Will Robots Take All the Jobs?

The Burlingame School District Innovation Initiative, launched this past September, is a multi-year program for BSD teachers focusing on professional learning and support for innovative instructional strategies. The Initiative is in the beginning stages of accomplishing its goals for the school year. We look forward to circling back with them to see what cool changes they end up executing in the classroom.

Read on to discover why your kids need the Innovation Initiative.

Will Robots Take All the Jobs?

We live in a time of disruption: technological, social, economic, and political.  It has never been more apparent that, for good or for bad, the old ways of doing things are radically changing.  For modern parents, the changing landscape can be a bastion of anxiety. In this global world, our kids will be competing for jobs not just with people from countries with renowned school systems but may also be competing with non-humans for jobs rapidly going extinct.  This competition and complexity of required skills mean getting a job is a whole lot harder than it used to be. And to top it all off, apparently, the way our kids have traditionally been taught is no longer sufficient.  

Phil McKinney, former CTO of Hewlett-Packard and host of the nationally syndicated radio show and podcast Killer Innovations, writes on his blog that when he was hiring for his highly skilled workforce, he didn’t particularly like what American public schools were producing. He wanted people who had “the skills to solve problems we don’t even know exist using technologies that haven’t been invented yet.” According to McKinney, students who know only how to “memorize yesterdays’ answers using yesterdays technologies will not be the workforce for tomorrow’s innovation economy.”  

But if science and technology are driving us (in self-driving cars no less) towards an unrecognizable future, how do we prepare our children for what we ourselves have no idea how to anticipate?

Not the Old Readin’, Ritin’, ‘Rithmetic.

Twenty-first century skills. Design thinking. Innovation. These are the new approaches to education that experts say our children need to prepare for the future. They may sound like buzzwords but make no mistake. What’s happening in education is not a fad but a new world order. This sea change is being driven not by the whims of government or educational fashion but the global economy.  Today and tomorrow’s economy is what drives the need for change in education, and schools around the country are looking for ways to keep up.

Fortunately, in Burlingame, we live in a forward-thinking school district and one that has been firmly ahead of the curve. One of the early school districts on the Peninsula to formally address this need for innovation, the BSD launched the BSD Innovation Initiative this past September to help ensure Burlingame schools are preparing our kids for the future.

Wait. What Skills Do My Kids Need to Beat The Robots?

In addition to knowledge of core subjects and STEM, today’s employers value skills that until recently haven’t been focused on in most school curriculums. Skills like empathy, creativity, communication, collaboration and team building. Computers will eventually be able to solve most problems that can be solved with data and information so it is widely believed that humans can’t expect to compete on that front (no matter how fast your kid can recite the multiplication table).  So creative problem-solving abilities that go way beyond routine question and answer methodology are necessary. “Humans are much better at solving problems [than computers] when we have no idea what we need to solve the problem and no idea what the output is supposed to look like,” writes Justin Reich on Education Week’s EdTech Researcher Blog. Clearly, our kids require a resourcefulness not bound by the parameters of learned situations but by what our generation used to call  “thinking on your feet.”

Are these the kinds of skills that can actually be taught?  The answer, if you look at the literature in the educational and business fields, is a resounding yes.  Although not “taught” in the traditional sense of the word.  You can’t exactly teach how to “think on your feet” in a lesson plan but teaching strategies can be changed to develop these kinds of skills. And the Innovation Initiative is designed to do exactly that.

How Are Our Schools Teaching These Skills?

Maggie MacIsaac, BSD Superintendent, had been thinking about how to implement the 4C’s of creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking into the Burlingame Schools for a while now.  She saw that innovation had been percolating throughout the district but in a way that varied teacher by teacher and school by school.  It didn’t help that the various methodologies that promote innovation have no standardized metrics or commonly recognized training and were thus difficult to apply consistently at a large scale.  Sometimes what felt intuitive to one teacher felt foreign to another and while one school may have had an active maker space, another had one that went unused.  

MacIsaac knew the district needed a more formalized approach that could accomplish the following goals: 1) Research and select the best innovative strategies for the district’s goals; 2) codify and standardize these innovative strategies for all BSD teachers and schools to execute; and 3) optimize adoption of these policies by both new and veteran teachers. Thus, the Innovation Initiative was born.

The Initiative is a multi-year program of professional learning and support designed for teachers to implement innovative approaches that will help our kids develop the skills they need for the future. The Initiative’s inaugural year will culminate in August of 2018 with a week-long immersive professional learning and training program for Burlingame teachers to be sponsored by BSD and known as the Summer Innovation Institute.

