School leadership in the age of AI: A conversation with Andrew Pierpoint

School leadership in the age of AI: A conversation with Andrew Pierpoint

In July, the Australian Secondary Principals’ Association (ASPA) president Andrew Pierpoint made the difficult decision to retire, with his duties coming to a formal end in mid-September 2023.

As the head of the professional body that represents principals, deputy principals and assistant principals from government secondary schools across Australia, it’s fair to say Pierpoint has had a bird’s eye view of what’s happening in education.

Since taking up the role in 2018, he has seen some complex challenges test Australia’s schools, and the rapid proliferation of new edtech products is certainly no exception. To address these challenges, Pierpoint has worked alongside federal, state and territory governments to chart a path forward for how new technology, generative AI in particular, can be leveraged for impact.

An increasingly evident challenge for school leaders is that technology products change on average every 36 months, which does not leave enough time for schools to evaluate them before the next one comes along.

While Pierpoint has now passed the baton to Andy Mison, co-president of the ACT Principals’ Association, his current work in education research with Monash University and the Queensland University of Technology will continue, helping leaders manage the many changes their schools are experiencing.

Below, Pierpoint draws from his 39 years in education to discuss the rapid advancements in education technology and the many challenges that generative Artificial Intelligence is presenting, and will continue to present, for students, teachers and principals.

TE: What are the most important observations you’ve made about ed-tech trends and practices in Australian public secondary schools during your career?

Some schools have gone down the road of being a laptop school; that has consequences about the pedagogy and how kids learn. Other schools have opted to become iPad schools. There are a lot of things that iPads do that laptops don’t, and vice-versa, so since AI came along it’s been the same concept, even if the challenge is different. Schools will need to decide whether they’ll jump in the deep end, or in the shallow end, and work out where the deep end is. There are quite a few schools who embarked on a laptop program who now no longer have the program at all – there is no IT in the school apart from a pen and a notebook, and there are a growing number of schools that are doing this. The reasoning behind why things are they way they are is far more important than the content itself. I heard a physicist talking the other day who said we shouldn’t be scared of AI, because we’re the ones who are writing everything that it’s churning out. The synthesising part of AI is what’s new, so, it’s how we interpret that synthesised information and ask many multi-pointed questions on topics and themes for AI to craft a paragraph about.

TE: What kind of influence do you think modern technologies like laptops, iPads, Smartphones and AI are having on teaching, learning, and mental health?

I do believe that edtech is linked to poorer mental health among staff and students. There wouldn’t be a principal in Australia who doesn’t on a weekly basis deal with the fallout from some platform where students are experiencing cyberbullying and that’s spilled over into a school. The first part is that principals don’t know what they don’t know when it comes to generative AI like ChatGPT. On a continuum, there are some principals who know a great deal about it; most know a little about it; there are a few who know nothing about it. What ASPA is doing is, if we’re going to work with a company to provide quality professional learning for principals around ‘how do you use this AI thing’, ‘what is it’, ‘how do you use it in education’, ‘should you use it in education’, ‘how do you use it in your school’, and ‘what professional learning do your teachers need to have to utilise it’. So, we’re just starting that. Now, I acknowledge that the AI juggernaut will probably move faster than what we can keep up with, but it behoves us to provide that professional learning for our colleagues so they can make the best of it.

TE: So, what professional development approach should leaders take when it comes to the use of AI in their school’s classrooms?

We need to be control over AI – not the other way around. Everyone I talk to isn’t nervous about it; they just want to know what it is and how they can utilise it in school, because it’s going to be in the community. How do the kids use it in the community outside of 9am to 3pm? How do we get that interface going in school? How do we prepare kids in Year 10, 11 and 12 to use AI once they leave school in the same way they use chemistry or maths skills once they leave school? It’s another dimension we’ll need to get our heads around, the quicker the better, but also in a quality way. The department of education in each of the jurisdictions need to be very thoughtful about any partnership that they go into with any big technology company. Likewise, schools. Some secondary principals are very entrepreneurial, and they’ll need to channel that into what’s good for their community. Technology must be used for education, not the other way around.

TE: As you retire and reflect on the school leadership as a whole, where do you see principalship heading in the next decade?

The role description that most principals have around the country is circa 1980 and that’s more than 40 years’ old now. So, we need to look at the principals’ job and say this is a contemporary role model, this is what we expect principals to do today, and then interview them against those standards, not yesterday’s standards. We need to have a closer look at what the system is saying are the non-delegatable tasks of a principal. We’ve seen a proliferation of tasks that only can be done by the principal whereas in the past the principal would let their deputy have a crack and then the principal would sign off on it, so we need to make sure there is a balance between all those things. We need to make sure that schools are staffed appropriately to allow school admin and teachers to do their job, not do the myriad of other things they’re currently expected to do. The other thing we need to do is work together with government, the media, and the communities in which schools are working about the positive things that are happening in our schools so that we can raise not the standard of education but the status of the profession to where I think it used to be, because it’s certainly not there anymore.