AI is Already Here!

How the many parts of our everyday lives will adapt to use artificial intelligence (AI) is a hot topic of debate. It is also the plot of many films where invariably humankind is put at risk as the machines become better than us and take over. Of course we have been here before – printing presses replaced scribes and JCBs replaced shovels, we adapted and life moved on.

This Summer Term we started to use AI at Bolton School and so far it is a useful and productive part of the variety of teaching and learning. First, don’t think robots but think Alexa or targeted adverts on your websites. The programme we are using involves practice questions in five subjects (sciences, maths and English). There are literally hundreds and thousands of graded questions aimed at probing what the pupil understands and knows. The AI programme sets the next question based on how you did on the last one, increasing the difficulty or moving on to new areas once one skill has been mastered, or back tracking and giving simpler examples where the pupil struggles. It is great for consolidation and revision but also useful for diagnosing prior learning, so we don’t teach what pupils already know. Reports from the programme show how much has been done, how it has been done and how long the programme was actively used for. As it is used by millions around the world it learns from experience what it is that makes a pupil answer a question wrongly and what to ask to promote understanding.

So AI has a place already in education. Rather than worry about the robots taking over we need to shape how they fit into the classroom with the teacher. But imagine an infinitely patient assistant going through that maths problem once more, without any sense of that edge in the voice as you still don’t get it. Might not more succeed? We also need to help prepare young people for a life with AI, which will make some more jobs redundant, but create others. Drone operators may replace drivers, some legal work will be automated (imagine two AI solicitors doing the routine legal work on a house purchase and doing so 24/7, without those calls asking whether anything is happening today).

Some argue we are at the stage where people fitted petrol engines to horse carriages. Then they started again and designed cars. Perhaps we are, but at least we have started.

About Philip Britton

Philip Britton is the Head of Foundation of Bolton School. 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. Follow at X: @Philip_Britton | View X/Twitter archive | Listen at: Exploring Bolton School | Social Mobility, Leadership & Future School Thinking | Strategic School Leadership with Philip Britton | Strategic School Leadership with Philip Britton