The 2017 book Humility is the New Smart by economists Edward Hess and Katherine Ludwig begins by asking five critical questions about what they call the Smart Machine Age (SMA). Every student, parent, and educator should be asking these questions too:

  1. Could a robot or smart machine replace me?
  2. How can I thrive in this new era?
  3. What can I do now to start preparing for the SMA?
  4. What could this mean for my career plans?
  5.  And most importantly, what do my children need to do to begin preparing for this new age? (1,2)

The authors cite research from Oxford University and the Bank of England that shows up to 47 percent of US jobs could be replaced by technology in the next ten to twenty years.

This jobocalypse sounds terrifying until one realizes this is nothing new. As old jobs fall away, new industries arise in their place. The Industrial Revolution displaced a large swath of the agrarian economy, but societies adjusted and new jobs were created in manufacturing – new jobs which required a new system of education.

The industrial age birthed a factory model of education. Manufacturing jobs were mostly boring and repetitive, so industrial education was likewise boring and repetitive. These jobs often required a great deal of memorization and rote tasks, so schooling demanded memorization and rote tasks. It worked. It was a good system in 1919; in 2020 it seems increasingly broken.

The information age, or the smart machine age as Hess and Ludwig call it, needs to birth its own new model to educate students for the jobs of the future (or really the present as this shift is already underway). In other words we need to ask what our children need to do to begin preparing for this new age.

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Let’s Start Here

We can begin by redefining what it means to be smart in an era where our virtual assistants like Alexa and Siri can deliver a world of data in an instant. When we think about someone who is smart, what do we picture? Often it is professors at a prestigious university or NASA scientists working on the latest rover mission. We think, wow, look at all they must know!

For a long time, smart has been based on the number of things people can cram in their heads and retain. And this is exactly how education has worked for decades. It’s the “standardization covenant” that Todd Rose describes in Dark Horse: be just like everyone else except better. Teachers stand at the front of the room and pour out what they know to students who are expected to passively absorb it by writing it down and then proving they’ve “learned” it on an exam.

But in many  cases, what those teachers know is accessible through a web browser, a digital assistant, or a database subscription. Siri, when did the Ottoman Empire collapse?  Alexa, how long is a year on Mars? We need to start asking, does knowing these things really make us smart anymore? And if not, why do we insist that students memorize them?

Einstein is the historical figure usually held up as the personification of smart, but what he knew did not make him intelligent, it was how he thought. Computer algorithms can already do all of the calculus Einstein knew faster and more accurately. What they cannot do is imagine new possibilities that shift the scientific paradigm for generations.

In today’s world being smart is not about what we know; it’s about how we think.

Hess and Ludwig spend the rest of their book outlining four fundamental behaviors for success in the smart machine age: quieting ego, managing self, reflective listening, and otherness. According to them, humility is the key to a new kind of smart.

Rather than feel confident about what we know, we need to bask in how much we do not know.  As many researchers have pointed out, social-emotional intelligence and creativity are key skills that will not be so easily replaced by AI or robots. How can students find novel creative solutions to a problem if their focus is on what they already know? How can they cultivate social-emotional intelligence and build relationships with others if they cannot be humble about everything they do not know?

It is important to qualify that to Hess and Ludwig, humility is not being meek or subservient as it is often thought of in a modern context. They see humility as, “a mindset about oneself that is open-minded, self-accurate, and ‘not all about me,’ and that enables one to embrace the world as it ‘is’ in the pursuit of human excellence” (8).

Imagine now that this is what school taught.  What if we focused on creating experiences that helped students make meaningful connections and contributions to others.

“If the goal is to read The Odyssey to do well on the paper or test, we’re missing something,”  notes Dan O’Connor, a member of the Design Team for the Mastery School of Hawken. “The goal is actually to read The Odyssey so that it changes our minds about fame, power, love, and home.  If that’s the case, we need to make the project they’re working on about fame, power love, and home, and have the Odyssey be a step on the path to completing that project.”

The point is to lead students to master content in order to use it in ways that are meaningful for and often urgently needed by others.   “Content mastery shouldn’t just be the end goal – this arbitrary, disconnected bit of information,” Dan contends. Content matters when it matters.

To make the kind of shift Dan describes, we are going to have to let go of the fiction that being smart in today’s world means knowing lots of stuff. This can be particularly difficult for educators steeped in a system that often lacks a method of assessing ways of thinking and instead rewards those who can cram a bunch of information in their heads and then repeat it back on an exam.

I’ve been trying to think of a job that involves test taking and the skills required to be good at it for weeks now, and I cannot come up with anything. Career success is not based on the ability to take multiple choice tests.

Maybe it’s time to ask why so much of school is.

Rennie Greenfield

Rennie Greenfield

My parents are professors and always told me I was going to be a teacher myself someday. I resisted. While I had seen some wonderful teaching, I also experienced a slew of terrible educational practices I did not want to perpetuate. I tried several other career paths, and then I realized I wanted nothing more than to devote my professional energy to education – not to teaching, but real mind-expanding, student-focused education. I agree with Oliver Wendell Holmes’ assertion that “one's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.” I believe we live in a complex moment in history and the problems we face require a new generation of problem-solving students equipped for the task. I want to help students stretch their minds to new dimensions in order to meet this moment. I have studied history, philosophy, religion, English, and library science at Westminster College and Kent State University. I am currently a teacher, librarian, and instruction technologist at Hawken Upper School where we have already begun this work. Now that I have learned how to learn, I enjoy nothing more than applying that skill to redesigning school.