Before we can think of building back better, students have to be provided with good teaching and access to good computers and connectivity
Before we can think of building back better, students have to be provided with good teaching and access to good computers and connectivity © Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty

Armed with a doctorate in machine learning from Oxford university, Jamie Frost had a lucrative job devising algorithmic bond trading strategies for Morgan Stanley in New York. But eight years ago he chucked it in to become a maths teacher at a secondary school in Kingston-upon-Thames in the UK. Now he is helping to reinvent education in the pandemic.

Combining his love of maths and technological expertise, he launched his own website containing free resources for teachers and students, which has exploded in popularity as a result of the shift towards remote learning. Over the past year, 6,946 schools in 118 countries have logged in to DrFrostMaths. Students have answered more than 110m questions on the platform, providing insights into what they get right and where they go wrong. He has been shortlisted for the $1m Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize.

According to Mr Frost, machines are good at doing what teachers are bad at doing (processing and analysing huge amounts of data) and bad at doing what teachers are good at doing (providing personal instruction online or in the classroom). “We can massively enhance students’ learning with technology,” he says. “It is really important that this is accessible to everyone.”

For years, evangelical technologists have been promising to revolutionise education but many have only offered fancy solutions in search of basic problems. Few things are guaranteed to make an overworked teacher’s heart sink faster than an edtech entrepreneur with no classroom experience explaining how they could do things better.

But the Covid-19 crisis has opened up opportunities for teachers themselves to experiment with blended learning, combining classroom skills and digital tools. With 1.4bn students in 138 countries at least temporarily excluded from schools and universities this year, teachers have been forced to become more inventive in delivering lessons online. This is a tragic, yet precious, chance to rethink education for a digital age.

Poor children in the UK are not just going without food; at least 700,000 children do not have access to a computer or the internet. Two reports published this week highlighted the mountainous challenge of transforming education.

Based on 380 recent school visits, Ofsted found high variability of performance, lower attendance in some schools, a marked regression in learning, and a worrying rise in mental health issues. Exhausted staff were struggling with increased workloads and overstretched budgets. Using anonymised and aggregated data, including from online forum Mumsnet and Barnardo’s children’s charity, the Open Data Institute came to similar conclusions, detecting an alarming rise in stress levels among teachers and parents.

Nothing can substitute for good teachers, decently paid and adequately supported, and students having access to good computers and connectivity. Once we have provided these basics then we can think of building back in better ways for all.

Priya Lakhani, the founder of Century Tech, an AI education company, says an educational system should provide “learning agility”, equipping students to acquire new knowledge and skills throughout their lifetimes in a fast-changing world. To help achieve that, teachers should be given the freedom, resources and technology to do their jobs more effectively.

In her provocative new book, Inadequate, she recommends five changes to the British schools system: the bloated curriculum should be trimmed; high-stakes exams should be replaced by more contextual tests; teachers should be entrusted with more responsibility; students and teachers should receive more pastoral support; and learning should be based on the latest neuroscience empowered by advanced technologies, such as AI. By default, as much as by design, some of these changes are finally happening thanks to the pandemic. “It is a devastating time. But it is also an exciting time,” says Ms Lakhani.

The British government has committed more resources to help disadvantaged children recover lost ground and promised to provide more computers and online support. But it should be thinking more radically about how evidence-based technological innovations can empower teachers and transform the way we learn.

We need to imagine smarter ways of delivering life-long educational opportunities and escape our exam-obsessed “treasure what we measure” mentality. If 20th-century education was all about standardisation, 21st-century education should focus on personalisation. It can and must do so.

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