May 17, 2023
Feeling the Future
By Dr Kathy Weston
Recently, I had the pleasure of attending and speaking at an education conference. One feature of the event was a panel made up of young people. They were asked a series of questions from the audience extracting their views about exams, learning, AI (artificial intelligence) and the future, amongst other things. Listening to them, it was striking that the word â€˜futureâ€™ was one that drew them to an alarming consensus: it was a source of deep concern and, no, they didnâ€™t feel particularly excited about it.
Reasons being? AI would undoubtedly rob them of their potential jobs. They questioned whether the current exam and assessment system was preparing them in any way for the labour market within which AI would play a fundamental role. They also agreed that their generation were suffering from an array of mental health conditions that they didnâ€™t feel were being meaningfully addressed.Â
My own response to their responses was interesting; a mixture of alarm and some sadness. I wanted to take the microphone and beg them to consider how resilient they already are, to reflect on what they could affect, change or control in their lives. I wanted to ask them to lean into innovation, work through their feelings of anxiety and to have confidence in their generationâ€™s ability to problem-solve. Yes, AI presents challenges that we havenâ€™t quite wrapped our heads around and it can feel hard to keep up, but it also opens up breath-taking opportunities. Uncertainty can be scary, but that discomfort has to be something that we learn to live with and use as a lever for intellectual curiosity and innovation. Perspective is everything.Â
Following the panel event, Charles Fadel (global education thought leader) presented an awe-inspiring speech on the future of education using AI, showcasing an â€˜optimalâ€™ curriculum (created using AI) designed to reflect the skills truly required for the 21st Century. His vision contained such granularity that he was able to hone in on key activities that will contain the most value in terms of developing character: sailing, martial arts, scouting and debating. Who knew?Â
So, what does AI think of the future? It was recently asked by the group, Edufuturists, and responded within minutes with this snappy bard: â€œA Poem for the futureâ€ by ChatGPT-4.
In halls once silent, now hums the digital beat, where minds and machines in harmony meet. Knowledge unlocked, no longer in towers, sown to the world, blooms the brightest of flowers.
Through screens, we touch the cosmos afar, while nanobots map the code of who we are. Learning is fluid, as rivers to seas, boundless, unfettered, like the softest of breeze.
No child in shadow, no thought left unheard, Each voice a melody in the world’s shared word. Hope is the lesson, taught bright and clear, In the classroom of tomorrow, we’re already here.
Amazing? Yes. Disconcerting? Yes. During this speech, Charles Fadel made the same point as ChapGPT-4; I am already here and, as Fadel noted, â€˜steam-rolling over our toesâ€™. So, the sooner we sit up, pay attention and adjust our thinking to accommodate the capability of AI, all the better. We will need courage, self-belief and to be conscious of our own moral values to hold steady in the face of such technological advance. It is ok to be filled with both anticipatory anxiety and a modicum of excitement about AI and about technological advance in general. But one thing is for certain, ignoring it, burying our heads in the sand, or refusing to acknowledge its potential and attached challenges isnâ€™t an option anymore. It will most certainly not be an option for our children.
What we model in terms of attitude and anxiety around technological advance matters, so reflecting on our own feelings about it as parents matters first. Beyond that, in everyday life, perhaps we can all take an interest in the basic functions of AI and how we use it in our daily lives. Guides exist to help us understand machine learning as a family, the benefits and challenges of AI and how to make the most of ChatGPT in family life. Check out Code.org, which offers a series of videos called â€œAI for Oceansâ€ that teach children about AI and how it can be used to protect the oceans, or visit The Philosophy Foundation’s website, where you can find thought-provoking material on AI in their publications, Thoughtings and The Philosophy Shop. There is much to learn!
Another thought-provoking encounter that I had recently was with Professor Natascha Radclyffe-Thomas, Professor in Marketing and Sustainable Business at the British School of Fashion, who made me stop and think about fast fashion and its social and environmental impacts. Natascha was able to articulate her life-long passion for innovation and her love of design and clothes, but modelled caution and concern too, reminding me of our responses to AI. Fashion, like technology, has changed immeasurably over the last decade and, like AI, it generates contradictions within us.
