Editorial: Computers are clever but they cannot be wise

3rd October 2014 at 01:00

The wooing of teachers began in earnest this week, as England's new education secretary Nicky Morgan blew metaphorical kisses to the profession in a Conservative Party conference speech complete with gags on Nick Gibb ("So good they appointed him twice") and Tristram Hunt's seven-minute Labour conference address ("Did you catch his speech last week? You had to be quick").

It was a full-on charm offensive, with Morgan playing the Alan Johnson to her predecessor's Charles Clarke (as higher education minister, Johnson steered in controversial university top-up fees, later quipping that he supplied the charm while education secretary Clarke had been offensive).

Morgan praised the dedication of teachers ("If our school story has a hero, it's them"), adding that she wanted to reduce their burden - and it's a big one, as the new NUT workload survey reveals - so that they could spend more time teaching. What this would actually entail is unclear but her aim is true and it puts teachers centre stage.

This stands in stark contrast to the nightmare vision of the future educational landscape that has been offered by a collection of global experts. According to a survey conducted for the World Innovation Summit for Education, in 2030 there will be no lectures, exams or imposed curricula. Pupils will work on home computers, be judged by their peers and focus on practical skills rather than academic knowledge.

More to the point, there will be no teachers. Sugata Mitra, a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, said back in April that it was time for teachers to stop being experts and instead be children's friends. Mitra, the man with his head in the Cloud, warms to his theme in this survey. "We don't need people who know everything," he says. "I think we have to let them go."

It's the logical conclusion to the why-bother-with-teaching-when-we-have-the-internet argument. "School," the report states, "will no longer be a place where students are taught theoretical knowledge, but instead a social environment where they receive guidance, enabling them to interact with their peers and build a diverse toolkit that will better prepare them for professional life."

A social environment cannot replace a teacher. Skills cannot and should not usurp wisdom. Learning from passionate people is more rewarding than learning from Google. Delivering knowledge is not like delivering milk: you can't leave it on the doorstep and hope it's taken in. A computer may be able to deliver facts but it can't cajole, encourage or inspire and it certainly doesn't care about the person it imparts them to.

A hundred or so miles north of the Conservative conference, a more important event also took place this week - a memorial service for Ann Maguire, the teacher who was killed earlier this year by a pupil in the Leeds school in which she had taught for 40 years.

She believed that you could never put a limit on a child's potential; her work went "way beyond any job description", as one tribute put it. She cared passionately about the children she taught and the adults that they would become. That's special. That's irreplaceable. That's a hero.



Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today