News | Published March 27 2020

GTCS CEO: Is cyberspace the future of education?

Ken Muir is the CEO of the General Teaching Council Scotland, the oldest regulatory body for teaching in the world. The organisation provides registration, regulation and other professional resources for more than 74,000 teachers and education professionals across Scotland. In this article, originally published in the GTCS magazine Teaching Scotland, he asks if "robot teachers and travelling by hoverboard" are really the future of education.

A recent visit to a primary school had me engaging in a fascinating conversation with some children about what they thought schools would look like in the future. The discussion was prompted by one young girl asking if I thought smart phones should be banned in schools but it quickly turned into a highly animated and creative “brain dump” (by them, not me) of what they imagined teaching and learning in classrooms would be like by the time they left secondary school.

As one might imagine, hoverboards for all children (and possibly also for staff, some thought), extensive use of tablets and laptops, and even classroom robots teaching lessons all featured prominently in the free-flowing imagination of the children. I have no doubt that our conversation, and their generation of endless ideas, could have gone on for much longer than it did but the interval bell intervened and they left for the playground, their excited and creative chat still audible as they disappeared down the corridor.

Digital natives

That conversation reminded me of a number of things. Firstly, it showed just how excited, engaged and creative children can be when they are presented with an interesting, open-ended challenge. It reminded me of some of the very best interactive learning and teaching I saw as an HMI when inspecting schools in a previous life. It reminded me of the important role children and young people today see in using technology to support their current and future learning.

Almost every idea and suggestion they made about what their future learning environment might look like, from routinely accessing the internet and 3D printers to using virtual reality headsets and gaming, involved the use of technology. It reminded me of the scene I witnessed recently on an Edinburgh bus where a young child no older than three was exasperated as she tried in vain to “swipe” a picture in her mother’s glossy coloured magazine with the question, “Why will it not swipe mummy?”

That conversation with those primary school children brought to mind the very obvious, but sometimes forgotten reality that the children and young people we teach in our schools change over time. We have moved beyond Generation Z of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the first generation of so-called “digital natives” who were brought up in a context of mobility, social networks and multiple realities.

We now are dealing in our schools with Generation Alpha and although the oldest members of this generation are still only 9 or 10 years old, they are in our schools now and we already know some of the elements that characterise them. While Generation Z were very “tech-savvy”, Generation Alpha will be even more so. They have been exposed to a variety of digital platforms pretty much from birth. Generation Alpha children know nothing other than to expect a seamless, personalised online experience, including cutting-edge ways to interact and communicate.

And we already know that Generation Alpha learn differently. Not for them the often highly structured and auditory approach to teaching we have seen in many classrooms. These are children who expect and thrive on much more visual and interactive ways of learning. For them, peer-to-peer learning experiences and an emphasis on developing their creativity and problem-solving skills in a context of “connected classrooms” is what they expect.

Strategy in motion

In these days when “pupil voice” is all the more prevalent and influential, and there is greater focus on designing learning experiences around the needs and interests of children and young people, my discussion with those primary children raised a number of questions in my mind.

In 2016, the Scottish Government launched its Digital Learning and Teaching Strategy for Scotland entitled Enhancing Learning and Teaching Through the Use of Digital. This strategy aims to ensure all learners and educators are able to benefit from digital technology in education and take advantage of the opportunities offered by digital technology. The strategy is structured around four interrelated objectives:

- Develop the skills and confidence of educators in the appropriate and effective use of digital technology to support learning and teaching.

- Improve access to digital technology for all learners.

- Ensure that digital technology is a central consideration in all areas of curriculum and assessment delivery.

- Empower leaders of change to drive innovation and investment in digital technology for teaching and learning.

A technological future

While there have been undoubted successes to date in delivering on aspects of the strategy, the question remains as to how much more is needed to support teachers and others to even begin in some cases to address the demands of teaching Generation Alpha and whatever follows that.

As everyone in Scottish education works hard to close the poverty-related attainment gap, my experience with those primary school children prompted a question about another gap. How do we close the gap that most certainly exists between the expectations of General Alpha children and what we offer them in our schools?

And will robots replace teachers in future classrooms? Probably not, but for teachers to stay relevant in a changing society they and our education system certainly will need to prepare children and young people for a world that will increasingly make use of robots.

To prepare Generation Alpha and those that follow on for whatever their future world looks like, we need to ensure that they have the opportunities to develop higher order thinking skills such as problem solving and critical thinking and skills of collaboration and communication – in fact, the very skills for learning, life and work set out in Curriculum for Excellence and reinforced in the recently-refreshed narrative on Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence. Not to do so will mean selling short Generation Alpha and all those that follow.

You can read the GTCS Parliamentary Review article here.

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Authored by

Ken Muir
CEO of The General Teaching Council for Scotland
March 27 2020

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