Why our current school curriculum won’t help pupils beat machines

By Dr Simon Walker, STEER Education, 15.9.2015

The robots are coming, says a new report by Deloitte, and many jobs currently performed by humans are under threat from robot takeover.

Wouldn’t it be logical, therefore, to educate our children in ways that given them unassailable advantages over robots?

Yes, but schools aren’t. In a recent large study we did, involving 8,000 pupils from some of the top independent and state secondary schools in the country, the highest performing schools were shown to be producing students who had the lowest ability to think differently from machines.

There is an increasing focus in the media on what has been dubbed by some ‘the new industrial revolution’. Like that of the 19th century, the chief consequence of such a revolution would be a dramatic change to the employment opportunities of millions of ordinary people: unlike the 19th century, it will not be blue collar workers affected this time, but white collar professionals.

The new industrial revolution is a result of machines learning to perform the kinds of cognitive tasks which were once thought to be the preserve of the human brain. Computer programmers have, for the past thirty years, used our increasing understanding of the neural flows of the mind to model and then build synthetic, machine systems which replicate the most powerful kind of processing of the brain: algorithmic processing.

Algorithmic processing is when the brain works through a series of step-by-step, logical decisions to get to the right answer for a complex problem. Scientists such as Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, have identified that such brain processing is precise but slow. Using the same algorithmic programming procedures as the brain, machines can now reproduce similar or better levels of precision as the human brain, but do the calculation much faster.

Over the past few years, programmers have applied this algorithmic processing to an ever wider range of tasks: scanning emails to find cases of fraud; identifying our shopping patterns from our internet use; predicting how different groups in a society will react to events. Today, machines will make the 80 per cent of the trades that are made on the stock market.

It was once thought that professions such as the arts would be immune to such machine programming, but now computers have composed original classical music that can pass muster in formal performances, write acceptable journalistic pieces and even get close to simulating human responses in conversation.

The inherent vulnerability of all of these activities is when they rely too much on the algorithmic kind of cognition, which machines find easy to replicate.

Over the past 20 years, we at STEER Education have been searching for a kind of brain processing which machines will find difficult to replicate. Studies have revealed that the human brain has another, unique kind of processing, which we call ‘steering cognition’, which will prove to be much more difficult for machines to mimic.

Steering cognition, unlike algorithmic processing, is based around the brain’s ability to simulate possible actions before we do them, plot our options and then perform the optimal ones. It works by using our past experiences, both emotional, social and physical, as a guide before trying out different possibilities. Whenever we imagine and plan our holiday; or when work out how to get round the supermarket in the shortest route avoiding the longest cues at the checkout; or when we adapt our tone of voice in a conversation with a person we learn has been bereaved, we are using our steering cognition.

In a recent study involving 8,000 pupils at leading secondary schools, we discovered that, whilst the top performing schools were developing pupils’ algorithmic cognition, their students showed much weaker Steering cognition than pupils at less academically successful schools. In an effort to meet government and OFSTED targets, schools have developed ways of teaching which reduce the development of steering cognition in favour of algorithmic cognition.

We believe this is a recipe for short-term educational success but long-term employability weakness. White collar professions in the future will increasingly need graduates with unique abilities which cannot be done faster and cheaper by machines. Developing students with better steering cognition, to work alongside algorithmic cognition, will give our graduates the best chance of competing in the new industrial revolution.

This is a fully achievable goal, but it requires the government to shift from its over-focus on PISA-based performance, which has sought to compete with Asian models, focused almost exclusively on algorithmic cognitive development. The rest of the world can continue to educate children with cognitive skills that machines will one day replicate, but the UK could become the global leader in an education that won’t allow our children to be made redundant by machines.