Are our schools future-fit?
By: Paula Levin
“How can something of less intelligence retain control over something with vastly superior intelligence?”
Rob Long – Principal, Yeshiva College High Schools
Dean Furman – Futurist and Innovation Expert
Craig Adamson – Head of Digital Transformation and Innovation, King David
The future used to seem so far away. With the rise of AI, the release of ChatGPT, ‘real estate’ in the Metaverse being snapped up, and my brother Dave Whatsapping us a pic of the robot bartender he just ordered a drink from (who also tells jokes and dances!), it’s clear the future is now. AI in particular is getting faster and more ubiquitous by the day.
Some think it’s going to become super intelligent and take over the world. This is not some fringe conspiracy theory, but a serious concern voiced by AI insiders! Open AI CEO, Sam Altman (architect of ChatGPT), recently approached the US Senate and asked them to make regulations to reign in AI development, before it’s too late. Geoffrey Hinton, known as one of the ‘godfathers’ of AI, recently resigned from Google, saying he already regrets his part in creating artificial intelligence, because of what it might unleash on humanity! He is quoted as asking, how can something of less intelligence retain control over something with vastly superior intelligence? And recently, leaders in the AI field published an open letter imploring developers to press pause…before their creations turn on them! Watch out for that bartender…
What does the future hold? I often quote Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein as saying that the future is not something that we might glimpse if only we had a crystal ball. It doesn’t exist. Our choices today create the future. So, what are we or should we be doing in today’s classrooms to create a better world, one in which our children and new generations can find meaningful work and live with peace and purpose? Is there room for humanity in an increasingly automated world? The BBC is reporting that ChatGPT alone might wipe out 300 million jobs, and professions like law, accounting, and actuarial science are increasingly using AI to perform jobs once done by humans. And this is just the beginning.
Of all people, it was Futurist and Innovation expert Dean Furman who set my mind at ease. Furman is CEO of 1064 Degrees and consults to blue chip companies on AI’s possible applications for their businesses. “AI is maths. It’s not going to become conscious and destroy us all. Talking with ChatGPT or other large language models, you may feel like they know what they are saying, but they are not aware. They work on probability, and put words together to form sentences based on what word has the highest probability of making sense,” he says. It certainly has some of us fooled, though, like Google software engineer Blake Lemoine, who claimed that LaMDA, the large language model on which he had been working, had become sentient!
“I think fear of AI is the wrong approach. It’s like any human tool. Fire in the wrong hands is destructive, and AI in the wrong hands can be exponentially destructive, but both have immense potential to do good. What AI is doing is making what kids learn in school and university increasingly archaic. Having a good memory and being good at maths used to guarantee entrance into a good degree like accounting, actuarial science, or law. Those qualifications used to guarantee a good income. There are no more guarantees. By the time you’ve finished your four- and half-year degree, the industry has been disrupted, and that qualification is obsolete. Degrees have increasingly questionable value. People are starting to care more about what you can do, and less about how you acquired your knowledge. Schools need to prepare kids for what super computers can’t do,” he says.
“Personally, I think the best preparation for jobs of the future is learning in yeshiva. You will not only grow spiritually, which is the ultimate benefit of attending a yeshiva, but you will develop your critical thinking in a far greater way than attending any university. Gemora learning trains you to think critically, to analyse something from various viewpoints, examine an argument, and dissect the logic that informs it. While this should not be your main reason for attending a yeshiva, it is a powerful side-benefit. More importantly, any good yeshiva will help you develop your trust in Hashem. This trust is a powerful weapon to guide you through the inevitable ups and downs that any career brings with it. If you want to give your child an invaluable gift, buy them a book called Chovot HaLevavot before they enter the workforce. There is a chapter in the book called Shaar Habitachon. Learn this together with your child. It is a complete guide for how to approach earning a livelihood with peace of mind and trust in Hashem. Another piece of advice for parents is that if your child shows interest in taking drama as a subject while in school, don’t discourage this. Drama allows you to practise wearing many hats. It’s where you try on different personas and develop the self-confidence to speak in public. In business, you need to sell yourself or your business offering – sales is a performance. You need to be able to articulate yourself, tell a story, and inspire people.” I never thought a qualified actuary and expert in the AI space would recommend anything other than maths, coding, and robotics!