Natascha talked about the fact that creativity and innovation are to be celebrated but we should always ask ourselves: at what cost? Our cupboards might be brimming with new pieces, but textile waste is a vast problem. For example, did you know that one refuse truck of textiles is burned or goes into landfillÂ every second? 3/5 of all garments being made are predicted to end up in landfill within a year.Â Basically, where there is innovation, there will be a cost and, as families, we need to consider what that might be and help our children to make conscious choices.Â
During our chat, we reflected on washing machines; a welcome, game-changing piece of technology within family life. But, did you know that the level of CO2 emissions from energy used annually in washing and drying clothes in the UK is equivalent to around 10% of the total CO2 emissions from cars?Â Did you realise that 60% of the materials used in clothing is plastic? Polyester, acrylic and nylon garments (including a lot of school uniform and sportswear) are all made from non-renewable sources. Every time they are washed, they shed plastic microfibres, which end up in the water supply chain.Â When young people hear these sorts of facts and figures, they can feel understandable upset and worried about the future, because in this day and age, we are more acutely aware of the impact of our actions on the planet we live in. The lack of agency that young people feel in the face of rapid technological advance is arguably at the heart of the feelings of despondency described by the young people on the panel at my recent conference. At COP 26â€™s â€˜Youth Dayâ€™, young activists described how they feel excluded from decision-making on the climate crisis. This lack of agency feeds into distress and concern.
We are increasingly hearing about the impact of the climate crisis on young peopleâ€™s mental health. In 2020, The Royal College of Psychiatrists launched aÂ resourceÂ to support young people and their parents to manage fears and anxiety about the environment. The organisationâ€™s website states that over 57% of child and adolescent psychiatrists in England are seeing children and young people distressed about the climate and state of the environment. In 2022, the Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health devoted anÂ entire journalÂ to the subject of child and teen mental health in the global ecological crisis. An article inÂ The Lancet,Â published in 2022, notes that, â€œYoung people have been shown to be more prone to anxiety, phobias, depression, stress-related conditions, substance abuse, sleep disorders, reduced capacity to regulate emotions, and increased cognitive deficits. The immediately visible effects of the climate crisis have given rise to emerging concepts, such as climate change anxiety, solastalgia, eco-anxiety, and ecological grief.â€
Young people have also lived through a global pandemic which epitomised exactly the same lack of control in the face of unforeseen and extraordinary events. However, by looking in the rear mirror and considering our experiences of lockdown, we can usefully reflect with our children on the fact we adapted and we coped. We should consider how we did that. We can remind them, when any circumstance ignites feelings of stress or being out of control, to return to what we can possibly do. It is a very simple idea but mental toughness is about focusing on the â€˜controllablesâ€™ in any given situation and working out where we can use our agency and our power optimally.Â
Children and young people need to feel that they can affect change and, with any given topic, we can help them do that. Take the evolution of AI and all the swirling debate about its devastating impact on jobs and its potential to morph into something smarter than us. Or, when children raise the issue of the end of the world and us only having a small window left to save the planet. What can we do? What should we do? Here are some simple tips that should stand you in good stead.Â
First of all, if they express any concern, worry or fear, ask them more about it. Be caring and curious. Model a great interest in their words and validate how they are feeling. â€œI can understand why that is a bit scaryâ€, â€œI can see that you are a bit worried about that, and that is okâ€. Secondly, whatever they ask, tell them it is a great question and it is ok for us not to know all the answers. Perhaps you might research certain things more deeply together. Perhaps they want to email, write or send a Tweet to someone expert in a particular field and learn more? Perhaps they can be encouraged to be agentic in a small way that feels good to them. Maybe they can start a club at school debating AI, or a TedX speaker series on some of the biggest challenges facing the planet, or a club devoted to actionable ideas for reducing the carbon footprint of the school.Â
Telling our children not to worry about stuff wonâ€™t work and being overly reassuring may be a waste of time too. We need to ignite their agency and model a kind of acceptance that sometimes we need to live in uncertainty for a while, which can feel uncomfortable and that is ok!Â
These days, with access to so many views, opinions and perspectives on social media, it is particularly important to anchor our children in our own family and moral values and to hold steady to those. At home, we can model a love of innovation, a passion for intellectual curiosity and an awareness that we should always consider the cost of both consumption and technological advances to our own immediate community and the planet at large.
