Silicon schools and their carbon cores

Artificial intelligence (AI) is being heralded as a game changer in education. We are, it appears, on the cusp of a revolution which will transform teaching and learning.

Is it a breakthrough, a bandwagon or a boondoggle? It seems that we have been on the cusp of an IT revolution for so long that, understandably, some scepticism seeps in.

Now, though, with the advent of artificial intelligence, in association with virtual and augmented reality, there might really be the makings of a game-changing transformation. AI (the ability of computers to ‘learn’ and to perform the kinds of ‘intelligent’ tasks usually associated with humans) offers lots of advantages and opportunities and could well enhance teaching. The ability to aggregate and interrogate data will give us solid information on what works well in teaching. Machines could take on time-consuming ‘clerical’ tasks, including basic marking and monitoring, freeing teachers up to do what they do best. There is also the promise of making instruction and assessment more personalised, providing differential routes through a programme of study. Students will be liberated to learn in a variety of ways, anytime, anywhere. They will be able to collaborate with each other, freed from the friction of distance, on project-based activities.

In short, digital developments might actually free us from the current constraints of period (the rigidities of the timetable and the school day), place (the physical confines of the classroom), path (the teacher’s toolkit) and pace (the tempo of the class and the individuals within it), and in the process might revolutionise students’ experience of school and of learning.

If we visualise education as a vehicle, with teaching and learning seen as the driver and curriculum content the fuel, then digital technology could be characterised as the accelerator. But as with every vehicle, there is a brake, and in this case the brake is the battery of high-stakes public exams that bedevil the English education system. As long as this is dominated by pen-and-paper tests, set as one-size-fits-all challenges, pitting the individual against the rest, then the potential of AI will not be realised. Public exams already dictate curriculum content and encourage teaching to the test, and now they exert a drag on digital innovation.

AI will change, and hopefully enhance, how students learn, but it may also transform the world of work for which we as educators, have a responsibility to prepare them. At the GDST, we have just launched a course to help students understand how AI technology is increasingly being used by employers as part of job applications, and how they can prepare for this.

Much has been made of the idea that we are preparing students for jobs that haven’t even been invented yet (or for ‘traditional’ jobs that are changed almost beyond recognition), and that we should be developing ‘twenty-first century skills’. To be sure, this involves instruction in ICT and computer science, and the exploitation of opportunities for problem solving and flexible thinking – and a willingness to see learning as a long game.

Schools are often (and sometimes fairly) characterised as being stuck in an anachronistic ‘factory’ mode, delivering a standard product in a sclerotic environment, organised and policed by rigid timetables, bells and procedures that no longer reflect the smart working environments of most factories, let alone offices.

But we should be wary of making schools into facsimiles of the ‘real’ world. Instead, we should seek to harness technology and moderate it in accord with education’s wider aims. While helping pupils to navigate an AI world, we also need to hold firm to the enduring principles of education that set young people up for life more broadly defined.

We have to prepare pupils for the ‘real’ world, but we should do that by teaching criticism and creativity, not conformity. If our role is merely preparing pupils for the world of work, we end up becoming the Grandgrinds of the gig economy. Schools should stand as safe spaces for reflection and discussion. The digital dimension promotes a form of ‘skating’, skimming across topics; schools should promote ‘diving’, deeper and sustained exploration.

AI, for all its potential to re-write the rules of education, has arguably not changed the ultimate objectives of schooling, and these objectives remain foundational. The skills and dispositions needed to survive and thrive in a digital world are really no different from those we have always needed. The educational edifice might look different, but the foundations remain the same. For me and my colleagues at the GDST and at many other schools, the educational focus continues to be on developing responsibility, resilience, autonomy, creativity, confidence and collaboration – those truly human skills that will really set students up for success in a world that tempers silicon with carbon-based intelligence.