Interestingly, principal of Yeshiva College High Schools, Rob Long, also mentioned the value of Torah learning in this context. “AI has changed learning because students no longer have to spend all their time researching content to gain knowledge, rather they have to engage with material that’s more readily available than ever, and evaluate its merit. What should we believe? What point of view does this information reflect? History has been taught this way in our classrooms for many years, and this is what Torah learning is based on. It records the conversations between various sages engaging the same material from various viewpoints and eras, and requires critical thinking skills to unpack the information. AI like ChatGPT is changing what learning looks like. Where once teachers would spend 80% of their time preparing and delivering content and only 20% of the time in discussion about that content, now, much more time can be spent analysing and exploring the content,” he says. For the moment, this is the type of higher order thinking that computers can’t do.
King David’s Head of Digital Transformation and Innovation, Craig Adamson, believes it’s vital to talk to students about the limits of AI, and help them develop the skills to interrogate the information churned out by tools like ChatGPT. “The data it’s trained on only goes up to 2021, so that’s a clear limitation. But we also explain to students that large language models are also prone to something called hallucination, where they talk nonsense and make up facts absolutely convincingly. Critical thinking skills and fact checking are essential skills, as well as using the correct prompts when using AI,” he says. “A lot of the grunt work has been removed with AI, allowing us to spend more time on skills like refining an argument and thinking more deeply.”
Other limits to AI are the biases that are built in because they are based on algorithms that may exclude important perspectives. AI is only as accurate as the big data it has been built on. Output will therefore only reflect certain points of view, which can be distorted, prejudiced, or leave out minority perspectives. “Students have to be aware of these things and that’s something we are exploring in classroom discussions. AI ethics is a growing field that will ensure that AI is harnessed in a way that benefits us instead of harming us. We need to teach students to tell the difference between appearance and reality,” says Adamson. Indeed, AI can produce ‘deep fakes’, videos, pictures, news articles which appear to be true but are fabricated. These can be used to manipulate and divide people, and even convince them to vote a certain way. Facebook or Meta was recently fined over a billion dollars for leaking data to a company that leveraged users personal information to manipulate voters!
At a recent education conference organised by King David and hosted by Investec, a panel of experts debated how AI is changing the nature of education and how assessments of knowledge should be recalibrated. There, I encountered the term ‘flipped classroom’, which allows for teachers to really engage with students on a far more individualised and meaningful level than ever before. With access to so much knowledge online, you don’t need a teacher to be a ‘sage on the stage’ to deliver knowledge. Videos and games and digital learning platforms can do so in a far more entertaining and effective way. “Outside the classroom, students can work on skills like remembering, understanding, and applying knowledge. This opens up the classroom to be a space to learn to analyse, evaluate, and create,” says Adamson. “The classroom can be a more engaging space, and we are privileged to be able to bring our students the latest technology to bring learning to life. A merge cube allows children to learn about a volcano, for example, in 3D. One side might be what it looks like from the outside. Then you turn the cube and you can see inside. It makes learning more experiential and compelling. Other technology also allows us to instantly evaluate where students are holding, what they understand, and where there are knowledge gaps. This allows us to tailor the lessons better.”
AI tutors like those being trialled on Khan Academy’s free online schooling platform can engage and interact with a student trying to apply a new concept, see where his or her struggle is, and prompt the student to try different approaches and solutions. In a recent TED talk, Khan academy founder Sal Kahn explained that almost everyone can learn and master a subject if given the individualised attention and time. But we don’t all learn at the same pace. One teacher in a classroom has to cater to the class, not the individual. Khan says this is how students get to graduate high school with huge Swiss cheese holes in their understanding. AI tutors can level the playing field, especially to previously disadvantaged groups, like under-resourced rural areas. Then, with so many more human minds ‘online’, humanity’s potential to solve our biggest problems grows exponentially, he argues.
AI in the classroom might mean that teachers can do what drew them to the profession in the first place – the ability to reach a child’s heart and soul, and help them find their unique passion and purpose. With more tools than ever at their disposal, teachers can use their time and expertise more effectively and give them what no robot can – care, concern, mentoring, encouragement, and motivation.
“Not everyone needs to be good at everything,” says Furman. “No one cares about a full house of distinctions. This pressure creates depression and anxiety. When we need goods or services, we all want to go to the best – and the best are experts in that thing. They do it better than anyone else, because they have that passion. That’s what schools need to nurture. It’s really important to remember that you’re not necessarily going to be passionate about what you’re good at. I’m good at maths, but that’s not what I want to spend my time doing. I think as parents, teachers and universities, we need to have the humility to admit we don’t actually know what our kids should be studying and what qualifications will serve them. We need to stop pushing matric as the be-all-and-end-all, and start encouraging our kids to find their passion. We need to stop pushing making money and talk about making money from what you love.” says Furman. “Rather take the money that would fund that accounting degree and let them start a business and find a mentor. Even if they lose money, they are learning more than they would sitting in a lecture room!”
