Book Review: Food for Thought, but Pie in the Sky: “Running with Robots — The American High School’s Third Century”

By Justin Grosslight

Running with Robots not only makes reading about education reform fun, but also prods a broad readership to think critically about how learning should work in a future guided by artificial intelligence.

Running with Robots: The American High School’s Third Century by Greg Toppo and Jim Tracy. MIT Press, 288 pages, $29.95.

During the American high school’s first century an agrarian nation became an industrial powerhouse, and in its second an industrial society transitioned into a service economy. Today, high schools are charged with preparing adolescents for success in an increasingly knowledge-saturated world. For the first time in history, machines have displaced humans as the principal repositories of information: artificially intelligent devices are beginning to outperform people at many professional tasks. As Americans enter into an information-rich environment — replete with driverless cars, doctorless patients, lawyerless clients, teacherless classrooms, and robot authors — journalist Greg Toppo and educator Jim Tracy contend that “we need … new paradigms for preparing the next generation for work and citizenship.” Their recent book, Running with Robots: The American High School’s Third Century, ponders what will happen to education as orality (in the form of searchable, archived videos) displaces the written word and content literacy displaces content fluency. Curricular shifts will be about much more than training students for robot-proof jobs in a transforming economy. Schools will also have to create citizens who can discern what is real in a world filled with digital phonies. Cleverly titled, the book highlights two meanings of the word “running,” as schools will function while robots as technological changes “are coming at us at an unprecedented rate.”

Each chapter contains both analysis and a fictional “Rip Van Winkle-esque” journey in which a high school principal falls asleep in 2020 and awakens 20 years later to find education transformed. Libraries have become communal spaces, students are grouped by competence rather than age, projects are crowdsourced and fund-raised, and computation has been relegated to machines (To highlight the authors’ political inflections, students use gender-neutral language, drink alcohol legally, and can choose transgender avatars for digital interactions). Critical thinking skills are venerated, cultural diversity embraced, and real-world projects blossom with professional guidance. In a world where humans complement machines rather than compete with them, traditional academic subjects adapt to a “three Cs curriculum” for a “three Cs economy,” which includes (1) creating entrepreneurial and arts projects; (2) cybercurating jobs, which means assessing the ethics, biases, and social implications of technology; and (3) caring for others by providing empathy and nourishing community spirit in ways that automation cannot. Juxtaposing fantasy and reality throughout, the book shows where the world is at and illustrates what an ideal education could be in the future.

More concretely, Tracy and Toppo introduce readers to four schools that are already arming students with learner-centered, real-world experiences that will lead to success in a “three Cs economy.” At Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy, students research, design, and pitch projects they are passionate about to corporate investors; teachers promote mentorship and inquiry-based learning to foster creative thought. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa BIG participants organize and execute serious community or business projects for audiences outside the institution. Democracy Prep, a New York City charter school (actually part of a network of schools), builds character, thought, and creativity by utilizing intercontinental travel to place students in new and unsettling contexts. We end up visiting Rhode Island’s Rocky Hill School, where, as its principal, author Jim Tracy galvanized students, parents, trustees, and faculty into planning and then implementing a multiyear “Vision Quest” tasked with infusing the school with an innovative ethos. In each case, high school is envisioned as a venue where students strive for competence and become fully actualized, thinking human beings.

On a macroscopic level, Running with Robots makes a number of profound pedagogical suggestions. Seeking to “evolutionize” education rather than revolutionize it, the book asks schools to reassess their academic disciplines by balancing traditional and emerging skills rather than privileging one over the other. There is also a clarion call for placing the humanities on par with science, technology, math, and engineering. Artificial intelligence may displace current jobs, but it will lack the ability to reflect, trust, or analyze holistic and ethical issues in a complex, multicultural society. Only those with humanities training will be able to successfully understand others and intervene when technology shows its blind spots. The arts will also be revived with the increased demand for data design and infographics. More alarmingly, Toppo and Tracy see technological changes as a potentially existential threat to high schools: “The world is changing so rapidly. If school can’t keep up, people will find other ways to learn what they need to learn — what they want to learn” (authors’ emphasis). Even now, many students say they crave greater educational challenges than their classrooms afford them. Given this challenge, the text articulates a “sense of considerable urgency” as it advocates for educational change.

Despite the book’s compelling prose, however, I have concerns. Is the educators’ utopian vision one we should be rooting for? For example, even if the futuristic “Winterville THAMES Academy” existed, could high schools like it flourish across the American heartland? Its doctorate-holding principal with prestigious corporate experience is a rare catch, and some of the preferred newfangled technologies may be out of reach for poorer districts. Would high school students from more impoverished areas physically attend a school like Winterville, or would their education be virtual?

Could robots replace teachers in American high schools? Running with Robots considers the possibilities. Photo: Toronto School of Management

Then there are pedagogical concerns: a “three C’s curriculum” grounded in content literacy is alluring, but would it nourish critical thought? Should students learn about the humanities by asking digitized, holographic literary figures questions — rather than honing their reading and writing skills? Can students really comprehend mathematical concepts purely through empirical analysis and data interpretation — essentially “blackboxing” the foundations of computation and theory that spawned their technological devices? Should every aspect of student participation be measured and quantified? More broadly, is digital learning at school the same as learning online at home or in other contexts? The authors are rah-rah about the future of ed-tech even though its current returns for adolescents are largely confined to fields that are algorithmic or procedural in nature.

