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‘Hey Siri, Wanna Do My Homework?’

Posted November 6, 2017

I recently read that Apple’s Siri is asked nearly 100,000 questions per minute and that the number keeps growing as more and more people get comfortable with using artificial intelligence.  And of course Apple’s Siri isn’t the only voice that’s becoming commonplace in our lives.  There’s also Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google’s Assistant just to name a few who are all at our beck and call to help.

While watching my kids do their homework the other day, I saw where, at least, a few of those questions are coming from – my house!

“Hey siri, what is . . . .?” 

“Hey siri, where is . . . .?” 

“Hey siri, can you . . . ?”

Watching this hit me between the eyes.  All of the stuff I’ve been reading about and talking about . . . like how students expect anytime learning, need a different skill set than students of the past and see right through the busy work assignments . . . suddenly became very real for me.  It was happening at my own kitchen counter!

Clearly, if we’re not stepping back and taking a hard look at the things we’re asking students to do both at home and in the classroom, we’re not paying attention.

The intelligence we once so valued in our classrooms and in our teachers who, in the past, were the great gatekeepers of knowledge, is suddenly not so valuable with the web and virtual assistants that are available anytime, anywhere.

And this has serious implications for the work we do in schools.

In an interesting report, Pearson, Inc. defines artificial intelligence as “computer systems that have been designed to interact with the world through capabilities (for example, visual perception and speech recognition) and intelligent behaviors (for example, assessing the available information and then taking the most sensible action to achieve a stated goal) that we would think of as essentially human.” (Luckin, R., Holmes, W., Griffiths, M. & Forcier, L. B. (2016). Intelligence Unleashed. An argument for AI in Education. London: Pearson.)

This, combined with other forms of robotic automation, is not just impacting the way we learn but also the way we work.  We don’t have to look far to see the predictions for just how many jobs will one day be replaced by the robot.  But, these same reports, also point out the types of jobs and skills that likely won’t be replaced.

“Jobs that require social skills, creativity or higher education are less likely to [get replaced by automation].” (www.marketwatch.com (2017). This Chart Spells Out in Black and White Just How Many Jobs will be Lost to Robots.)

And this where we come in to prepare our students for their likely futures.  Years ago, Norman Webb published the Depth of Knowledge framework to conceptualize the different levels of knowledge and skills that schools should be teaching and assessing in classrooms.  Level 1 is basic recall (identify, label, calculate, recite, name, etc.); level 2 requires more skills (graph, classify, estimate, construct, compare, etc.); level 3 pushes for strategic thinking (hypothesize, investigate, formulate, critique, argue, etc.); and level 4 extends students’ thinking for deeper understanding and application (design, connect, synthesize, create, prove, etc.).  

Educational experts and researchers say, “Most of the tasks students encounter should tap the kinds of cognitive skills that have been characterized as “higher-level”—skills that support transferable learning, rather than emphasizing only skills that tap rote learning and the use of basic procedures. While there is a necessary place for basic skills and procedural knowledge, it must be balanced with attention to critical thinking and applications of knowledge to new contexts.” (Darling-Hammond, L., Herman, J., Pellegrino, J., et al. (2013). Criteria for high-quality assessment. Stanford, CA: Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education.)

And so that’s a challenge to us.  We must carefully examine the homework we’re giving our kids and the projects we’re asking them to complete.  Are they at a level 3 or level 4?  Or are they lower at level 1 or 2?

Because here’s the thing.  Siri’s pretty good with those level 1 and level 2 questions and tasks, but not so much with levels 3 and 4.  So, let’s give her a break and do what we do best -- give our students the experiences and encouragement that will develop the skills they’ll really need tomorrow and beyond.

Steven Estepp is the superintendent of the Mariemont City School District in Cincinnati, Ohio.