The Irreplaceable Human
Rob Szabó is an educator, writer, speaker and manager based in Cologne, Germany. Interests: Systemic Functional Linguistics, evidence-based TEFL, design thinking. www.linkedin.com/in/robszabo/
In 2014, controversy rocked the IATEFL Conference in Harrogate, Yorkshire. Plenary speaker Sugata Mitra, Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University, suggested “taking the teacher out of the equation” in favour of computer systems. The response was immediate and fiery. Hugh Dellar, writer, teacher and teacher trainer, accused Mitra on his blog of a “barely concealed sales pitch to a ….captive audience”. In a piece of sustained indignation, he conjured images of "Neo-Cons, Silicon Valley tech heads with an inbuilt disdain for teachers." In the comments, Scott Thornbury, an EFL luminary, chimed in: “Great post…Hugh. Your characteristically bombastic soap-box style has at last found a worthy target.” Entertaining stuff. But what was this target? Was this a knee-jerk Luddite reaction to the threat of language teachers going the way of the 19th century British textile worker? Is there any support for this thesis?
Now, it is certainly worth remembering Philip Kerr’s admonition that “predictions about the impact of technology on education have a tendency to be made by people with a vested interest in the technologies.” Dellar and Thornbury needn´t have worried too much. It is my belief that Business English trainers (at least) are not genuinely threatened by the rise of advanced computer systems, including developments in Artificial Intelligence. In October 2018, The Brookings Institution (according to The Economist, perhaps the most prestigious think tank in the United States of America), published the following: “The types of jobs that are at the least risk of being replaced by automation involve problem solving, teamwork, critical thinking, communication, and creativity. The education profession is unlikely to see a dramatic drop in demand for employees given the nature of work in this field. Rather, preparing students for the changing labor market will likely be a central challenge for schools and educators.” When I am asked to describe what Business English trainers are hired to do, I often reply in terms borrowed from Michael Halliday, the grandfather of Systemic Functional Linguistics. Trainers are there to increase the range of linguistic options available to the learner (traditionally defined as vocabulary, grammar and functional language), as well as improving learners’ ability to know when to deploy each option in real business situations. Halliday goes further in his description of how language use occurs between humans: “First, it is transmitted physically, by sound waves traveling through the air; secondly, it is produced and received biologically, by the human brain and its associated organs of speech and hearing; thirdly it is exchanged socially, in contexts set up and defined by the social structure; and fourthly it is organized semiotically as a system of meanings.” It is these social structure constraints in terms of what is acceptable in language use and the famously complex semiotic layer involved in determining what people mean, that pose problems for AI systems. John Searle, he of the seminal 1980 Chinese Room thought experiment, wrote as recently as 2010 “Computation is defined purely formally or syntactically, whereas minds have actual mental or semantic contents, and we cannot get from syntactical to the semantic just by having the syntactical operations and nothing else.” A critical implication of the above statement is that without brains we cannot have minds. And without minds we cannot have semantic understanding. I would go further. Without semantic understanding we cannot develop communicative competence in Business English. Despite the impressive and exciting advances in technology that we see around us, we will continue to need the exquisitely sophisticated humans that ply their trade in classrooms both traditional and virtual, offices and conference rooms all over this world of ours.
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