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A screen is no substitute for a great teacher

Blog | By Susan Hamlyn | May 21, 2020

An Australian classroom, 1945 (Credit: National Library of Australia)

Whatever the new normal means in terms of less, there will undoubtedly be more of some things.

More remote working, more meetings when your colleagues are faces on screens, more reliance on online family gatherings because we won’t be getting on planes or trains to see relations in remote places, more online classes in Pilates, dance, languages, music – it’s all so easy now that we’ve all got our heads around Zoom.

Long before the current epidemic, a huge global industry dedicated to delivering more and more online learning – at all levels of education – had been growing rapidly. Remote learning is now a vast and complex concern with eye-watering international money involved. It can be, without question, a magnificent enabler of aspirant learners in poor countries with few good schools and limited resources but its value and application in developed countries is, at least, questionable.

Many educators here are rejoicing and foresee classrooms full of learners with headphones and laptops – all learning individually on personalised programs. What’s not to like? They see our new expertise -its growth now enforced by the need for staying at home - in remote learning as a great step forward and one from which we must not retreat once the fear of infection recedes. Increasing numbers of school-aged children will learn more and more of their curriculum via a screen – interactively perhaps – but the only relationship involved will be mediated by a computer. IT is seen as an unquestioned inherent good.

This is essentially true but, in the years ahead, when we face austerity on a scale we have not known before, there will be much pressure on school leaders to rely increasingly on these infinitely reusable programmes. One can envisage a time, not far ahead, when a teacher will be there to monitor but not to teach – as we know it. And, of course, one might just as well log on at home as in a school.

So what becomes of the subliminal learning from each other? From classroom debate? The learning that is not “academic” but social? cultural? experiential? PSHE can be taught as a subject but relationships are learned, above all, through making, breaking and mending them.

There will be few Oldies, I imagine, who would not testify to the debt they owe to a significant teacher at some point in their education. That teacher will not – in most cases, one assumes – have touched them physically but their actual physical presence - the modulations and variations of the voice, the body language, the way of moving around the classroom, the characteristic facial expressions and hand gestures – all these things are crucial in any relationship and certainly so in a classroom.

If we are to rely more and more on teaching children via screens, we will endanger this critical, formative and inspirational personal connection. An incalculable loss, I would suggest.