I don’t often do this, but I read a recent article in the Atlantic, The Deconstruction of the K-12 Teacher, that really got me agitated and I need to air some thoughts here. Michael Godsey, a high school English teacher from California devotes some considerable space in this esteemed publication to the idea that the role of the teacher is being automated and that in as few as five years, classrooms will have become places where a low-paid monitor ensures that the technology that is delivering the streamed content from a corporate or government server is being done in an environment with no technical hitches and no behavioural disruptions. Sounds a bit Orwellian to me.
If teaching is nothing more than the delivery of content, and learning equals digestion of and regurgitation of that content on tests to show how much has been learned, then please automate it. The role of teacher clearly can be done much better (or at least much more consistently) when automated if that is all we are trying to achieve. And quite frankly, what a boring job it would be to be a teacher. However, if teaching is less about content points and more about:
- making connections between facts and building context
- building mentorship relationships
- challenging a student’s ideas and provoking them beyond comfortable thinking
- expanding horizons
- having the experience to recognize why a student might be having trouble and if and how to intervene
- knowing a student well enough, as well as knowing your area of expertise well enough to help connect student passions to course content
- constantly assessing a student’s progress to be able to assist, adjust, coach, challenge and evaluate
then, teachers roles cannot be automated. There is no machine, nor will there ever be, that can provide this kind of authentic human relationship that is the basis for good teaching.
Am I saying that automation has no place in education? Not at all. There are tedious tasks that we all do as teachers that are ultimately not time well spent. How many hours do we spend entering marks, setting up learning resources, curating course content, scheduling facilities and any number of other tasks that either can be completely off-loaded to technology or can at least be made far more efficient with the help of judicious automation. We just have to be very careful with what we automate. Every time we offload a task to someone or something else, we are allowing someone else to make decisions on our behalf and some of those decisions should be best left to an experienced teacher with a knowledge of the context.
Godsey gets nervous with the crowd-sourcing of lesson plans and curated lesson resources. I would also be nervous when those types of materials are placed directly into the hands of students without any reflection and adjustment for context. He quotes a colleague who seems proud of the fact that he never plans his own lessons. He simply grabs them off the internet and makes sure that he cites the source. Every student and every class is unique and I can’t see any lesson plan generated ever working straight out of the box. Heck, I can’t reuse the same lessons class after class. Each class has it’s own personality and responds differently to different things. Having said that, learning from other teachers whether it might be in the form of inspiration or the discovery of a previously undiscovered resource, is gold. Crowd-sourcing can be an effective way of “automating” teaching.
I also worry about Godsey’s comments about “guide on the side” and flipped learning. I completely understand that both of these concepts utilized for the wrong reasons can be the death of teaching. Both the ideas of “guide on the side” and the flipped classroom enable teachers to develop those relationships with students, challenge individuals, assess progress, and deal with little issues before they become big problems. Class time is spent more with individuals and less with a mass of students. But, these same concepts can be misused as a way for teacher to catch-up on the local newspaper or run and get another cup of coffee. If a teacher isn’t actually teaching – and this doesn’t have to mean standing at the front of the room lecturing – and they’re doing nothing more than serving as a high-priced babysitter, then tax dollars are better spent on a lower cost baby sitter. But if a teacher is enacting these strategies to be more effective in helping to facilitate student learning, then we need to hire more teachers so that the teacher can be more effective with the students she serves.
There is no doubt that teaching is changing and that technology has a lot to do with that change. We can let those who will profit the most from automation of education define what teaching looks like in the next five to twenty years, or we can leverage the power of technology to make our time with the students more effective than it has ever been. We can teach more powerful than we’ve been able to in the past and help define what the next generation of teaching will look like. For me, it’s a pretty simple decision. I’m hoping that Mr. Godsey feels the same way as I do, and the intent of this article was to provoke thought and discussion. If that is true, good on you, Mr. Godsey! That’s great teaching.