Tuesday 21 May 2019

Mandarin, mandolin or coding? What should we be encouraging our children to do?

Your child has very little free time, so how are they using it? Should they learn Mandarin, or would coding be better? You need to remember that children need time to play. They need to feel freedom. To make their own decisions. To make mistakes. This is how emotional intelligence is built, and how they learn independent thought

Stock image
Stock image

On a glorious early summer's day this year, I had breakfast with a senior executive from one of the world's digital behemoths. We nibbled croissants and discussed the way the future might pan out, particularly the fact that more and more of us are using our voices to control our computers. The pace of change is so startling, he said, that voice commands will soon overtake the keyboard as our main method of interacting with the web. In a matter of years, in other words, man will principally be talking to machine.

Stop for a second and think about what that means. In the past few years, voice-recognition technology (using computational methods called "deep neural networks" or DNNs) has improved so hugely that it is now highly reliable, can understand accents and languages, and has such a thorough semantic understanding of the world that it can deduce what you mean, even if you do not express yourself perfectly as you speak.

Couple this with the increasing proficiency of algorithmic language translation, and it leads to a dramatic conclusion: if you are now learning a language to communicate in a purely functional, impersonal way, then you are expending a lot of effort on something that is soon likely to be redundant.

EQ vs IQ

While researching this series, I conducted an informal "futureproofing" survey, putting to the experts - from consultant doctors to computer scientists - a series of binary questions that articulated some of the conundrums today's parents face. The first was "Mandarin or mandolin?" - by which I meant, given the pace of technological change, will it stand your child in better stead to learn a language or an instrument?

Perhaps because of what they know about the kind of advances that the digital executive described to me, most of the experts plumped for the mandolin. "Multi-language translation is getting better and better," said the AI-expert Mark Minevich, himself father to an eight-year-old girl, as he explained his decision.

But the results of my survey were not clear-cut. A third of the experts still reckoned that Mandarin would be worth pursuing - and their reasons were intriguing. Timothy Armoo, a 23-year-old computer scientist and social-media marketing entrepreneur, is fully aware of DNNs. He knows that computers will soon be able to translate for us. But speaking a foreign language, he says, will come with a "personal touch. It will demonstrate and emphasise empathy with people". The same was true with rote learning. The overwhelming majority of educationalists believe that, given we all have an electronic library of Alexandria in our pockets, the mechanistic memorisation of facts has little or no place in classrooms. Yet Tom Rogers, Head of History at an international school in Vigo, Spain, says he has "no problems" with encouraging rote learning.

"I was talking to my 92-year-old nan the other day and she told me how the poems she had learned by heart at school had stayed with her all her life. Quoting a sonnet at a dinner party, lighting up a conversation, adding to the knowledge of others. Facts are also a social thing."

This is the big lesson for parents who are now helping their children navigate educational choices: as artificial intelligence and robotics have an ever greater impact on our lives, emphasise the social, emotional, empathetic and creative skills that are particularly human.

That can mean learning the Mandarin or mandolin - but try to focus on what you do with those skills. Learn Mandarin to chat with others, and because acquiring languages is a great general brain-trainer, not because of your haphazard guesstimations about future geopolitics. Lean towards the mandolin (also a great brain-trainer) if there is an orchestra at school.

"Help them find a sphere where they can act and get heard even when they are small," says Sonia Livingstone. "Where are the spaces where children really do feel empowered and part of something? That's the allure of street gangs. But you can get it much more positively through a school band."

Picking winners - specific subjects to learn now, based on predicted technological change - is hard, because of what is known to some experts, tongue-in-cheek, as "the ketchup curve" of that change. Just as with automated translation, tech companies push, push, push for years and get nothing, then, suddenly, advance comes in a big splodge. Inevitably, trying to surf the curve can be messy.

What is undeniable is that, happily, access to information is becoming more equal. Sponge-like learning, once championed by schools which excelled in the discipline, is fast becoming out of date. "Most IQ-related skills are being automated at a high rate," says futurologist Ian Pearson. "The guy who did no work at the back of the class will have the same access to information as the swot at the front. Instead, get children to focus on social skills - EQ, not IQ. Of course there's still a value in education, for personal fulfilment, but the most economically important stuff children learn at school these days is on the playground: how to deal with bullies, how to please others, and how to like others. More of that should be going on in the classroom."

Playing at growing up

Here we encounter the importance of play. When to begin academic instruction is a debate that has been raging for decades. But given the almost unprecedented uncertainties of the decades ahead, the benefits of play at playschool and beyond are harder than ever to ignore.

"Research suggests the 'benefits' of introducing more academic curricula at an early age is not convincing," says Dr Tomas Ellegaard, from The Centre for Research in Early Childhood Education and Care in Denmark, where schooling doesn't begin until the age of six. "The idea, now broadly shared internationally, is that allowing children to play, and leaving space for their interaction, to learn how to learn, is beneficial. We are preparing for a particularly contingent world, and one of the best ways to futureproof children against it is to play. I would certainly encourage small children to have play-based learning at an early age. Indeed there is a lot of research that suggests if you want a more academic child, start academia later. That's one of the riddles of education."

Researchers like Dr Ellegaard believe that play is the best way for children to work out answers for themselves, to gain problem-solving competence. One of the main barriers, however, is us parents. We just won't let our children play on their own. "We compared interviews with parents made 18 years ago to those from 2016," Ellegaard says. "What we found was that parents have become much more anxious about their children. They want them to have everything. In 2016, parents were obsessed with the well-being of their children."

That obsession can be unhealthy. We hover. We leap in to point out answers to our offspring. And they are constantly stimulated. Most parents wonder and worry about screen time, and it is covered more fully in the sections here on mental and physical health, but the real screen-time issue is the same for small as for older children: parents need to focus not just on what children are watching and for how long, but also think about the passivity of watching.

"Children are never bored," says Jenny Afia, a lawyer who campaigns for social-media companies to take greater responsibility towards young people; and a mother of two children, aged two and four. "Children are not engaging in role play. They are not having to make up games. No role play has a massive impact on long-term development because you don't act out situations or create your own worlds."

Never has there been a better time, then, to involve small children in the creative arts. To encourage hobbies of all sorts, even if interest in them is expressed only tentatively. "Children find it hard to tell you what they are interested in. They don't know themselves. But we have evidence that children who find and follow their own interests feel like an agent in their own world," says Sonia Livingstone. "And having agency makes them develop strategy and think through efficacies." So keep an ear out.

And if you are still worried about the geopolitical future and the need to learn Mandarin, Tom Rogers has some advice: "If you really have to think about the rise of China, think about what China wants," he says. "China wants our arts. They want the culture, and the music and the sport. That's what we should be elevating. At the moment, we're steering schools away from certain arts subjects; there's no drama, or art. That means schools are inevitably encouraging some students away from where their talents lie. And those talents are incredibly important, not just personally, but economically, too."

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