Are we finally all going to Golgotha?

For anyone old enough to remember Garry Kilworth’s 1975 epic ‘Let’s Go To Golgotha!’ they may be forgiven for suffering a similar sense of foreboding when it comes to recent advances in Artificial Intelligence and its potential effects on education.  Kilworth’s story, set in the future, depicted a time travel agency where holiday destinations were past historic events such as famous battles – Hastings or Agincourt perhaps… take your pick.  Kilworth followed the journey of a family who chose to time travel back to the Crucifixion. Apart from the striking twist at the finale when it is all the tourists from the future who call for Christ’s death, perhaps the most abiding and relevant element of the novel is where Kilworth talks of advances in science so great that a simple injection was all that was needed to enable time travellers to masquerade as humans seamlessly indigenous to a time and place of their choice.  They would bear the habits, speak the language and understand the culture of their chosen destination quite simply and most importantly, without having to learn anything.

Sounds familiar?

Well yes, we are almost there now.  Entrepreneurs who themselves may have found school and learning a chore, see great riches in overhauling the world of education. Many EdTech developments are intended to be short cuts to learning. Indeed, attempts to make the whole ‘tedium’ of delivering and remembering school related matter more palatable and faster.  It seems unfortunate to me that any teacher or student should find education a journey to be ‘got through’ rather than a pleasure to enjoy and the establishment of an opportunity to make good life choices – but where money is to be made and profit lies in that magical word, ‘disruption’ – yes, the word that city investors love to hear, there will always be ‘tin-panners’ who feel that in knocking the status quo and routing for change there will be monetary gains ahead. This is not about philanthropy; their hope and their sell, is the creation of a lighter work load for overburdened teachers and a willing and informed generation of young adults who have been educated, not only unknowingly without effort or strife but joyously, just by logging on and gleaning in depth knowledge from an occasional glance at a screen, wherever they happen to be.  The era of teach and learn as you go, using only your thumbs, is upon us.

But does it work?

It is of course too early to say whether Artifical Intelligence will make us cleverer in the long term but from what I know of young people, try as you like, modern life and modern tech offer far too many distractions that successfully tempt and allure students from most forms of learning.  The conviction that children are constantly learning through setting and place whilst engaging in other non-school related activities is the bastion of many alternative home-educating fundamentalist types, where a trip to the park equates to Geography etc, but this philosophy is now creeping in to general education by those who believe that games and social media, conducted in snack size bytes, can result in informed young people ready to cut their cloth in a future workplace.  However, the results are there for us to see and they don’t make good reading. Comprehension skills and reading ages have been proved to be on the decline since 2019 and text comprehension skills are seven points lower than back in 2012. The worst performing children are underperforming those children of 1971 when such records were first introduced. And yet the cheers continue to hail this new era of on-screen learning as a really good thing, whilst we all simply ignore the facts and think only of preparing for our brave new world.

Resisting the temptation of AI fuelled wisdom

Social media groups where matters of educating with AI are discussed all thirst for short cuts. It is almost as if teachers want to delegate their entire role to artificial intelligence from building learning materials to schemes of work, preparation and actual gleaning of knowledge and content…arguably making themselves redundant in the process.  Of course, when the possibility of making their role fully automated is raised the natural response is the need for the human factor to be fronting the whole experience.  But why? Surely governments will see cost savings where avatars can front AI content delivered to children and the role of teacher is diminished to one of pastoral care. And no doubt too there will be investors who are happy to sell the benefits…so beware.

Before I am branded as a luddite who opposes all change, I was an early adopter introducing Synthesia avatars in place of humans to our website videos, and at a great cost saving too.  They are easily edited within seconds and can speak a multitude of languages depending on who wants to listen. Yes, I am almost on my way to Golgotha! But my fear for AI is the effect it will have on deep rooted learning and knowledge both for teachers and their students? This spin towards being erudite on a need-to-know basis may satisfy the most basic of intellectual ambitions, but what about those souls who crave genuine engagement and find themselves at the mercy of an AI driven teacher who is quite happy that near enough is good enough and factual accuracy is not of paramount importance? The next step could be these avatars delivering AI generated lesson material to a class of students overseen by a security guard type figure.  Imagine the cost saving! There will be no need for a degree or teaching qualification because security staff come cheaper than teaching professionals and with a nod to pastoral well-being along the way, teaching and learning could have a very different face in less than 10 years time.

We are in an age where we have willingly delegated neuroplasticity to external devices and seem to think that’s a good thing.

