2020-01-28

STEMPATHY: Strengthening Character Through the Technological Revolution

Fabian de Fabiani, Assistant Head Teacher, Townley Grammar School and Director of Character Education, Odyssey Trust for Education, shares his thoughts on how to utilise the technological revolution to improve character education.


The 21st Century technology revolution has transformed the way most people live, the development of A.I and automation pose profound and difficult questions for humanity. One such question is “If machines can match human thinking, what does it mean to be human?”

The very nature of humanity is seemingly up for redefinition. Rather than fearing the technological revolution and expecting the machines to rise and deem us mere mortals as obsolete, I argue that this is an opportunity for humans to re-assert the value of compassion, resilience, courage, determination - in short, we can strengthen and empower the character of humanity alongside the technological revolution.

The harshest critics of automation contend that millions of humans will be left unemployed due to automation. Understandably this concern is reflected by many, yet manual labour jobs will still be needed. The technology may improve efficiencies and speed, yet humans are still central to the correct functioning of those operations. The political narrative seems to be stuck in an analogue age whilst the rest of us live digital lives. Automation gives us the opportunity to invest in retraining opportunities, to skill-up the workforce.

However, for this to happen, rethinking should begin now, to ensure that the younger generations have a chance to harness technology and lead it, rather than be led by it.

Therefore, STEM and Computing are incredibly important in schools and should be placed central to the national curriculum. At this point, some within the Arts and Humanities subjects may be feeling redundant, writing as someone who has a B.A and M.A in Politics and Political Philosophy I feel confident that STEM and the Arts are inextricably linked- STEMpathy. Thomas Friedman has also coined the phrase which combines STEM with human character traits such as empathy that distinguish us from machines. The tech revolution should lead us to sharpen and enhance the basic human character traits we already possess. Descartes affirmed “I think, therefore I am.” We need to transform this to “I love; therefore I am, I care therefore I am, I trust therefore I am.”

I visited Silicon Valley and saw that STEMpathy is very much a real, tangible entity. I experienced first-hand the inner workings of Adobe, Facebook, Google and several “Smaller” start-ups. It was clear that character and wellbeing are behind the success of these companies. It was affirming to see that each corporation placed the wellbeing of their staff central to the success and development of new technologies. For example, Adobe have invested heavily in the mental wellbeing of their staff, providing them with a “Change Manager” to help them adjust to new roles and teams. I was struck by how each company held character values at the core of their existence.

Walking around each site it was clear that the inspirational quotes and value statements were not simply window dressing- the interactions with all staff and CEOs were evidence that the human is placed central to success and progress, indeed the tech and digital development are by-products of excellent team work and individual creativity. The tech giants clearly recognise the value of humanity and importance of wellbeing, though critics may argue that it is easy to achieve such high aims when profits and revenue are astronomical; I contend that the focus on wellbeing and character had a significant impact on these companies succeeding. Empowering each member of staff to find and fulfil their purpose will lead to success which in turn breeds further success.

Coincidentally, whilst in the U.S., I watched the Philadelphia Eagles win the Super Bowl, not knowing much about American Football I decided to investigate it and was directed to an article by one of Adobe’s amazing staff. Turns out, the Philadelphia Eagles coach, Doug Pederson, transformed the fortunes of the team by focusing on emotional intelligence and empathy amongst his team members. Initially, Pederson’s tactics were laughed at and ridiculed - who is laughing now?

Character education, wellbeing and positive psychology are rapidly developing. Much like the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl, it is currently the under-dog and insurgent within school systems, companies and sport. Of course, a focus on human character will not resolve all the ills of the world, that sort of populist promise betrays the complexity of humanity. Yet, there is a growing body of evidence that shows where attention is paid to character and mental wellbeing with a clear strategy, the outcomes are clearly beneficial to human progress. The combined success of Google, Facebook, Adobe et al surely legitimise an attempt to focus character and wellbeing in any organisation. I predict that like the tech and computer revolution in schools, the development of character and wellbeing will have as much an impact on the lives of students.

The STEM revolution was fuelled by human, capacious minds, we must harness the spirit of Mark Zukerberg and alike to think the so called “Unthinkable” and re-affirm our faith in human courage and creativity to make STEMpathy a reality for all.