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NSW’s conversation on thinking skills in an AI world

A group of five University of New South Wales (UNSW) academics and education experts came together to discuss what students need to thrive in an AI future. The panel was hosted by the NSW Department of Education and the University of NSW Grand Challenges Program.

Moderator of the discussion, Leslie Loble, Deputy Secretary of External Affairs and Regulation at the NSW Department of Education, said, “In an AI-augmented world, higher order, deeply embedded thinking skills will be even more important for students’ long-term success.”

“This panel will discuss with leading thinkers in AI, in industry and in education why this is the case, and what education can do to support students’ sense of agency and capacity to engage with an increasingly complex world.”

“Students will need to emerge from their education with both deep knowledge and excellent skills to understand, interpret and shape their world – in the workplace, community and beyond.”

Prior to the discussion, the NSW Department of Education released a ‘conversation starter’ document. It explores how higher order and deeply embedded thinking skills are the rudimentary for student learning and success.

Tuning in to the discussion online, the panellists engaged in a refreshing discussion. Rather than questioning whether students would be able to adapt to the emerging technology, the panellists debated on what kind of teaching strategies and pedagogies would be best to help students benefit. More specifically, the benefits were scoped to how students could make a positive contribution to the growing field of AI.

The panellists were unafraid to question age-old pedagogical methods and thinking. They questioned if a traditional understanding of critical thinking, creative thinking, problem solving, computational thinking and mathematical logic, ethical reasoning, and metacognition have changed in relevance today.

Peter Ellerton, Founding Director of the University of Queensland Critical Thinking Project, spoke about the need for academic rigour today. More than ever, we need people who can reason clearly. In an era of tweets and memes, it is too easy to be misunderstood and worse yet, make misinformed judgements about what we see online.

Going back to the basics, as far back as Aristotle and Plato, students should be taught ethics. Toby Walsh, Scientia Professor of Artificial Intelligence at UNSW and Data61 cited the example of a US-based group who intended to teach the destitute AI. Ideas like these have misplaced empathies and fail to reason the root cause for the social issue.

Cultivating a strong code of ethical reasoning is indeed becoming more important. If we wish not for a dystopic future, one controlled by robots, then educators must mould the future today.

Hence, Sandy Plunkett, entrepreneur and founder of Innovation Clearinghouse, suggested that students should be groomed with the right blend of skills. We should not be promoting just STEM courses or the humanities exclusively. A good mix is necessary.

Lyria Bennett Moses, Associate Professor and Director of the Allen Hub for Technology, Law and Innovation at UNSW seemed to agree. She said, some individuals might be good at tech the side of things, but really lack sound ethical principles. This could be a problem in the future, since their inventions would have no resonance or abuse its contemporaries.

Astoundingly, some developers themselves are unsure why their algorithms are spiralling out of control. The CEO of a search engine giant himself admitted that he could not precisely say how the search engine’s computational DNA works.

More than ever, educators need to equip their students with shaper sets of thinking skills. Necessarily, this means coming up with new assessments and rewriting pedagogies.

Ellerton notes, “No school could teach students all the knowledge they need to survive in a rapidly evolving society. But we could teach them how to think in a way that works for the knowledge they will learn in the future.”

So perhaps it is time to take a step back, go back in time even, when education was about logic and reasoning.

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