There appears to be two camps on the subject of AI – those welcoming what they see as a great leap forward, where technology will engage with alert minds to delve deeper, brushing the negatives nonchalantly aside as nothing more than the introduction of the calculator – and those who fear for their jobs and see AI as a fake veneer that could replace the art of teaching and learning. In delegating their lesson planning and assumed knowledge to AI, as many are beginning to do, teachers cannot be surprised when they are met with students equally submitting homework generated by AI.  If they can’t be bothered to really get under the skin of things, why should their students? No hard graft or learning for either teacher or pupil. It’s a win-win, or a lose-lose, depending on how you feel about the future, but it’s easy to contemplate where a robot produces the lessons and a robot responds with the answers, why will there be a need for a human? Investors are no doubt rubbing their hands with glee but the long-term prospects for an educated world population are looking increasingly bleak. Teachers must surely be concerned for their jobs when Bill Gates writes about AI leading on to the development of ‘Agents” who could evolve into a virtual tutor who can deliver content in a bespoke way which encapsulates the interests of that child to create a perfect match so that Maths can be taught in such a manner that if a child enjoys football then football becomes the essence of all things Maths.  Fantastic you may say, but it is easy to see that this advancement utterly swerves the need for a human.

There is a glimmer of hope though. In January 2024 the state of California; ironically the cradle of all things innovation, has written in law that cursive writing should be re-introduced for grades one through to six after abandoning the idea some 14 years ago.  Why?  Well in part, because in comparison to typewriting, cursive ‘can activate specific neural pathways that facilitate and optimise overall learning and language development’. Some will no doubt see this as a backward step but we should take heed when neuroscientists explain the different brain functions that are called into play between typing and writing and crucially, the better learning outcomes.,learn%20to%20write%20in%20cursive.

The human condition

Laziness and short cuts are for the most, a very human condition.  We all, well most of us, like to do less and the possibility of delegating our work to a machine is very tempting.  If we decide we only want knowledge on an as needed basis we can do away with the entire curriculum.  Roll this thought out further and why teach Geography when anything we need to know can be found out and delivered as and when we want to? Why learn to analyse, evaluate, persuade, debate when all of these skills can be synthetically created on our behalf by a device much better at it than we are?

Turn back the clock just a few years and it is easy to say that the internet has made us all more selective.  Human nature encourages us to fixate on what we enjoy most so although the internet brings us a world of knowledge at our finger tips, we repeatedly revisit the sources we enjoy the most, relentlessly returning to the tiny percentage of sites we use and disregarding what does not interest us. The average time spent on a website is a staggering 52 seconds across all industries.  That shows our brain power to slow down, pause and concentrate has diminished in our quest to seek out only what excites us. We may be engaged in the things we enjoy but are we challenged and when we are, do we sustain focus?

For those who welcome tech as an industry that can enhance and improve learning, it is worth remembering that the digital age has severely reduced our attention spans. Think back to the days when we had limited exposure to TV and media.  Back in the very early 1980s there were just three channels, but this ironically made us more informed. Why? Because we unintentionally sat through documentaries and current affairs programmes that were of no interest to us. One television per household meant that if our parents were watching Newsnight, we did too. And we read more. TGI consumer research released in 2019 suggested that only 51% of adults read at least one book a year, a decrease from 56% in 2018. That means than almost half the UK adult population didn’t read a single book in a whole 12 months. Shared knowledge and shared experiences were the glue of years gone by that kept each generation together and gave them a cohesive identity but tech has allowed each of us to indulge our own personal interests to the exclusion of that which does not capture our attention…and that is a worrying state of affairs for a modern generation whose shared experiences are simply so personally singular.

Whilst research shows that children continue to learn better on paper than on screen it is a worry to discover that last November a study showed that one million children in the UK did not own a single book. The chances are though that they did own some sort of device from which they could access the internet.  Attributed in part to the Cost of Living crisis, the truth is that children are enticed by much more ‘sticky’ screen based environments from which they satisfy an ever reducing attention span that is constantly pumping them dross.

As a home-educator who had little choice but to school two young boys without IT, largely due to unintentionally living below the reach of the internet, I can honestly say that a world devoid of laptops, phones and learning games was the very making of them. It wasn’t intentional but I am mighty glad things worked out that way. We had books, just books and our resources expenditure for GCSES was just £25.00 between two children and £50 per A Level per child…and the commitment of one parent in one room. Two children who had been turned away by at least four of our greatest schools (state and independent) found their way to Cambridge University; the youngest aged just 16.  How did this happen? Through accepting that there were no short cuts, no magic bullets, and that many hours would be spent reading, revising, discussing, studying, researching, visiting the library and learning.

It is a message that we need to get through to our students and our teachers whilst we convince them that the entire journey is enjoyable and of immense value too.  We need to stop disparaging our schools and put an end to this belief that a new way is better.  So far statistics show it simply isn’t.  We need to recognise that every IT development we laud and every science discovery that benefits society has been created by those very people who underwent this same education system we seek to condemn. Having accompanied two sons through their 11 GCSE subjects and eight A Levels I can assure you that the entire curriculum does knit together and when children engage and put down their devices, it brings unlimited opportunity.  We just need to go and get behind what we already have and start believing in it again rather than this endless determination to destroy and rebuild for our own personal glory.

Going back to Golgotha, let us remember that it was the crowd from the future that chose to crucify Jesus, not those from the present.   Let us hope that our race for AI does not make us look back one day and realise we are all now collectively more ignorant than we were 2000 years ago.

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