Outthinking Robots: How Authentic Learning Leads Black and Brown Children to Equity and Opportunity

Dr. Peter Cookson Jr. is this week's guest author.

The word "robot," from the Czech for "compulsory labor," was coined in 1921 by Czech playwright Karel Capek in R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots.) The play is set in a factory that makes artificial people. All goes well -- until the robots rebel in Act III and take over the world, killing nearly all the humans.

I don't know about our lives, but it's clear that robots are taking our jobs. Mechanical or virtual, with intricate electrical nervous systems guided by complex computer software, robots are built to work...and work...and work. They are better at routine tasks than we are. They can "think" and problem solve, calculate at the speed of light, and autocorrect themselves easily because they have no ego (yet!) Within 10 years, robots will cut labor costs by 33 percent in South Korea, 25 percent in Japan and 22 percent in the United States, according to the Boston Consulting Group.

Within 20 years, robots will be able to perform half of all jobs in the United States, Oxford University researchers predict.

How will the other half live? The future belongs to the thinkers, and its jobs to those who are smarter and more intellectually agile than robots. We live in an age of unprecedented invention, with a new-discovery rate that is faster than at any other time in human history. And the tide is carrying many of us toward a new and prosperous economy based on ideas, social configurations and economic opportunities.

But if we are all to benefit from a broadly shared prosperity and vibrant civil society, then our education system must be up to the task. Education needs to cultivate the mind. Our schools must treasure curiosity, creativity and empower teachers and students, so that the natural processes of learning can nurture growth, complexity and connection to other minds.

Additionally educators and school communities must fight the "soft bigotry of low expectations" that affect the trajectories of children of color and those challenged by poverty. Too many Black and Brown children have internalized the belief that people are born smart and, sadly, that effort will not affect their learning outcomes. This can be overcome when social science and neuroscience guide transformation and learning is student-centered -- not test-driven, not top-down controlled, and not driven by those "reforms" controlled by privatization initiatives.

Schools that cultivate the mind already exist in the public and private sectors. High Tech High (school) in San Diego, Hunter College High School in New York City and the Putney School in Vermont are three models for the future, where students learn by doing and teachers are expected to know and be passionate about their subjects.

Teachers are at the center of these and all great schools. If we fail to recruit, prepare and retain teachers who walk the walk of intellectual striving, mentorship and inclusion, then our delicate fabric of culture and accomplishment will unravel. Every student deserves teachers who inspire, communicate and set high standards.

Experience tells us that great teaching comes from within and carries with it the wisdom of generations past. Teaching from the whole person is contagiously authentic. Students know the difference between teaching that is superficial -- what a robot could do -- and teaching that is passionate and informed.

While no one formula captures authentic teaching and learning, here are a few elements that seem to stand the test of time:

  • Authentic learning is personalized. Real learning is always personal because it is attached to an emotional state.
  • Authentic learning is experiential. Real learning happens through all the senses.
  • Authentic learning is expressive. Without emotional attachment, learning is ephemeral and superficial.
  • Authentic learning is imaginative. Schools and classrooms need to incubate and reward personal and social imaginations.
  • Authentic learning is social and utilizes our collective intelligence. No person is an island; we are connected to each other in ways we understand and ways we do not. We must be humble in the face of this mystery.

All students deserve access to authentic learning that cultivates the mind. Our greatest schools and most promising models for the future include children from all races and socio-economic classes.

Can we create learning environments where curiosity, innovation, collaboration and accomplishment are valued, and all students flourish? Absolutely. It already is happening. We have the models and the future is here. That's reality -- not science fiction -- one that leads to opportunity and equity.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at e_cooper@nuatc.org. He tweets as @ECooper4556.

Peter Cookson Jr. is Principal Researcher, Education Sector at American Institutes for Research.