), their main premises seem to be:

  1. We need to be training children for the workforce, and we need to make sure that they are capable of working with an “always innovating world.”
  2. We are not preparing our children for the workforce properly, and many companies do not like their “lack of skills.”
  3. We need to figure out what the purpose of education is because no one seems to know anymore.
  4. We are going to be dominated by automation and artificial intelligence (AI).
  5. Education policy is “too ideological.”

Some combination of these five were a common theme, with very few of the writers even making an attempt to address genuine issues that we have within education due to systemic inequality (such as how we don’t fund poor schools, which unequally affects people of colour, residents in rural communities, and lower class families); they don’t even discuss exclusion rates have risen in some schools in the UK, which have recently come under fire due to leaked documents about extending them and using “reasonable force.”

I don’t expect them to address things that have happened in the past month, but these are not new concepts. We’ve seen a recent discussion about ridding the UK of private schools, but this is also not a new discussion. This is the kind of conversation that has largely been happening in leftist communities, in spaces where people want to see something other than capitalism.

Nor is it one that they even bother discussing as we “move our schools into the future.” There is the pure assumption that we will always be capitalist, as they perpetuate the myth that we’ve always been capitalist.


A Fear of Automation and AI

Most of the authors in this book seem to have a fear of automation and artificial intelligence, and exactly zero of them seem to want to determine a new economic system that would benefit all people. To be honest, I thought I was reading a book that was co-authored by Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and Andrew Yang (who literally feels like a Reddit shitposter on a debate stage).

Oh, and Yang Gang, you can keep your arguments to yourselves; his specific plan for UBI is actually harmful to the very people it’s supposed to help by dismantling the social safety networks it seeks to replace (for less) while funding it using a VAT that is highly likely to impact the end-consumer. That isn’t the point here, though.

These fears are, honestly, a little absurd to most people. There is a reason to be concerned that people do lose jobs to machines, but it’s strange to talk about it as if we’re living inside a dystopian science fiction novel.

First, when we discuss the jobs that where people are being ‘replaced’ by machines, it is actually wise to realise there is “significant variation across geography and demographics.” The demographics of people who are most likely to see job losses are men, the young, and racial minorities (particularly Black people, Native Americans, and Latin Americans). These are traditionally jobs that are more repetitive in nature. But that’s also not the whole story.

Fast food is probably a good example here, and I’m really not sure people are looking at going to university to become a server at some fast food franchise. These are jobs where we’ve seen tasks automated away; I honestly prefer using the kiosk to order food when I do go to these places (which is not very often).

In response to the increase of minimum wages in the United States, CEOs of franchises like Jack in the Box are happy to say that it “only makes sense” because they obviously won’t be able to afford to let their employees survive. Except, as these places increase the amount of technology they use (kiosks, apps), it seems they start hiring more people (particularly in high-traffic locations) in order to meet the increasing demands of the customer. Employees of these stores also now state that they feel they have an increased workload due to the ‘increased convenience’ their employers offer to customers.

This isn’t to say that automation hasn’t decreased jobs, but it has also changed them. If we continue the example of fast food workers, they are less likely to be cashiers because the kiosks handle the simple things such as taking orders and receiving payments (via debit or credit cards). It now means that cashiers are relocated to other positions: cooking, cleaning, customer service, and problem solving.

When companies decide to decrease workforce due to automation, it is largely because they have made a decision that it isn’t worth it to them to retrain their staff for other positions or have decided to relocate their operations to avoid new standards (cost of operation due to worker safety precautions, minimum wage increases, fear of unions, and so on). We saw this with manufacturing jobs after NAFTA was signed, and we’ve seen this with telecommunication services.

The authors of these essays, at least those who focused on “preparing students for jobs of the future,” have failed to recognise that many of the jobs we lost were not because of automation. Detroit did not lose most of the automotive industry to automation; they lost it to greedy capitalists who saw a way to keep more money through aspects of globalisation.

