Episode #2

Sophie Fenton

Change: Human-Centred Education

Has the focus of education changed as society and technology evolves? Our guest in this episode, education pioneer Sophie Fenton firmly believes that repositioning humanness at the centre will enhance, rather than diminish, our learning experience. Join her as she delves into a world of AI, Descartes theory, and how it all relates back to changing one thing in education.

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Guest Profile

Sophie Fenton

Education Pioneer
Location: Melbourne Australia

WHY SOPHIE? We admire Sophie’s passion not just in teaching, but in seeking out the most effective and innovative ways to do so, in tandem with the pace at which the world is changing. Her years of experience in the field of education have given her a unique insight into what she believes would help students thrive at the centre of learning, and be well-equipped as citizens of the future.


Sophie is an education pioneer; specialising in school design, curriculum adaptation and pedagogy innovation. She has recently taken up a Doctoral position in the Faculty of Education at Monash, with the aim of furthering her understanding of how to create effective educational environments in a world under rapid transformation.

Sophie is Head of Education Design at Asia Education Foundation with a focus on developing learning experiences that enable learners to become globally competent humans who are interculturally aware, connected, empathetic and action-oriented.

A life-long educator, Sophie has extensive leadership experience. In her secondary education career, she has held senior lead roles as Chair of Humanities and Head of Professional Learning, as well as Senior Education Advisor and Principal. With a keen eye for innovation, she co-founded an innovative school in Williamstown, Victoria. Sophie is the co-founder and Director of D-Line Education, a consultancy business which supports groups and individuals who want to create centres of education by cultivating their strategic lines for change.

Recognised for her leadership in education, Sophie has been the recipient of a series of accolades from National Excellence in Teaching Awards, culminating in her being selected as the Australian Scholarship Group’s Australian Education Ambassador at the International Space Camp in Alabama in 2013. Sophie was Monash University Distinguished Alumni (Education) in 2016.

Sophie holds a Master in School Leadership from Monash University, a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) from La Trobe University, a Master Arts in International Politics from Monash University, a Diploma in Secondary Education from Australian Catholic University.

Video transcript

“If I could change one thing in education, it would be to re-position humanness at the centre.

To clarify – whilst humans have been at the centre of education since the Industrial era, I would argue that our humanness has not. I contend that education operates on basic assumptions about being human and then directs its attention towards imposing learning on those humans.

Industrial era ‘skills-based education’ is the best example of this approach. And even though Positive Education has driven an important shift towards addressing the needs of our humanness, it also operates under the approach of applying actions to an assumed context. In contrast, Ancient through to Enlightenment era education was focused on exploring what it was to be human and how to shape a society based on our humanness.

We need to go back to this focus… why?

In this world of smartphones and talking homes, our humanness needs to drive purpose and practice in education, if it is to equip learners to thrive in and design for a future world that enhances human experience, rather than diminishing it.

Why this change, why now?

Well, we are undergoing a major epoch transition. Yes, we have experienced technological disruption before. Yes, we have seen jobs come and jobs go. We have had time freed up and time taken up by technology. Many times over, technology has had an impact on our lived experience. But this time, it is different.

Why? Enter stage left, AI….

AI is technology like no other. AI can imitate us; AI can replicate us; AI can be seen as us. Cast your mind back, 2017, Japan celebrates the launch of a hotel that is entirely staffed by robots. 2018, we start the year with Google Assistant booking a haircut. We end the year with robots taking centre stage: UK’s Parliamentary Committee on Education taking its first ever submission from a robot. Pepper presented to the committee, talking to MPs about the future of artificial intelligence in education and the integration of robots into social settings. then China launches its AI news reader. In a short period of time, things are ramping up…

Now, I’m happy to share the playing field with technology. I’m very happy to have a dishwasher and a car! Seriously, technology is essential in many aspects of our lives – and is benefitting many in incredible ways – take for instance, Microsoft’s Seeing AI is helping millions of people with vision impairment. VR is being used to support people working in isolated contexts, like Antarctica. Technology has the potential to create immense enhancement to lived experience.

I am not a luddite – I am happy to share the playing field. But I’m not happy to be a slave, a subordinate, a disempowered vulnerable sideline player who has no agency. Consider this: As potentially brilliant as AI is, it also poses risk on a magnitude no technology has before. Why? AI has the potential to think for itself. Following Descartes’ theory, if a robot does gain the capacity to think, then it would have capacity to be. If it can ‘be’, then it can develop agency… If we don’t intentionally frame how AI is to be designed now, very soon we might not have a say. Very soon AI might tell us… and it might tell us in ways that suit it.

There is still time to arrest this trajectory towards self-determining AI.

In her recent book, Made by Humans, Broad reminds us that humans currently make the machines, AND, importantly, that humans also make the rules and regulations regarding them. So we need to step up and be proactive in ensuring ethical development through good governance – and good governance requires awareness and understanding. Broad asks the question of citizens, but this can be distilled to ask, ‘what are our roles and responsibilities in automation’ as educators?

There is no doubt that AI is emerging as a powerful tool in education. AI already allows for highly differentiated teaching to meet students at their point of need and progress their learning through personalised adaptability. In fact, it actually has the potential to create the kind of education we need – by liberating educators from mundane tasks, so that they may invest more heavily in the nuanced educating of humanness!

AI has an important role to play in education. But that must not be the only consideration regarding this technology for education policy makers, education designers and education delivers. We also need to account for the challenges it poses.

Education has the capacity and opportunity to play a main role in addressing the challenges of a world whose terrain is defined by technology. For it is through educating learners to be aware of the reality that we live in an environment designed and built by us, that we are best positioned to not only meet the challenges posed by the world of smartphones and talking homes, but to create them for our benefit. If we understand that we live in a construct, then we can become the masters of it, rather than its slaves.

There is no debating the fact that our students need skills and capabilities: they need to know how to think inventively and critically, they need to know how to innovate and to deliver on their ideas. They need resilience and agility in the face of ambiguity and imposed self-sufficiency. But as our world is redefined by ‘the internet of things’, students also need to know what it is to be human. For it is through a cognisance of our humanity that we can best live in and design for the world of VR and robots. As cognisant developers, creators, inventors; we are more likely to create tools that effect positive social impact and build infrastructure that enhances human experience rather than diminishing it.

So we need to teach our students what it is to be human. Equip them with the awareness, the self belief, the valuing of what it is to be human in this world of AI and VR.

There are many potential positives to AI, but they are dependent on how AI’s development is governed. Let’s position humanness at the centre of education today, so it can equip us to thrive in and design for a future world that enhances human experience, rather than diminishing it.”

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