The Next Education Renaissance Is Human ― Not Technological

Opinion | 21st Century Skills

The Next Education Renaissance Is Human ― Not Technological

By Richard Gerver     Dec 24, 2018

The Next Education Renaissance Is Human ― Not Technological

This article is part of the guide: New Year, New Learning: Reflections on Education in 2018 and Beyond.

In 2013, I had the opportunity to discuss the future of education with Eric Schmidt, who was then the executive chairman of Google. I was keen to find out his take: Would technology ever replace the teacher? At that time, this question was being debated throughout the education world. We had seen two decades of technological revolution in schools, starting with desktop computers, then networks, laptops, interactive whiteboard boards and on and on it went...

His answer to me was immediate and unequivocal. “No,” he said. “Never.”

He went on to explain that whilst technology was incredible, more than just a catalyst for change, it shouldn’t and wouldn’t ever replace teachers. Why? And why, especially, would one of the world’s foremost technology leaders believe this? Because, in his words, “Education, is, at its heart, about the development of human beings. To do that, you will always need high levels of human interaction.”

A silver bullet, the end of days or not?

As I reflect on the last few years, I wonder if my generation―I’ll be 50 in 2019―has been too seduced or, sometimes, too frightened by technology in itself. We have looked upon it either as the silver bullet or the end of days. As we come to terms with the digital revolution and become more comfortable with our role in it, I sense that we are coming to realize that technology is as incredible as it is inevitable, but that the answer to continued progress, within education and beyond, lies in people.

Our children see the world very differently from us. Today, children and even young adults are digital natives; transcendent tech is a part of life, like the car or the plane. As a result, increasingly, they are seeking experiences and opportunities beyond the norm. They expect levels of control in their own lives that we never did. They’re the first generation of truly active consumers, who want interactive involvement in everything they do and experience. Whilst this is not necessarily a bad thing, it does mean that they need time and support to reflect on how, as people, we should interact with each other and with our environments, beyond screens and virtual reality.

Even at Google, leadership is human

After I’d met with Eric Schmidt, I looked a little further into Google’s founding philosophy and was reminded that Larry Page and Sergey Brin started the search engine to help organize the world’s information, make it accessible to everybody and, by so doing, diminish evil. A very human vision.

They wanted to use technology to empower humanity and make it better, not to usurp it. Indeed, when they researched their own success through Project Oxygen in 2008, they discovered eight key characteristics of their outstanding leaders, ranked in the following order of importance:

1. They're good coaches.

2. They empower their team and don't micro-manage.

3. They express interest in their team members' success and personal well-being.

4. They are productive and results-oriented.

5. They're good communicators and they listen to the team.

6. They help employees with career development.

7. They have a clear vision and strategy for the team.

8. They have key technical skills that help them advise the team.

For me, it has always been interesting that even at the heart of a high-tech environment like Google, technical skills rank 8th―the top seven are all about human behaviors. It also strikes me that if we were to do the same thing with teachers, no matter what they teach, the list should look pretty much the same.

Two great leaders, one common theme

In July 2018, I had the extraordinary privilege of meeting two remarkable figures in modern American history. Firstly, and most memorably for me, was President Barack Obama. He shared that, on reflecting on his eight years as Commander in Chief, he had come to realize that virtually all the problems he had to deal with turned out not to be technical in nature but human. They were based on greed, jealousy, anger, hatred, love or ambition. It had made him understand that we spend too long designing technical solutions for what are mostly human issues. I wrote about this in my second book, “Change,” as I reflected on the fact that systems and structures change nothing. People do.

My second meeting was with the quite brilliant Barry Barish, the 2017 Nobel Prize winning physicist based at Caltech. He told me that a key part of his recruitment strategy, when building his research team of over 140 scientists, was to appoint scientists who were not simply functional—he also wanted people still capable of asking “stupid questions.”

We need to help our peers realize that it is our humanity that defines us, not only as citizens but as educators. And no matter what, that is where the real difference is made.

Coders won’t change the world, but people who understand how you can use code to provide better for people might.

Computer engineers won’t change the world, but people who have the technical skills to help us solve human problems might.

So, as a new year dawns―and as we’ll be just 12 months away from the third decade of the 21st century―I am filled with hope and optimism. I think that the 2020s may well herald a new era of human endeavor that is driven by relationships, reality and collaboration.

For us to ensure that our children are at the vanguard of that renaissance, we need to ask deeply human questions about how edtech helps us rather than drives us. How do these tools help us to catalyze our tomorrow? How can we use technology to connect our children to a deeper sense of humanity and to tangible experiences? It isn’t, after all, just education that is defined by human interaction; it’s life itself.

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