Technology transforming role of teachers – Dawn of a new era


Albert Einstein was once giving an exam paper to his graduating class. It turned out that it was the same exam paper he had given them the previous year. His teaching assistant, alarmed at what he saw and thinking it to be the result of the professor’s absent-mindedness, alerted Einstein. “Excuse me, sir,” said the shy assistant, not quite sure how to tell the great man about his blunder. “Yes?” said Einstein. “Um, it’s about the test you just handed out.” Einstein waited patiently. “I’m not sure if you realise it, but this is the same test you gave out last year. It’s identical.” Einstein paused to think for a moment, then said, “Yes, it is the same test but the answers have changed.”

The story above draws our attention to the rapid rate of expansion of human knowledge and the resulting obsolescence if we are not fast enough in learning new things.

I recently came across an observation by futurist Thomas Frey. In one of his interviews, Frey said, “Over the coming decades if we continue to insert a teacher between us and everything we need to learn, we cannot possibly learn fast enough to meet the demands of the future.” This made me analyse the role of a teacher in the modern world. It is very much a fact that we’re on the brink of an Artificial Intelligence (AI) technological revolution that will fundamentally alter how we live, work, and relate to one another. The education sector is no exception. AI has proved that individualised or tailor-made learning is much faster and better. It is assumed and probably already proven somewhere, as you read this, that AI will learn every student’s interests, proclivities, idiosyncrasies, preferred tools, personal reference points, and how to stay engaged and learn even in the face of distractions; making it a better teacher. So to say in the teaching learning process. It will have an edge as AI will know when:

  • Where the learners lack
  • What’s needed to bring them up
  • How and when to schedule the training/ teaching
  • When the learners have mastered the topic

But does this mean that teachers are going to be redundant? Being a teacher for 18 years plus, the answer, with a fear of being biased, is a big ‘No’. The debate is hot but to defend my stand, I have a list of a few valid reasons. The role of a teacher is not merely to impart knowledge. It goes way beyond the books and the classroom. Teachers pass on values to children and build the character, competence, and moral commitment of the future citizen of the world. We teach the difference between right and wrong and empower young minds to choose wisely, thus making us a crucial part of the education sector now and forever.

Having said that, it is inevitable to reflect upon the changing world. We are preparing ourselves for a future that is volatile yet exciting nonetheless. And it is about time that we revamp the whole teaching learning process from the art of teaching to the science of learning.

It may come as a surprise to many that medicine became a science just about a hundred years back. Medicine has evolved from a sophisticated art to a rich and promising science, full of possibilities. To many people, currently, Data Science may seem to be the youngest science. Data science is a field of study that combines domain expertise, programming skills, and knowledge of mathematics and statistics to extract meaningful insights from data.

To simplify, Data Science is nothing but the Science of Learning and this Science of Learning is taking shape right in front of our eyes with teachers being at the forefront. We now better understand how the brain learns, works, changes, and thrives. And hence, it is time to reflect upon the nature of the teaching activity, the evolution of the teacher’s role, and its future, especially in light of the impact of technology and the migration from an exclusive approach to education to an inclusive universalisation of education.

Traditionally, good teaching was an art learned at the feet of the masters through long periods of internship and following good examples and practices. A great teacher was like a master artist or sculptor, who from the rock of his vast knowledge chiseled out in real time before his audience, a form of knowledge appropriate for his learners. However, the advent of the World Wide Web and the survival instinct during the pandemic has changed all the equations. A new understanding of the learning process is leading to many different approaches to the design of curriculum, teaching, and assessment that differ almost entirely from those found today. For most of the previous century, education focused on imparting literacy skills: simple reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Even at the University level, it was about the mere acquisition of information, often from different sources. But now the students need to be trained to read and think critically, express themselves clearly and persuasively, and solve complex problems in science and mathematics. These aspects of higher-level cognitive skills are required of almost everyone to successfully cope with the complexities of contemporary life. The skill demands for work have changed dramatically, with the result that ‘the skills of a lifetime become obsolete in an instant’, as it needs organisations and workers to change in response to competitive workplace pressures’. The focus of attention has shifted from local and divisive to national and global unifying concerns.

The goal of education is better conceived as helping students develop the intellectual tools and learning strategies needed to acquire the knowledge that allows people to think productively about specific areas of human knowledge, such as history, science and technology, social phenomena, mathematics, and the arts. A fundamental understanding of subjects, including how to frame and ask meaningful questions about various subject areas, contributes to individuals’ more basic understanding of principles of learning that can assist them in becoming self-sustaining, lifelong learners.

The future model of teaching-learning would therefore be based on an educational diagnostics and navigational services approach, with a high-tech approach to facilitate student-teacher interaction. Progressive educators will need to adopt active methods of engaging students in learning to release their creativity and innovation.

The learners will of course make this transition relatively easy as bots and recommender systems are already part of their environment. But the erstwhile educators will have to make a conscious effort to transform their new roles of mentors, coaches, and cognitive development facilitators; ‘Brain Changers’ as I would like to call them!

This will not happen in isolation. The whole system will need to transform, so to say the least. To begin with, we will first need to work on the formal education systems we have been following for centuries. With the advancement in the area of research, more and more cognitive researchers are spending time working with teachers, testing and refining their theories in real classrooms where they can see how different settings and classroom interactions influence the applications of their theories. What is currently required to share these promising research and evidence-backed strategies with every educator to transform him or her into a Brain Changer?

Backed with skill and confidence to adapt, every educator should and must be given a toolbox of strategies, informed by the best of what we know works, to make him/her the teacher of the 21st Century.

The AI will give them a helping hand by taking over the dull and repetitive tasks, leaving them to focus and execute their tasks of changing minds, not just metaphorically. Educators will still be indispensable, albeit with a new version of being called Brain Changers!

Views expressed by Maya Alfred Fernandes, Principal, The down town School, Guwahati.