Is teaching obsolete?

Wednesday 05 June 2013

Leading figures from UK and international education took part in a public debate on Tuesday evening on the motion ‘Will the teaching profession as we know it become obsolete?’. After a passionate hour-long debate, the audience of teachers and students from across higher and secondary education voted against the motion – but by a very narrow margin.

The event was co-hosted by Martin Davidson CMG, Chief Executive, British Council, and Stavros Yiannouka, CEO of the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), a major initiative of the Qatar Foundation.

The debate, held at the University of Salford, was organised to celebrate Qatar UK 2013, in conjunction with the British Council’s Going Global conference for leaders of higher education and Qatar Foundation’s iconic World Innovation Summit for Education. This event was one of many in an active year for Qatar and for the UK, as both nations deepen educational ties and forge lasting partnerships for the future.

Speaking against the motion were Professor Martin Hall, Vice-Chancellor, University of Salford, UK, Pamela Wright OBE, Executive Headteacher, Wade Deacon High School, UK, and Bilal Shakir, a Qatari student at the School of Foreign Office, Georgetown University, Qatar.

Professor Hall argued that it was right for universities to seize on digital opportunities as educational institutions – but anyone who argued that digital advances would sweep away the teaching profession was making a “series of category errors”. Prof. Hall told the audience that his own students in Salford placed great value on face-to-face teaching encounters. “Teaching as we know it is grounded in a very deep appreciation of the true relationship between imparting knowledge and developing learning.” Prof. Hall said. “Technology allows us to focus on the transformative process of knowledge, that has been the case for centuries…That continuity is critical, new technologies are liberating in allowing great teaching that has always been available become more widely available.”

Pamela Wright, a recognised National Leader of Education, discussed the relationship and the bond of trust between young people and their teachers – something that cannot be replicated in the virtual world. Mrs Wright highlighted the passion and enthusiasm of teaching professionals and argued that teaching is not simply about imparting knowledge; it is so much more than that. “Schools are the hub of the community and in that sense, prevent fragmentation in society as a whole. No new models of learning can ever compromise what teaching is and what teachers are…Teaching keeps it real, teaching keeps learning active and alive” she said. 

From a student’s perspective, Bilal Shakir presented a clear and concise case that technology can - and should - augment the learning process but it cannot replace teachers. Maintaining that problems with current education systems stem from the systems themselves and not with teachers, Shakir said those who argue for replacing teachers with technology mistake the prognosis for the diagnosis. “We need to find creative ways to fix the teaching system and invest in teachers, not make teaching obsolete” argued Bilal Shakir, citing the work across South Asia of the N.G.O. BRAC. “Technology can and should augment learning – but it must never replace teachers”

Arguing for the motion – that teaching as we know it is obsolete - were Dale Stephens, Founder, Uncollege, in the USA, Professor Sugata Mitra, Professor of Education Technology, Newcastle University, and Daniel Stevens, International Students’ Officer, NUS, UK.

Dale Stephens argued that the growth of online alternatives to a traditional education meant that cheaper and more meaningful ways to learn outside of a classroom were becoming more accessible. The growth of free courses such as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), Mr Stephens argued, meant that the majority of students could for the first time question the value of a traditional education from an economic perspective, and that teachers could no longer remain as arbiters of education.

Prof. Mitra spoke to the audience of his own experiments with creating access to online learning with children around the world. Children can self-organise their own learning, they can achieve educational objectives on their own and  read by themselves, argued Prof. Mitra. From the slums of India, to the villages of India and Cambodia, to poor schools in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, the USA and Italy, to the schools of Gateshead and the rich international schools of Washington and Hong Kong, groups of children with access to the Internet can learn anything by themselves. Prof. Mitra pointed out that children in primary education in the UK today may live for another 100 years – so they no longer need to acquire knowledge through their formal education; they need to develop the skills so they can learn themselves.

Finally, Daniel Stephens, currently International Officer at NUS, spoke from a student’s perspective. Mr Stephens claimed that teaching at universities was already obsolete and that the focus has always been on academics who can research, not teach. Mr Stephens argued that the model of a teacher at a university is completely outdated given the immense improvements in open access and free-flowing information using the rise of Wikipedia and social networks. Within universities this may have helped before when access was restricted and teachers did monopolise that information, but now it questions their purpose. Traditional teaching now limits students’ learning due to teachers competing priorities and lack of capacity, Mr Stephens said.

Martin Hope, Director of the British Council in Qatar said, “This debate is in essence what Qatar UK 2013 is all about. Qatar UK 2013 is creating an environment for these types of interactions to take place because we know cultural co-operation and educational exchange make two nations stronger – stronger even than they would be on their own. This idea is written not only into Qatar’s history books but into its National Vision for the future. Events like the WISE debate and others this year are moving Qatar closer to realising its National Vision for 2030 by igniting an international exchange of culture and ideas.”

Dignitaries present included Mohammed Al Kaabi, Cultural Attaché at the Embassy of the State of Qatar in London. Of the debate, Mohammed Al Kaabi said, “Like Qatar UK 2013 Year of Culture, this debate celebrates and encourages the exchange of culture and ideas. There are over 1,500 Qatari young people studying at universities across the UK, this event has provided them with the opportunity to have their voice heard on the future of education.  I am pleased to see WISE operating in the international arena and collaborating with the UK in this way – just one example of where the Year of Culture is helping to establish long-lasting relationships between the two countries.” 

Notes to Editor

The arguments made by the speakers are made solely in a personal capacity and do not represent the views of the institutions they represent or those of the British Council.

For more information and footage of the debate visit: http://ihe.britishcouncil.org/WISE-Going-Global-debate

For interviews with the speakers and more information, please contact Tim Sowula, Snr Press Officer, British Council on tim.sowula@britishcouncil.org or 07771 718 135.

Qatar UK 2013 has previously engaged Qatari students studying in the UK and cemented a legacy for educational exchange between the two nations. In March, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, Patron of the Qatar UK Year of Culture, joined officials in Doha to launch the Qatar-UK Alumni Network. The network offers citizens and residents in Qatar who have graduated from a UK university unique networking and professional development opportunities. The network already counts a number of high-profile Qataris among its members, including Sheikha Aisha bint Faleh al-Thani, Board Member of the Supreme Education Council and founder of al-Faleh group, Aisha al-Khater, Director of the Museum of Islamic Art, and His Excellency Dr. Mohammed bin Saleh al Sada, Qatar’s Minister of Energy and Industry and Chair of the Alumni Network.

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