Let the robots mark and the teachers teach

Artificial intelligence can go a long way to ending the haemorrhaging of teaching staff out of the profession

Claire Hughes

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Like most other teachers, I joined the profession to improve the world. But the job I loved so much eventually exhausted me: and like so many others, I left. I was tired of the laborious paperwork (too often solely for the benefit of inspectors). I was tired of having to give evidence for every judgement I made in ridiculous detail. I was tired of flagging up children who needed further support for it to never materialise. I was tired of having to write three sentences about a child’s one sentence of writing in reception, when they were too young to understand my words.

But what crushed me was the marking – 120 books a day, 10 hours a week. I still vividly remember teachers more experienced than me recommending their favourite wheeled reinforced crate contraptions they had bought to transport their books after school shut – every single day.

We recently learned that while parents are broadly happy with artificial intelligence (AI) being used to improve many classroom functions, half of parents are unhappy with AI being used to mark their child’s schoolwork. It’s easy to sympathise – every parent wants the best for their child, and the thought of the teacher giving less attention to their child’s schooling is an understandable concern.

But I know that far from providing more attention to the child, conventional marking actually stands between the teacher and the student. Fears around using technology to mark work are well-intentioned but misguided for three reasons.

Firstly, many teachers mark work and tests during quieter times in lessons – meaning that every minute spent marking is a minute that could be spent actively teaching, as well as planning more engaging lessons or organising field trips.

Secondly, when I was teaching and I was stressed and unsupported, I was not a good teacher. This is not to claim that others can’t be; I’ve met many fantastic but overworked teachers. But it is impossible to be at your best, day in, day out, when you are physically and emotionally exhausted. For many students, their teacher may be the only supportive and steady adult they regularly see during their week. Reducing unneeded workload is not just for the teachers – it’s for the children, too.

Thirdly, artificial intelligence offers far more than the inaccurate misconception of a robot or computer replacing a teacher. Technology can now automatically mark work and give feedback, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. AI can set each child differentiated work personalised for them, saving you creating and marking 30 different worksheets. It can then give you a complete gaps analysis of how children performed in said work and greater topics – within the lesson, rather than the next day – including how much time they spent on each question and what mistakes they have made. No more manually inputting data into spreadsheets.

So why is such technology not more widespread in British state schools? For some it is an issue of price – but I have known schools in impoverished areas to drop tens of thousands on learning schemes or textbooks that fail and get tossed aside after a year. The cost of technology is falling while its benefits are increasing. It’s also impossible to lose cloud-based software in the back of an old Maths cupboard.

It can also come down to workload, as finding out about tech and being trained to use it takes time. Even if it reduces your time spent working in the longer term, many teachers and senior leaders just simply do not have the time in their day to do this. Others may have understandably developed technophobia from negative memories of computers wasting their time in the past.

Meanwhile, a consensus is forming around the effective use of technology in classrooms. Schools across the world are showing how even cutting-edge technologies like AI can simplify – not complicate – teaching. Rather than wasting time that could be spent on meaningful interactions between educators and learners, it can instigate those interactions and improve learning dialogue in the classroom in real-time, not after the books have been marked.

AI lets teachers know their students better then they could otherwise: each child’s next steps, areas of strength and how long they spend on a question. It is not possible for even the best teacher to retain that knowledge for potentially hundreds of children. Pupils can view their own data, too, and gain a greater autonomy and ownership over their learning. I often only had time to have pastoral conversations at the end of a school day and would have to wait until parents’ evening to share a child’s strengths and next steps. Now parents can know instantly – saving both parents and teachers hours and allowing us to have even deeper conversations at parents’ evening.

Technology can be part of a permanent solution to the destructive workload culture in British schools. Parents understandably want the most possible contact time from their child’s teacher – and on face value, using AI to automate marking could be a confusing prospect. But insisting teachers spend hours marking hundreds of books is counterproductive and will lead to less contact time and suboptimal feedback. But perhaps most crucially, it will only encourage the haemorrhaging of teaching talent from our schools.

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Claire Hughes

Claire Hughes is a former Teach First teacher and now Primary Curriculum Specialist at CENTURY Tech

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