If Average is Over…

In Tyler Cowen’s latest analysis of our work and social futures, he insists that “Average is Over’. What does he mean by this and what does it mean for the current generation of Australia’s students and teachers?

Some time ago, my partner Peter and I were enjoying a meal with a group of principals who shared their frustrations about the growing number of parents in their school community convinced that their child was exceptionally gifted. “We want to tell almost all of them”, they chorused, “that their kids are good kids but they’re aaavridge –not brilliant, not talented, just aaavridge!”

It is a truism that, despite the special pleading of parents and positive psychologists, someone must be ‘aaavridge’. Indeed, the logic of the bell curve would tell us that this category has to be the largest statistical group, whether we are measuring test results or temperature ranges. Most teachers, indeed, would fall into the ‘average’ category in terms of their own past academic performance, and also in terms of their award wages and flat salary scales. The middle of the middle class, with all that is laudable and lugubrious about that social location. Teachers have the paradoxical status of belonging to “one of the most conservative professions in the world”, a strength when it comes to healthy scepticism about passing fads and fashions, and a limitation when it comes to embracing potentially useful technological innovation.

So what does it mean for the future of teachers’ profession and their pedagogy to declare, as Tyler Cowen has done in his recent book, that ‘Average is over!’ For Cowen the idea that ‘someone has to be aaavridge’ is yesterday’s story. To come to grips with the implications of his declaration for teachers and teaching, we need first to understand the essence of his quite unnerving thesis and what others have made of it to date.

Cowen condensed

Cowen argues that the increasing productivity of intelligent machines and economic globalization are splitting modern economies into both very stagnant sectors, and very dynamic sectors, such that “they will either rise to the top in terms of quality or make do with unimpressive results” (p.4). This cleaving of economic domains, and the identities and incomes that are produced within them, will make for a “hyper-meritocracy” (p.xi) of two distinct social classes. The ‘winners’ will be the small number of highly self-motivated individuals who are willing and able to add value to a highly computerised and automated world of economic productivity. The ‘others’ will include those with ‘average’ performance and aspirations who will find it increasingly difficult to maintain their social position, let alone gain any upward traction. They are more likely to be ‘slip slidin’ away’, to use Paul Simon’s familiar phrase, to join the growing ranks of the underemployed and unemployed. In other words, automation “is a wave that will lift you or that will dump you” (p.6). Cowen’s description of those no longer rewarded in this brave new world – “the slacker twenty-two-year-old with a BA in English, even from a good school” (p.26) – sounds very close to the profile of many a recent graduate from our teacher education institutions. Add a ‘Dip Ed’ and it is chilling indeed!

While the idea of a dystopian future dominated by smart machines is not new, contemporary research into the impact of automation on our work world, and, it follows, on our social identity, appears to bear out many of Cowen’s claims. Nicholas Carr’s analysis of the impact of computerization, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us (2014), for example, is equally disturbing in its assessment of the impact of smart automation on our future (and present) work world. He writes:
Computers can [now] parse thousands of pages of digitized documents in seconds. Using e-discovery software with language analysis algorithms, the machines not only spot relevant words and phrases but also discern chains of events, relationships among people, and even personal emotions and motivations. A single computer can take over the work of dozens of well-paid professionals. (p.116)

A year before Carr’s book, two Oxford researchers, Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, investigated seven hundred different kinds of work to conclude that “nearly half of all jobs in the United States could be lost to machines within the next twenty years”. The social effect of this on average performers seeking secure and reasonably remunerated work opportunities is, according to Elizabeth Jacobs, one of Cowen’s many reviewers, both undesirable but plausible. She notes:

Perhaps most disheartening is the frightening plausibility of the predictions. …. The accelerated hollowing-out of the American economy in the wake of the recession bodes poorly for the revival of the middle class. About 60 percent of the jobs lost during the downturn were mid-wage occupations, and 73 percent of the jobs that have been added during the recovery have been low-wage jobs.

This trend has been borne out on a recent OECD Report that calls attention to the fact that “non-standard work” now accounts for more than half of all job creation. Business editor for The World Today, Peter Ryan, highlights its finding that “a surge in self-employment and more temporary and part-time roles over the past two decades” means that “more workers have insecure jobs which tend to be lower quality, lower paid and the pay packet is more often than not lighter”.

W(h)ither schooling?

While the analysis given by Cowen and others tends to be focused on discernable changes in America, there is clear evidence of similar impacts on Australian workers. In his recent article, Digital shift puts nearly half of Australia’s jobs at high risk, Gareth Hutchens draws attention to a recent report warning that nearly half of the jobs in Australia are at high risk of “digital disruption” in the next 20 years. Moreover, he says, “our education system is not equipping students with the skills needed to adapt”. Setting aside for the moment all the vociferous debates about the real purpose of Australian schooling, the recent OECD finding that “20 per cent of our 15-year-olds feel that they don’t belong in school” is sobering indeed. More so when aligned with Gallup polling indicating that “by year 5, 25 per cent of students have disengaged from learning… and by the time they reach year 12 that figure is one in two”.

