Whether we like it or not, artificial intelligence is creeping into our schools. Sir Anthony Seldon, a leading voice in education, argues that we should embrace it
From classroom AI to Norfolk students at the RSC
In popular culture, artificial intelligence gets a bad reputation. There’s HAL and his turning against Dave in 2001: A Space Odyssey; Rick Deckard’s mission to terminate rogue replicants in Blade Runner; and a naked Arnold Schwarzenegger taking what he wants on a relentless search for Sarah Connor. Machines that think for themselves are not a good idea, according to Hollywood.
The thought of artificial intelligence taking over our classrooms is also a scary one… isn’t it? Surely one of the joys of learning is when you are assigned a passionate teacher who just gets you and draws out an innate love for a subject from within you.
I would not be doing this job if it wasn’t for a slightly eccentric English teacher who made lessons fun and exciting, leaving me eager for more. A machine wouldn’t be able to do that.
Considering his background and high standing in the world of education, Sir Anthony Seldon is, at first glance, a surprising advocate for schools to start embracing the ever-evolving world of technology in the 21st century. His new book, The Fourth Education Revolution: will artificial intelligence liberate or infantilise humanity, will undoubtedly ruffle a few feathers. “I have never been very good on new technology,” he admits, “and I still only type with two fingers, but I have always been intrigued by the way new technology could help address some of the intractable problems education has had. That inspired me.”
Currently vice-chancellor of the University of Buckinghamshire, Sir Anthony spent 30 years leading the way with a forwardthinking approach to education, notably at Brighton College and Wellington College, so it’s perhaps not surprising that his ideas are different.
The Fourth Education Revolution starts by detailing the first three important eras in learning with much dedicated to how the third – current – stage and its obsession with exams is failing, rather than inspiring, students. “I am never critical of teachers who work in schools, or the students themselves. I am critical of the system, because that limits opportunities for young people to blossom fully and to enjoy life fully,” says Sir Anthony. “I also think it has damaged the fulfilment that teachers can get, the rewards that teachers can get from their profession by narrowing it down. Education should be about broadening out. There were many
remarkable things about the third education revolution. You look at state schools and they are full of remarkable, extraordinary things, so to say they could be better does not mean to say there is not anything good about them. The good things about our schools are often despite and not because of the system under which they have to operate.”
Sir Anthony’s argument about AI and what it will offer clearly does not make the teacher obsolete. “The challenge is we need to accentuate the human contact – active, creative learning – and so much of the learning in the third model era was passive,” he states. “Students sat down, teachers taught the material, students learnt it and then regurgitated it. There is very little individualisation in that, very little scope for creativity, very little scope for personal human contact.
“So what I like about all thinkers in the past who have accentuated the creative and active learning is that is exactly what we need to take forward into the future, particularly in the world where the seductive AI machines will – if we are not careful – take over all our thinking for us. We need to emphasise the creative, the human and the active – otherwise we will become submerged.
“I am always worried by people who are obsessing about their gadgets and would rather play computer games than be out in the fresh air, relating to other people. The nature of learning is for human to human interaction, and technology can often be an excuse for what is the most important thing about all education – which is students relating to each other and students relating to teachers.”
In the face of recent reports linking a child’s happiness – or lack of it – to spending too much time in front of a screen, will introducing even more screens to a student’s life have an impact on wellbeing? “We need to be helping our young people learn how to use this technology rather than be used by it,” is Sir Anthony’s emphatic answer.
“Banning is not the answer. We need to teach our young people how to use it to enhance their lives, learning and their enjoyment and understanding of the world.”
The Fourth Education Revolution offers an insight into how AI is already being used in schools around the world and makes for a compelling case, though he can see why some teachers would be wary of AI coming into the classroom.
“We are all wary of the new until we can see how it works. There’s talk about the erosion of jobs and that’s a real worry to teachers. I actually say in the book we are going to need more teachers and teaching assistants in the fourth revolution model than in the third.
“But I think the fear of AI rather than the reality is key here and the products on the market have simply not convinced that they are indispensible. We are 10 to 15 years away from a general acceptance and a general absorption of these new technologies.”
How does Sir Anthony see a typical lesson panning out 50 years from now? “When you interview me in 50 years time,” he chuckles, “we will be talking about schools that have become more like modern offices – much more open plan, more fluid spaces. Every child will arrive and have their individual learning plan for the day, which will take up perhaps 25% of the day.
“They will be going through maths, languages, some culture and creativity, some social sciences, humanities, all in front of their own AI teacher on screen. It will take them at their own their pace – it will know their own learning difficulties, it will know when they are needing attention and it will be profoundly more efficient than the current system.
“This frees up 75% of the school day for communal activities, group work, project work, team-building exercises, problem solving, volunteering, creative work, physical activity…” As can be expected, the response to the book so far has been mixed, but to Sir Anthony’s credit he has created an engaging read, free of jargon. The machines are coming, but perhaps it’s time we cast them under a lighter shadow. Sir Anthony Seldon is a former head of Wellington College. The Fourth Education Revolution (UBP) by Sir Anthony Seldon, £14.99.
“We need to be helping our young people learn how to use this technology rather than be used by it”
Sir Anthony Seldon