Will the job of teacher/educator exist in 20 years?

19 June 2017

The TVNZ series What Next ? asked provoking questions and for us to consider what we want our world to be like in twenty years’ time. Will bugs be chosen over beef? Would we want to live to be 130-years-old? Will our current job exist in twenty years’ time? And where do robots, automation and artificial intelligence fit into everything?

We wonder, could teachers be surplus to requirement? Or replaced by robots? Will schools as we know it cease to exist? Is this a horrible thought or an intriguing possibility that leads us to rethink education and teaching in entirely different ways?

Dr Fiona Ell and Dr Kirsten Locke were posed the question.

Dr Fiona Ell

Dr Fiona Ell

Knowledge is no longer owned by teachers. We don’t have to visit a sage for enlightenment or study at the feet of a master. Anyone can have knowledge and spread it via YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp and so on…and if everything you need is out there on the net, and you can google it, watch it, share it and comment on it, do we need teachers?

People can learn what they want, when and how they want without the tyranny of the classroom: bells, compulsory attendance, uniforms, bullies, poor teachers, uneven distribution of resources, bad behaviour and the smell of mandarin peel and socks. Tailored learning in your own home! Watch videos on YouTube, try it yourself and away you go. Responsive apps can provide you with examples that challenge your current level and give you instant feedback. Far better than waiting for a teacher to mark your work at the weekend.

It seems like a great idea on paper, but in my opinion, there’s something missing. The precious spark of human connection and caring, which lights the fires of children’s learning is easy to lose in a digital world.

Teachers might no longer be up the front as the font of all wisdom, but they are needed in the middle of the learning.

In 2010 the OECD summarised current research about learning, and developed ‘transversal principles’ for environments that promote learning in tomorrow’s world. Two of these are particularly relevant to whether the job of ‘teacher’ will survive: first, that learning is social and second that motivation and emotion play a key role in learning. Connection with a teacher and with peers is central to most children’s learning.

The sense of community built in a school or early childhood centre, the involvement of caring adults beyond family in a child’s growth and learning, and the fun of being part of something bigger than yourself are lost if all we do is tap and choose on our own devices in our own separate spaces, to meet our own needs.

To thrive in the future, people need to care about others, to see themselves as part of a diverse world, to celebrate difference and to do things for the common good. When children come together with a teacher to learn, these are some of the significant outcomes.

Teachers are connectors, bringing children, whānau and curriculum together in ways that can enrich our society. Creativity can grow through making art and music together; social skills and contribution to a team can grow through sport. Collaborative problem solving and fluent communication skills are desirable ‘future focused’ work skills that are best developed in face-to-face communities of learning, with skilled and knowledgeable teachers to guide and challenge.

I believe we value these things too much for teaching to disappear.

Dr Fiona Ell
Associate Dean – Initial Teacher Education
School of Curriculum and Pedagogy
The University of Auckland

Dr Kirsten Locke

Dr Kirsten Locke
Dr Kirsten Locke

In 1979, the philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard infamously opined that with the incoming digital age came the decline of the teacher and education would be irrevocably altered because of it. Instead of a warm body waxing lyrical on differential equations to an enraptured group of students diligently writing down their sums, the teacher could be replaced with a computer to the same effect. Lyotard’s provocation has lurked within the educational imaginary for nearly four decades and has been variously ridiculed and embraced during that time. So certain of the industrial model of mass education and the ‘sage on the stage’ teaching format for large chunks of the twentieth century, countries like New Zealand rarely questioned the primacy of the teacher’s role to the educational endeavour.

Yet Lyotard’s decades-old diagnosis is starting to look prophetic in the twenty-first century. Along with a host of other changes to the 1989 Education Act, in May 2017 the government approved the establishment of purely online learning schools entitled ‘Communities of Online Learning’ (COOLs). From the start of 2018, a school-aged person in New Zealand has the choice to attend a ‘brick and mortar’ physical school, to blend their attendance at a physical school with online learning, or they can opt to access their education through a purely online form of delivery. The latter is a move that radically questions the role of the teacher and the purpose of education in New Zealand, making the muted response from educators and researchers alike a puzzling one. For or against, bewildered or confused, this move deserves robust critique and broad engagement.

Much has been written about the influence of the internet to forms of informal and formal learning. It is now a truism that we demand the ready and instant answers to questions through our fingertips. ‘Dr Google’ is nearly always close to hand to provide assistance to your pressing queries. YouTube can teach you the guitar, show you how to cook an omelette and provide advice on physical and spiritual wellbeing. The internet, at first a fragmented conglomeration of curiosities and oddities, is now a cohesive entity tailored to reflect back to the user their identity, their interests and their opinions (Dr Google knows more about you than you would imagine and is adept at giving you what you want). The institutions of education, spanning the non-compulsory sectors of Early Childhood Education through to tertiary education have altered in response–they’ve had to, and this is not necessarily a bad thing.

However, Lyotard did provide a caveat to the obsolescence of the teacher. Only when knowledge is reduced to information, pedagogy is reduced to transmission and education is reduced to efficient performance can a computer replace, in kind and function, a human teacher. We would do well to remember that education in New Zealand should not be reduced to any one of these things, despite the internet and the rise of the digital age, and because of it. The old ideas of citizenship and democracy are the challenges that our new online schools will need to grapple with in these brave new times, and with it, the role and existence of the teacher.

Kirsten Locke
Associate Dean – Teaching and Learning
School of Critical Studies in Education
The University of Auckland



The University of Auckland proudly partnered with TVNZ to present What Next ? along with the support of NZ On Air. You can find out more about the series and watch all the episodes on demand at: https://www.tvnz.co.nz/shows/what-next