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Teachers must disrupt the classroom in the automation age

7 June 2017

As a Sydney Ideas panelist set to debate Australian schools, Professor Michael Anderson explains how teachers can be change-makers in an unfolding automation age. 

A young student repairs a robotic arm. Image: iStock

Another American report on the future of jobs and training confirms that automation will bring seismic change to the world of work. The National Academies of Sciences report foresees the opportunities and challenges of the future of work and calls for education to adapt – and fast.

Yet schools have not changed enough to prepare themselves for the disruptive reality where 47 percent of work roles will be made redundant by machines. Pew Research Centre research confirms that much of this change is not imminent, it's here.

The disruptions that have rolled through so many industries have yet to have a full impact on schools but we would be foolish to think they will be cocooned from change.

There are already some suggestions.

Beyond a machine fix

Recently, I attended a discussion on the future of education where the answer was more technology. All we need is to develop an app or online course – and that will solve the problem. Unfortunately, that completely misses the point. While the way we interact with technology will be critical, the transformation of education is going to be so much harder than a 'machine fix'.

The transformation of schools will depend on how successfully we can build capacity to create, communicate, collaborate – and think better – to make human society flourish rather than decline. Machines do not know or care about that at the moment and potentially never can.

And that for me is where teachers, not technology, are the ultimate disruptors. Science Fiction writer Arthur C Clarke said almost 40 years ago that if teachers could be replaced by machines, they should. In Japan and Korea robots have already been used in a number language lessons. But there are certain changes that only teachers can bring to a schooling system badly in need of transformation.

The future of schools

We need a schooling system that moves beyond an obsession with testing static knowledge to making schools places where knowledge can be applied flexibly to intractable problems.

We need schools that know real-world problems do not sit tidily in science, history, or a language, but span and integrate across diverse subject areas.

We need schools that teach capacities that machines will always struggle with like creativity, critical reflection, compassion, collaboration and communication.

While parents, politicians, bureaucrats, school leaders and academics matter in this change, it is teachers who understand best how to meet the needs of kids in their classes. The rest of us need to make spaces and places for disruption in learning and teaching, rather than pining for an outmoded and increasingly irrelevant model of school that perhaps made sense in a simpler time.

Real-world problems need collaboration

So what does this disruptive change look like for schools?

Firstly, it recognises that teaching should be collaborative and creative. Teachers will need to work with each other beyond their own classrooms to design and implement learning that values subject expertise – but critically allows it to be applied with other knowledge to real-world problems such as considering refugee movements, how to manage antibiotic resistance or how to make our cities liveable in the face of rapidly growing populations.

At the moment the deep structures in schools such as the standard 50-minute lesson, testing that focuses on narrow skills, and the rejection of imaginative and authentic approaches to teaching ensure productive and disruptive teaching remains the exception, rather than the rule.

Teachers who productively disrupt make creativity central to the way students approach problems. Secondly, these teachers recognise the world has changed and is continually changing. Learning needs to equip students not only for their role in the workforce but as contributors to a society – rather than just an economy.

In the end it comes down to a question for all of us: Do we want technology to disrupt our society or do we want to shape our future and the future of our kids?

If we decide we want to make our own future teachers need the opportunity, space, structure and tools to productively disrupt and transform learning to meet the needs of our young people in an uncertain future.

Professor Michael Anderson takes part in a Sydney Ideas panel, How Can Schools be Relevant in the 21st Century?, on June 8. This article was originally published on HuffPost Australia.

Luke O'Neill

Media and Public Relations Adviser (Humanities and Social Sciences)
Learning needs to equip students not only for their role in the workforce but as contributors to a society.