OPINION

From the Superintendent’s Desk

Staff Writer
Story City Herald

Moving Beyond Routine Cognitive Work

In an effort to effectively prepare students for the future, educators are constantly trying to predict what that future will look like. Unless you are clairvoyant, the breadth of knowledge and multitude of skills our students will need to be successful beyond high school seems almost impossible to accurately pin down. We are often aiming at a constantly moving target.

To illustrate the challenge we face and the different skills our graduates must now possess to be successful, I am sharing with you a recent article written by Scott McLeod of Ames. Scott is widely recognized as one of the nation’s leading experts on K-12 school technology leadership issues. The article below has been reprinted with permission from its author.

David Autor, an economist at MIT, is our nation’s leading expert when it comes to understanding the shifting nature of work in our now hyperconnected, hypercompetitive global economy. Autor has done extensive data analysis to understand and describe different kinds of work in America:

• Routine manual tasks Activities like production and monitoring jobs performed on an assembly line; easily automated and often replaced by machines; picking, sorting, repetitive assembly.

• Non-routine manual tasks Activities that demand situational adaptability, visual and language recognition, and perhaps in-person interaction; require modest amounts of training; activities like driving a truck, cleaning a hotel room, or preparing a meal.

• Routine mental tasks. Activities that are sufficiently well-defined that they can be carried out by a less-educated worker in a developing country with minimal discretion; also increasingly replaced by computer software algorithms; activities like bookkeeping, clerical work, information processing and record-keeping (e.g., data entry), and repetitive customer service.

• Non-routine mental tasks (analytical and/or interpersonal). Activities that require problem-solving, intuition, persuasion, and creativity; facilitated and complemented by computers, not replaced by them; hypothesis testing, diagnosing, analyzing, writing, persuading, managing people; typical of professional, managerial, technical, and creative professions such as science, engineering, law, medicine, design, and marketing.

As Autor’s data show, fewer and fewer employment opportunities exist in America for both routine cognitive work and manual labor. Additionally, the gap has been widening over the past five decades, particularly since the advent of the personal computer. Unless they’re location-dependent, manual labor jobs often are outsourced to cheaper locations overseas. Unless they’re location-dependent, routine cognitive jobs are increasingly being replaced both by cheaper workers overseas and by software algorithms.

Our challenge is that the kind of schoolwork that most American students do most of the time is routine cognitive work. The kind of work that is emphasized in nearly all of our classrooms, state, and national assessments is routine cognitive work. And the kind of work for which traditionalist parents and politicians continue to advocate is routine cognitive work. In other words, we have yet to make the mental and operational shifts necessary to enable students for future work and life success.

Take a closer look at these trends by watching the 15-minute video, Humans Need Not Apply (http://bit.ly/humansneednotapply).

This article makes a strong case that if we don’t provide our students with the ability to solve complex problems, regularly learn new skills, think creatively, empathize with others, and persevere through challenges, we are failing them. Sure, reading, writing, and arithmetic are just as important as they have always been. We all need strong foundational skills and that hasn’t changed. But the world is changing, and we must change with it to provide students will skills beyond the basics. Teaching and learning is complex and challenging work. We must stay the course on the things we know students will need and we must be willing to change as the future demands. In fact, the willingness and ability to change and adapt to new situations is absolutely necessary if we are going to effectively prepare students for the hyperconnected and hypercompetitive global world they will inherit.

If you have questions please don’t hesitate to contact me at mpatton@roland-story.k12.ia.us or 515-733-4301.

Please have a safe and enjoyable Christmas.