I spotted a great headline on Tuesday: "Crime chief attacks tick-box culture that made bank grill grandmother".
Having banished from my mind the unfortunate image connecting an elderly lady with a barbecue, I read the detail. The head of Europol, Rob Wainwright, was furious when his 74-year-old mother was “interrogated for 20 minutes by her bank when she wanted to transfer £5,000”.
It was a money-laundering check. Mr Wainwright told The Times: “This compliance-led culture has taken over – this tick-box thing that forces banks to do A-Z on every transaction.”
I know. It’s annoying. In schools, we spend our lives not just doing things right, but following precise processes and recording them simply in order to demonstrate that we’re doing them.
The aggrieved Mr Wainwright summed up this dilemma: “The act of compliance has become the end in itself, rather than what it was always meant to be, which was compliance to stop dirty money going through.”
I was fascinated to see a top enforcer lambasting an organisation, in this case, a bank, for turning off its brain and behaving like a machine instead. That’s what compliance rules tend to do to us.
How interesting, then, to see (in last week’s Tes magazine) a suggestion from Henry Warren, formerly director of learning and innovation at Pearson, that we should increasingly allow computers to take over the task of teachers, delivering (a word I hate) scripted lessons via electronic tablets: “Can we take lesser-trained people and use them effectively? Then it comes down to that big conversation about what does technology do better than humans? I suspect what you end up with is teachers taking a much more emotional role and leaving the content delivery to the computers.”
To be fair, Mr Warren wasn’t just talking about crowd-control by those lowly-skilled humans: he did say he was referring to “proper pastoral care”.
Since AI is gradually taking over the world, why not apply it to teaching? The idea’s been mooted ever since I became a head in 1990. After all, schools teach largely the same programmes of study: why not have a common script for everyone, delivered (that word again) efficiently and consistently via a computer, while the human in the room checks that the kids are coping and staying on task? It’s a logical, 21st-century-tech application of the concept of a national curriculum. Besides, Tes reckons we are 47,000 teachers short: computers can fill the gap.
In effect, it’s Arthur C Clarke’s prophetic novel (and movie) 2001: A Space Odyssey coming true. The computer will do the job better: it will be totally consistent in the message/scheme of work it provides, not absent-mindedly teaching the wrong topic, never omitting sections because it feels a bit tired or hungover. Actually, it’s better than 2001 because, in this case, rather than eliminating the humans (unkind), it will keep them on board to do the useful and un-computerish job of being nice to kids (cuddly).
This suggestion chimes with Mr Wainwright’s story illustrating how mechanistic behaviour renders human interactions inhumane. How much truer is that peril when applied to teaching. Teaching involves much more than passing on knowledge and skills, even if our traditional school model has too often been slow to recognise the fact. Teaching is a pastoral activity: pastoral work is a function of teaching. The two elements are indivisible, and we should not seek to sunder them.
Thus, great teachers through the ages have always used their subject to inspire, to spark curiosity and lead and encourage the development of the whole child. Those who say “I’m only here to teach x” merely regurgitate information: they don’t teach in the true sense and should have no place in schools.
Moreover, the model of computer-as-expert assisted by a kind of Neanderthal low-skilled sub-teacher is one we should swiftly shun before some policymaker gets hold of it and decides it’s an idea we should pursue.
Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist and musician. He is a former headteacher of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, and past chair of HMC. He is currently interim headteacher of the Purcell School in Hertfordshire. He tweets @bernardtrafford
To read more of his columns, view his back catalogue.