Principal’s Update 2017 – 12

It was wonderful to celebrate our annual St Dominic’s day with the whole Dominican family of Sisters, staff, students, parents, ex-students and special guests. It was “community” at its best. I’ve enclosed a link to my address to the community for those not able to attend.

Schools can be very stressful places for our kids. The recent reporting of NAPLAN as a high-stakes test for Year 9s sends the wrong message about worthwhile education. As both a parent and a very experienced educator, I have been on both sides of the “desk”, and know that students’ capacity for leading happy, productive and worthwhile lives can never be determined by a series of scores. This is not to underestimate the significantly different opportunities that qualifications can afford. However, the future world of work and civil life for our students is an unpredictable, uncertain one, and requires much more than sophisticated technical skills. Indeed, the big challenges for our future are as much matters of social concern and deliberation, as they are of technical complexity. The skills needed are so-called “soft skills” involving collaboration, interpersonal communication, empathy and persistence.

A recent review of the future of work by the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) confirms that “for an 18-year-old today, figuring out what kind of education and skills to acquire is an increasingly difficult undertaking. Machines are already conducting data mining for lawyers and writing basic press releases and news stories. In coming years and decades, the technology is sure to develop and encompass ever more human work activities.

Yet machines cannot do everything. To be as productive as it could be, this new automation age will also require a range of human skills in the workplace, from technological expertise to essential social and emotional capabilities.

With today’s technology, roughly half of the tasks that people do can be automated. That’s a staggering figure. But just as interesting, and maybe even more important, is that only 5 percent of jobs can be entirely automated. What it means is that, increasingly, all jobs are going to be affected. The way we work is going to shift over time as machines and machine learning and artificial intelligence start to take over some pieces of what we do. That will require people to adapt and change. And jobs, occupations as we know them today, will shift. 

It’s clear from our research, but also just looking at history, that people increasingly, over time, will have to be complements to the work that machines do. Work side by side or work with machines. We’ve certainly seen this in history, in all kinds of places. Everywhere from the farm, where we now have gigantic machines that help harvest and sow crops, to being in an office environment, where there’s work that we used to do by hand or by calculator and now software helps us do it, whether it’s spreadsheets or word processors or even more sophisticated analytics. Going forward, we’re going to see more of these technologies which involve robotics or artificial intelligence, again, working side by side with human beings”.

Given the “unpredictable” terrain of the future world of work, Santa Sabina places significant emphasis on students “learning how to learn”. From our youngest students, through to our Year 12s, through both formal pastoral care programs, and in approaches to teaching and learning, encouragement to participate in sport and other areas of campus life, students are encouraged and supported to understand their strengths, areas of relative weakness, and also how to improve.

And remember that many great thinkers and achievers realised their talent later in life. A recent article in The Guardian stated quoted excerpts from a new book, Great Minds and How to Grow Them by Professor Eyre, and journalist Wendy Berliner: “most Nobel laureates were ‘unexceptional in childhood’”. Albert Einstein failed the general entry test for Zurich Polytechnic and only gained entry due to his high physics and mathematics scores. More recently, Maryam Mirzakhani, the only woman to win the Fields Medal (the mathematics equivalent of a Nobel prize), did “rather poorly” in mathematics in middle school. It was not until her older brother showed her a famous problem from a magazine that she became “hooked” on mathematics.

Berliner and Eyre argue that what distinguishes exceptional people is their curiosity and persistence. Einstein failed to get an academic post and was passed over for promotion at the Swiss Patent Office, but never gave up working on his theory of relativity. Mirzakhani — who tragically passed away from breast cancer in July aged just 40 — also persisted, saying that the “most rewarding part is the ‘Aha’ moment” of a new discovery, but that “most of the time” doing mathematics is “like being on a long hike with no trail and no end in sight”.

On this actual feast day of St Dominic, we are reminded to take a leaf out of the book of St Dominic, and encourage our students and staff to be “trail blazers” and “edge-walkers”, confident in the belief that they are people of dignity who are able to make a difference in the world.

Dr Maree Herrett