In education everything we do is based around preparing our students for the future. Curricula are revolutionised, skills are re-prioritised and students re-taught in different ways, just because someone changes their mind about what is important.
I’m not a betting man, but if I was, I would put my money behind the prediction of someone like Kai-Fu Lee, as he’s spent his working life building some of the software and computer systems that will engineer that future. In his 2018 book, ‘AI Superpower: China, Silicon Valley and the new world order,’ Lee doesn’t talk about students’ need to know their times tables, identify pre-fronted adverbials, or memorise the works of 18th century poets. What will be important in the future, he says, are kindness and compassion.
He explains that in 15 years’ time, technology will be capable of replacing 40% of the world’s current jobs. If you’re a primary school teacher now, that may be when your students leave university. Lee claims that this will continue, as it already has, to affect low skilled workers, but before long the roles of accountants, lawyers, doctors and teachers will be partially or even wholly performed by a computer.
But people will still be important, he says, not because of their knowledge, but because of their humanity.
A computer may be able to diagnose a disease with far greater accuracy than a human by testing and analysing tiny changes around the body – but it will never be able to support a person through a difficult time. It will know the thousands of historical legal decisions – but it will not be able to understand the emotional ramifications. And as far as teaching goes, it’ll be able to deliver content and test the knowledge of a group of students continually, without the need for sleep, coffee, or the six weeks holidays – but not understand the difficulties of the turbulent teenage years.
For me as a secondary English teacher this is pertinent because I didn’t come into teaching to fill the gap for a computer that hasn’t been built yet. With the recent discussions on workload I’ve read and been part of, it seems a lot of teachers are feeling just like that – an overworked machine. But if that’s what we’re doing, then we’re not only failing ourselves, but our students too.
Part of our jobs will always be the perpetual cycle of delivery and assessment and there’s a place for that: it teaches students that hard work and ambition pays off. What’s more important however is something that in the future, by Lee’s prediction, no computer will be able to do. That’s teaching students that although hard work does pay off, although revising content and practising skills will help, what’s important is being kind and compassionate.
That’s something I’m going to model every day.
Luke is a part-time MA student at NTU. He publishes his own blog on education here.