Does that Robot Speak French?
A few weeks ago at the Mayor’s international business advisers committee meeting, I had one of those open- mouth-insert-foot moments. Sitting with a distinguished group of CEOs and chairmen of the world’s leading companies, discussing what London needs to do to become the most innovative and competitive city in the world, I blurted out, “I think it’s time we stopped teaching French in British schools and substitute science, coding or digital literacy instead.”
The room went silent. Quelle horreur! Facial expressions indicated judgments being made in real time, followed by muted suggestions that they should revoke my British citizenship. I think my American accent eventually saved me — they were probably thinking “those Americans never did appreciate culture…” and decided to dismiss my comment entirely.
Back at home, I told my 14-year-old about the incident, which resulted in one of his first signs of empathy towards me in weeks — I finally hit on something causing both of us despair. Truth be told, I have spent endless nights and weekends trying to help my son with his French homework during his school years and have run out of excuses as to why it’s important. As he’s a teenager now, I can no longer make the impractical argument that “it will better prepare you for life” because, well, I don’t believe that it will.
Let’s break it down. My son spends five hours a week studying French as a compulsory language. This amounts to 200 hours a year and more than 2,000 hours in the 10 years of instruction we provide in learning French. Is there anyone who can argue that the time couldn’t be better spent learning more practical skills such as critical thinking, leadership, creative writing or perhaps a useful language such as html, php, Perl or Ruby on Rails? You know, something that might actually help you bring an idea to life, start a company or join a successful business or organisation?
Let’s be absolutely clear. This is not an attack on one of the most beautiful languages in the world. Au contraire! But if we want our kids to find a job and do something meaningful with their lives we need to start having a serious conversation about our educational priorities and how they translate into a curriculum that matches the skills actually required to succeed in the real world.
And the truth is that it’s not just kids from other countries we need to worry about — it’s computer programs and robots (let’s call them “bots” collectively) that are increasingly used to re-imagine complete industries — from farming to fashion to transportation and medicine. Robots have been replacing repetitive or dangerous work for years, but the rise of big data and new algorithms that can make sense of large amounts of information are pushing bots into new domains. In the process, they are putting many more jobs at risk of obsolescence.
How much risk are we talking about? Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A Osborne from Oxford University asked that question in a research report they published last year. As you’d expect, therapists or social workers need not worry — no machine is going to replace them any time soon. But that’s not the case for a whopping 47 per cent of the other jobs on the market. Whether you’re an estate agent (0.86 probability), a legal assistant (0.94 probability) or a tax preparer (0.99 probability) your job is at a real risk of being automated (or simply obviated).
The UK Government made a smart and prescient decision to add coding to the curriculum for all British students starting in September 2014. This is commendable given we are the only G8 nation to do so (in fact, only Estonia has an equivalent programme). It’s a great start but there’s so much more to do. As Bill Gates noted recently: “Twenty years from now, demand for lots of skill-sets will be substantially lower. I don’t think people have that in their mental model.”
The truth is that we don’t know today what job skills will be required in 20 years. To survive the coming decades, let alone thrive, one needs to recognise that learning is a lifetime pursuit. Gone are the days when you could learn a craft or a profession and practise it for the rest of your working life. The world has changed but the institutions preparing our kids have not.
Schools should continue to offer French as an elective subject but the world’s new language, one that is universal and underlies the way the world works, is the language of coding.
Last month I worked with an extraordinary group of tech industry veterans led by entrepreneur Avid Larizadeh to launch a Code.org programme called the “Hour of Code”. Aimed at demystifying code for all kids, and most importantly for British kids, as we approach the change in curriculum, this year makes code mandatory for all students.
In just three weeks 2.3 million people in Britain completed the Hour of Code, and hopefully in fun, practical ways we got a few of them hooked on learning about how the world actually works, proving our children have an appetite for learning code just like any other kids on the planet.
Learning to code isn’t about turning all our kids into programmers, any more than teaching them writing is meant to turn all of them into published authors. It’s about teaching them the building blocks of how to create new tools, new products and new services. It’s about how we’re finding creative solutions to some of our biggest problems. It’s about understanding how the future will work.
Entrepreneur and web pioneer Marc Andreessen said: “The spread of computers and the internet will put jobs into two categories: people who tell computers what to do and people who are told by computers what to do.” I want to be sure that our kids are the one’s telling computers what to do.
Find the original article at: http://www.standard.co.uk/comment/joanna-shields-no-more-french-lessons--teach-coding-instead-9253995.html