The Rise of the Robots – Future proofing skills for the next generation

Artificial Intelligence will ‘kill off’ five million jobs by 2020, according to some of the more alarmist headlines. While AI threatens hundreds of thousands of posts in the retail and administration sectors, top professions such as the law and medicine are also set to be transformed by the ‘march of the robots’.

Advances in AI has poured more fuel on to the debate about the value of so-called ‘learning by rote’.  Are schools, under enormous pressure from government and Ofsted to deliver ever-better exam grades, responding by priming a generation of students simply to remember, recall and regurgitate facts just as the need for those skills is being usurped by Siri and Alexa?

So how can we help the next generation to future-proof their skills?

If we want our children to succeed in a future where so many jobs will be dominated by automation, we should educate them with skills unique to human beings.

In other words, what do we as a species have going for us that the computers don’t – and are unlikely to for at least a while?

One of the most important is cognitive – or thinking – skills.

Benjamin Bloom’s now-famous hierarchy of thinking, which classifies thinking according to six cognitive levels of complexity, dates from the 1950s, but his ideas retain their relevance today. According to Bloom’s hierarchy pyramid, the least complex (lower order) thinking skills form the base of the pyramid and the most complex (higher order) skills at the peak.

Put simply, the higher up the pyramid you go, the safer you are from the rising tide of the machines.

Thinking Schools, in which these higher-order skills are taught, can be found all over the world, including the UK, Dubai, Lithuania, Norway, New Zealand, Egypt, Nigeria and Thailand. In Malaysia, the Government has looked to introduce the Thinking Schools model in 10,000 public schools.

There is growing recognition that Thinking Schools drive the type of unique thinking skills and intelligent learning behaviours that we all need in an increasingly technological world.

And the Thinking Schools model suits schools of every type: maintained schools, academies, grammars, independents and those for children with special needs are among those that have completed the journey to become a Thinking School.

But be aware: thinking skills are not an education programme; they are about an attitude to learning as much as they are about the tools and strategies of developing thinking. Becoming a Thinking School demands creating a whole-school culture that constantly strives to develop independent learners through thinking and self-improving behaviours.

For many schools, becoming a Thinking School will necessitate embarking on a period of breath-taking cultural change in a climate of what can only be described as hyper-accountability. The pursuit of developing as a Thinking School is certainly not a ‘soft’ option. Governors, senior leadership teams, ‘drive teams’ and leaders at all levels will need courage and resilience in huge quantities in order to secure the successful realisation of this vision for learning.

Underlying a cognitive (or ‘thinking’ approach) to learning and teaching, is the notion of teacher as the ‘mediator of learning’. This too, is not a ‘soft’ option. It differs from being a facilitator who creates a particular environment and then steps back – this would place the teacher in the role of ‘guide on the side’. Rather, the teacher, as mediator, intervenes directly and skillfully in ‘real time’ at key points where children’s learning falters. In this way, the teacher ‘meddles in the middle’ to bring learning to life. In other words, ‘mediated learning’ is the art of helping someone to explore their world.

At the centre of the whole-school approach taken by Thinking Schools is the use of a common ‘thinking language’ which is used in each subject, by each teacher and by each pupil, irrespective of age. Mirroring how we absorb information, part of that language is a visual one. Thinking Schools use visual tools (specifically designed diagrams) that help transform information into knowledge. By ‘seeing’ their thinking structured and clarified, students become aware of the different thinking processes involved.  This leads to deeper learning and the development of higher order thinking skills, such as analysing, evaluating and creating.

The ‘thinking language’ also includes developing intelligent learning behaviours (such as resilience and growth mindset) as well as a focus on developing a questioning community.  The development of these learning behaviours further strengthens the arsenal that equips young learners with skills that will enable them to cope in an unknown future. As such, a thinking school serves to create questioning, thinking, independent learners who have a true understanding of their own learning (metacognition).

And … attending a Thinking School can improve pupils’ GCSE results by over a grade, according to study I recently undertook.

The findings demonstrate that in secondaries officially accredited by Exeter University as Thinking Schools, students are progressing at a rate that delivers the equivalent of more than an increased grade at GSCE. This is relative to what they were expected to get, compared with those with the same starting point attending schools that haven’t adopted the same approach.

The same study on accredited primary Thinking Schools shows a similar uptick resulting in the equivalent to a grade’s worth of progress in SATs.

To put this in context, on average, a school with a Progress 8 score of zero (the national average) would, by adopting the Thinking Schools approach, move up to a score of 1, putting them firmly in Ofsted’s ‘outstanding’ category for student outcomes.

This study shows that the Thinking School model isn’t a finger-in-the-wind approach, but is firmly rooted in evidence supporting the impact of meta-cognitive approaches on student achievement. But it has to be a whole-school approach, not one adopted by some departments or a few teacher enthusiasts.

While these findings are remarkable – grade attainment is only a byproduct of a whole school approach to the teaching of thinking.

Developing independent learners capable of fulfilling their potential and succeeding amongst the rise of the robots is the true goal. After all, the machines are our creation. The key is to develop the intelligences and skills to get them to work for us.

Dr Dave Walters is Director of Research at Thinking Matters, and Deputy Head of a Secondary School in the West of England.