Codifying and standardizing teaching strategy across a district the size of Burlingame is no easy task and MacIsaac knew a good administrator would be needed to fill the role of the new Director of Innovation, Teaching, and Learning.  The district chose Bruce Duncan, an administrator whose prior work with the San Mateo County Office of Education gave him the experience of working with multiple school districts on instructional technology. Duncan had also been involved with various pilots and implementations to bring innovative practices into different districts in San Mateo County, including personalized learning, project-based learning, and design thinking.  

It’s a few months into the job now and Duncan and MacIsaac have been busy researching and pulling from a variety of methodologies to see what they think will work best for Burlingame.  These include design thinking from the Stanford d.school and the Nueva Design Institute as well as research-based instructional strategies from the Right Question Institute to name just a few. All of the methodologies MacIsaac and Duncan are studying have in common a creative and inquiry-based approach to problem-solving that goes beyond the traditional question with one answer format of teaching.  Once they settle on the best, they’ll be working to standardize the strategies in ways that teachers can implement through projects and inquiry-based teaching.  Teachers will be able to practice these new strategies through training, online toolkits and good old trial and error through a supportive environment that can share in the results.

Can This Initiative Really Help Teachers Teach This Stuff?

Research on innovative practices has shown that many of the concepts of innovative learning cannot easily be “taught” to teachers. Rather, teachers need ongoing specialized professional learning and support to provide the knowledge and skill necessary to weave the 4C’s throughout the curriculum.  In order for teachers to teach innovation, they need a culture of innovation of their own in which they feel supported and free to try new strategies that may not necessarily feel intuitive.

Because a culture of open and consistent collaboration among teachers is key to innovation efforts, Duncan’s first goal for the Initiative has been to launch an online presence that he envisions as “a professional learning portal which will be an online hub to serve as a scaffold and support for the ongoing professional learning of our teachers.” The portal will provide online toolkits, coaching and other aids to implementing new practices and Duncan expects that the portal will also serve as a base of communication for the larger school community.  Also, an Innovation Team of tech mentors at every Burlingame school has already been spread across the district. The designated tech mentors at each school are teachers who are invested in helping their colleagues implement new innovation strategies. “Passionate teachers have always sought to improve their own teaching and their students learning, often in very creative ways. They’ve also collaborated with colleagues to expand the scope of impact from their efforts. But these efforts may remain localized. By ‘planting the innovation flag’ district-wide, BSD will engage all educators in our community to participate in creating,” says Duncan.

The Future of The Innovation Initiative

Through a one-time grant and some crafty budget manipulation, the BSD found a way to launch the Innovative Initiative and hire Duncan this school year but sustainability for the future remains a question.

The kind of change envisioned for Burlingame schools cannot happen as a “one and done” event.  “We need a sustainable way to provide both new and veteran teachers with this training. Practices like these can’t sustain if there is not a foundational standard,” says MacIsaac.

Ideally, the Innovation Initiative will change the institutional culture of our schools in such a way that every teacher who enters BSD will quickly be able to understand and adopt the instructional strategies and ethos of a district that is ready for a future where our kids won’t need to fear competition with the robots.

In this season of gratitude, we can be grateful that we live in a school district that is preparing our children for the future and that we have a school foundation with the ability to support the innovative plans of the school district. Please give to BCE on #Giving Tuesday and make your dollars go farther with BCE’s corporate sponsors.

Current Tech Mentors at the BSD Schools

  • BIS – Bronia Whipp & Laura Afshar
  • McKinley – Alyssa Jaramillo & Leah Scholer
  • Lincoln – Jubliee Menzies & Kirsten Hall
  • Franklin – Hannah Carney
  • Roosevelt – Sean Kuiper
  • Washington – Clarissa Vinciguera
  • Hoover – Stacey Weir

–Elisa Lee, BCE volunteer and BSD parent


McKnight, Phil.  “Here Are The 3 Skills Needed For The Emerging Innovation Economy.” Killer innovations, 30 March, 2015, www.killerinnovations.com/preparing-the-next-generation-of-innovators-3-critical-skills-s11-ep2/

Reich, Justin. “Why Change?  Launching Innovation in Schools.” EdTech Researcher Blog. Education Week, 01 Sept., 2017. http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/edtechresearcher/2017/09