As we celebrate World Teachers’ Day, the British Council’s Sophie Partarrieu argues that face-to-face teaching still has an essential place in today’s education.
World Teachers’ Day is a relatively new celebration, established by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1994 to highlight the vital contribution teachers make to education. Yet, given some of the headlines we see today, you might be forgiven for thinking that we should be replacing World Teachers’ Day with World Robot Day.
Many governments have invested heavily in digital technologies in the classroom: the total spent on education technologies in schools annually has been estimated at £17.5 billion pounds – £900 million of which were spent in the UK. Yet a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has found that computers in classrooms don’t necessarily improve results and might even have adverse effects on learning. Countries with low use of technology actually perform better and places like Singapore, which has taken a cautious approach and uses technology moderately, is top for digital skills anyway.
Teachers can support students in ways computers can’t
Students today have huge amounts of information at their fingertips, which changes how knowledge is consumed and transmitted, and decreases the need for memorisation. With so much information available online, the issue for teachers is less one of what knowledge to pass on but rather how to help students understand, interpret and apply the knowledge available to them. Plutarch, a Greek historian, biographer and essayist, seemed to make the point back in AD 45 when he said that ‘the mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled’.
But teachers are concerned with more than just the knowledge their students acquire – they’re often called on to act as guidance counsellors or provide emotional support. In Lebanon and Jordan, British Council teachers were trained in helping children build self-confidence, often managing classes of mixed ages and abilities. They also played a role in preventing exclusion or bullying that might result from the behaviour of children suffering post-traumatic stress. Conveying warmth, providing a stable environment for learning, and making children feel safe and appreciated, are things that teachers in conflict zones, and elsewhere, can provide. Computer technology can’t.
Face-to-face experiences convey linguistic and emotional complexity
In situations like foreign-language teaching, where a teacher’s body language and cultural insights provide students with complex information, it’s difficult to imagine a robot or computers entirely replacing teachers. Some robots already do a good job of imitating tone of voice, facial expressions and even mouth shapes, but they’re a long way off from forming emotional relationships, empathising and responding to the needs of individual students.
The same goes for so-called ‘creative subjects’ where a teacher’s human touch in the form of interactive learning, demonstration and improvisation are a fundamental part of a good learning experience. It’s hard to imagine a computer programme teaching drama, dance or pottery.
Nevertheless, can we take the best of the face-to-face experience – with all its linguistic and emotional complexities – and blend it with digital technology?
Face-to-face teaching and technology can work together
Working with teachers who have received sufficient training, governments and institutions can begin to look at ways of blending traditional teaching methods and technology. Done well, the blended learning can produce remarkable results, although many different factors contribute to the success or failure of this approach.
A good example of successful blended learning can be found in conflict zones, which make traditional face-to-face teaching impossible in many cases. In Libya, for instance, the British Council has had to find ways to continue training teachers without endangering our trainers. Skype provided a cost-effective solution, but a major challenge has been to understand how to keep Libyan teachers motivated and on-task. Although the students can see their trainer on the screen, an important part of the success has been to have a local assistant teacher in each classroom to help learners with any questions and support them in the ways described above.
There is no single recipe for success when combining traditional and digital methods, but it’s clear that human presence – even remotely – still plays an important role in student motivation and progress.