How do we restore the art of teaching in a world of AI?

Edtech is attempting to replicate teaching – but it is a human, humane and humanist undertaking, says Yvonne Williams

Yvonne Williams

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It’s another week, and there’s another AI sales pitch to tell us all that robots can reduce workload and teach students better. This time, it’s from CENTURY Tech founder Priya Lakhani.

What’s the premise? That teachers aren’t good enough at differentiation: robots can spot the gaps in pupils’ learning more quickly and, using sophisticated algorithms, come up with instant tasks to bridge the gap and pave the way to success.

Sadly, the idea that AI can cure all ills has been around too long unchallenged – except by dinosaurs like me. Somehow we’ve all begun to believe that pupils are empty vessels and – worse still – they are programmable.

We may live in a technological age and we may be up to our eyeballs in glitzy apps. But teachers don’t think like machines – and all the teenagers I’ve ever had the privilege of teaching certainly don’t. Teaching is a human, humane and humanist undertaking.

I don’t begrudge the edtech gurus their gathering influence, their conferences and their airtime, but the combined effect of the scientific approach to learning and the technologising of teaching tasks strips away not just the social but the aesthetics of the art of teaching.

So here is how we restore the art of teaching.

The art of teaching

Constructing classroom dialogue is an art in itself. The careful placing of the right words (not just terminology), crafting pupil exchanges: setting-up, arranging and blending activities brings out the speech artist in all of us.

Reshaping social structures in the classroom makes all the difference to successful group work. Harmonious blending of diverse abilities and personalities can achieve fluent exchanges, dynamic interaction, excellent results. All too often the real artistry of constructing seating plans gets overlooked by those who are more pragmatically seating students by ability or simply shuffling them around to ensure a fairly vacuous variety.

The quality of explanation – what to select, prioritise, highlight and dwell on – is something too long under-valued. Teachers are craftsmen when it comes to shaping the dialogue in their classrooms.

Telling the story

Teachers are storytellers – and it’s not an art that comes naturally. Anyone who has witnessed the author Michael Morpurgo in action can easily see how a class of young children can be held spellbound by the pacing, language, the characters he creates so naturally. But it takes time to develop this, to turn a recap into something more cohesive and engaging.

It may seem that such skills are becoming quaintly old-fashioned when YouTube and other videos are so readily available. The teacher’s repertoire of skills should include the ability to create tension, to leave lessons on a cliff-hanger, to provide unexpected climaxes or denouements – and to get around the waffly bits of To Kill A Mockingbird where necessary.

The ability to rise in anger at the injustice in the prison sentence for Tom Robinson is a vital part of the educational experience of all pupils. We all live by stories and we all tell each other stories via gossip, Facebook, LinkedIn and AI promotion, to name but a few. Scientifically programmed learning won’t do that. It can’t bring lumps to the throat and tears to the eye as Scout looks at the world through Boo Radley’s eyes at the end of the novel and as she realises that Atticus is always there. This is the very essence of our teaching and we work hard to achieve those reactions to novels.

The artistry of assessment

Then there is the artistry of assessment. No, not the colour-coded, time-swallowing deep marking that can drown us all, but the well-selected strategy, the finely-tuned decisions about whether to peer or self-assess, whether it’s better to discuss, to make individual comments while circulating the room.

What combination works best in what sequence? These aren't decisions that can be made by a technician, the researcher or even the craftsperson. They can only be made by a true artist.

Pupil reports bring out the best in the aspiring teacher-novelist. Good writing provides a pen-portrait of the student’s unique combination of intellectual and personal traits mixed with a bit of plot-writing for the curriculum journey so far. Ucas and job references refine the art of matching student to course and melding past experience with future achievement.

Even lesson planning can be aesthetically-pleasing as long as it doesn’t have to conform to rigid forms of many pages or the deadening sequence of power-pointed instructive slides. Light-touch conceptual is probably the best way to go, a bit like an impressionist painting. Avoid the detailed miniaturist style of the 18th century – it takes too long for too little return.

And for the Ofsted-ready curriculum? Perhaps the epic grandeur of a medieval tapestry in which the threads of the curriculum carefully woven into the overall design will keep out the draughts of over-scrutiny and uber-accountability…

Yvonne Williams is head of English and drama at a secondary school in the south of England

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