BOGOTÁ - Early in 2023, Microsoft tycoon Bill Gates included teaching among the professions most threatened by Artificial Intelligence (AI), arguing that a robot could, in principle, instruct as well as any school-teacher. While Gates is an undoubted expert in his field, one wonders how much he knows about teaching.
As an avowed believer in using technology to improve student results, Gates has argued for teachers to use more tech in classrooms, and to cut class sizes. But schools and countries that have followed his advice, pumping money into technology at school, or students who completed secondary schooling with the backing of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have not attained the superlative results expected of the Gates recipe.
Thankfully, he had enough sense to add some nuance to his views, instead suggesting changes to teacher training that he believes could improve school results.
I agree with his view that AI can be a big and positive contributor to schooling. Certainly, technological changes prompt unease and today, something tremendous must be afoot if a leading AI developer, Geoffrey Hinton, has warned of its threat to people and society.
But this isn't the first innovation to upset people. Over 2,000 years ago, the philosopher Socrates wondered, in the Platonic dialogue Phaedrus, whether reading and writing wouldn't curb people's ability to reflect and remember. Writing might lead them to despise memory, he observed. In the 18th and 19th centuries, English craftsmen feared the machines of the Industrial Revolution would destroy their professions, producing lesser-quality items faster, and cheaper.
Their fears were not entirely unfounded, but it did not happen quite as they predicted. Many jobs disappeared, but others emerged and the majority of jobs evolved. Machines caused a fundamental restructuring of labor at the time, and today, AI will likely do the same with the modern workplace.
Many predicted that television, computers and online teaching would replace teachers, which has yet to happen. In recent decades, teachers have banned students from using calculators to do sums, insisting on teaching arithmetic the old way. It is the same dry and mechanical approach to teaching which now wants to keep AI out of the classroom.
But it is a mistaken perspective, as we need to reduce routine-bound and repetitive teaching, and instead concentrate on processes that favor the student's holistic or integral development. AI can help.
A passionate teacher is irreplaceable
The pandemic showed what some technological optimists like Gates could not understand: that good education is not about quantitative learning, but development. It involves teamwork, communication, interaction, and even emotion and artistry. That means people gathered in a classroom.
Teachers with a passion make an impression. Their eagerness is contagious. Their challenges and oversight, and the reading and essays they set for their pupils, promote an ability to reflect, to articulate and to argue. Beyond the page or screen, a good teacher will foment life abilities including resolve and a desire to succeed. Good teaching is key to the student's broader personal development.
Schools that merely transmit information to pupils are at risk.
Teachers have protested the dangerous idea of pupils using an AI chatbot to do their homework. But they are mistaken if they see AI as a simple tool to 'copy' the answers. What AI does do, instead, is threaten a repetitive model of education based on the accumulation of facts and data.
This is the prevalent model in Colombia and Latin America, and it has done nothing to change the profound structures students use to think, read, feel and act. Schools that merely transmit information to pupils are at risk — indeed, they should have disappeared decades ago, because the internet already holds that information.
Some teachers do not realize, however, that the internet does not hold the skills needed for thinking, communicating or living with other people. The educational system should devote itself to developing such skills, and not burden youngsters with facts and rules.
In the future, students will hand in two pieces of written work: one, the chatbot-produced draft and the other, what the student elaborates on its basis. That elaboration is the indicator of the educational process, because learning inevitably entails a significant modification of previous cognitive structures. This is the first condition of development, and the second is integrality.
Students in Class at Berlin's Hunsrück Elementary School solve a task on tablets during class, 16 March 2023, Berlin.
© Soeren Stache via ZUMA press
Teachers to teach
In the future, chatbots will help teachers assess students more accurately. Education must feed and consolidate processes that aid students to overcome weaknesses and access more complex ethical and thought systems. Traditional education stifled this with routines, grading and reports.
Machines will help us transform education to change society for the better.
Feedback is a part of the educational process, which is a dialogue between teacher and pupil. Here, AI will act as a singular monitor of students' progress in learning and absorbing skills in reading, thinking and conceptualization. With this information at hand, the priority for teachers will be to guide, or better guide, mediate, communicate and consolidate the relevant concepts. Our focus will be to advance the developmental process.
Teachers will be able to devote themselves to essential tasks, not the trivial transmission of information or grading. AI can do that, so we can work on developing more empathetic, concerned and creative individuals. Our task will be to shape youngsters who have greater autonomy and understanding of themselves and others, and are able to forge a life project for themselves. These tasks will remain, for some time yet, the preserve of humans.
Gates was mistaken when he said AI could teach as well as people, but right in saying it can provide teachers with great opportunities. I would even say it is the ideal ally in hastening the teaching changes we need to help coming generations.
As the Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai has said, a single girl, a book or a teacher can change the world. I believe education is the best tool to change the people who will change the world.
If Bill Gates is a technological optimist, I am an educational optimist — hoping machines will help us transform education to change society for the better. This should not however be taken as an expression of faith in "technologized" education.
I shall soon ask a chatbot to see what it thinks of this. I know one thing: whatever it says, I shall rework and enhance its feedback, cognizant of its risks, like those of every contraption we have invented since the dawn of our time.
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