Ahead of his keynote speech at this year’s NACE National Conference, NACE patron Dr Chris Yapp offers an aspirational yet realistic vision of how artificial intelligence (AI) could help solve current challenges in education.

It is easy to be overwhelmed with both the scope and pace of change in the modern world. Faced with educating children for a world that does not yet exist, for jobs that we don’t yet understand, it is easy to close one’s ears, put heads down and hope it will all go away. Be it as a government minister, as parents, school leaders, teachers or governors, the lack of clarity on the world we are preparing children and young adults for can cause us to become risk-averse and confine our efforts to the areas we feel most confident about.

My experience over a lifetime working in the public, private and third sectors is that this is a mistake. I have seen sectors and companies fail because they clung to a world view that was past its sell-by date.

Adapting to a fast-changing world

When I first became engaged with educational reform nearly 30 years ago, it was common to hear the argument that teaching was inherently a conservative profession and resistant to change.

On the contrary, in my work I have found health professionals, lawyers, accountants, various built environment professions to face the same challenges in shifting professional practice to adapt to a changing world. In all sectors, including education, there are people who thrive on change and others who prefer a comfortable silo.

I have often argued that it is our attitude to change that needs to be rethought, not change itself.

My experience is that in general people do not resist change, they resist being changed. If people feel that change is being thrust on them without their acceptance, engagement and understanding, they will resist. Yet if they feel engaged in and responsible for delivering change, the same changes can feel far less stressful, indeed liberating.

During my time at school and university, the best teachers embraced change and encouraged that in me. The teachers I meet who I find inspiring are constant innovators.

That said, I would argue that society and the economy are facing levels of change over the next few decades – from climate change, technological change and societal and demographic challenges – that require systemic responses that cannot be delivered by individual teachers, educational institutions, advisers and consultants simply “doing their best”.

An aspirational but realistic approach to AI

In this post, I want to illustrate just one strand, the impact of artificial intelligence (AI). Each week I see yet another claim around AI developments in health, education, law, autonomous vehicles and so on. There is a lot of hype around, as ever, but the potential is real, and the possibilities will grow over next few decades.

So, instead of throwing AI tools and techniques at teachers, schools and colleges and hoping something will stick, can we enable students and teachers to become masters, not victims, of AI-enabled change?

I’d like to commend a recent report from Nesta on AI in education which is grounded in the real world yet is aspirational about a more effective, human system of education.

Let’s start by hitting the hype on the head. AI will not replace teachers. While progress in a variety of technologies under the banner of AI is genuinely impressive, we are a long way from the full AI vision. Artificial general intelligence (AGI) is a long-term goal for many in AI research and industry. AGI is about building systems and machines that have a broad range of capabilities that match the breadth of human skillsets.

What we can do now and for the foreseeable future is use AI on specific tasks. The narrower the task, the easier it is to build an AI system that can match a human at that task. We can build AI systems that beat champions at Go, but also outperform doctors in diagnostics.

What existing challenges can AI be used to address?

So, let’s put AI in its proper place, starting with the problems and challenges currently faced by schools:
1. What are the biggest impediments to improving learning at individual, class, institution and national levels?
2. How can we free up teachers’ time to enable them to develop the skills to become masters of change?
3. What tasks can AI perform to support education at all levels from individual to the UK and beyond?

Too often, we have tried to answer the third question without being clear on the first two. Of course, more funding would always help, but it is not a panacea if it acts as a sticking plaster to old ways.

This leads to the next important step…
4. How can education stakeholders engage with developments in AI to shape the capability to address the real challenges and opportunities that AI presents?

Practical and ethical implications

Let me illustrate this with two examples.

The first is in assessment. Imagine you have two pupils who are “B” standard at the end of the year. Based on your experience, Pupil 1 is strong in X and weak in Y, and Pupil 2 the reverse. Understanding next year’s curriculum, you might believe that Pupil 1 might get an A but 2 might move towards a C.

That insight would be very helpful to next year’s teacher but your workload to give far more detailed assessments on each pupil would be unacceptable.

This is precisely the type of task AI is well suited to. Reform of assessment is a perennial bugbear in my experience. We have the technology now to do what many have aspired to for decades, which is to build a more learning-focused, rich assessment framework that supports teachers and learners without adding to the burden and stress on teachers. That is easier to say than do, of course. If we follow the model of building technology and imposing it on schools the potential will be missed, and we will all feel the loss.

The second example is around the ethical implications of developments in AI. We already have examples of AI developments where the systems can be shown to discriminate on gender, race and other grounds. This has profound importance for curriculum developments in teaching AI within schools, but also for the ethical frameworks within which teachers and schools operate. AI, like all technologies, does not exist in a vacuum.

Indeed, I would argue that climate change is an ethical issue as much as it is a scientific discourse. I’ll leave this as an open question here: “Is a grounding in ethics part of the 21st century core curriculum?”

Throughout my years engaged with education at all levels, there has been an aspiration for education to become more evidence-based and research-led. I think we will only deliver on that goal if education professionals are developed and recognised as masters of change. Only then can we thrive on change rather than implement stress-reducing coping strategies. If we are to prepare this generation of young people for the world to come, we owe it to them and ourselves to work together and build an ambitious vision of the teaching workforce.
NACE patron Dr Chris Yapp is a freelance consultant specialising in innovation and future thinking. He is a Senior Associate Fellow at Warwick Business School’s Institute of Governance and Public Management, an Associate of the think-tank Demos, and has contributed to books on IT, management and strategic issues. He is a frequent public speaker, with past engagements including the World Bank, British Council, UN, Club of Rome, the Royal Society and EU.

Dr Yapp will deliver the closing keynote presentation at this year’s NACE National Conference, exploring the theme: “21st century education: challenges, collaboration and innovation”. View the full conference programme here.
Tuesday, April 23, 2019