Could technology replace school teachers?

ASSET Education chief executive Clare Flintoff has asked what role technology could play in schools

ASSET Education chief executive Clare Flintoff has asked what role technology could play in schools in the future. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ISTOCKPHOTOS - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Can technology replace teachers in schools? Are we making the most of apps that can save us time and improve efficiency? What skills will our children need to learn in a world of artificial intelligence (AI)?

Organiser of the conference, Clare Flintoff. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Organiser of the conference, Clare Flintoff. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

These were just some of the questions that were challenging delegates at Suffolk's own International Festival of Learning last Friday.

The festival, in its third year, is becoming an established event in the education calendar.

Based at West Suffolk College in Bury St Edmunds, the theme this year was "human skills in a technological world".

What a great theme it proved to be, with contributors from across education and business grappling with the issues that our technological world has created for those of us educating the next generation.

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About 15 years ago, I ran a training session for headteachers where I used photographs of Victorian and contemporary classrooms and asked what had really changed.

The blackboard had been replaced by interactive whiteboards and slates by notebooks, but children were still sitting in rows, facing the teacher at the front of the room and learning was largely seen as something that the teacher was in total control of.

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The challenge then was why had we not developed our understanding of how children learn given the changes that had taken place in just about every other aspect of life over the last 100 years.

In the 15 years since, with the exponential rise in our use of technology and AI and the impact it is having on our daily lives, we are asking ourselves the same question.

At the conference on Friday, we were challenged by the thought that 20% of learning happens in lessons, 40% at home and 40% in society.

Our young people no longer principally learn about the world around them from books and their teachers. Technology is designed to personalise their experience, to keep them engaged, to challenge them just the right amount and to keep them hooked.

Technology will answer their questions with facts and information, visual images and real-life examples in ways that we couldn't have imagined a few years ago. We are no longer able to control what they are learning, although we might make attempts to do so.

The vast majority of teachers are "digital immigrants" and are trying to keep up themselves with technology that wasn't even envisaged when they were at school.

The children in our classrooms, the "digital natives", have been born into a world where communication is instant, Siri or Alexa are there to serve your needs, Google maps will tell the best way to go and what time you will arrive and your phone will keep track of your health.

And this is surely just the start - in another 15 years, where will we be?

On the one hand we are asking ourselves whether we are making the most of all of this technology in the classroom - and there is no doubt that we are not.

But the much more important question is whether we are preparing our young people to live as successful and flourishing human beings in this digital world.

How should we be spending the precious 20% of learning time? Are we concerned enough about developing resilience and good mental health? What will be the personal impact on our staff as well as our children?

We need our school curriculum to be designed with these challenges in mind. We need our lessons to enable our young people to develop a sense of themselves, their uniqueness and their ability to make good decisions. We need to provide opportunities to nurture and develop trust and empathy.

In a world becoming increasingly dominated by AI, we need our young people to experience belonging to a real (rather than a virtual) community and develop real relationships where life is sometimes messy, people make mistakes, forgiveness and love are real.

Ultimately, in whatever way the world might change in the future, we must work towards cultivating a sense of what it truly means to be human.

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