Gordon muffs it again

Gordon Brown’s pre-Budget announcement on school funding has been widely reported already, mainly as an example of New Labour’s long-established vice of reporting every piece of funding at least three times. My interest lies more with the timeframe of his proposals.

Brown is promising money to refurbish school buildings over a 10-15 year period. It is clear that we would benefit from warm, clean, dry and well-lit classrooms next year or the year after – but what will be relevant by 2022? Actually, I don’t take issue with the warm, clean, dry, well-lit bit. It’s that word classroom that denotes an invention I think won’t last into the next generation.

The classroom as we have come to know it is a room where 30-odd children can conveniently be lectured to by one adult. It doesn’t have much else going for it. It is typically inconveniently far from those childrens’ homes (especially after the age of eleven), and it is an intrinsically sterile place that makes it much harder for the teacher to nurture or stimulate the children incarcerated in it.

Classrooms are like this because this way they require minimum resources. A school can run on a pupil:teacher ratio of 20:1. To propose a better solution requires us to find more resources. And, over the next generation, I am completely confident that we will do just that.

They won’t be human resources of course, but computers. Or perhaps computer-intermediated humans, because computers may replace human intellect but are unlikely to replace the educationally equally essential human ability to emote.

So far, you’ve seen computers in schools as things for kids to do spreadsheets or, gawdhelpus, Powerpoint presentations on. A combined typewriter and adding machine. But in fact, you already use one supercomputer regularly; it’s called Google. In future you will use many more without even thinking about it. And just how super do I mean? According to futurologist Ray Kurzweil, we can expect computer intelligence to match our own by 2020 (see graph) – just thirteen years from now.

A slight outframe from my argument here – before you start making mental images of shiny talking robots lecturing to your students, which you then dismiss as implausible, try this mental test. Thinks of fairly complex web search, the sort where you are not confident Google would give you the answers you need. Now imagine that Google gets a program that would allow it to write back to you and ask questions about your search, to understand it better. Plausible? Good. Now imagine that over four or five years, Google refine this program to the point where you can’t really tell whether it’s the program asking you questions, or another human being. Still plausible? Well guess what, your imaginary Google has just passed the Turing Test, the best-established benchmark for human-like intelligence in computers. But as I said, that’s an outframe. Back to the main argument.

The future this all points towards is one in which every child has an intelligent, artificial, mentor permanently available to him or her. And don’t assume that mentor will look like a computer; my money is on it being accessed via an evolution of the mobile phone. The intelligence itself will be out there in the ether, just as knowledge is now.

In this future, which is only half-way through Gordon’s funding cycle, I can’t see much relevance to a classroom built for didactic presentations. Can you?


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