Yet more research regarding early childhood education is hitting the newsstands. Worded to heighten parental anxieties, the latest story in the New York Times focuses on what skills preschoolers should be learning in the classroom. Centering on a summer camp run by the Developmental Technologies Research Group at Tufts University, Claire Cain Miller and Jess Bidgood question what it is young children need the most out of the classroom. Contrary to some parental opinions, it isn’t coding skills. Whether they were building with blocks or learning simple robotics, all of the students were “taking turns, persevering through frustration” and, rather sadly, “learning the skills necessary to succeed in an automated economy.”
Technological advances have rendered an increasing number of jobs obsolete in the last decade, and researchers say parts of most jobs will eventually be automated. What the labor market will look like when today’s young children are old enough to work is perhaps harder to predict than at any time in recent history. Jobs are likely to be very different, but we don’t know which will still exist, which will be done by machines and which new ones will be created.
In other words, parents today need to prepare their young children to be unemployed tomorrow. That’s honestly what the article boils down to. Sure, they focus on noting that by teaching children how to work in teams and solve problems through creativity and collaboration they are giving the kids necessary survival skills. But, the bottom line remains that for this generation of parents the future job market is almost a total unknown. Yeah, culture makers give us this vision of a future in which girls are scientists and engineers, but that isn’t the bottom line. The bottom line is that automation scares economists and educators silly and therefore it needs to scare parents, too.
The good news is that these techies and even the most granola of parents can agree on this: Children learn best when their curiosity is encouraged in hands-on, multidisciplinary environments. That’s right: The stuff you read about getting your kids off screens isn’t just solid fact, it’s also on trend in a number of parenting environments. The irony is that whether a parent claims that they want their child outside in order to connect with nature, develop their curiosity, or cultivate independence, the end-goal from a cultural perspective is that of simple survival in a future that remains unknown. Students of history know Westward Expansion didn’t end at California. The vision that turned space into the new frontier has changed yet again. Now our children are facing a final frontier of their own, one that brings them full-circle to those first pioneers. Only this time, instead of trekking the Oregon Trail they’ll be venturing forth with caution and care into their own adulthood, something their parents are already fearing will be an economic rendition of the Donner Party.
“Foundational skills that affect whether people thrive or fall behind in the modern economy are developed early, and achievement gaps appear before kindergarten,” the writers observe. Does that mean parents are being told to prepare to financially support these dumb kids forever? Or is it that our education system doesn’t know what to do with today’s minimum-wage workers and it’s throwing them into a panic? Over children who are all of the tender age of five?
What this article fails to note are the Biblical survival skills of compassion, mercy, and grace that have fueled teamwork and collaboration in successful societies like our own for hundreds, if not thousands of years. If educators fail to teach students how to collaborate across the intellectual spectrum then they – not the vague fear of automatons — are setting up the next generation for defeat. “If you raise and educate kids to be flexible, problem solvers and good communicators, they can adapt to a world that is new,” one educator rightly notes. It’s a good thing to teach children problem-solving skills. We just have to make sure the problems remain practical, not personal for both students and parents. That starts by taking the “achievement gap” lingo off the table and doing what less tech-savvy educators have been doing for over a hundred years: letting children be themselves.