Teachers? You'll never get rid of them

28th January 2005 at 00:00
They've been predicting the end of the profession ever since technology made it seem possible. But, argues , we will actually need more people in our classrooms

In future, there will be no teachers and no schools. Children will learn at home, sitting at their work stations, traditional schooling, like dinosaurs, having died out. The odd building will be preserved as a museum for nostalgic, emotional adults, who cry "I was educated in a place like this."

This common prediction about teaching and learning in the 21st century is, frankly, complete tosh. The same prophecy has been made of every technological development in the last 80 years.

When the BBC first transmitted radio programmes into schools in the 1920s, press accounts confidently predicted the end for teachers. In the future, one of these wireless boxes would be installed in every classroom, it was said, thus saving a fortune. The same wrong prediction was made about film, television, 1960s teaching machines, the micro-computer, CD and DVD-Roms, and the internet. Who needs teachers when robots can take over, on tap 24 hours a day?

The new generation of educational technology is even more attractive for those who crave a teacherless future. It is highly interactive, immediate, individualised, and massively comprehensive in the subject matter it contains. Moreover, machines don't whinge on about bureaucracy, discipline or government initiatives.

Almost everything could be learned on the internet, let alone via some future kind of interactive technology, as yet neither invented nor even imagined. You want to study maths? There are lots of carefully graded courses on offer, from beginners, through remedial, right up to undergraduate level and beyond.

Even in areas where there is a shortage of teaching material, there soon won't be, as smart commercial operators gobble the interactive pie. Eager to study the planet Pluto? The minute it has been mapped, some entrepreneur will rush out an interactive online course.

Keen privatisers gloat over this future, even if schools survive, advocating just one teacher for three classes, as every child will have a computer, so a single mentor could supervise 90 children. Really? By Friday the mentor will be fishing 90 computers out of the local canal.

Despite powerful and persuasive predictions, I am still adamant about an alternative future in which teachers still play a central role. Although I am a great fan of interactive technology and have produced CD and DVD-Roms myself, I have a horror of a completely cyber world. And so, I suspect, do many parents.

There is already anxiety over computer games and children's television alone, about a society peopled by pale-faced wonks who have spent too long watching a screen. Most parents would not be happy at their children's education being delivered entirely by visual display unit, either at home or in some palatial learning emporium.

My prediction is that the teacher's role will actually become more important. Imagine the scene one sunny January morning. "Now children, you won't need me this term. You will be studying the Vikings at your own workstations. You can access 1 million screen pages of text, 1,000 Viking artefacts from museums, 100 filmed simulations of Viking life and... " "Please miss, who are the Vikings?"

"Miss, it's snowing outside, can we have a snowball fight?"

"Shut up, you little perishers, and get on with your cyber learning".

I predict a return to a similar situation to that in classical Greece.

Wealthy Athenians paid famous teachers, such as the sophist Protagoras, a fortune to teach their children rhetoric. Why? Because in Athens it was very important to be able to get up and speak in the agora, the great market place where public meetings took place, and to hold your own in face to face conversation about business, family matters, or daily affairs.

Consider the 21st century society in which today's children will live. Most will work with their fellow human beings, rather than alongside a noisy machine. For the majority, knowledge, skill and the ability to communicate will be far more important than either muscles or knowledge on its own.

Teachers must continue to teach in a human, face to face manner. It is a natural activity, common to all higher order species. They should also act as annotators, helping children grasp the burgeoning masses of knowledge, so they can actually ask someone who the Vikings are. Everyone needs a guide through the learning maze.

Most of all, teachers must spend more time, like Protagoras, although I suspect for rather lower fees, helping children learn to communicate effectively. If they don't do this, then the poor beggars will be ground under, in our fast moving, fast talking society.

Far from needing no teachers, we may even need more, so that these intimate and important forms of teaching can be done as often as possible in small groups, as well as individually.

Ted Wragg is emeritus professor of education at Exeter University

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