If there’s one thing Asian schools excel at training kids to do, it’s copious amounts of boring, repetitive tasks. Here in Hong Kong, schoolchildren are given tremendous amounts of homework at very young ages. The assignments are not creative. They do not call for innovative or imaginative thinking. They are simply busy work – designed by educators from decades ago to keep children occupied and prepare them to be good followers.
But children these days face a radically different future, where artificial intelligence is predicted to wipe out 40 per cent of jobs by 2030. If we do not adapt and change the way we teach, there will not be a future for Hong Kong children.
If you’ve talked to a Hong Kong child recently, you might have noticed that they seem different during the summer. They don’t look quite as defeated – one might even say they look happy. That’s because they’re out of school, and not subject to the daily mountain of mindless homework.
There used to be a time when such homework served a purpose. It instilled in children a good work ethic, time management skills, the ability to sit at a desk and perform a task, however boring, for hours on end. That used to be what companies looked for in employees. But, increasingly, machines are able to do that better than us humans.
As artificial intelligence surges in computing power (expected to surpass that of human brains in 2040), we have to face facts. We’re never going to outcompete robots on work ethic, time management, or anything that involves crunching numbers or knowing facts, codes or rules.
The robot will always do all that better, which is why jobs in accounting, telemarketing and sales are so vulnerable. Think computer science jobs are safe? Think again. According to Toby Walsh, professor at the University of New South Wales, “AI programmes will likely be better coders than humans.”
Ultimately, I think the only industries “safe” from AI are the service and creative sectors.
There will always be jobs in the service industry because humans are social creatures and we need social interaction. Robots, though more efficient and cheaper, simply cannot replicate the emotional connection and comfort that humans can provide. As such, jobs like those of nurses and therapists are probably going to be around for a while.
Likewise, creative jobs will probably increase. Computers can’t write stories that make people weep, or create shows or movies that make hearts sing. With ever increasing numbers of people out of work, their lives and sense of self-worth interrupted by AI, we’re going to need a lot of entertainment.
Thus, the people who are going to thrive in the next century are those who are super creative, with excellent people skills and communication skills. Currently, not one of these three skills is being taught in Hong Kong schools.
Creativity is neither fostered nor rewarded in the Hong Kong education system, nor is having people skills such as empathy or tolerance, or the ability to think about something from multiple points of view and come to a compromise. Because these are not “testable” skills, sadly, they have no place in the current education system.
And while Hong Kong children are constantly being asked to copy passages, and write and recite things, they are not being taught how to properly communicate in a global language (that is, English). They’re not taught how to get their point across effectively, much less in a moving, emotive way, which will increasingly be the standard for humans.
Hong Kong parents realise this, and so some send their children to after-school programmes for “enrichment”. But there are only so many hours in the day. And it’s expensive. And sometimes the kids have already spent so many years learning how to write in the most boring, formulaic way, utterly devoid of imagination, that it takes an incredible amount of time to unteach them.
This summer, I was teaching creative writing to a group of 12-year-olds. They were gung-ho creative writers. They loved reading and writing stories. Still, it took me weeks to get them to come out of their shell, to take a risk with their writing and really let their imaginations go. When they finally did it, I was so proud of them. We all stood and clapped as the kids read their stories; I was moved to tears.
It is my greatest hope as an educator that more schools in Asia teach kids to work smart, not just work hard. We’re never going to be able to work harder than robots, so having our kids grind away, doing endless dictation and revision, is pointless.
It’s time to stop preparing them for a future that will not exist when they graduate. We need to give them the gifts of creativity, empathy, imagination, people skills and excellent communication skills in a global language, so they will actually have a future.
Kelly Yang is the founder of the Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debating. Her latest children’s novel, Front Desk, is due out next May.