Now, how can I ignore the question raised by the teens on the conference panel relating to exams? The teens argued some of the content in many syllabi was out of date (fair point) and even irrelevant for the labour force they would eventually join. Charles Fadel made a similar point and said they should all be studying data science! However, until we revolutionise the exam system, as I tell my own children, we have to sit these exams so letâ€™s focus on how best to approach them.
If, like me, you are in the middle of exam revision season with a teen at home on â€˜study leaveâ€™, you will know that this is a stressful time (for them and you!). Your day might possibly start with nagging (to get them out of bed, showered, breakfasted and to start studying before you leave the house for work each day). The fridge is being raided night and day by teens roaming around the kitchen in search of revision snacks. You worry: are they on their phone revising or keeping up their streaks on Snapchat? You have no clue where they are in terms of progress on each subject, but may fear asking in case it tips them into a state of deeper procrastination. Solidarity with all parents in this position.Â
As we are all right in the thick of it, here are a few pointers to keep you sane. First of all, for those of you with anxious and panicked teens, ask them what can help and what you can do to support them. Help them pace themselves and maybe talk through little daily goals. When you have come up with a plan, ask them if it has helped them to feel a little better. Always ask them where the â€˜knotsâ€™ are. What do you not understand and who can help you understand it better? They may feel anxious because they suddenly canâ€™t remember if something is on their syllabus or because they canâ€™t recall how to do it, but help is often at hand with teachers at the end of an email or a friend who knows the answer.
Peers can be a source of support during revision time and peer learning can be genuinely effective. Some friends reach an agreement with close friends to study for 30 minutes and then quiz each other online. However, friends can also be a terrible distraction, particularly at night. Talk to your teen about switching off notifications during focused study times and at bedtime. Keep that phone out of their bedroom at night (it may buzz regularly and prevent rest). If focus is a real issue during revision in general, apps like Forest can be useful in helping them stay engaged and motivated to complete tasks.Â
Getting into a revision rhythm is ideal and any revision routine should involve exercise breaks. As soon as my teen starts getting shirty after a lengthy revision session, I insist we go for a walk in the fields beside our home or that he goes for a quick bike ride. This works well.Â As the day of the exam approaches, gently assist with getting those clear pencil cases ready and remind them about the rules around watches and phones (no entry allowed!). Think carefully about their journey to school. If lifts are being arranged, double check arrangements. I appreciate it is difficult, as nervous teens might not want to eat too much, but encouraging a decent breakfast on exam mornings gives them the best possible start and should enable them to concentrate that little bit better.Â
A final, personal tip (not evidence-based) that I find works well is to consider if you really need to wish them luck. I donâ€™t utter anything other than â€˜have a good dayâ€™ to my teen as he leaves the house looking solemn. I donâ€™t want him to feel additional pressure from me or give him any sense of the gravity of the day ahead. The work has been done by this point and they already know that the exam is important, so there is zero point in us reminding them of this fact or looking anxious ourselves. Part of keeping those nerves under control is also making sure our teens arenâ€™t bombarded with well meaning messages of support from relatives (sometimes cards, emails and messages from granny and grandpa telling them that they believe in them and that exams donâ€™t matter anyway) can have the effect of amplifying anxiety, so always ask your teen how they feel about them and adjust access to them accordingly.Â
Wishing you all the best of luck!
Are you a Tooled Up member?
If youâ€™d like to learn more about fast fashion from Professor Natascha Radclyffe-Thomas, Tooled Up subscribers can tune into our webinar which is in the library now. You might also be interested in our podcast interview with Dr Verity Jones, on similar themes. Anyone embarking on conversations with children about â€˜control the controllablesâ€™ might find our template useful, and our interview with Professor Peter Clough on mental toughness interesting.Â
For those in the thick of revision and exams, donâ€™t forget that we have a whole section of resources devoted to this topic for all ages and stages, including exam planners, tips for reducing anxiety, evidence-based advice on nutrition, and even ideas for end of exam celebrations (well-deserved rewards that don’t have to involve partying).
As the end of the school year begins to loom ahead, now is also the time to start preparing children for pastures new. In June, weâ€™ll be running a series of webinars on different stages of childrenâ€™s school journey, packed with tips to help you ease their transition. Book your place now if your child is starting prep or primary, senior or secondary, or boarding school this coming September.Â