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The teacher of the future: robots versus humans

published 1 February 2017 updated 1 February 2017

By Angelo Gavrielatos, Education International 

At this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, a side event featured a debate on the future of the teaching profession. The topic was: The teacher of the future: robots vs. humans. EI’s response delivered by Angelo Gavrielatos.

“ (...) The reality of education is found in the personal and face-to-face contact of teacher and child.”     John Dewey

As a teacher and as a representative of Education International, it should be of no surprise that I believe a prerequisite for the achievement of quality education for all is that all students, regardless of their background, have a right to be taught by qualified teachers.

I also believe that the quest for higher standards begins with the recognition of qualified teachers as the leading agents in the development and delivery of life opportunity through a quality engaging and relevant curriculum.

An understanding and a belief in the social and human dimension of teaching and learning necessary for the development of the whole child is part of our being. As is our understanding of the socialising effect of schooling, hence appreciating that the society we will be living in tomorrow will be heavily influenced by the decisions we make about education and schooling today.

However, we may in fact have the world’s prototype robot teacher already in the field.

In a recent study into the operations of Bridge International Academies, a corporate outfit supported financially and politically by WEF attendees, the World Bank, Pearson, The UK’s aid agency DfID, Gates, Zuckerberg and others, an employee of Bridge said: “We do not plan any lesson. We follow the tablets to the letter. We are robots being directed by tablets.” That’s right, tablets onto which highly scripted standardised lessons are uploaded, complete with instructions to be delivered word for word by unqualified staff, usually high school graduates, given two to five weeks training focusing primarily on how to use the tablet and how to market the institution.

And when I say highly scripted, I mean highly scripted. Every pedagogical activity is pre-set and scripted including instructing staff when to ‘Pause’ when to ‘Circulate for 30 seconds’ when to ‘Rub the board’ and when to tell pupils to ‘Close your textbooks.’ And, staff are monitored remotely to make sure they’re following the script.

When we criticized this we were accused of trying to stifle “everything that is innovative about this model.” Interesting word innovation. One of the many words, phrases or indeed slogans bandied around at such fora without a common understanding of such. How many of you think of innovation to describe what I’ve just shared with you? More importantly, how many of you would volunteer your own children to be taught in such an “innovative setting”?

If the world’s leading policy makers, opinion leaders and influencers present here aren’t prepared to volunteer their own children to such experimentation, then let us not volunteer our neighbour’s children. Rather, let’s seek and advocate for everyone else’s children what we wish for our own.

The use of the word experimentation is intentional to highlight the fact that children get only one chance, and we cannot afford to compromise it.

For their long-term wellbeing children are compelled (by law), to attend school. The reciprocal obligation for all adults is to therefore shelter and protect those same children during the years and processes of their schooling. Children and our classrooms are not R&D labs where we can experiment with proto and deutero-type technologies stuffing things up along the way.

This is not an argument against experimentation in our classrooms. Informed by qualifications, skills and training it is incredible to witness. Indeed, innovation comes alive as teachers adapt to the needs of children-human beings- as they arise. The professional agility on display is truly impressive.

It’s also not an argument against change or the embrace of new technologies. Where an educational case,

based on evidence

, for the introduction of new technologies can be made, of course it should be supported. We should note that the potential benefits of new technologies can only be fully realised when teachers, the qualified professionals with the expertise in pedagogy, are involved in their design and development.

The importance of an educational case, evidence based, is highlighted because bold assertions and confident claims made about technology over the last number of years are increasingly coming under the microscope of academic inquiry and research, and some of the recent findings are not good.

In this regard, the OECD’s 2015 report Computers and Learning: Making the Connection is instructive. At the time of its release, commenting on the findings, OECD Director for the Directorate of Education and Skills, Andreas Schleicher, is quoted as saying: "the reality is that technology is doing more harm than good in our schools today," that school technology had raised "too many false hopes," and that education systems which have invested heavily in information and communications technology have seen “no noticeable improvement". It is further noted that “building deep, conceptual understanding and higher-order thinking requires intensive teacher-student interactions, and technology sometimes distracts from this valuable human engagement”.

In addition to the evidence base, we must ask: -who is driving much of this agenda and why?

The involvement of business, industry, and corporate interests in education, particularly in the manufacturing and supply of education resources, has been occurring for centuries. Expressing its view on how to better prepare students for the future is certainly valid. Indeed, the building of a curriculum needs to be a shared enterprise and ensure that all contingent stakeholders are involved in the development process. However, in recent years we have seen a concerning rise in large global corporations using their significant and growing financial and political reach to influence education policy to advance their business interests by seeking to create new market opportunities.

There is no doubt, that advances in technology will play an important role in education. Facilitating new forms of interaction between students and teachers, the teaching and learning process can be further enriched by the appropriate integration of new technologies into everyday use in classrooms. However, a robot will not and cannot replace a teacher.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.