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“The unknown future rolls toward us”*
Print – Issue 165 | Article of the Week

Anthony Seldon


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Schools do not know the future for which they have to prepare. This is difficult for them when they come to plan for the future. Doing nothing is not an option. Hard though it may be to peer into the future, and unsettling though some scenarios may be, not to prepare is to court serious risk. We are clearer of the ends than the means of getting there, but the mists are clearing.

Article by Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor of Buckingham University and Author of – The Fourth Education Revolution

British teacher Simon Balderson says “What we think of as a teacher’s role is going to evolve. AI will manage data for each pupil, ensuring that work is always pitched at exactly the right level for every student – it will be possible for lessons to be delivered by the best teachers and most knowledgeable subject specialists in the world”. Schools will change fundamentally in the next 15-25 years, as will the jobs for which schools are preparing their young people. This alone should be waking up schools to the need to change the curriculum more than it is. The coming AI revolution will differ from the earlier three because it will disrupt the lives of the most privileged and academic, not just manual workers, as Richard and Daniel Susskind argue in their book The Future of the Professions (2015). Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen has said there will be just the two types of jobs in the future: for those who tell computers what to do and for those who are told by computers what to do. Yet schools the world over are just ploughing ahead, doing what they have always done, preparing their children for the twentieth century. “Wake up! Smell the silicon”!

Schools must thus change radically and quickly if we are to educate students ready to take on the unique challenges they will face in our rapidly evolving society and economy. The engine driving this change forward in education and in employment will be AI. A combination of expert opinion and an examination of current trajectories should we hope to help us distinguish what is probable from fantasy. Henry Warren, an EdTech and AI Expert, is an unashamed champion of the transformative power of EdTech. We do not see robots being at the heart of this transformation, as he does, believing other AI platforms will mostly be used to connect with learners. But there are aspects of his argument which are compelling; “there will be at one point two billion children in the developing world. We are never going to be able to train enough teachers to teach them all. There’ll never be the money for it.” He is one of those who sees AI driving educational change for all children across the most deprived regions, and the heartening point is we do not have to wait indefinitely to achieve it. “You don’t need AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) for us to provide a majority of the roles of the teacher. If you break the tasks of teaching down, you discover we can achieve much of what teachers are doing’, though as a caution he adds, ‘there’s not much happening in schools at the moment”.

“Schools the world over are just ploughing ahead, doing what they have always done, preparing their children for the twentieth century. “Wake up! Smell the silicon”

It is widely-assumed the new AI technologies will principally be applicable to STEM subjects, then to social services, and far less to the humanities. Because answers are (mostly) right or wrong in STEM, it is easy to understand why this thinking has taken hold. But AI and associated technologies will make its impact on all subjects in school, while helping develop some we have not yet seen. English might be deemed the least accessible. Yet the software Unity allows the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf to be translated into a 3D reality, allowing students to wander around the setting of the poem and interact with the characters. Sarah Ellis of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) is working at the cutting edge of technology and creativity, to allow the plays to be performed by the RSC’s actors in a school hall or on a table at home in 3D.“It is designed in part to connect with the way the young see the world”, she says. Languages will be taught by robots and chatbots, says Plymouth University’s Tony Belpaeme: “If a robot explains something, you’re going to take away more from it”. History will be transformed too. UCL’s Valerio Signorelli speaks of “a step towards an immersive history that is close, shared and intimate”. The possibilities for bringing History to life, as well as the classics, are prodigious. AI will not be, nor will ever be, replacing human’s abilities in the arts and creativity, which is another reason why we see them as so central to schools in the future. “Children are good at using their imagination and creativity – this innate human ability is fiendishly difficult to train software and computers to do, luckily for us, robots are hopeless on that front”. The fact that digital machines find difficult tasks (e.g. winning at chess) easy and easy tasks difficult (e.g. walking across a room) has been termed ‘Moravec’s paradox’.

It is important to also consider when the fourth education evolution arrives, what will be left for teachers to do? We do not believe that it is either possible or desirable for AI to eliminate teachers from education. The application of AI places more responsibility for learning certainly in the hands of the student, for how their time is spent and on what, even from a young age. Learners take time and encouragement to become more autonomous. The job of teacher will thus increasingly become to structure students’ learning, help them with confusions and difficulties, run whole-class learning discussions, look after students pastorally, and guide them through their wider personal, social, cultural, sporting and character development. So predictions by prophets of the future, in ways explicit and liminal, who suggest that the increased application of AI in schools will mean the disappearance of the teacher, are alarmist and will not come about. Teachers today are asked to perform a wide range of duties which takes them far away from teaching students. They are being prevented from giving their best energies to the task of developing the young by a mountain of administration and routine. “A recent survey sought the views of more than 3,000 teachers, with more than half saying they worked more than 55 hours a week, including nearly a quarter who said they worked more than 60 hours.” The factory model of education saw ever greater administrative demands on the teacher, not less.AI will change however the job of the teacher forever. There can be no going back. By supporting teaching in all their traditional five tasks, AI will usher in the biggest change the profession has ever seen. Imminent advances in virtual technologies will mean too that teachers no longer have to be physically present to offer their services. Students in remote Ethiopian villages will be able to receive supplementary mathematics instruction from a teacher in Brighton. Or Baltimore. Or Bangalore. The Economist concluded its 2017 survey of AI: “Education software is not making teaching obsolete. If anything it is making the craft of teaching more important”. There can be no complacency though: Jim Thompson gives a stark warning “Teachers will have a role if they work with the technology. If not, the technology will work round them”. Teacher training will be revolutionised by the coming of AI.

Teachers will be prepared for changed roles, while the technology will help them anticipate the challenges they will face, much as pilots learn on simulators. Chatbots will help them prepare for handling challenging students, and how to learn more about managing their own stress. Professional development of teachers will be revolutionised by AI and made much more stimulating the world over. Deadly PowerPoint presentations on the latest wheeze in teaching – Confession; I’ve given a few myself – will be confined to the trash bin of history. Essentially, AI and digital technology is neither a good nor an evil in itself; it has value only in as far as it allows us to enhance what it means to be human beings at our best. Joe Clement and Matt Miles published a useful warning in early 2018 about how AI and technology can make students less able, warning against the “assumptions perpetuated by the “pro-technology movement”. We will all be better for heeding such warnings while remembering that nothing will matter more in ensuring that AI is used for the best in the world ensuring that we have the right education system.

The Fourth Generation – How Artificial Intelligence is changing the Face of Learning is by Sir Anthony Seldon and published by the University of Buckingham Press
*Sarah Connor Terminator 2

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