Oh, and the other thing that gets me with this fear of robotics and AI? They all seem to neglect discussing how these things, once again, continue to perpetuate systemic inequalities as they currently function and that many of them are proprietary software (so it’s hard to know how they actually work).


Jobs of the Future

At no point do they define what these jobs are, making their premise to determine the purpose of education a bit pointless. If teachers are to prepare students for these jobs, shouldn’t we know what they are? Or, lacking that, shouldn’t we at least know what they look like or in which industry they’ll appear?

The sad fact is that we don’t really know because there are far too many factors: current politics of the nation a person resides in, whether or not we act to solve problems (such as climate change), if we finally make an effort to shift economic systems, etc.

Googling the term ‘jobs of the future’, most of them seem to be environment-related. There are also a host of articles that claim these jobs will be “almost alien” to what we know now; CNET reported on a study (that involved Ford in Australia) which claimed that these jobs are “strange and terrifying” and that they “don’t even exist yet.”

So what am I, as a teacher, supposed to be preparing my student for? (For the record, I think I should be preparing my students through encouraging skills of critical thinking, communication and empathy, problem-solving, and creativity. Most of these skills are found in departments that generally receive either the least amount of or reduced funding.)

But there was one specific quote that really grated my nerves, and I still haven’t been able to shake it. In the essay “What Is It For,” Valerie Hannon states:

As economic turbulence and restructuring proceed apace, learning to earn a living through ‘the start-up of you’ must gain centre stage. In our increasingly longer lives, we must learn to expect and embrace change of job, career, field, skill-set — not once but regularly. And as economies will increasingly depend upon entrepreneurship and creativity, so too will individuals, both for material wellbeing and their own satisfaction.

I find it both alarming and disheartening that, as this suggests, we must prepare children for instability and constant changes. It’s also ludicrous to think that these constant changes and a push toward what seems to mimic the gig economy or the Patreon-reliance of entrepreneurship will bring satisfaction. (People using Patreon in order to earn a living  are probably happy doing what they do, but I’m sure they’d probably be happier to know they could have a stable income, access to healthcare, and be able to survive without fear.)

Also, as a person who is part of the ‘precariat’ of international school teachers, it is not beneficial to constantly move in order to secure work. It is not beneficial to us socially, mentally, emotionally, or physically. In fact, it is really stressful to exist in a life of instability. Not only that, it is exhausting having to change jobs in that kind of extreme.

But I also remember when I was living a relatively ‘settled’ life in the United States and, for a variety of reasons (business closures, layoffs, and harassment), I had to switch between jobs and sometimes didn’t know if I’d find another one. I remember how hard it was to get a job after graduating from university right into 2008’s Global Financial Crisis.

I do not want any of that for anyone else.


Innovations…?

Reminding me! Apparently, these authors think that we’ve been innovating quite a lot recently. Innovations in different areas of technology seem to have stalled for most people and most industries — other than size or speed and maybe battery life (though planned obsolescence continues to be an issue) — in the way that we did from the mid-1990s to the early 2010s.

I remember, as a student at every level through university, that technologies were changing incredibly frequently. Computers were shifting from heavy boxes to laptops, brick mobiles suddenly became flip phones which then became smartphones, movies started taking up less and less space, and music was suddenly available as digital files instead of cassette tapes. Oh, and video games! The consoles and ways to obtain games have changed so much, following similar patterns to music and movies. Ah, and ebooks, too!

Whether or not this is a good thing, I’m not going to argue that point. (Overwhelmingly, from a historical and cultural point of view, I think things that are purely trapped in digital formats can be highly problematic and much easier to lose.)

But the past ten years have not really seen the global innovation of technologies in the same way. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I think this view that we’re constantly innovating has stifled a lot of our creativity.

It certainly has stifled our ability to understand how to use technology and consequences of using technologies. The international stage is full of problems with technology:

  • Concerns about interference in the elections of other nations;
  • Creation and consumption of ‘fake news’, which is being distributed on websites like Facebook;
  • Massive privacy concerns and constant breaches of information, as companies are skimping on security;
  • Employers using social media posts against employees (particularly to target employees of marginalised groups);
  • Invasive employers who expect employees to work when at home, reading emails and responding to messages;
  • Bullying and targeted harassment (particularly of people who are part of marginalised groups).

