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Education books: AI, an unknowable upheaval in schools

09 February 2024

Dennis Richards casts his eye over some of the latest education books

I APPROACHED AI and the Future of Education with some trepidation. Two factors eased my way into this highly readable account, helpfully subtitled Teaching in the age of artificial intelligence. A useful, simple definition, to start with, tells me that artificial intelligence (AI) is “simulation of human intelligence by machines”. Second, even for the most technophobic among us, it is reassuring to be told that AI is not new. It already surrounds us.

Voice recognition is already a familiar example of “narrow AI”. Alexa is a familiar presence in many homes. In a similar vein, the hugely successful Abba avatar performance in London is currently grossing £1.6 million a week. A young, fit-looking Benny Andersson reassures the crowd: “This is really me, I just look very good for my age.” It looks like him, sings like him, but, at exactly the same time as he made the comment, the real 77-year-old Benny was at home in Stockholm, walking his dogs.

The dreaded word “algorithm” soon appears. The hapless Gavin Williamson’s A-level fiasco now pales into insignificance alongside Horizon and the Post Office.

It is when the author turns to “generative” AI that the book addresses the unknown future, and particularly AI’s implications for education. As the name implies, reports, dissertations, and presentations can all be generated by AI. The benefits for students are obvious — as they are for teachers, also, who are able to create customised learning materials. How long will it be before marking is a thing of the past, and personalised feedback becomes the norm? Then you would see teachers eagerly seizing these new tools.

The real strength of this timely volume relates to the new ethical questions that will arise, bearing in mind Shah’s stark warning that “AI technology was not primarily built for education.” Plagiarism and general cheating are already making many educational assignments look futile. Furthermore, as we already know to our cost, the inputted data may be biased in the first place, or inappropriate, or hopelessly flawed.

Finally, there are reflections on the coming far-reaching changes to employment — retail, transport, and manufacturing being obvious examples. On the other hand, empathy, social skills, and emotional intelligence are currently required in schools as never before. No machine is yet capable of those “soft” skills.

We don’t yet know the full ramifications of AI. But it would be harder to find a better summary of where we are at with AI, and how best to cope both with the here-and-now, and what is to come. The book is superb, and a must for all aspiring leaders.

Right on cue, as is so often the case with Grove Books, comes On Truth Decay. The author, Adrian Brown, quotes, with approval, a conversation between the central characters from a 1993 TV programme, The X-Files. Thirty years on, it seems incredibly prescient. Scully challenges her colleague: “You have never seen this before. I can tell. You lied to them.” Mulder replies: “I would never lie. I wilfully participated in a campaign of misinformation.”

This short booklet, only 26 pages, is an invaluable adjunct to the development of AI, particularly in the sphere of so-called post-truth discussion. He looks at the question of truth, culturally, philosophically, biblically, and educationally. Not surprisingly, Donald Trump gets short shrift. Apparently, Mr Trump is a fan of “truthful hyperbole”. He creates fantasies that he uses to persuade the electorate to vote for him. According to his ghost writer Tony Schwartz, the interpretation is simple: “It’s a lie, but who cares.”

Brown’s discussion of truth in a biblical context is a joy. Using Greek — and even German and French (!) — grammar to make his point, the chapter is replete with biblical quotes about truth. “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Amen to that. Perhaps AI is not as scary as we might think, after all.

So, Ofsted is back up and running again at the start of 2024. Church schools are in the frame every bit as much as non-faith schools. On top of this, however, they also face the additional stress of a SIAMS inspection, specific to church schools only.

On to another Grove booklet, A Fresh Look at Church School Inspection. Also known as a Section 48 inspection, SIAMS (Statutory Inspection of Anglican and Methodist Schools) inspections have been taking place under a new framework since 2023. It is fitting that the national director of SIAMS, Dr Margaret James, has herself helpfully set out the main consequences of the changes. There is much here that Ofsted teams and their leaders could usefully absorb.

The thrust of the new framework addresses head-on the “potential unwanted consequences of inspection”. The whole process can be distorted by two factors: the prospect of punitive accountability, and a potentially destructive power imbalance.

And here is the key conclusion: “In the 2023 Framework, the imbalance of power has been somewhat mitigated by the increased emphasis on the expertise and contextual knowledge of school leaders.” What a difference that could have made to the ghastly experience undergone by the head and staff at Caversham Primary School (Comment, 24 March 2023)! This booklet is as near as it gets to essential for all church-school leaders.

Ageism, sexism, and several other “-isms” are familiar terms for discrimination. But is there also such a phenomenon as “childism”? Perhaps children and young people also face barriers and discrimination. This is the central thesis of Because I Said So. The book tackles what the author, Sarah Ockwell-Smith, sees as unconscious discrimination against the well-being of children, both in the family and in the education system.

The author believes that both sociological and political changes in recent years have seriously damaged the well-being of children. Parents, often unwittingly, have followed the strategies of “experts”, when the reality is that parents are too stressed and exhausted to think it through.

In terms of education, her thesis is a familiar one. Rigid disciplinary techniques and a “Gradgrind” curriculum have left many of our children frustrated and unfulfilled.

The late great Sir Ken Robinson would have warmly endorsed this timely volume. He saw how the wind was blowing as long ago as 2006. His words are truer today than ever: “We have to recognise that human flourishing is NOT a mechanical process. It is an organic process.” He once wrote an educational text, The Element: How finding your passion changes everything. And it isn’t necessarily maths, Prime Minister.


AI and The Future of Education
Priten Shah
J.Wiley £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.09

On Truth Decay
Adrian Brown
Grove Books £4.95

A Fresh Look at Church School Inspection
Margaret James
Grove Books £4.95

Because I Said So
Sarah Ockwell-Smith
Little Brown Group £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.29

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