Will robots replace teachers?

This question was asked decades ago and decades later they have not. It would be tempting to think then that they will not do so in the future. And in the simple minded sense that the current teacher in a classroom will be replaced by a robot doing the same task it seems very likely that this will not be the future.

However, there is no doubt that technology will and must shape education in a number of ways and for a number of reasons. One reason is that there is a shortage of teachers. Another is that education as currently designed is increasingly unaffordable for the state. It is certainly unaffordable in developing nations. Just think through how we can go about educating the 100 million people currently uneducated in the world. It won’t be in classes of 30 with a teacher. It might be using technology to provide content and remote experts providing insight and knowledge, with guidance and motivation provided in different ways. That last point will still be essential, as education is a human activity, in terms of discussion, deliberation, ideas and motivation. Isolating who can best do that from how knowledge, training, skills and repentance practice will be provided will be the key question.

So what vision of the future might we have for education for all? There will still be a bespoke education available, at cost. This is like the measured suit as opposed to the off the peg variety. There may even be a variety of add-ons at different costs. Thinking through the ethics of this may take time in education, even though we are used to being in the same train with some in first class, all arriving at the same destination. Some knowledge, all repetitive practice, much of the marking, a great deal of the individual tailoring of experience will use technology. Expert teachers may project or deliver sessions to many classrooms. In those rooms less expert educators will supervise classes, deal with pastoral issues, provide guidance and maintain motivation. School partnerships may involve sharing this expertise.

Finally, if we think this is all ridiculous think about Blockbuster and Netflix. Surely we could never replace going to the store to rent a film?

About Philip Britton

Philip Britton is Headmaster of Bolton School Boys’ Division. He was brought up on Tyneside, took a first in physics at Oxford and did teacher training at Cambridge. He worked as physics teacher, Head of Physics and Deputy Head at Leeds Grammar School before moving to Bolton in 2008. In 2010 he was awarded an MBE for services to physics and is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics where he has been much involved in physics education, encouraging teachers to encourage the next generation of physicists.