In his arguments against the Common Core, Prof. Yong Zhao, a known educational thinker, referred to his home village:
When I was growing up, the most valued talent was the ability to handle water buffalos used to plow the rice field, other than physical strengths to carry things such as newly harvested rice or sweet potatoes. I don’t know for sure how good a water buffalo handler she [Lady Gaga] could be, but I am quite sure she will not be able to run on bumpy muddy paths with 200 pounds of sweet potatoes dangling on each end of a bamboo pole.
The village I grew up happens to be only ~20 miles away from Zhao’s. And the situation was the same. As a matter of fact, my grandparents never learned to handle a water buffalo. When it came the season to plow the fields, they had to hire experts — a situation that could be tough when the only buffalo became fully booked. And as picky farmers, they didn’t want to hire any random, potentially lousy buffalo handlers, who might plow shallowly (to save the buffalo’s energy) and jeopardize the harvest of a whole year. Indeed, for my grandparents’ generation in the village, knowing how to handle a water buffalo was valuable, more valuable than going to schools.
Things changed for my parents’ generation. They saw growing value of formal education. My dad became the first one of his generation in the family to enter a “teacher’s school” (equivalent to high school) and to land a teaching job with a monthly paycheck. My mom went to high school but narrowly missed college. What became remarkable in their careers was the value of a diploma, with which my dad went on to work as a teacher, received additional training, and is now leading a small team in a local educational department. My mom, with “only” a high-school diploma, has been teaching for decades but is not recognized as a formal member of the teaching force. The differences a diploma could make came up a million times at our dinner table. So my parents’ shared dream was to send me to college — to get an even better diploma from a much bigger place.
The pursuit for advanced degrees became exactly what my generation was all about. While my parents could not fully invest in schoolwork because they had to take care of their families, my generation was generally sucked into homework and crazy amounts of standardized tests. I did get a high-school diploma like my mom and ventured 2,000 miles to Beijing for a college degree, which led me to opportunities of doing what I’m doing — a huge privilege for a kid whose dream was as big and as far as going to college.
From handling a water buffalo to holding a respected diploma/degree, what is seen as valuable, or having value, has dramatically shifted across three generations in my family. If formal education is conceptualized as an activity leading to an outcome. For my grandparents, the outcome was not as valuable as being able to handle a water buffalo. For my parents and myself, the outcome was a diploma, certificate or degree, which accreditates knowledge as “entities” passed onto us through education and entitles us to work on certain jobs or to pursuit new goals.
Now, what will happen for my son’s generation?
It could be possible when my son graduates from college, there is no or very few jobs. This is not being pessimist about the economy, but a reality check given the rise of automation and artificial intelligence. As a report published by McKinsey claims, automation and artificial intelligence could readily carry out 45% of paid activities across the U.S. economy, influencing about 60% of all occupations. While routine tasks in manufacturing, transportation and food service is already being automated, jobs requiring creativity and emotions are where humanity will be seeking meaningful work in the foreseeable future . Even if technical feasibility of automation does not guarantee adoption, education — which has been (partially) charged with workforce preparation — is facing hard questions. What if an education does not lead to a job, because there is no, or not enough, jobs? Are curriculum standards limiting the scope of education to areas that would be soon automated? How the “achievement gap” will be re-lived (not relieved) in an era when the meaning of achievement will be fundamentally redefined?
We are enduring another — and maybe even bigger — shift in valuation in education and learning. For my grandparents, formal education was irrelevant and learning in schools was too detached from their daily lives. What mattered for them was learning knowledge in-use and of practical value, like handling a water buffalo, which was not valued in education. This situation changed for my parents’ and my generation, as formal accreditations from educational institutions are not only relevant but connected to social mobility more than ever before. Degrees, certificates and transcripts given by respected institutions are trusted accreditation of acquired knowledge and skills valued by curriculum standards. With a teaching certificate, my dad became eligible to teach. With a university degree, many doors opened for me. These credentials carry great amounts of value and trust — not determined by learners and educational institutions, but the broader changing societal landscape.
However, one issue with this model is these credentials mark the endpoints of educational experiences which are put in a “black box” for outsiders and are not consistently regarded by the credentialing process in different societies, institutions, departments, or even different iterations of a same course. And yet a same GPA from a same school is equivalently valued, because it is the only thing that gets valued and remains visible after a learning journey is “done.” Things that get produced in learning towards these credentials are largely disregarded and discarded during credentialing; in most cases, they are not seen as generating value at all.
It is only quite recently in new cultures of learning , where artifacts generated in learning are more recognized. Exciting projects are emerging, e.g., Open Badges and the newer Transcripts on blockchain, which open up new ways to credit learning. Specifically, we can now credit a broader range of learner achievements, democratize the practice of credentialing, and give learners stronger control over their credentials. However, in many cases a new technology is adopted to embrace an old educational model — or more precisely an old valuation model that disregards learning in-situ or knowledge that exists in flows of participation, collaboration, and authentic problem-solving. If automation and artificial intelligence are taking away jobs, and if future generations can only find meaningful work at the “creative end,” some larger questions regarding value and valuation need to be discussed. In the newer context of broad and deep automation, and after decades of discussing 21st century competencies:
- What should be seen as having value in learning processes?
- Who are entitled to the act of valuation, if not (only) traditional institutions?
- After valuation, how would value be presented? And to whom?
- Will future learners get paid to learn? Or for what they produce — such as artifacts, meaningful social connections, something contributing to public goods — in learning processes?
- What are the roles of a curriculum?
- How equatable opportunities could be ensured given existing gaps and new divides introduced by any new valuation model?
I am curious about your responses to these bizarre or maybe unanswerable questions.
-  Sources from McKinsey Quarterly: Where machines could replace humans—and where they can’t (yet), and Four fundamentals of workplace automation.
-  Thomas, D., & Brown, J. S. (2011). A new culture of learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change. Lexington, KY: CreateSpace.