Can robots replace teachers?

Posted on October 07, 2019

Can robots and machines replace a teacher in a classroom? I pose this question in light of the excitement around the Fourth Industrial Revolution that has taken the world by storm with concerns about the future of work.

Already in South Africa, banks are laying people off because of mechanisation, the University of Pretoria has employed a service robot in its library, developments that add to the concerns that the future of work is in danger.  A study by the McKinsey Global Institute reports that 50% of companies believe that automation will decrease their numbers of full-time staff by 2022, and robots will replace 800 million workers across the world by 2030.

In addressing the question of whether machines will replace teachers, allow me to take you through memory lane to reflect on the work of three great teachers from the rural village of Marapyane who left an indelible mark on my schooling in a way that no machine or robot could have.

Mr Piet Makinta, my Standard 7 (Grade 9) Afrikaans teacher was an outstanding teacher who came to class every day, gave us classwork almost every day, and the turnaround time for marking our classwork was 24 hours. He was an example of a teacher who loved his subject and passed on the passion and desire to learn more to his students.

When the teacher not only has the right answer to a student's question but can also expand the discussion with vivid examples and relevant facts; and when the teacher has a deep well of understanding and expertise to draw on, then every lesson is enriched, and every student might be inspired.

Mr Makinta showed discipline and dedication towards his work and this had an infectious effect on us. We looked forward to his class, anticipated acquiring new vocabulary of the language of the oppressor and had fun learning through amusing illustrative anecdotes that led us to develop love for this language.

Our daily classwork was followed by “verbeterings” the following day to help us hone the art, skills and complexities of the language, resulting in its mastery. At the end of that year I was a proud and effective speaker of the Afrikaans language. The thoroughness of his work was demonstrated by the fact that I used my Grade 9 “Klaswerk” book to prepare for my matric examination. I majored in Afrikaans in my undergraduate studies, and was admitted into an Honours, which I declined.

At the time little did I know that in the future I would work at what is now a former Afrikaans-language university as a lecturer, professor and dean. Indeed God works in mysterious ways, and knows the end from the beginning.  Thank you, Mr Makinta, for your selflessness. Your dedication and the skills you imparted are still helpful. I can still see you stepping into our classroom that had broken windowpanes, I can still hear your voice and your emphasis on correct pronunciations and “woorde orde”. A robot can never compete with you.

Making a connection

The second teacher is Mr Matthews Sebidi, my Grade 11 and 12 class teacher and Setswana teacher. When he was not at school or in the class, he was missed. There is something about teachers who are dedicated and good at what they do, and that is: they are missed by their learners.

Teaching is not only about dishing out the subject matter, it is also about how it is done. The best teachers are often the ones who care the most deeply, not only about their jobs, but about every student they serve. It’s not enough just to love the subject matter: Great teachers also share a love of students. Great teachers know how to communicate in order to enforce discipline. This is what Mr Sebidi did well without inflicting any pain on his learners.

I once responded to his request to construct a sentence using a particular verb and the entire class burst into laughter because of its pedestrian features. Instead of punishing me, Mr Sebidi retorted, “this one is playful and such can never be admitted to a university”. That statement made me think deeply about my future. It was a diplomatic way of bringing me in line in terms of what can be said and done in a teaching and learning environment and its implications for both the present and the future. True to his attribute of a great teacher, he knew what each student was capable of individually and strove to help them attain their personal best.

Because I had ambitions of going to university, I started taking my conduct in the classroom seriously. I passed Setswana very well in matric, obtained a distinction pass in my first year at the University of the North (Limpopo).

I later learnt that it was that distinction pass in Setswana that got me admitted into the Bachelor of Education Honours programme at the University of the Witwatersrand four years later. At the time, historically white institutions were unable to measure the aptitude of black students as the matric examination they wrote under apartheid was viewed as not reliable enough to measure the academic potential of black students.

Thank you Mr Sebidi for your hard work, discipline and diligence that opened doors for me in a system that was pitted against black people. Your quiet diplomacy and reprimand taught me a life lesson and shaped my path to who I am today. That, a robot could not do.

Teachers, embrace technology

The third teacher is Mr Sello Lekotoko, my Grade 10 class teacher. In my first year at Khamane High School, he nominated me as one of nine students to represent the school at a youth convention in Mafikeng. I had no idea why I deserved this nomination. Upon our return from the convention we had to report back to all the other learners. For the first time in my life I had to address a crowd of 300 learners. That took courage, confronting one’s fears and learning to be accountable – key elements of leadership.

Throughout my high school years and beyond, he took a keen interest in my growth and development. Thank you, Mr Lekotoko, a robot cannot match your insight, interest and nurturing.

These three teachers, who are now enjoying their retirement in Marapyane, are some of this nation’s unsung heroes. They exhibited several attributes of great teachers: the ability to build caring relationships with students; excellent preparation and organisational skills and a strong work ethic.  With little resources at their disposal they were able to inspire greatness, ambition and a sense of purpose in their learners. Great teachers touch the lives of their learners in ways that shape their destinies and have lifelong impact. 

No matter how good at teaching they may be, machines do not have social and cognitive skills; they lack the empathy to adequately support their students and learners. Job roles that involve recognising cultural sensitivities, caring for others, creative or complex reasoning and perception are unlikely to be automated.

Teachers, you can relax. Your jobs are safe, you will not be replaced by robots any time soon. A word of advice:  just never stop learning and improving yourself. Find ways of embracing the use of technology in your teaching. As Henry Adams said, “A good teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”

Professor Chika Sehoole is Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Pretoria.

This article first appeared in City Press on 6 October 2019.

- Author Professor Chika Sehoole

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