Pragmatically, Toppo and Tracy anticipate a project-driven high school curriculum centered on innovation. But forces dedicated to maintaining the status quo are fighting this trend and gaining momentum. Most notable is the College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) program, in which high school students can elect to take standardized exams in various introductory-level college courses. The goal is to obtain college credit early, test out of foundational college classes, and perhaps gain favor in college admissions. Not only has the AP seen a 6.3 percent increase in the number of public high school students taking its exams between 2011 and 2021, but it also is looking to expand its roster of test subjects. The Swiss-designed International Baccalaureate (IB) program is somewhat more project- and community-driven, but it still centers on a two-year comprehensive assessment in which juniors and seniors prepare for standardized tests in six subjects of choice. Once at the margins of American education, certified IB schools — now approximately 1800 in the United States — have increased sixfold in number since 1999. More profoundly, authors Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine in their 2019 book In Search of Deeper Learning lament that powerful, transformative learning experiences are not widely flourishing in either conventional or nontraditional, innovative high schools. The truth seems to be that glimmers of “deep learning” occur in settings of all stripes; the only requirement is that teachers nourish learning with passioninsight, and engagement.

This is not to say that high schools will fail to innovate. Indeed, many — myself included — agree with Toppo and Tracy that “we need protean experimentation coupled with deep intellectual humility to foster a multiplicity of new teaching paradigms that inform an emergent set of classroom practices to speak meaningfully to the needs of children in the dawning digital age of AI and robotics.” The reality, however, is that high schools are saddled with considerable inertia; it will be hard to introduce new, widespread pedagogical models over the next two decades. In part, this is because teachers tend to teach students as they themselves were taught, often using dated methods and disciplinary frameworks. Another reason is that, as Justin Reich argued in his 2020 book Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education, schools tend to domesticate new technologies, fitting them into existing pedagogical frameworks rather than overhauling entire systems (for example even the introduction of scientific calculators into mathematics curriculua has not fundamentally altered content).


Teacher Thomas Fech, who teaches high school students remotely in a Columbus charter school, operates a telepresence robot. Credit: Photo credit: Nichole Dobo

Mainly, however, high schools are remarkably durable institutions. Imagining a future 20 years out where high schools are project-oriented, partitioned by ability instead of age, and oriented to digital life feels about as farfetched as scenes from the 1989 blockbuster film Back to the Future II, where the protagonists travel in a time machine from 1985 to 2015 and enter a world of flying cars and hover-boards. Enthusiasm fires up the imagination, but in reality change does not happen that fast, especially in education — something Toppo and Tracy ruefully acknowledge. In a now classic text from 1995Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public High School Reformscholars David Tyack and Larry Cuban show that, despite perennial attempts at school reform by outsiders, the “grammar of schooling” has not budged much. The existence of distinct grade levels and academic classes measured in discrete units has endured nearly a century of sociopolitical vicissitudes. As the title Tinkering Toward Utopia suggests, education has improved and will continue to do so — but its transformation will be by way of incremental stepsnot wholesale change. At the moment, the United States has over 13,000 school districts and even more private schools. Finding innovative models among the lot has always been easy — the Dalton Plan of the 20s, the Eight Year Plan from 1933-41, the Ford Foundation Lighthouse Schools of the 60s are salient historical examples. But these efforts end up as stars in the firmament, not trailblazers leading the crowd. The authors pose a worthwhile question: “Will our education system figure out a way to run with robots or will it stick to the safe, the previously tried (and tired), denying that epochal change is underway?” But they suggest that the answer is a binary choice; in reality, there are most likely shades of gray.

Other concerns linger. While the book’s high school vignettes aim to show that “the path to relevance and twenty-first century skills is available to any school with the imaginative willingness to innovate,” not all schools are created equal. Rocky Hill — with its private 84-acre Narragansett Bay campus, full-time director of innovation, innovator-in-residence, class collaborations with ed-tech entrepreneurs, and the resources to hire Jim Tracy as principal — is hardly a typical high school. Though the other high schools in the book appear to be less rarefied, all are heterodox in some way; it would be interesting to see how more “average” American public high schools (eg, non-magnet, non-charter, non-complementary institutions) would embrace the innovation credo. Central to Rocky Hill’s success is its partnership with Boston ed-tech incubator LearnLaunch: Tracy is a senior advisor to the board. LearnLaunch’s debut in the Rocky Hill chapter seems sensible, though its reprise two chapters later comes off as slightly propagandistic.

Considering all of these reservations, I wonder what motivated MIT Press to publish this text. On one hand, its engagement with current scholarly research in education seems wanting (though the authors demonstrate erudition in other fields and are heavily inspired by scholars Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson). On the other, the text’s general themes jibe with the aims of MIT’s Media Lab, whose Lifelong Kindergarten scholarship — MIT press has published a book of the same title — and children’s computer programming platform Scratch have met with popular acclaim.

But, despite doubts, it is important to dream, and Toppo and Tracy dare to dream big. Alternating between history and fiction, fact and prognostication, they insist that education needs “now more than ever … to provide meaningful preparation for future employment and citizenship in a radically altered world.” Running with Robots not only makes reading about education reform fun, but also prods a broad readership to think critically about how learning should work in a future guided by artificial intelligence. Anyone interested in pondering what an education might look like as the 21st century roars along should read this book with rapt attention.

Justin Grosslight is an academic entrepreneur interested in examining relationships between science, society, and business. He has published academic articles in mathematics and history of science, book reviews on a wide range of topics, and several vocabulary development and test preparation books. A graduate of Stanford and Harvard, Justin currently resides in Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam working as a consultant and mentor. He has traveled extensively throughout China and to all eleven Southeast Asian nations.

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