Right now, what we need to be doing is discussing how to responsibly use technology and encourage the idea that it is okay to take a break when you’re at home (instead of always working).


Ideological Policies

One of the points many of the non-educators love to point out is how policies about schools are so gosh-darned ‘ideological.’ This point is quite hilarious to me because please, find me a policy or a group that isn’t ideological. It’s a contradiction, honestly. Unfortunately, they never really describe what is meant by the term ‘ideological’, so I can only take notice of dog whistles I’ve heard in the past that keep coming from those who lean more conservative.

So what do we mean when we discuss ideological policies?

The first thing that comes to mind for me are all the times I’ve heard conservative media discuss how students are supposedly being “indoctrinated” by leftist teachers because they’re teaching lessons about racism and ethnocentrism, including more women in their curriculum, talking about heavy topics like sexual assault or abuse, or including numerous LGBTQ+ voices.

To be frank, I wish the world I lived in was the one that conservatives pretend exist. It’d also be great because I wouldn’t be harassed by colleagues for including texts that include such protagonists or deal with ‘heavy’ themes.

The next thing that comes to mind are all the ways that conservatives deride universities as being “leftist” spaces or institutions that “turn people into liberals” (never mind the fact that ‘leftists’ and ‘liberals’ have quite a gulf between them), despite the fact that this is highly dependent upon the university and the department. (Have you ever tried spending time in the Economics or Business departments? Because there aren’t a lot of leftists there.)

Let’s also not forget how universities have massive barriers to entry and how information that all taxpayers pay for is put behind paywalls most people can’t even scale. Oh, and then there’s the fact that jargon makes a lot of academic papers incredibly inaccessible (and I can feel the irony when I end up being that person).

So again, what do these authors mean by “ideological policy?” Do they not understand that everything is political?

Because many of these authors are people who, I feel, are so far removed from reality that they can’t comprehend that simple fact. (But they are cool with people living lives of economic instability! And also encourage us to be happy about that.)


What Should We Do

I don’t have an answer here. At least, I don’t have a single answer to any of the problems these people bring up. I do think there are a few things we should be doing in order to prepare for shifts in education:

Recognise that capitalism is not the only economic system under which we can operate; recognise that we can, and really should, start seeing education as a right and something that is required for all people. We actually do this because this is even listed in the UN’s charter of human rights. (It would also do us well to better define ‘fundamental’ levels, as an undergraduate education is often a requirement for the most basic of jobs.)

Reshape the school day and structure of subjects. Decrease teacher contact hours so we have time to prepare, plan, and collaborate.

Dismantle most non-public or non-state schools while integrating certain ones (such as ‘all girls’ or ‘all boys’ schools, sports colleges, arts colleges, and so on) into public or state schooling, allowing people of other classes access to them.

Stop dismantling humanities, languages, and arts education. Encourage it! Stop focusing on subjects that, supposedly, are the “economic drivers.” STEM is important, but so is everything else.

Make sure schools are part of the community. If it’s a segregated school, desegregate it. If children and their families are struggling with obtaining basic needs, make sure they know where to go to get that support (or try to provide it in the current system).

Pay your teachers. Stop making us, under any circumstances, purchase our own supplies. (Seriously, I work for a fairly expensive tuition-based school that I still have to buy supplies for because I can’t get them otherwise.)

Support your teachers and their development. Any development they need, make sure they have it. Stop allowing ignorance to be a part of the system. Do you have disabled students? Hire disabled teachers. Listen to disability advocates. Listen to your disabled students.

Encourage different viewpoints! I want to see more educational resources coming from genuine educators, particularly those who typically do not have their voices heard; I want to see fewer educational resources coming from self-help gurus and CEOs of global companies. More voices, more people, more information.

I have so many ideas for how to make education better, but I don’t know the answer or if they all work together. At this point, I can’t figure out which ones might actually be band-aids on a broken system.

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