The classroom of the future

Simon Balderson, Assistant Head (Digital Strategy) at Wells Cathedral School, looks at the power of computers and the significance of AI in education

In 1997 the world chess champion, Gary Kasparov, was beaten at chess by the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue. It was a hugely significant demonstration of the power of computers and perhaps the first time that a real-world example of artificial intelligence outperforming a human made its way into the public consciousness. However, in one sense Deep Blue wasn’t really ‘intelligent’ at all, it was simply churning through millions of possible moves and choosing what it considered to be the best one, albeit in a very sophisticated way. Deep Blue could play chess better than any human in the world, but it could only play chess.

Twenty years later, there have been almost mind-boggling developments in the power of AI. Artificial intelligence algorithms are now able to learn for themselves, to adapt to situations they have never encountered before and to solve problems in ways that humans have never even considered. In 2017, Google’s AlphaGo beat Ke Jie, the number one ranked player in the world, using tactics that were completely unique. The rise of AI has gone well beyond simple board games – AI algorithms are able to process language, recognise images, compose music and are encroaching on many areas that we previously considered to be uniquely human.

This dramatic change is incredibly exciting, if a little nerve-racking and has the potential to change society in ways we cannot conceive of yet, in the same way that the printing press, the industrial revolution and the internet have done before. It will change the way we teach and learn, as well as the jobs and future which we are preparing young people for. Adaptive learning systems are likely to be one of the major drivers of this change, providing a fully personalised learning experience for each pupil and drawing on vast amounts of data; every mouse click, every replay of a video, every attempt of a question logged, analysed and used to build a programme of study tailored to the exact needs of the individual.

‘Schools who prepare for the changes that lie ahead have an opportunity to shape the future, rather than be shaped by it.’

What role is there for teachers in when such a fundamental part of their current role has the potential to be automated? There are reasons to be optimistic and, unsurprisingly, varying views on what the future will hold for the profession. The opportunity to provide truly differentiated learning will be highly appealing to many teachers, possibly allowing them to focus on higher-order skills of discussion, collaboration and critical thinking. Somewhat dystopian visions of the future predict teachers reduced to little more than classroom monitors while students get on with the job of learning via AI systems. Optimists, however, see the teachers of the future still in the driving seat, but with a myriad of data on every student they teach, enabling them to manage the learning of their classes through highly detailed feedback and personalised programmes of study.

The speed with which these changes will occur should not be underestimated. Adaptive learning systems are already available and developing rapidly. The classroom of the future may be much closer than we think and the nature of the profession (as with many others) may face huge disruption in the very near future.

Wells Cathedral School is hosting a conference in May, AIConf, to explore the impact that artificial intelligence will have on education and how schools will need to respond, from a philosophical, practical and ethical perspective. Schools who prepare for the changes that lie ahead have an opportunity to shape the future, rather than be shaped by it as we enter a period of change which will affect the very nature of education and society. 

For more on the May 18-19 conference at Wells Cathedral School, visit

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