Education will be high in the mind of many parents, particularly if they have been grappling with home learning. But what subjects should young people be studying to prepare them for the future?
Tim and Kelley McDonald enrolled their son Jack in The Knowledge Society (TKS), a part-time school for teenagers, to give him a chance to learn what he doesn’t at traditional school.
“In my regular school we don’t talk about cryptography or quantum computing, it’s not in the curriculum, so for years I had to find time to learn that on my own by myself,” says 15-year-old Jack, who is enrolled in the inaugural New York cohort of The Knowledge Society’s programme.
Recently declared as one of the “Schools of the Future” by the World Economic Forum think-tank, it offers education and training for 13-to-17-year-olds interested in artificial intelligence (AI) and other niche technology subjects rarely if ever taught in mainstream schools.
Before The Knowledge Society, Jack, who’s one of four siblings and the only one enrolled in TKS, was interested in neuroscience and discussed being a brain surgeon.
Classes at TKS have around 40 students and are held two days a week (on weekends) for three hours each day.
The 10-month programme is not cheap, it costs between $5,395 and $8225 (£4,395 and £6,700) for the 2020-21 academic year, depending on which city it is held in.
Programmes are currently offered in cities across North America, including Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles and Toronto, and TKS is expected to expand into London and Latin America in 2021. (Courses are currently being conducted online because of the coronavirus outbreak.)
The Knowledge Society’s 2020-21 programme overview highlights 40 areas of focus, which includes learning about 3D printing, bionics, or wireless electricity, with the full programme lasting three years.
So should regular schools be offering such ambitious subjects?
Matthew McKean, director of education and skills at the Conference Board of Canada (Canada’s leading independent research body) is not sure.
“We run the risk of teaching young people to use technologies that may be obsolete by the time they enter the workforce,” says Mr McKean, adding that human skills, such as communicating and building relationships, are more durable and transferable.
And demand for those skills may not be as high as people expect, he argues. “How many people actually need to know how to code or program blockchain, for example?”
Mr McKean argues that automation and emerging technologies will only increase the need for deep human understanding and social skills.
“Our research confirms that the future of learning and work is social and emotional, not technical. Employers are increasingly asking for human skills, such as social and emotional intelligence, collaboration, creativity, cross-cultural competencies, relationship building, resilience and adaptability, which is placing new demands on our skills training systems,” he says.
MIT lecturer David Shrier, who’s also written books on financial technology and blockchain, thinks schools like The Knowledge Society are great to get kids excited about opportunities in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths).
“A 13-year-old learning genomics makes for a good headline,” he says, but points out the field could be radically different in four years.
“What will they do then without a strong base of critical thinking?” he asks.
The Knowledge Society teaches critical thinking too, says co-founder Nadeem Nathoo, noting the course teaches youngsters how to organize and write down their thoughts, as well as learning how to speak confidently to an audience.
But he defends the value of studying cutting-edge technical subjects directly. “If they were not exposed to this type of content or types of problems at TKS, it would be unrealistic to think to solve them,” he says. “I think we need to train people on the intention [to solve technical problems] from a young age, and show them these problems exist and they have the power to actually address them.”
All well and good – but does that impress potential high-tech employers, who will have to choose which talented graduates to hire? Anne Martel is co-founder of Element AI, which adapts artificial intelligence (AI) for use in business.
She thinks a high degree of computer literacy and problem solving skills are the most important for children to be equipped with now – and learning about advanced technologies could be a good way to achieve that.
“When we teach our kids about AI, we teach them a technical language and take them deeper into probability and statistics. I think that is incredibly relevant for their future,” she says.
While she approves of specialised technology courses like those offered by TKS, she says broader skills are important. Curiosity, creativity and good old-fashioned grit are traits she looks for when hiring for her firm.
There are other options for parents who want their children to learn more about technology.
Fire Tech focuses on subjects like video game design and 3D game development, while also offering a remote learning option. Meanwhile GEMS World Academy Chicago, like TKS, has a focus on technology and the global community, offering robotics and coding lessons.
The Knowledge Society is certainly expensive, and many bright students could expect to excel without shelling out all that money. But Mr Nathoo argues that around half of the pupils gain paid internships which cover the cost of tuition in less than a year.
And is it really healthy for teenagers to spend seven days a week studying? “I think there’s a common misconception that this is like a sweatshop for kids… it’s not like that. They love doing this,” says Mr Nathoo.
“There’s no pressure on them, but yes, it is for people who want to accelerate their trajectory, and we’re going to tap their potential.”
Jack McDonald’s parents say he spends 15 to 20 hours a week on his work from TKS and that’s on top of his regular school work.
That’s definitely not something every child would thrive on. But for Jack, it’s “more valuable than collectively my entire schooling.”