AI, content versus soft skills and more STEM teachers: Big issues for school education in Australia

On Tuesday at CONSTA67, the annual conference of the Australian Science Teachers Association, Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel raised a number of  issues in a speech that warrant teasing out a bit further. I want to discuss three points: one, there was an opening comment about the classroom of 2030 and an inference of robots replacing teachers, and two, Federal education Minister Birmingham’s announcement of more STEM teachers for schools and finally, mastery of content or knowing stuff versus ‘soft’ or ‘generic employability’ skills.

In his address Dr Finkel referred to an interview he gave for a podcast when a journalist asked him what he expected to see in the classrooms of 2030 – he responded: “human teachers”. There is speculation in some areas that the robots are coming to our classrooms and that teachers in schools should be afraid or as …. Stephen Heppell would say very afraid.

In response to the first challenge Dr Finkel raised on teachers being replaced by robots I offer these considerations. I recently attended the London Festival of Learning organised by Professor Rose Luckin and her amazing team. The festival was a confluence of three international academic conferences on AI in Education, the Learning Sciences and Learning at Scale*. As you can imagine there was a lot of talk about AI, big data, machine learning, data ethics and much much more.

Now, I am a relative newcomer to the world of AI from a technical POV but my interest in AI in Education (AIEd) is founded on my lifetime scholarly attentiveness to pedagogy, teacher professional learning and great classroom teaching in schools. AI is coming – and yes it’s here in many forms already… Siri … Alexa – being a few examples. However, the world of school education needs to know much more about it to be what I call on the front foot.

All types on AI for education in schools are being developed at a frenetic (read … worrying) pace in particular countries and students, parents, teachers, teacher unions, school systems and education leaders need to know enough about it (for example: ethical implications, data literacy and transparency to name a few areas) to be across it – as all of our workplaces will increasingly require employees to work alongside AI. However, the human skills of educators will still be very much in demand.

Professor Rose Luckin from the University College London who I am fortunate to be working with has written a new book that was launched at the festival: Machine Learning and Human Intelligence: The Future of Education for the 21st Century. It’s an excellent book – fascinating and I commend it highly to you as a reading priority. She argues for example and this goes to some of the points in Dr Finkel’s address about content mastery: “By raising awareness and not undervaluing human intelligence means talking about intelligence and evaluating it. There is a world of difference between knowledge and information. Information is the data that needs to be analysed and synthesised in order to extract the features from which we construct our knowledge and understanding … and that too often means the methods we use to talk about and value human intelligence are impoverished” (p.15). As far as robots replacing teachers go – according to Professor Luckin: “Teachers can take a deep breath as AI is not socially intelligent – it does not know what evidence is – most AI systems cannot explain the decisions they have made”.

More on all this in another post – out soon.

In his address yesterday Dr Finkel went onto praise Minister Birmingham’s announcement of there not being enough STEM trained teachers in classrooms in schools. It did touch a nerve in the media. I agree with his observation of need but the question is how and where will such people who seek to teach STEM in primary and high schools come from? What is the strategy? Where is the $$$?

The marvellous Eddie Woo is one person and yes there other Eddie’s and Sally’s in our schools but it’s worthwhile mentioning that even Eddie parents did not want him to ‘be a teacher’ and this is frequently the case with high achieving Maths and Science school leavers – parents often want their children channelled into business or law. Values have shifted on a career path into school education.

Over my education career working and researching in schools, universities and in the education policy space I have noted that many talented Maths and Science school leavers do not unfortunately see teaching as what they want to do with their knowledge and skills. There must be incentives to go into teaching in schools per se and to go into teaching the Maths and Science disciplines even more so. The Minister is working with various peak education bodies to understand this more – a good thing. Much more money must be paid to teachers for the work they do with much less administrivia with more assistance and greater autonomy. Regular sabbaticals and reduced teaching loads too would be steps forward to match the demands of teaching in 2018 and into the future. Funding funding and more funding. Signs of a tired and anxious profession are everywhere – the bucket of goodwill is empty.

In London last week I met a number of Teach First teachers – they approach what they do as teachers in schools quite differently – it is not better or worse just different. Important to remember these teachers also often do not last in schools in comparison to those that have come through the four year trained preservice teacher model in universities – it’s something they do for a while and then move on. Perhaps this is the pattern of teaching employment these days? Teaching in schools is hard work – it always has been – but the demands of teachers in schools now and over the past 10+ years are relentless. Sadly, many of my outstanding recent preservice teachers now in schools are already talking about leaving and some have been in albeit temporary positions – targeted graduates in some cases – for less than a year. Something is not right.

Dr Finkel ended his keynote at CONSTA67 with “heroes learn hard content from fabulous teachers”. Yes they do and yes they always have. The notion of hero is tricky. I liked the speech but words have to come with funding and an action plan – serious money and time for ongoing professional learning underpins most of what is being argued for – there must be the political will and real incentives to make it possible for education systems to met the challenges the Chief Scientist poses.

Many teachers, principals, school systems and universities are doing a lot of what Dr Finkel outlined and as to his assertion about: “soft skills over content (AI can help with content) – we need both more than ever.

*Link to Practitioner Track Proceedings for the 2018 International Conference of the Learning Sciences (ICLS) is here.