'Robots will never be able to teach English literature'

Researchers and profiteers are dismembering education by suggesting that artificial intelligence can replace teachers – it can't, and it shouldn't, writes one head of English and drama

Yvonne Williams

Why teachers must debate the impact of Big Tech and AI in their schools

This dystopian piece in Tes – “Want to teach facts? A robot could do it better, says this academic” – reminds me why I teach English, and why English should be a vital subject for scientists at a higher level than GCSE.  

The illusion that acquisition of knowledge and skills is linear and systematic is at best an irritating misunderstanding of how a subject like mine works. But we still seem to believe that progress in English can be easily tracked, that pupils will make steady steps and be neatly levered up to the next stage – be it levels or a descriptor – of supposed mastery. Frequently, teachers of English have to hold their nerve and wait for the final grade. There are very few pupils who "get it" systematically as the course unfolds. More often the learning process is punctuated by moments of synthesis when teaching and learning come together.

Since the inception of the national curriculum, the teaching function has undergone frequent structuring and restructuring. For too long the teaching profession has allowed its role to be atomised by researchers, and re-parcelled by education publishers into “products” that can supposedly replace various “functions”. 

There is always profit to be derived from online textbooks and programs for “self-study”. At the same time, schools are encouraged to outsource marking to commercial companies. We all know that one of the most effective forms of marketing is to create a need – the “night starvation” that can only be cured by a milky drink, for example. 

All these services come at a price. Sadly the cost is not just the drain on schools’ shrinking budgets but the damage wrought on teachers’ efficacy, confidence and self-worth. And this damage hasn’t solely been psychological. 

Teaching isn't just an assembly line

Literature is unique in offering contact with minds far more brilliant than ours – the minds of poets, novelists and playwrights who delve into the more profound questions of our existence and the ways in which we make sense of the world. Literary education is not all about knowing; the best is about questioning.

Keats’ poetry has been an unexpected pleasure this term, as I found myself having to teach an unfamiliar poet. It isn’t the details of Keats’ life that matter most in his writing. After all, textbooks and biographies can cover such topics or be quickly “downloaded” from the AI robot. What truly matters is the shaping consciousness which all great writers possess. 

I applaud Keats’ fascination with the relationship between beauty and truth in the Ode on a Grecian Urn, and his condemnation of industrialisation and the exploitation of workers that briefly appears in Isabella, or The Pot of Basil. Keats can create a more lasting urn than the artisans of the classical age or the manufacturing process. His Grecian Urn still excites admiration and searching questions about the nature of immortality, long after the demise of the Ancient Greeks and Romantic poets.

I’m also currently teaching the poetry of John Donne. Donne’s aptitude for rhetorical seduction and profound spiritual debate moves emotions and stimulates the intellect.  

Modern poets question the justice of our society; and playwrights of all eras create the most dazzlingly witty and emotionally wracking takes on life in general and life pertaining to their era. Novelists were producing life-defining storylines long before human resources managers manipulated business visions into “narratives”.

If the only conception we have of teaching is as a virtual assembly line, then perhaps the technologisers might be forgiven for believing that it is just a short step across the divide from robot to human. No wonder the portrayal of computer-based learning is so grotesque.

Cross the line in the other direction: the anthropomorphic pictures selected by the Tes illustrators for my articles last year portray robots as cute, seeking engagement.

One of my favourite adverts of all time is the Citroen Picasso advert showing assembly-line robots exercising endearing human creativity and experimentation when the lights are off and the factory closed. Of course, the minute the light is turned on again, they rub out their artwork and return to docility. It’s an engaging conceit that plays on the idea of machines naturally crossing the mechanical/creative divide. 

Those of my colleagues who teach art and English agree that the creative process (for example, of imaginative writing) is one that does not progress in linear fashion. It is full of false starts, stops, and reconstructions. Sometimes whole projects are abandoned. Drama, too, is about the expression of human dilemmas, failings, tragedies and redemptions. There is no space for AI here.

Pupils are no strangers to screens, and in some cases, their brains are in danger of becoming hard-wired into the virtual social-networking world. Education dominated by robots might just about kill off any human contact in their days. 

If the purveyors of AI manage to break into the schools marketplace to replace absent teachers, the likelihood is that they will be "educating" those who need other people most. I have not yet met any parent who would prefer a machine to do the job of educating their child; wealthier parents are prepared to pay very highly for better pupil-teacher ratios. 

In the end, learning is not just absorption or even just application of facts, information and knowledge; it’s far more about shaping a philosophical, attitudinal and emotional process.

Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama in a school in the south of England.  She is a member of the post-16 committee of NATE, which is holding its 55th annual national and international conference (“So Many Voices, So Many Worlds”) in Birmingham from 22-24 June.



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Yvonne Williams

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

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