Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Teach Less Learn More - Lessons Learnt Part 3

This is the last instalment about Singapore's Teach Less Learn More Education Philosophy, its trials and tribulations and the improvements needed. Links to the earlier parts below:

Part 1
Part 2

We discussed how Singapore's education system should nurture the love for learning and also focus on collaboration not competition. Google and the great companies of the world collaborate to bring about better results. It's not voting out your mates in some reality TV in order to win a million dollars. The real world is about working together to create blue oceans, not battling it out in red oceans.

In this final post, we would like to discuss adaptability and understand the game changing future that is upon us and how we can prepare our kids for it.

The world is changing faster than ever. A hundred years ago, changes from generation to generation was rarely as epic hence fathers could teach their sons very useful life lessons and the next generation benefits. But in today's world, things are moving so fast that whatever we learn becomes obsolete in a few years. What our fathers learnt has no implication in our lives today. We can barely learn anything from our parents when it comes to work and technology.

In fact, whatever we learnt in school just a few years ago is already obsoleted. Considering that our primary schools and secondary schools are using curriculum pretty much improvised from fundamentals half a century ago, we can safely say that almost everything that our kids learnt in school today has no use when they enter the workforce. What could be more important is really teaching them how to learn and how to relearn, on top of nurturing their love for learning and collaboration.

Yes, this is about adaptability. A great concept in a profound religion is the concept of impermanence. Everything is ever-changing and the only constant is constant change. In today's world it has also become constant change faster and faster. To adapt to such an environment, one must learn to be resilient, to accept new norms and reject outdated thinking all the time and faster each time. 

The way humans communicate shed light to how our world is really moving. A hundred years ago, person to person written communication was the snail mail. Some of us might have the privilege to experience this outdated mode of sending letters via snail mail to pen pals or loved ones, then waiting for their replies which could be weeks. Then telegram came along, we could send today's equivalent of SMS to our loved ones at an exorbitant cost of 10 word at $3 via the global telephone network pioneered by Alexander Bell and his successors thereafter. Then we moved to fixed line telephones, which was a break through then. About thirty years ago, phones went mobile and we could also send SMS via our mobile phones, for 10 cents per message.

Remember this?

But when the internet came along, the whole game changed. We had emails replacing snail mail and we wait for hours or days for replies, down from weeks. Then we had the first generation of chats like ICQ, then Skype for video, Messenger and today Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram, Wechat and Telegram (again)! We created another whole online world for communicating which for some became even bigger than the real physical world in terms of communication. Everything has changed. We no longer wait for weeks for a reply, we are down to seconds. A minute could be an eternity for some. 

Yet we are learning to solve how many marbles Ravi has in our primary schools (an anecdote from the previous posts).  

Along this evolution of social communication, some inevitably fail to adapt. Some of our friends are not on Facebook, some not using Instagram or Twitter, unable to adapt. Most might not heard of Telegram, the new Whatsapp. To adapt is to keep shedding the familiar for the unknown. It is not easy hence not taught. But for our next generation, it could be imperative. It's adapt or die.

Adaptability also means being able to learn and relearn and to be resilient. Not calling it quits when the going gets tough. These attributes again, are not developed by solving complex math problem sums involving Ravi's marbles or rote memorising. Adaptability might well be about introducing important universal concepts drawn from the intellects of the past philosophers: resilience, tenacity, not taking things for granted.

Another big theme in our lifetimes could be the advent of A.I. or artificial intelligence. Computers are getting smarter by the minute. They can beat the best human players in traditional board games like chess and GO or weiqi, supposedly impossible still for at least another decade. The A.I. community is now targeting games like Warcraft. Pitting A.I. against the best players in a highly complex real time multi-player game. Again it might not be long before we see A.I. beating humans at their own computer games. In fact, it had be theorized that A.I. could go into what is called a singularity - a point of no return.

Since A.I. can learn by teaching themselves, as the weiqi program that Google's AlphaGo invented did, what happens if they keep teaching themselves in milliseconds and their intelligence explodes in an exponential way? This has been hypothesized, and if it comes true, then human as a race could face an eventuality. It could be utopia, where machines do all menial jobs for us, find cures for all our illnesses and we can be left to pursue our real purposes of our lives, which we have to then figure out. What is our real purpose in this universe if we don't have to worry about food, money, health problems?

A.I. - Termination or Salvation?

Or it could be apocalypse, ie. machines wipe us out like what Hollywood depicted. Machines that are able to teach themselves would eventually come to a point where they surpass us in every and any way imaginable. Just as they already did in chess and GO. So why would they need us to be around? These are big questions, worthy of yet more discussion. But to get back to the education issue. The key question is:

Why are we still trying to figure out how many marbles Ravi has in a way-too-confusing math puzzle?

Computers can do all the math that needs to be done. Yes it is true that we need to learn the basics and the fundamentals, but nothing beyond what is more than necessary, definitely not solving for marbles via convoluted English sentences designed to confuse nine year olds in a math problem that requires algebra but yet algebra cannot be used as a solution. The future is not about hard math nor hard science, not about rote learning, memorizing, concepts way too advanced for pre-teen kids i.e. all the things the Singapore's education is focusing on.

Ironically as computers take over more and more routine calculations, jobs that are immune to this mega A.I. threat are the ones that Singapore gave the least emphasis on, like hairdressers, barbers, chefs, masseuse, chiropractors, therapists, nail artists, trainers, pastors, gurus perhaps even, here's the kicker, school teachers. In short, jobs that require more human touch where robots find it hard to make the emotional connection. 

Ultimately it might be teaching our kids what it means to be human. To be compassionate towards other, to be able to empathize, to use the best soft social skills to help others. These are the important lessons that might differentiate the next generation and give them the edge over robots. Singapore's education has skewed towards forging the alpha male or female, to compete and beat everyone in some rule based animal war. The world is changing. It's not hardcore competition nor grades and results. Education should be about:

1. Collaboration
2. Resilience and adaptability
3. Learn to relearn
4. Empathy and the human touch

It is not too late to focus on these. Teach Less Learn More doesn't have to become another acronym. Let's hope we move faster towards this new direction, more and less alluded to by the baby steps initiated by Mr Heng Swee Keat, our former education minister.

PS: Very good to know that he is recovering from stroke! Let's hope he get well really soon!