By Ayesha KhannaApril 10, 2013 | The Straits Times
There seems to be little doubt that technology will increasingly shape almost all future industries and careers.
Headlines abound of the loss of jobs to automation across sectors as diverse as mining and law. Employers also increasingly complain that young college graduates are ill-equipped in the skills needed to work productively.
CEOs, parliamentarians, mayors and ministers are responding with rapid-fire funding and calls to add technology to schools.
But most are going about it in absolutely the wrong way.
Unfortunately, we associate teaching technology with the availability of computers (and for richer schools, with the prevalence of iMacs and iPads) on campus. We put course material on the Web, and make children search the Web to complete their homework.
I visited one international pre-school where I was told the children were being taught how to use a computer mouse as part of their "technology class".
But the mouse is a piece of equipment that will become extinct before these children start college.
Not only are we wasting our children's time with such superficial efforts, but we are also making them passive users of tools. We should be teaching them to become masters of technology.
Language of technology
Technology is a language capable of helping humans experiment with ideas, solve challenging problems, and create and convey beauty.
It has a grammar, contains dialects, a treasure chest of heuristics and rules. It can also be used creatively to express complex concepts. And, as with any other language, children are very good at learning technology at an early age.
Just like you wouldn't ask your child to watch MTV if you want them to appreciate and master music, you should not tolerate schools that ask students to "search the Web" for answers to their homework.
Not only are children being asked to conduct several things that will be redundant (typing on keyboards, searching without the help of a smart search agent) but they are also being pushed into a deluge of distractions without having built the skills to navigate a world of constant multiple stimuli. This only results in hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder.
So what is the right way to teach technology?
The first step is to make children understand that technology is their partner in achieving their goals, albeit one that they must guide and can control. This approach essentially turns on its head how we, even as adults, approach technology.
We view technology as a collection of tools that we need to complete our work, not as partners or co-developers of solutions. Worse, we see these tools as fixed in time and space, and thus beyond our guidance and control.
If more and more professions will require creative use of technology to build innovative products and services, being passive users of technological tools means you will always be at the lowest rung in any profession.
Leaders of innovation
Those who understand how technology works, or how the mind of the machine functions, can on their own or with the help of specialists go much further in being leaders of innovation.
How can your child lead a logistics company in 2040 that uses swarms of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to construct residential buildings if he or she is not educated in design, robotics and sociology?
If this sounds like science fiction, go visit the ETH Zurich Centre at the Clementi campus of the National University of Singapore, where work is being done on prototypes for these types of robotic "construction workers".
The deep-seated belief that technology is immutable to all but computer engineers is not only unambitious from a career perspective, but such passivity is also dangerous from a species perspective.
The yin and yang of technology have both benefited and haunted humans over the centuries, catapulting us forward in progress, but also bringing destruction.
We are entering an era where machines will become more intelligent and networked infrastructure will make every aspect of our lives available to these machines as a stream of real-time information (captured through cameras and sensors invisible to the human eye).
It is critical for citizens to understand how technologies are built and comprehend the nature of information and its many forms.
Without this proactive approach towards technology, we risk allowing ill-meaning corporations and governments to manipulate us through machines, stripping us of privacy in the process.
In view of the increasing importance of technology at work and in society, educational authorities must make technology as fundamental a part of core curricula as mathematics and English.
Admittedly there are no standardised ways of teaching this domain, but that should not stop Singapore schools from pioneering efforts and experimenting pilots to find the most effective ways in which to impart this education.
Innovative approaches vary from teaching logic and how to break down problems into smaller pieces, to employing Lego sets to build strange but original objects and using dramatics to role-play how robots perceive the world and process information.
Spirit of technology
Note that none of these three methods, all of which I recommend for pre-schools, involve any technological tools. The spirit of technology is independent of the tools we temporally associate with it.
As children grow and work on more complex problems, the teaching of technology will also meet many other goals articulated by the Government, such as creating a workforce that is productive, disciplined and innovative. This is because technology teaching involves teaching children how to build new objects, hardware or software, a process that requires sustained focus but also has a built-in reward system as objects begin to take shape much to the joy of the builder.
Any given project will likely involve elements of design and engineering but, depending on the domain, could contain disciplines varying from movies to geography. The cross-disciplinary nature of technology not only encourages collaboration with others, but also imbibes the habit of systems thinking in general.
Meanwhile, prototyping is an essential skill for being an entrepreneur and also instils the values of scenario analysis, which are essential to leadership and management in a complex world.
It is the moral responsibility of parents, teachers and governments to explain the philosophy, concepts and grammar of technology to children. We are, after all, entering the age of human-technology civilisation.
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