Headmaster's Weekly Highlights: Do androids dream of electric sheep?
“Disappointed in love,discouraged in life…”
Sounds like the opening lines of a self-help publication that follows with an invitation to attend a weekend retreat or sign up to a mailing list where you might find yourself among fellow travellers in self-indulgent navel gazing. Oh dear, perhaps too strong? Well perhaps a tad. I recall the lines having heard them for the first time at Westminster Abbey on Wednesday evening. It was my second time to represent the school at the annual Florence Nightingale Commemorations. In a service led by Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster, a packed Abbey of invited luminaries and yours truly heard lessons and prayers from those continuing the work she began in the 19th century. During the Address, Sister Frances Dominica quoted the line within the context of Florence writing to nurses in training and inviting them to consider their calling.
I have had occasion this week to do something similar as I interviewed prospective candidates who would like to come and join our team. Not that I am recruiting those who are disappointed in love or discouraged in life, I am not sure where one might begin that process and, even if I did, I am not convinced I should be wandering around pruning roses in that particular garden. In the course of the interviews I always like to ask candidates what they consider to be the ingredients of a successful lesson. In one instance, a candidate suggested three possibilities: authentic relationships,assessment and innovation. Intrigued, I asked this candidate to identify which one was the most significant. The question is an interesting one and I wonder as parents and guardians, as colleagues and governors, what you might answer? Is the most effective teaching based on the level of innovation? Is it based on how successfully children learn mastery and become competent, as determined by a set of prescribed outcomes? Or is it based on the quality of the relationships in the room?
I suspect the way you answer the question says a lot about your thoughts on teaching and what teachers should do and be. Let’s think it through. Last evening, I was talking with a parent about the role of technology in the classroom. I asked what he thought about the possibility of teaching assistants being replaced by robots who would help children with mastery and follow up on teacher led instruction. Is it possible to replace a teacher with a robot? This seems fantastical, how would it work, how can we imagine it? But we already use smart testing which responds to children’s answers by providing increasingly complex problems, the better to stretch and challenge a child’s understanding and thinking ability. The Headmaster and Headmistress’ Conference has just concluded a meeting on artificial intelligence (AI) and the modern classroom where digital tech and the involvement of AI resources are being discussed as the next chapter in education. For those of you still in doubt, for those of you who maybe thinking this could never happen: remember the farmer who proudly harnessed his horses, gathered his reigns and said nothing could replace his skill at the plough? Long gone and replaced by satellite guided tractors which plough faster, longer and more accurately. But this can’t happen in schools, this can’t happen to our children, well why not? Siri will accept dictation, Alexa will find your music, order your coffee, and your phone will tell your boiler to get cracking because you are on your way home and feeling chilly.
Do androids dream of electric sheep? Philip K Dick’s question shaped Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’, but its relevance here is more meaningful than a reflection on how we control robots in post-apocalyptic San Francisco. Children’s interaction with their digital world is not so different in essence from our interactions with the world we inhabited as children and now view in sepia on TV Gold. Is their online competition any different from Subbuteo with my friends on a rainy afternoon? The medium has changed but the mediator is still the same.
When it comes to the classroom, the question I posed to the interviewees solicited their reason for picking up this vocation. In the best, their answer points to the building of authentic relationships, the better to allow children to be their best, to encourage and flourish. There may come a time when instruction can be mediated differently, where androids count electric sheep and assessment is clinical and innovation immediate. But the essence of the vocational quality of teaching and going to school is what Florence was getting at in her exhortation to her nurses. She went on to say “However difficult things may get; never forget the reason you became a nurse.” Centuries before finding your ‘Why’ became a popular YouTube video and before Sinek was touted, Florence was directing her charges to the most significant element of their endeavour; their vocation, their ‘Why’. The empathy it solicits, the engagement it fosters is beyond the circumspection of AI. More metaphysically, the moment artificial intelligence becomes self conscious is the moment when the questions of being disappointed in love and discouraged in life may take on a wholly different meaning and immediacy, but that is for another day.
Mr Cliff Canning