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Learning in the time of AI

Speech to Education for a Changing World Symposium.

9 November, Carriageworks, Sydney

After more than 12 months working with the NSW Department of Education as Secretary, I can confirm what my wife – an experienced school principal – has been telling me for many, many years . . . schools are such busy, complex places.

A Deloitte research paper for the Department earlier this year confirmed the chaotic life of a school principal: trying to bring order to the seething mass of humanity that is a typical school day. The constant interruptions. Children in need. Perhaps on some days, needier staff. At the door sometimes, the neediest of parents. Let alone the department itself demanding information or a form filled in, right now.

The research showed on average, a principal will be interrupted more than 40 times a day, every day. Is there any workplace so full of incessant, pressing demands?

The days are so full for our school leaders and teachers. It is hard for them to find time to lift their eyes to the future that is next week – or, at this time of term 4, the planning for next year.

But as we know, there is no other profession that needs to have its eyes more fixed on the future than education.

The future is not an abstract concept for educators. It is alive in the faces of the young people in our classrooms today. The Kindergarten student starting school a few months from now will graduate from Year 12 in 2030 – then head off to further study or the world of work. Most of that working career will take place in the second half of the 21st century.

We must be preparing these students to be citizens in societies under pressure; workers in dramatically reshaped industries; using tools and technology that may still be embryonic or in their infancy. We must equip them to be lifelong learners, with a confidence to embrace change and develop mastery of the new. New skills, like computational thinking, will be important. And in the midst of all that, we need to help them to be critical thinkers, with robust ethical frameworks, demonstrating excellent judgement – with resilience to endure and the capacity to reflect. We need to help them become concerned and active citizens.

It is a vast challenge under way in our NSW schools – where well over a million children and young people attend each day. We all know we must be preparing young people for a world changing quickly and where the pace of change is only speeding up.

As a society, we sit in awe of those massive building programs – the vast pieces of urban or scientific infrastructure that capture our imagination with their ambition and boldness and the way they change our country or the understanding of our world. We celebrate and commemorate them: the race to the moon, the Snowy Mountains' scheme, the Large Hadron Collider. Long, long journeys taken but with an end clearly in mind. A strategy, a vision, a plan that delivers, overcoming all the unforeseen challenges and complications encountered on the way.

We can't comprehend the complexity of the task. We admire those who had the skill and perseverance and courage to make it happen.

These projects always seem startling in their ambition and scale. But I would argue that for sheer challenge and impact they are matched and often exceeded by what might be seen as quite commonplace and quotidian: what is being attempted in all these classrooms with all these students in all our schools.

Those working in our schools today in NSW are helping to prepare more than a million lifetimes. It is fair to say that – apart from individual families – for most of these million young people there will be nothing more important than school to prepare them for a journey through what may be more than 80 years of life to come.

To turn them on to lifelong learning, to develop skills and tenacity, to cultivate talent, to engage curiosity, to harness resilience, to establish citizens of generosity and compassion and grace. So they can live and give and grow and flourish.

And this epic work is hardly a case of getting the planning approved and the blueprints right, so we can get on with building their future. Not only is the world and workforce they will enter uncertain, every child we are helping prepare is different. In fact, every child is different every day, with the swirling complexity of family and friendships, stages of development, patterns of learning, the shape of personal experience. Despite the wonders of technology we will be hearing about, the brain is the most complex and elusive object discovered in the universe and our schools are dealing with more than a million of them today and every day.

As educators, we must not lose in the daily challenge our noble intention. Helping our students navigate their way through school – not so they complete their learning, but so they can begin a lifetime of it; ready to flourish as best they can, despite all the challenges and complications that will inevitably come their way.

Such is the weight of responsibility we carry in education – be it as a teacher or principal, researcher or policy-maker, a leader of a system or a Minister responsible for it all.  Could there be anything more complex? More demanding? More important?

Of course, there is much debate about the precise impact of these changes in technology and globalisation. Change is happening so quickly. How and where will it manifest itself? The debate triggers strong divergence of opinion. But when you have machines that can teach themselves, when you have the International Bar Association pondering the need for industries to have human quotas, when you have criminal sentencing done by algorithm, it's clearly not just the flights of fancy of the technologists.

And the changes ahead don't just demand that we – and our students – are comfortable with technology, but that as educated citizens, we all have the skills and capacities to critically engage with these developments and where they are taking us.

