I am at the Oriental Club in London to attend the wedding anniversary dinner of a couple who met as undergraduates in Cambridge. Their sons study at Winchester College, a top independent school, and the guests all appear to either have been at Cambridge or have children in Winchester.

I fall into conversation with the woman standing beside me, not surprisingly her son is at Winchester. We talk about the latest Oxbridge entrance requirements and I tell her my son has used Khan Academy, the online education portal, to teach himself modules not taught in school. She has never heard of this and tells me she does not believe that one can ever replace teachers in class.

I ask her: what we should do when there are no teachers in class? In India 25% of teachers in government primary schools do not turn up to work and in many parts of the world there is an acute shortage of teachers. She has no answer.

Can technology replace teachers?

Traditionally teachers have been trained to impart knowledge and in general, the subjects easiest to teach are the ones most easily replaced by technology. As technology has improved, even teaching complex subjects like science has been made easier with technology. No one who has seen a video depicting atoms and molecules in a chemistry lesson can deny that it makes understanding abstract science concepts so much easier.

Professor Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology at Newcastle University and TED Prize 2013 winner, believes that groups of children, given the appropriate digital infrastructure, a safe and free environment, and a friendly but not knowledgeable mediator, can pass school-leaving exams on their own. In such an environment he argues that no teacher is required.

In Malaysia, the Ministry of Education has made 4G internet available to all 10,000 schools in the country together with a virtual learning platform. In a study conducted by Nottingham University Malaysia in a low-performing urban school of 100 primary students from low-income families, the students were given a laptop each and a game-based learning programme.

Teachers continued to first teach the detailed practical concepts before the students were asked to attempt the exercises. The study concluded that the software motivated students with different abilities across different levels of challenge. There was more motivation for students especially with regards to mathematics, and observing their students put more effort into their learning translated into motivation for the teachers as well.

When I met Professor Mitra at a conference in Kuala Lumpur two years ago, he told me he was not concerned with schools with good teachers, as good teachers normally achieve good learning outcomes, but with schools with absent teachers or bad teachers. Is the answer that technology should not replace teachers but technology should be used to help teachers teach better? Is the future classroom a place in which the digitally literate teachers skilfully use technological tools to augment their lessons and personalize learning for each child?

What do students really need to learn?

School systems in almost every country today have their origins in the industrial revolution. The workforce needed to read, write and have basic mathematical skills, and school systems were designed to deliver these outcomes. Are these still relevant today?

In a report released late last year titled Driving the Skills Agenda: Preparing Students for the Future, the Economist Intelligence Unit found that problem-solving, team-working and communication skills are currently most in demand in the workplace, but education systems are not providing enough of the skills that students and the workplace need.

It may be that these skills are what is needed in the workplace but the truth is that in many developing countries, students are leaving school without even foundational literacy and numeracy skills. At the basic level this needs to be urgently addressed if we are to prepare students for the future. The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a triennial international survey which aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students. In 2009 Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia tested in the bottom 30% in reading, science and mathematics. In 2012, the scores remained roughly similar.

Image: Source: PISA 2009+, Malaysian Education Blueprint 2013-2025

Malaysia, having grappled for years with the quality of its education system, launched the Education Blueprint 2013-2025 with the aim of moving from the bottom 30% to the top 30% of the PISA rankings by 2025. Using information technology and providing digital resources is part of the strategy.

Importantly, the blueprint recognizes the need for every child to have certain key attributes to meet the needs of the 21st century, when it comes to leadership, innovation, creativity, multilingual proficiency, ethics, spirituality and national identity. Many of these are similar to those that have been identified in the EIU report as being in demand in the workplace, but additional character qualities have been included.

It’s time to build character

School systems in ASEAN (apart from Singapore) are struggling with teaching the basic skills of reading, writing and mathematics. Technology can address some of the gaps and provide teachers with the tools to teach better and for students to learn faster. However, technology cannot replace the human instruction required to help students be more creative, solve problems, foster team work and build character.

Character building is often forgotten as we chase skills and knowledge. If change is the only certainty in the 21st century, developing strength of character will be equally important to prepare for change. Resilience, perseverance, courage, empathy, curiosity, leadership and ethics are the pillars that help us cope with change.

Andreas Schleicher, Director of Education at the OECD, believes that these character qualities are as important to success as cognitive skills and should be integrated into today’s disciplinary context. He argues that social and emotional skills are as predictive of whether students will complete college as cognitive skills. Developing character is not just something nice to have but should be central to education.

College completion (United States)

Image: Source: National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth, OECD (2015)

Let’s rethink teacher training

In a world of rapid transformation brought on by technological advances, the role that teachers play in preparing students to enter the workforce will be as important as or even more important than it has been in the past. However, teachers trained to impart knowledge may feel ill-equipped to cope with technology or how to embed teaching of 21st-century skills into their lessons. Policy-makers and governments need to rethink their teacher training and professional development programmes as well as include digital literacy as a fundamental skill for teachers.

The school I attended was a mission school founded by an Irish nun, Sister Enda Ryan. At age 24 she started the school with the mission of educating women of character; good grades were of secondary importance to her and were not celebrated. Dr Zeti Akhtar Aziz, Malaysia’s first female governor of the central bank and widely recognized as one of the world’s best central bank governors, was in her first cohort.

All across ASEAN, mission schools, with their emphasis on character development, have produced outstanding leaders. Focusing on a pupil’s character in this way should form the core of a teacher’s role in education.

The World Economic Forum on ASEAN is taking place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia from 1 to 2 June.