“There’s a lot of fear about jobs and degrees becoming outdated,” says Adamson, “but I believe AI will augment, not replace a lot of careers. It will allow for more personalised care and solutions in so many fields, like medicine and pharmacology. We have the power to make AI human centric, and aligned with our values,” he says.
At the 3D education conference, keynote speaker Thuli Madonsela spoke about the need to move away from the compartmentalised thinking that arose in the industrial revolution, where each person performed one task on an assembly line, and to start thinking holistically, entrepreneurially, and proactively. Rather than training for a job, we need to be thinking about solving problems. Traditionally, school subjects have been casualties of silo thinking, with maths having nothing to do with socio-economics or history. “We recognise the need for collaborative and integrative thinking,” says Long. “We teach problem solving using various disciplines. For example, an African village with a school that can only be reached by crossing a river. In summer, children struggle to get to school safely. This problem can be tackled by researching if it’s worth building another school, or if a bridge would be the answer, or any number of other solutions. Here subjects like maths and sociology and economics all need to talk to each other. We encourage cross pollination of skills and applications across various subjects. The way we teach some skills will probably have to change. For instance, if we want to teach essay writing or how to develop an original argument, we can no longer give this as homework, because it’s too easy to use ChatGPT. This will have to be done in a more supervised setting. But we can’t run away from AI, it’s already here. We will have to adapt and keep learning,” he adds.
Rote learning and memory have been cornerstones of schooling for hundreds of years, but this emphasis has to shift. “We all have more information in our pockets than in Harvard. The need to remember details or be fast at calculations is redundant. Your phone can do that for you. We have to know what type of calculation is needed, and what to Google,” says Furman. School assessments like tests and exams will have to change to stay relevant with disruptive technologies, but it’s anyone’s guess when these changes will take effect. To a degree this will depend on government regulations. For example, when ChatGPT was released, the LA school board banned it. But it’s possible this type of reaction simply leaves children further behind, because the business world – into which they are headed – has embraced it.
“We are bound to exams as an outcome,” says Adamson, “but King David’s elective subjects allow for more creativity and learning. Maths can create a lot of anxiety, while robotics, computational thinking, or game design allows students to see real world applications of maths so it feels more relatable and fun. In robotics, for example, we begin with understanding the human problem, empathising with it and defining it. Next, we ideate, brainstorming as many ideas as we can, no matter how wild. Then we proceed to a prototype that would solve the problem and then refine it. Learning how to work with others through this type of process builds essential life skills.”
“Grade 12 is mainly about matric exams, but education is happening all the way to grade 11,” says Long. “Alongside subjects and grades is what we call ‘the hidden curriculum’. This is what teachers are teaching in the way they teach. They are the soft skills that make all the difference in life, like the ability to tolerate and work with different viewpoints, teamwork, collaboration, empathy, and the ability to build relationships. A Torah value system underpins our entire offering because, primarily, education is about transmitting values to our children,” he says.
Schooling cannot be seen as a manufacturing plant designed to roll out a new generation of workers. Life cannot be reduced to our economic usefulness and ability to make a living. Education speaks to the heart of what it means to be human, something that has become more critical than ever to define. “Educating children for a future where AI can automate and replace much of what we do means teaching them to find their inner worth in something beyond their profession” says Furman. Rabbi Ari Taback is principal of the new Talmud Torah school in Johannesburg and defined the purpose of schooling as follows: “The purpose of Torah-true education is to shape a human being into a wholesome person, not to produce a particular intellectual outcome. Computers may be able to simulate some required cognitive process, but the person remains unshaped. Duties of The Heart writes that, in fact, there is a converse relationship – as the external world becomes more sophisticated, our internal worlds become more desolate. We should be embracing technology for its utility but not allow it to replace the critical processes of true chinuch – shaping beautiful human beings.”
Education must continue to speak to our children’s hearts and souls, even if their minds can be matched by computers someday. As King Solomon writes, there really is nothing new under the sun, so as much as the world is changing, one thing remains the same: our reason for being here. Every day, in every age, we are tasked with partnering with G-d in making this world a place that honours the image of G-d in every human being. Where we reduce the massive divide between the haves and have nots, where human beings can live with dignity, harmony, unity, and diversity. Whatever our career, our main job in life remains unchanged, to each do our part to create a heaven right here on earth.