In our deliberations over the next two days we will hear from leading Australian and international thinkers about the world these children will inherit. From where we sit now, much of what young people will face falls into the category of Rumsfeldian ‘known unknowns'.

Technology is changing industries – destroying jobs but creating them as well. Where will the new jobs be? The machines will grow in power and influence, but where will humanity still present the crucial advantage? How do we embrace technology, but manage the distortion, dislocation and risk that can arrive with it?

As we seek understanding of these matters, can we come to a better appreciation of what we must be doing in our schools today to prepare young people for this uncertain tomorrow?

What does it mean for the graduating class of 2030? And what does it mean for the teachers in our schools – and the curriculum expectations – and what we are going to need to measure to ensure growth and improved learning and preparation? How do we equip our teachers and our leaders to make the right investments of time and resources to create the compelling, engaging climate for sustained learning?

Many of our best schools are already wrestling with these issues, despite the busyness of their day. They are tearing apart long-established traditions of what classrooms look like, the way subjects are taught, how we measure progress and engage students – informed by research, shared practice and a passion for innovation.

I often feel our best are not waiting for education systems or curriculum authorities to tell them what do. And they know a back-to-basics approach to education makes as little sense as Elon Musk basing his Tesla blueprints on the Model T Ford. We learn from all that has gone before but know we will need different thinking, new approaches, bold innovation and agile design to make the changes we need to find solutions.

This symposium arises from work that started in the NSW Department of Education a year ago. We've held roundtables with business leaders and vice-chancellors, innovative principals, restless teachers and insightful students as we debated how best we can prepare young people for the uncertain world ahead. A number of papers were commissioned from leading academics addressing different elements of how we need to think about Education for a Changing World.

I am delighted that the authors of some of those papers, like Rose Luckin from University College, London, and Toby Walsh from UNSW are with us at this symposium. I am also pleased that a further set of papers, by such eminent academics as Connie Chung from Harvard and Jeannette Wing from Columbia University are also being released and published today.

Since the work began last year, we have seen an eruption of stories about the disrupting effect of Artificial Intelligence and machine learning on jobs and industries. We have needed no encouragement to get on with this work, but news reports daily have spurred us on.

As recently as last Friday, the Australian Financial Review had a headline proclaiming "Robots win at Telstra and NAB". Both companies made announcements on the same day about how they were stepping up their use of artificial intelligence, data analytics and machine learning – with both set to cut a billion dollars in costs by 2020. Some new jobs are being created – but these are dwarfed by the thousands to go at each firm as the machines assume the work.

All that is by 2020, when next year's Kindergarten student would have made it all the way to Year 2 – still a decade away from school graduation. Who knows what that decade will bring? And what the world of work looks like at its end.

This gathering is about our responsibility to that child yet to start school. For this group of educators, policy-makers and community leaders to come together and think about what we need to be doing to provide the best opportunity for that child to be as ready as possible for all they will face stepping out the school door.

And it is about our obligation to all the students – well over a million of them – who will leave us before that 2030 graduation.

In a school system that is student-centred, we should be obsessed about understanding as best we can the future world our young students will enter and how best to prepare them for it. We need to be vigilant against an organisational or cultural inertia that suggests the response to uncertainty is passivity. Just as we need to be vigilant against shallow thinking, transient enthusiasms and superficial interventions in the face of these deep complex challenges.

If we cannot know all the answers, we can pose some interesting questions to guide us forward. We can engage with people who are devoting their lives to advancing understanding of these matters, because they know just how important it is that we appreciate what is coming at us and how best we respond.

This symposium has teachers and principals here from all our education systems and they are such important contributors. Many are wonderful innovators and reformers and we have much to learn from them.

But, of course, as we meet there are thousands of principals, tens of thousands of teachers, back at school, working their magic and having busy days.

It will be hard for them to be thinking much about 2030 or beyond. On this day or any day.

What a privilege for us to be here – so we can engage with our speakers, learn from their research and their experience – and think about what it means for our students.

We are not sure what these two days might bring. Tomorrow, in particular, will provide a lot of time for discussion and debate, for considering opportunities for innovative thinking, bold experiments and courageous reforms.

In the midst of the busy days of all who work in our schools, we take this moment, on their behalf, to work through how we best support them in their vital task. A lot is at stake.

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Mark Scott

About the Secretary

Mark Scott is Secretary of the Department of Education. He has worked as a teacher, in public administration and as a journalist and media executive. He is committed to public education and learning environments where every child can flourish.

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