09/08/2017 by Michael Brosnan |

AI and the Future of Education- An Interview with James Tracy

drawing of a brain, half looks like a computer chip

Earlier this summer, I met up with Dr. James Tracy, Head of School of Rocky Hill School, a preK-12 independent school in Warwick, Rhode Island. At a Providence restaurant, our conversation ranged widely, though the main thread hewed to the topic of technology-driven cultural change and its game-changing impact on education. Tracy is a modern-day polymath, with an M.A. and Ph.D. in history from Stanford, as well as an M.Ed. and an M.B.A. from Boston University. But of all the topics that interest him, the one that he focuses on most these days is the question of innovation in schools. If nothing else is clear about the 21st century, it’s clear that a broad range of technological innovations will continue to transform our culture and schools. Tracy has not only thought about these changes, he has led schools through the process of learning how to adapt and evolve, and is doing so again at Rocky Hill.

I asked him a few questions about where he sees schools going in the coming years and the role of school leaders in guiding the change process.

Michael Brosnan: The term “innovation” in education has been overused and applied too broadly. Still, most of us agree that schools, public and private, face serious challenges — whether they like it or not. You are among the school leaders I know who both welcome change and engage in deep conversation about where education is going. What makes you so enthusiastic?

James Tracy: What drives me is the recognition that the change through which we are living is both inexorable and unavoidable. Rising existential risks to civilization are inescapably part of that equation, as is the potential to realize unprecedented human potential. We have a responsibility as educators to provide our students with the tools to navigate a world that is more protean with each passing year and to shape the congeries of contingency humanity is encountering toward the most humane outcomes.

Brosnan: I know you are especially aware of and concerned with the emerging development of artificial intelligence (AI). How does this shape your thinking as a school leader?

Tracy: We are all abundantly aware of the impact the World Wide Web has had on our lives in just a couple of decades. AI is poised to have an impact over the coming decades that will be far more powerful still — by orders of magnitude. It will certainly touch upon, and likely transform, every dimension of society within our lifetimes.

This is such a profound inflection point for “technics and civilization,” to borrow Lewis Mumford’s phrase, that Greg Toppo, senior editor for education at USA TODAY, and I are writing a book about the looming implications of robotics/AI for employment, education and culture.

Just to make it clear, we’re not just talking about supercomputers that can process greater amounts of data or about updated versions of Siri. We’re talking about what is called “machine learning” — the ability of computers to teach themselves, to develop increasing neural networks and collaborate with other computers.

My key takeaway about the impact of AI on K-12 education today is that we need to stop preparing students for the 20th-century “knowledge economy,” as machines will be the repositories of most content and increasingly the practitioners of most professional skills; our students are better served if we train them to navigate accelerating change, to be resourceful and resilient, to be innovative and entrepreneurial, and to be empathic.

Brosnan: I read often about the importance of resiliency and innovation. But why do you pair these with empathy?

Tracy: First and foremost, of course, we need to inculcate empathy as a central component of meaningful citizenship in a global (or any) society.

Yet empathic capacity is also going to be an increasingly important employment skill, as well. Daniel and Richard Susskind have published a profound book, “The Future of the Professions,” in which they compellingly argue this point. Take, for example, the medical profession. In its current iteration, the best diagnostician in the world is only accessible, at very high cost, to a handful of patients. It is also the case that doctors are selected and trained according to clinical capabilities, which, notoriously, do not necessarily translate into good bedside manners. In a matter of two or three decades, however, the greatest clinician on the planet will be a “bot,” one of Watson’s progeny. That AI clinician will be accessible at negligible or no cost to seven billion people. The human input to medical delivery will then become a new cadre of practitioners who have medical literacy (rather than needing medical fluency) but who are selected for — and trained to deepen — their empathic capacity, so that they can compassionately translate the bot’s diagnostic results to patients. From the consumer perspective, the result will be much better medical outcomes: everyone will have access to the best diagnostics in the world, and the communication will be with patient-centered, attentive medical professionals.

This will be true across the professions in what I term the “empathic economy,” for which we should already be preparing students.

Brosnan: Tell me about some of the initiatives at Rocky Hill School in the coming year and why you see them as important.

Tracy: Rocky Hill School is a preK-12 independent school in its ninth decade on a gorgeous 84-acre waterfront campus along Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. This past year, we engaged in a thoroughgoing and broadly inclusive “Vision Quest” — a conversation on the future direction of the school — informed by three prompts: What is the quintessence of our school culture and its next natural iteration? What would the most exciting and important school we can imagine, anywhere on the planet, look like today? Where might our answers to the two previous prompts converge?

The emerging vision from this process has generated, bar none, the most exciting meta-educational discussions among faculty in which I have ever been privileged to participate.

One distinctive program to emerge from this is that Rocky Hill School has partnered with LearnLaunch, a premier Boston-based ed-tech incubator and accelerator, to forge a unique model for collaboration between an independent school and tech start-ups. Most immediately, 10 of the companies in the LearnLaunch cohort will be embedded at our school this fall. I’m excited to see how this partnership evolves and to see what else we’ll launch in the coming year.

Brosnan: What do you hope will be the outcomes from this partnership?

Tracy: The targeted outcomes are manifold, including but not limited to: integrating the spheres of business entrepreneurship, public/private schools, learning, and creating. We envision that Rocky Hill School, while deepening its experiential student learning, will also foster business development in its region by providing an incubator/accelerator embedded in its own K-12 test bed, a unique value proposition for building a robust ed-tech ecosystem in Rhode Island.

This is a paradigmatic shift of an independent school from what I think of as a siloized latifundium into a galvanizing catalyst of business development that strengthens the business climate and demographics of its region. To this end, we are engaged in extensive ongoing conversations with governmental, corporate, and other nonprofit entities across the state to forge a coalition that will generate, draw, and capture business innovation. As a convener and hub, Rocky Hill in this model is a partner but not a competitor with the public and private sectors. Our wish is to play our part in moving education forward while offering our students the opportunity to interact with and learn from — even intern with — entrepreneurs preparing real products for market at the leading edge.

Brosnan: What were the leadership challenges for you in getting these initiatives up and running? 

Tracy: Largely the same as I have encountered with similar institutional strategic engagement as head of three previous schools. This time, though, I provided all senior administrators with a copy of “The Human Side of School Change,” by Rob Evans. I recommend this book to anyone engaged in change management. It helps on so many levels — particularly the process of moving a community as humanly complex as a school forward, given the social, emotional and intellectual issues involved. Of all the change-management gurus out there, Evans understands independent schools best — how organizational change needs to be a carefully orchestrated process that respects all involved. There’s a craft to organizational change. Today, more than ever, school leaders and their teams need to learn it and embrace it.

Michael Brosnan is an independent writer and editor, with a particular interest in education and social change. He can be reached at michaelbrosnan5476@gmail.com.

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