The Human Face of Learning

Feb 28, 2020

As we reach the end of our first month operating in an e-learning mode, this week’s reflection considers the essential human dimension of teaching and learning.

In an article written by a member of the ISF parent community published in our last whole school circular, the notion of the exemplar and its power to inform learning was explored in some detail. The principle underpinning the emphasis placed by the author on teaching through example is the notion that actions transcend knowledge. By doing, we rise above mere abstract knowledge about something to give it a physical manifestation; it is the place in our world where words become deeds. The importance of the virtuous role model in this learning transaction cannot be overstated.

There has been much written in recent years about the rise of artificial intelligence or AI and its growing influence on the world of things. If you have written any form of text on an AI-enhanced device or service recently, you have probably experienced the gentle touch of an artificial intelligence guiding you as you frame ideas. This is the next step beyond predictive text prompts, where the system anticipates what you are about to write in more detail and complexity. Such AI functions may finish sentences for you or format letters in configurations appropriate for the genre of correspondence being composed. This form of anticipation is based on a wealth of previous examples that are programmed into the routines in the device. At this point in time, however, an AI cannot read your thoughts and it cannot create new genres of communication or ideas ab initio. Lacking innate imagination, it needs pre-existing examples from which to draw.

There are more breath-taking and world-shaping innovations in the field of AI under development right now that have the potential to change the way we live and learn. Many governments and educators around the world are looking to AI to change the field of education and particularly the way we teach in schools. Drawing on the existing curriculum, an AI teacher would deliver content, but adapt within programmed parameters to the individual needs of learners based on its understanding of responses provided by the learner during interactions. An AI teacher will never grow tired, get bored, become irrationally emotional, go on holiday, or succumb to a viral illness. It will ‘behave’ in predictable, pre-programmed ways with inhuman consistency and patience. Beyond the development and production costs, the consumables, essentially power consumed to operate the AI teacher, are modest and predictably stable. An AI teacher can be replicated physically or communicated digitally to any corner of the globe, delivering content to many or just the one learner. It is a supremely cost-effective way of delivering education.

Parents of children in e-learning mode at the moment are perhaps enjoying a foretaste of what it might be like to have a child educated in this way in the future. Housebound by government-mandated school closures, students interact with their teachers and other students electronically. Lessons are prepared in advance according to a curriculum plan. Their successful delivery relies on students to engage, participate meaningfully, undertake assigned tasks, and review learning in preparation for the next lesson. Online platforms and associated tools provide the educational ‘ecosystem’ in which e-learning takes place. An AI-based system of education in the future might look very similar.

As parents have reflected, there are some fundamental challenges in this system. On-site supervision of learners and learning is still necessary. Young learners in particular, may not find it easy to stay focused or engaged. Some learners are not disciplined in their interactions with other students or their online teachers. Technical glitches interfere and bandwidth limitations impede delivery. Human supervision in the form of parental presence is needed to provide the behavioural scaffold within which actual learning takes place. The human intelligence driving the learning activities on the teaching-end of the transaction adapts to changing circumstances, modifies expectations according to individual ability, responds to learner fatigue, offers caring support when needed, and overall direction, guided by flexibility, creativity, and a deep understanding of human learning. However, without being physically present, this can be muted or made less effective by distance.

From our current experience, we might agree that electronically mediated interaction is no substitute for direct, human interaction and AI-driven education cannot truly replicate human learning.

We are ultimately social beings; we live and learn most happily and successfully through our personal interactions with those around us.

At a deeper level, however, this also points to the importance in education of an active human imagination providing living examples of the magical transformation of new ideas into novel action. Inspirational exemplars cannot be programmed and do not work from or to a script: they see what has not been seen, think what has not yet been thought, and do what has not yet been done.


Dr. Malcolm Pritchard

Head of School