Wednesday 19th of July 2017

Innovation in education (Or why your teacher will always be more valuable than a supercomputer)

Twenty years ago, a supercomputer beat the world’s best chess player. We didn’t know it then, but it marked the dawn of a new age of innovation.

The world of Kasparov and Deep Blue looked very different. In 1997, just 36% of US households had a personal computer and, if you wanted to use the internet, you probably had to hang up the phone first. It was, for the most part, still a pen-and-paper world – one we can still recognize in many of today’s classrooms.

But things have changed. In 2017, technology is everywhere and it’s smaller and more powerful than ever before. Remember, Deep Blue was big – two banks of solid steel, wires and circuit boards. The machine that beat Garry Kasparov in May 1997 stood 6’5” tall and weighed 1.4 tons. Today, you can – arguably – hold a more powerful computer in the palm of your hand.

And technology has gotten smarter. The impenetrable algorithms which run our world make Deep Blue’s software look like a pocket calculator. They keep our information superhighway running, balance the accounts of nations and big banks alike and – if we are to believe the technology companies – may even be about to start driving our cars for us.

But the biggest change is that computers have stopped counting chess moves and started counting, well, us. Today, they know almost everything about us, from where we work, to where we shop, to our friends and family, to our favourite coffee shop. Checkmate.

Businesses have changed with the times or died. The way we interact with family and friends, the way we work, watch tv, buy products, order taxis, read the news, hear music – everything, everything, has changed.

So what about the way we learn? Are our schools being left behind?

It’s tempting to paint a sweeping picture of schools being left in the dust by the march of technology – of classrooms still ruled by chalk and talk.

But that’s not the case, at least according to recent analysis by the OECD, which suggests that schools are generally keeping pace with businesses and industry. And that’s because innovation doesn’t just mean putting computers in the classroom (though the OECD’s data suggests that more students than have access to them than ever before).

It means new teaching practices and theories of education, from personalized teaching to lessons relating to real life, high-order skills and the interpretation of data and text. It means finding new ways of making kids and adults learn.

And these advances are often being driven by teachers.

In a world ruled by technology, we can’t lose sight of the human. That is the message one teacher, Global Teacher Prize-winner Maggie MacDonnell, has spoken of time and time again. In June, she turned heads at the UN, when she told a high-level panel moderated by The Varkey Foundation CEO Vikas Pota that it was teachers, not technology, who would shape the future of education.

“I’ve been teaching in the Canadian Artic for seven years. We have iPads in the class, we have smartboards, but I’m the greatest resource in that classroom,” she told the assembled diplomats. “And if we talk about innovation it has to be about investing in teachers constantly.”

Maggie’s students, from the Inuit village of Salluit, carry extraordinary burdens upon their shoulders – the legacy of discrimination, poverty and isolation shared by Canadian indigenous peoples. Her students’ pain can’t be deleted by a computer. But they can be reached by an innovative teacher.

“The pain that they carry cannot be shared by an app,” Maggie said. “That pain that they carry in that classroom needs to be shared with an empathetic and compassionate human; it needs to be shared by a teacher.

“Teachers matter. The best investment in innovation is focusing on that human resource in that classroom, and of course apps and technology can be part of that solution but it starts with the teaching.”

What about the future? What will the world look like in 20 years’ time? We know that our future will be shaped by new technology, from the wearable technology that will replace smart phones, to the growth of augmented reality and the birth of true artificial intelligence. We know that our jobs, too, will look very different, and will require us to learn new skills and ways of thinking.

But we also know that teachers will be more important than ever. Nearly 69 million new teachers are needed by 2030 to meet the UN’s goal of ensuring equitable and inclusive education for all, according to a recent estimate by UNESCO.

Innovation, then, can’t be about replacing teachers with technology. It should be about using new technology to support teachers.

The Varkey Foundation is attempting to break new ground in this area with its Teach to Reach Remote Classrooms programme (T2R). This distance-learning programme, funded by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), allows a teacher in a studio in Ghana’s capital to live-stream lessons to children at a primary school at a remote refugee camp in the west of the country.

T2R shows us the power technology has to break down the barriers to learning. But its true value is in helping teachers transform the lives of children.

And, for both teachers like Maggie and groups like The Varkey Foundation, that is how we must measure the success of innovation in education. It’s not about counting the gadgets in the classroom; it’s about finding new ways to put good teachers in front of the pupils who need them the most.

The panel can be viewed here.

We have iPads in the class, we have smartboards, but I’m the greatest resource in that classroom.

Global Teacher Prize 2017 Winner Maggie MacDonnell


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