While there have always been those poorly served by the schooling system, the idea that technological progress is going to create many more casualties is acknowledged even among the strongest advocates for automating our industrial and commercial processes. Cowen asserts that ordinary people are increasingly unable to cull from science a general, intelligible picture of the world, and that this gap will only continue to widen. One of his reviewers depicts this development as “a disaster” inasmuch as “science gives us the only picture of the world that is capable of being universally shared which is also able to accurately guide our response to both nature and the technological world”. It is a trend that has spawned a plethora of calls for a review of the entire education sector, “to start producing far more people literate in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects”. The increasingly vociferous call for Australian schools and universities to build much greater capacity in high-end mathematics and science is an unsurprising implication of Cowen’s ‘Average is Over’ thesis.

However, there is more to infer for Australian educators than the urgency of arresting and remediating the current flight from (and fright of) advanced mathematics and science. As Elizabeth Jacobs asserts, it is not simply learning about science and technology that is implicated, but the capacity to learn more generally:

High earners are taking ever more advantage of machine intelligence in data analysis and achieving ever-better results. Meanwhile, low earners who haven’t committed to learning … have poor prospects… A steady, secure life somewhere in the middle—average—is over. (our italics)

In other words, in the new generation of jobs the demand will be for high levels of cognitive labour, higher indeed than many professional workers currently utilize in accessing and processing data. Those of us who cannot produce original ideas and products that add value to automated and digitised processes will be in danger. We have argued elsewhere that our highest achievers on standardized tests are not necessary our best learners, nor indeed, our most creative thinkers. If ‘knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do’ is the hallmark of the life-long learner for these times, then we need to look more closely at what we are asking young people to pay attention to in this brave new world. “It’s clear”, says Cowen, that the world “is demanding more in the way of credentials, more in the way of ability, and it is passing along most of the higher rewards to a relatively small cognitive elite”.

If our young people are to thrive in a work world where remuneration is moving away from the single payroll to micro-revenues arising from a variety of short-term opportunities, they will need to understand and exploit the affordances of personalised learning made possible through digitalisation. We have written elsewhere about the non-negotiables of our schooling system, and the extent to which formal education, with its lock-step and lock-in approach to programs of learning militates against the sort of high challenge, fast-paced learning needed by dynamic enterprises. For Cowen, ‘Average is Over’ renders the classroom even less relevant, given that the skills needed to work alongside and add value to smart machines are well beyond the literacies and numeracies developed through mainstream school curricula. If, as James Bessen argues, “workers who have mastered those skills are mostly self-taught, and only a minority of workers have the talents required to learn in this fashion”, then this places a priority on long-term application and self-management. For our young people to function at the high level of cognitive curiosity and confidence necessary to future learning and employment opportunities, they will need to be practised in both.

W(h)ither teaching?

A key issue here involves the matter of confidence. This is not the sort of confidence that anticipates easy success. So it is not the sort of confidence that is praise-dependent and unconnected to complex task completion. It is, rather, the confidence that comes from regular engagement in the conscientious pursuit of difficult, even intractable problems. It is the confidence that welcomes the instructive complications of error, and mirrors Thomas Edison’s famous affirmation, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

In the last decade while working closely with schools, it seems to us that many teachers work very hard to assist students to have a positive experience of learning – so hard indeed, that they give students the strong impression that (a) they can do anything without too much effort and (b) someone will always be there to assist them if the going gets tough. So we have two contrary imperatives at work here – the need to tolerate the discomfort of ‘not yet’ when it comes to high-end learning and the rush to ensure that our young people experience as few ‘negative moments’ as possible in the interests of building and maintaining their self-esteem.

Yet there is at the same time a growing realisation that building self-esteem in the young is not delivering as much as it seemed to promise at the end of the last century. As philosopher Michael Foley sees it, the current generation’s belief that they are entitled to accolades for easy success as an effect, at least in part, of our society’s willingness to elevate ‘self-esteem’ as a social good worthy for its own sake, while having no values or principles and requiring no effort beyond its insistence on positive self-reflection from others. Difficulty, on the other hand, he sees as a contrary imperative that has been overwhelmed by the effects of raising self-esteem:

Difficulty has become repugnant because it denies entitlement, disenchants potential, limits mobility and flexibility, delays gratification, distracts from distraction and demands responsibility, commitment, attention and thought.

