The Future is Human: Because We Have No Choice
How AI and Human Connection Can Save Our Failing School System
In January 2023 I went back into the classroom for the first time in ten years. I was shocked by what I saw.
Perhaps it was me, I thought. Perhaps I no longer had it. After all, ten years is a long time. Because I struggled. To control the class, to focus them on what I wanted to teach them, to do the absolute basics.
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It was a mess, and so was I.
I’d managed groups of schools for the last ten years. Worked in some of the world’s top schools. I’d done in-depth improvement reports and business plans for schools from Dhaka to Ulaanbaataar. I’d advised Heads and Bursars on how to make their schools better places for all.
And now I couldn’t keep a group of eleven year olds on task for more than five minutes.
What had changed? Was it really me? Or was something more profound at play?
I’d been seconded there as interim Executive Principal. They’d been through a rough few years and had struggled to retain good expat staff. It was nothing the current management team had done wrong. They were talented professionals trying to clean up the mess created by previous management and the legacy of Covid. But they needed help, so I flew over to see what I could do.
Turns out, when it came to being in the classroom, not much.
Then I spoke to the teachers, who told me their story. About how they were finding their job almost impossible. How the students they were teaching lacked even the most basic ability to focus. How they didn’t seem the least interested in anything the teachers were throwing at them. How no behaviour policy seemed to make things better.
It made me feel less terrible about my own failures, but not the system as a whole.
It was not a bad school. In fact, it was one of the best in the city. A small, nurturing, British curriculum school in a relatively Europeanised developing country. Most of the children were from wealthy local families, or were the children of the NGO workers who spent a few years in the country before moving to their next placement. It should have been an easy teaching gig.
we are falling into the most desperate crisis in education that we have ever known.
And maybe it was. Because what I’m hearing, in the schools I work at across the world and the Heads I support, is that we are falling into the most desperate crisis in education that we have ever known.
I don’t say this to cause alarm, or to over-dramatise. Just look at the facts.
As of March 2023:
There were an estimated 36,504 teacher vacancies in the USA
More than 100,000 classrooms were staffed by someone who was not fully qualified to teach
44% of public schools began the school year with teaching vacancies1
It’s no better in the UK:
More than 100,000 under-40s have quit teaching in the last 5 years.
A third of teachers quit within 5 years of qualifying.
The number of teaching vacancies has more than doubled in the last 2 years.
22% of maths teachers and 42% of physics teachers have no relevant post-A-level qualification.2
And the mental health of our young? These UK statistics paint a worrying story:
One in six children aged five to 16 were identified as having a probable mental health problem in July 2021, a huge increase from one in nine in 2017. That’s five children in every classroom.
The number of A&E attendances by young people aged 18 or under with a recorded diagnosis of a psychiatric condition more than tripled between 2010 and 2018-19.
83% of young people with mental health needs agreed that the coronavirus pandemic had made their mental health worse.
In 2018-19, 24% of 17-year-olds reported having self-harmed in the previous year, and seven per cent reported having self-harmed with suicidal intent at some point in their lives. 16% reported high levels of psychological distress.
Suicide was the leading cause of death for males and females aged between five to 34 in 2019.
Nearly half of 17-19 year-olds with a diagnosable mental health disorder has self-harmed or attempted suicide at some point, rising to 52.7% for young women.3
Can AI save us all?
Can technology really save us?
Doubtful, based on what we’ve seen to date. Data projectors, interactive whiteboards MOOCS, VLEs, iPads: none of them have moved the needle when it comes to engagement or attainment. This is because they don’t shift the learning model. They’re all about a passive, one way mode of delivery. Change a whiteboard for an iPad and you don’t change much. It just shifts the surface from which students passively consume learning content from a big board on a wall, to a small screen on a desk.
We need to create human-centred, relationship-driven learning, where everyone in the room is engaged and learning becomes a team sport, not a jockey driving its horse with a whip. The model needs to flip, from one teacher talking at many students, to the student surrounded by many different types of support, from learning mentors through to business experts and the right technology delivered at the right time.
We need to create human-centred, relationship-driven learning, where everyone in the room is engaged and learning becomes a team sport, not a jockey driving its horse with a whip.
And this is where Artificial Intelligence comes in.
There, I said it. The buzz phrase. The term that’s getting everyone so worked up.
AI will change the world!
AI will kill us all!
AI is our saviour!
AI will be our ruin!
It’s hard to think when there’s so much noise.
But think we must. And cut through the noise we have to. (Yes, this sounds Yoda-like, but we need some of his wisdom.) Because if we are to make these much needed changes, it will involve taking risks. Ruffling feathers. Pushing back against those who say things are perfectly fine, and let’s not throw any babies out just yet.
But is it really so bad… I mean, really?
Maybe in some private schools it’s all ok. There are good schools with well-behaved children getting a solid traditional education. I know of one who provides a lovely, holistic education to their children. They spend as much time climbing trees and playing in the mud as they do in traditional lessons. As a result, children are happy, entrance test results are off the scale, and children move on to the most elite schools in the country.
But that’s the exception.
However, I want to make one thing clear. I don’t advocate smashing the current system to pieces and starting again. There are many things we do in schools that still work. There are many wonderful, caring teachers who form strong and meaningful bonds with their students.
What I would argue, however, is that it is often in spite of the system in which we operate, not because of it. No teacher can rightly say that they create a close bond with their students through talking at them all day.
Relationships are built inside the human moments of a school day. The teacher who sees that a student is struggling and keeps them back at the end to offer extra help. The joke that’s cracked to ease the tension when it’s clear that the concept introduced makes no sense at all (we’ve all been there). The school trip where the ill child needs to be cared for. It’s in these non-academic interactions that we build the trust that make the academic side so powerful.
Relationships are built inside the human moments of a school day.
Let’s therefore not only keep these moments, but extend opportunities to have them. By moving away from the current didactic system, towards one that privileges human connection over dry learning content delivery, we stand a far better chance to prepare our children properly for the world. To make them creative, resilient and humble, with a firm grounding in reality and a much-needed sense of humour. As life can be absurd!
AI can help with this. It can speed up so many tasks that take us away from being human. It will increasingly automate much of the work we do that drags us away from relationship. Planning and assessment are two good examples.
It’s still such early days, but what we are already seeing is how AI might just be the technology that moves education back to where it was before the industrial model took hold. To a time where it was all about learning from those we were close to, those we trusted.
And that has to be worth exploring, before we drown.
Teacher shortage and recruitment statistics – WordsRated
Teacher stats expose recruitment and retention crisis - Liberal Democrats (libdems.org.uk)
Mental Health Statistics UK | Young People | YoungMinds