Replacing myself with robots: Why I’m leaving the classroom

There are a few reasons why I’ve decided to leave the classroom. I’m lucky – I’m not burned out or disenfranchised with education. In fact, I’ve never felt more enthusiastic about education as a whole, despite the complications of a first semester fraught with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. But the lockdowns, remote learning, and all of the experiences that came with them were a game changer for me and many others.

I’ve learned a lot about myself over the last couple of years, including through courses like the fantastic Professional Certificate in Autistic Wellbeing from Reframing Autism. For example, I’ve spent years in leadership working on skills like active listening, empathy, and relationship building. Those skills were a fundamental part of my Master of Education, and since completing that in 2016 I’ve had ample opportunities to use them in conflicts and complex situations both in and out of school. Yet there was always something at a right angle to my own experience. Post diagnosis I’ve had a lot of time to read about autism and to engage with other professionals. It was through these resources that I learned more about ‘double empathy‘: autistic individuals may struggle to empathise with the predominant neurotype (PNT), but it’s a two-way street, and often very little attention is paid to the PNT empathising with autistics. (I’m using Luke Beardon’s ‘PNT’ terminology here as my preference over the term ‘neurotypical’).

Outside of my own experience, I’ve also learned a lot over the past couple of years about ways we can do things differently in education. I’ve had the privilege to be part of the University of Melbourne’s New Metrics for Success research partnership, hearing from experts from across the world about how we can change ‘the grammar of education’. In a previous post I also wrote about what we learned in the regions during remote learning.

But that’s still not the whole story…

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If a machine can do it, then why should I?

There’s a problem in education. Well, not just one problem. Let’s be honest: the boat is so full of holes it would take a great many hands to plug them all, and post-COVID some of those tiny holes have turned into enormous leaks. Although I’d like to think I’m not a statistic, I am still one of the many teachers who has left the classroom in the last 18 months.

Education has an image problem. The perception of what education is for, from the perspectives of teachers, students, parents, politicians, and industry, is so complex that no one seems to be able to pin it down. Is it to develop enquiring, curious young minds? Or to prepare young adults for the workforce? Is it a safe space for developing mental and physical wellbeing? Or a competitive proving ground for those capable of achieving within narrowly defined boundaries of academic success? The truth is that at various times, in various systems, states, cities and individual schools, education is all of these things and more. As teachers, we bear the brunt of this identity crisis: it’s a major contributing factor to the issue of burnout and attrition. Teachers have an immensely high workload relative to recognition because they are variously academics, instructors, carers, counsellors, coaches, administrators, disciplinarians, and more.

But there’s another thing that remote learning taught us: It doesn’t have to be this way.

During remote learning, teachers quickly pivoted to new and existing technologies and pedagogies. A blend of synchronous and asynchronous teaching methods became the norm, content was cut dramatically, and school timetables were torched. And in some cases, there were enormous benefits. Schools that handled the transition well have emerged from the closures with an open mind towards their structures and traditions. Some have reduced instructional time in favour of more wellbeing and community-based activities. Some have staggered start times, acknowledging that young people simply aren’t wired for an 8am start. Some have started to explore the advantages of leveraging digital technologies to support students in hybrid and blended learning in ways which would not have been possible pre-pandemic.

There are many things that a machine can do better, or more efficiently, or at larger scale than I can. Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence is already capable of automating many of the standard forms of assessment familiar to the classroom. Soon, natural language processing models like GPT-3 will be able to produce writing that is of an equal standard to a student’s work, making the rationale behind setting essays questionable. A computer is quicker than I am at organising meetings, performing administrative tasks, and soon enough even at producing video content for students to use as lesson resources. On a comment for another recent post, one reader said I should “prompt an assessment” from the same AI I had used to write an essay. I did exactly that, and the results were pretty damn close to the kind of feedback a teacher might provide. I’m not threatened by this: I’m thrilled. I think that the role of teachers in classrooms is to build relationships with students and to help them navigate the overwhelming amount of content that they can now access with a critical eye. If I thought that teaching still meant delivering that content, lecturing from the front of the room or reading from a textbook, then perhaps I’d be more worried.

Whilst I can make changes at my current school to embrace these new technologies – something we are currently working on with our Digital Technologies and Hybrid Learning Strategy – we’re only one school. There’s a bigger-picture equity issue in the digital divide, particularly in regional areas like ours. Ultimately, that’s why I’m leaving the classroom. I want to spread this message, and what we learned from the lockdowns, as far as possible: beginning with regional schools like ours where access to the technology and expertise may be limited, and with organisations who work within and around education. I’m optimistic that if and when I return to the classroom, it will be a totally different landscape for teachers and students.

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3 responses to “Replacing myself with robots: Why I’m leaving the classroom”

  1. Wow. Interesting. Sounds like you’re really thinking and preparing for the future. I am a fan of that thinking.

    1. Thanks Bronson, glad you enjoyed the read!

  2. […] out of trying to write. I’ve had posts which have received only a handful of views, and others which have had hundreds. But they’re all fun to write, which is why i keep at […]

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