I’ve just spent the morning with my wonderful hairstylist Maz, basking in nothingness, sipping cappuccino and chatting motherhood, Christmas toys and the pandemonious effects of drizzly rain on curly hair. It might have been one of those hair dryers that look like a spinning Starship Enterprise that started it, but the subject soon turned to artificial intelligence and how safe our jobs might be in the robot revolution.
Could a robot do Maz’s job? Well, technically speaking, probably yes. It could measure the three-dimensional shape of the face, the number of hair follicles and their thickness; it might offer a questionnaire on life-style and whether you favour cool over low maintenance. I guess it would easily make you that cappuccino just the way you like it, with a couple of individually wrapped Biscoff. Be a damn sight cheaper and quicker, too. I’m sure the results would be insightful, we could even pitch machine against machine according to the accuracy of the cut and set up a league table of stylists. We could make a lot of money, Maz and I, in this AI hairdressing conglomerate of ours.
And then we got back to talking about me, because after all, I’m in the swivelly chair, we’re both staring at my unruly mane and who doesn’t like talking about themselves with their stylist? We chatted about my various stints in education, experience as Head of English, teaching, writing and home-schooling. There was, we agreed, potential for smart thinking machines to offer pupils individualised content and, joy, take over some of the marking for teachers. Could a robot do an English teacher’s job? Well, technically speaking, also, probably yes.
So why are Maz and I so sceptical, particularly as we have just established, AI will make us millionaires? I guess it might be because we have both, in our respective fields, had a taste of it: pressure to be like everyone else, to behave, to do our jobs in a set way, to be judged on what someone else has decreed is a set of standards and shared belief that our results measure everything. Because they do not. Just as Maz might achieve the perfect technical cut but not be happy unless her client feels fabulous, so my cohort of pupils might achieve A* at A’Level Literature yet feel I have failed them if they don’t leave me with a passion for the subject that will last them a lifetime.
Dead Poets’ Society #goals
The biggest compliment a pupil can give me is that I have ignited in them a love of English reading/writing. One of my pupils said exactly this, very recently, and my heart soared. He will get an A or A* because he is passionate, works hard and has an open heart and mind to be filled with the joy of literature and its influence on everything around him. His grades will reflect something of this, and an important by-product they are, too. But while future employers will see his grade, they won’t understand his passion until they meet him because a top grade has not (necessarily) measured it.
An educational system that values the individual connection between pupil and subject, is organic in that it allows for flexible, tailored teaching approaches, encourages self discovery and independent thought, is the one in which I want to teach. It is also the one that Maz wants for her daughter, an avid reader and writer who is already feeling the pressure to perform at school. She’s 8.
During our morning, I was reminded of the time, a few years back, when I went to a hairstylist and rather tremulously allowed myself to be talked into having my hair blow-dried straight, as was (and I believe still might be?) the fashion. My stylist was delighted with it. I think she thought she’d managed to tame the beast. And technically, it was a good – it moved in a way I hadn’t known my hair could, it was trendy and I looked just like all of my cool friends. I detested it from the moment I saw it, didn’t recognise myself and immediately went home to muss it up.
As with hairstyling, you can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching, by human or robot (or hubot as a teacher friend has it). You have to reflect that we, pupils and teachers, are all individuals with different strengths and style preferences. Maz gets me and my hair. She teases out the natural curl and encourages the shine with expert, human touch. She makes me love my hair. Even in the drizzle. Ofsted, wake up. Schools, stand up to the government; Teachers, keep using your personality and passion for your subject to inspire others; and pupils – we, owe it to you to ensure you don’t just make the cut, but you also leave our charge inspired for a lifetime of learning.