Foley is not alone in commenting negatively on the consequences of elevating self-esteem over conscientious commitment to task completion, however long that might take. At a recent graduation ceremony in an American school, Wellesley High School, the keynote speaker teacher departed from the traditional congratulatory rhetoric, telling the assembled graduates that they were neither special nor exceptional, but probably believed they were because they had been “pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, and bubble-wrapped, feted and fawned over”, an effect, he argued, of Americans’ “love of accolades more than genuine achievement”. This shot across the bows of praise-dependency underlines what journalist Erika Christakis calls “the cheapening effect of making everything special”. ‘Being special’ becomes a right, not an achievement, and to be treated in any other way, regardless of behavior or performance, becomes unthinkable. And so the gap continues to widen between graduates’ perceptions of their attractiveness to future employers and the real world of shrinking opportunity for all but the very few.
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Too much consolation, not enough challenge?

Recent research appears to suggest, at least in part, that the praise-dependency identified overtly at Wellesley High is not only widespread but could be an unintended outcome of the work of ‘consoling’ teachers. In an article published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology entitled ‘It’s ok—Not everyone can be good at math’: Instructors with an entity theory comfort (and demotivate) students a team of researchers provides evidence from a sample of first year university students that fleshes out the downside of praise-dependency in young people. Importantly, it suggests that well meaning teachers may be aiding and abetting student vulnerability rather than building their capacity to self-manage in contexts of uncertainty and complexity:

[The research] suggests that an educational system focused on accepting weaknesses (as long as one focuses on strengths) is not quite as positive as intended. It may lead to situations in which the forces pushing students to dis-engage from important fields of study are stronger than those encouraging them to persevere through difficulty. Thus, the popular practice today of identifying weaknesses and turning students toward their strengths may be another self-esteem-building strategy gone awry… and one that may contribute to the low numbers of students pursuing math and science.

So if we are to invest less in consoling students and more in their capacity for learning, how could teachers go about this?

We might begin by re-thinking the purpose of schooling, not merely as the pursuit of credentials, although advanced credentials will continue to be important, but an investment in lifelong personalized well-being. While few in our culture would need to be convinced of the importance of spiritual well-being (however that is understood) or physical or financial well-being when it comes to quality of life, the quest for a learning disposition adequate to these times has not been framed in the same way. It has been truncated to questions around the choice of a school, a university or vocational college, courses of study, credentials and grade point averages. In other words, educational well-being has been defined in terms that serve the interests of formal educational institutions, the same institutions that are over-promising and under-delivering when it comes to the employability of their graduates in this new era.

Our recent observations of pedagogical practice in the years of senior schooling have revealed a myopic fixation on university entrance, as though nothing else really matters beyond having the requisite course entry requirements. The senior years are often fenced off from any ‘distraction’ from matriculation to university, and that includes any innovation that might not be directly relevant to final exams. While teachers may well blame parents for insisting on test results above all else, we remain unconvinced that parents are the ‘cause’ of this pedagogical timidity in the senior school. Meanwhile, tertiary courses like journalism, forensic science, marine biology, psychology and arts/law are massively over-subscribed with graduates having virtually no hope of full-time employment in the relevant field. Teaching, too, is fast joining the growing list of oversubscribed degrees, the reasoning being that if all else fails, an actual human being is still needed to meet the custodial demands of childcare. But to reason that current teacher/student ratios, or that custodial arrangements in the future will stay as they are today, is to neglect a myriad of ways in which digitisation is impacting pedagogical work at all educational levels.

It is worth noting that most teachers have never experienced being remunerated for their labour by way of micro-revenues, nor have they, in general, experienced the uncertainty of the short-termism of the sort of work on offer in global on-line job brokers like ODesk or Freelancer. In prioritizing examination results over the capacity for learning, unlearning and re-learning, teachers replicate the educational world in which they came to the classroom rather than the world with which their students will need to engage. This is a scenario familiar to those who have read Peddiwell’s 1939 classic satirical text, ‘Sabre-Tooth Curriculum’, in which teachers in schools continue to insist on the relevance of content and skills that have little or no bearing on the transformed world around them.

Given all the evidence that educational well-being now involves far more than credentialing, it would seem to us that the very best Australia’s teachers could do is to pay close attention to building their own dispositions to learn, unlearn and re-learn. Rather than adopting the position of ‘someone who knows’, relevant teachers will be those who demonstrate to their students how “useful ignorance” can but put to work in the service of knowledge production and distribution. This means they will be willing and able to model how to be responsive to the demands and delights of learning – its leaps, surprises, discontinuities and regressions. They will understand that merely absorbing and reproducing static factual information and performing low-level routine transactions will be of little value to their students when it comes to acquiring high end credentials and future financial well-being.
So too the work of preparing students for standardized tests, those dubious exercises in quality assurance and control, will be of less importance to such teachers than the ability of their students to learn to learn. For many teachers who are themselves ‘aaaverage’ when it comes to fast-paced, high-end cognitive labour, this may well be a bridge too far.

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