This week on Tes, Yvonne Williams noted with regret the increasing number of schools using cutting-edge artificial intelligence (AI) to improve education. She said pupils are not “programmable” and their minds are not “empty vessels”. She suggested that the use of such technologies strips away the social aspects of education and diminishes the “art of teaching”.
While clearly well-intentioned, this argument is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what AI is and how its relationship to teaching is one of enhancement, rather than replacement.
Yvonne claims that the application of AI to education, such as the learning platform that we have developed here at CENTURY Tech, is premised on a belief that teachers “aren’t good enough at differentiation”. This could not be further from the truth. The success of technologies like ours is based on teachers wishing to enhance their teaching by getting their hands on as much data as possible and combining it with their human brilliance to help ensure that every child is able to fulfil their vast potential.
Many teachers teach hundreds of students at any one time. Grasping each of their individual strengths and weaknesses, quirks and behaviours, preferences and emotions in a short enough time to enact any meaningful differentiation can be literally an impossible task. Our teachers tell us that what previously took a few months – eating into precious time at the start of the academic year – can now be done instantly, as AI can provide the teacher with an overview of every pupil’s performance as well as granular levels of detail.
Teachers, don't be afraid of AI
What the teacher then does with this information is down to them – and that’s where the importance of the art of teaching, eloquently outlined by Yvonne in the second half of her article, is amplified. AI acts as the sidekick to the superhero, as stated by one of our schools, arming them with a wealth of data insights to enhance their performance as educators. From the most prestigious independent schools in Britain, to those in "opportunity areas" and to Lebanese schools educating large numbers of Syrian refugees, our AI technology is being used to improve the education received by children from all walks of life – and is doing so in a way that emboldens teachers’ position in the classroom.
Not only does AI augment teaching by providing the teacher with data insights, it also frees up teachers' time to get on with what they joined the profession to do – teach. Teachers tell us that using our AI platform frees up hours a week that would previously be spent on administrative tasks like marking and planning work. These countless hours of teachers' time can now be used for more group work, or activities that instil softer skills like teamwork, confidence and resilience, or even on providing more extracurricular activities and school trips.
When AI is used to automate functions previously performed by humans, it is simply false to deduce that the next step is a reduced function for humans overall. Using computers to perform that which is better performed by computers – such as some, but not all, aspects of marking and planning – means that human intelligence can now be focused on that which is better performed by humans – teaching, nurturing and inspiring students. With 80 per cent of teachers considering leaving the profession due to unbearable workloads, dismissing tools that automate that which is ripe for automating is to do a disservice to every burned out teacher in the world. To put it bluntly, and using Yvonne’s metaphor, it is impossible to be an artist when you do not even have the time or energy to pick up the brush.
Historically, the prevailing wisdom in society was that children from poorer backgrounds would never be able to make use of a rigorous education. Policymakers and the established classes in general maintained that they should instead be fobbed off with a low-quality trade education, or just sent straight into the workforce at an early age. We thankfully moved on from this long ago, with children from all backgrounds now encouraged to pursue whichever high-quality academic or vocational path they so desire.
But it now seems that this "soft bigotry of low expectations" has been shifted from the students to the teachers. Hostility to using technology to improve outcomes seems to only apply to the field of education. Technology is rapidly improving every single sector in the world: doctors now diagnose many conditions almost immediately using AI, saving and improving countless more lives, while financial analysts now use advanced AI models to more accurately predict rises and falls in markets, steadying the ship and improving economic conditions everywhere.
Would we ever suggest that doctors and nurses, engineers and electricians or lawyers and policemen should have to make do without technology or equipment that has demonstrably beneficial effects on their performance?
From the industrial revolution to the creation of the NHS, every instance of positive reform has had to overcome perhaps well-intentioned but fundamentally mistaken opposition. When so many of our teachers are burning out and students everywhere are being let down, I make no apology for creating, and advocating for the greater use of, technology and artificial intelligence systems that can finally help teachers to consign receiving a bad education to the history books.
Priya Lakhani OBE is the founder and CEO of CENTURY Tech