I saw this image this week, and it made me laugh, because “duh!” right? I mean, “duh” may not be the most articulate word I could have picked but it is succinct and to the point.
No one looks at Pixar’s chief creative officer John Lasseter’s incredible contribution to the digital age and thinks, “Next year my MacBook Pro could do that.” However, it is not uncommon to hear another equally preposterous scenario debated throughout the Internet: “Will computers replace teachers?” Respected media outlets including The Atlantic, Time Magazine, The New Yorker, and The New York Times have covered this topic. The answers vary, but the fact is none of the media outlets dismiss the notion out of hand.
Why not? Do you know a single person who hasn’t had at least one teacher touch their lives in a positive manner? Close your eyes; do you remember her? Maybe he was the person that finally made you feel like you could accomplish anything. Maybe she was the key that inspired the passion for your chosen career? I can remember the History teacher who patiently listened to my ideas on how to make America a better place to live, and who helped me believe that my extremely youthful voice mattered.
Unfortunately, it’s easier for all of us to remember the one or two teachers that did harm: the teacher who embarrassed us and made us feel less than we are or the teacher who sat in a classroom everyday and somehow didn’t notice what was unique about each of the 33 students there. Or maybe we remember the teacher who had something else going on in their lives that school year and couldn’t give 100%. In high school, one of my teachers was on the jury for a murder trial that lasted months. That affected me negatively in two ways: first, there was the substitute who had to handle the initial months of BC calculus. And, as if that wasn’t horrible enough, when my teacher returned he wasn’t the same as the year before. He was sad. He was quiet. And he sure did not laugh at my pranksterish self anymore. As a senior in high school, I had more empathy than I would have even a few years before, but perhaps his freshman class just thought he was a dud… Life happens to teachers, and they still get up and face, as in his case, over 125 students a day during six math classes.
As a society, it is easier to articulate the negative emotions garnered from disappointment than the joy an experience has brought. Everyone can sympathize with you over the story of a teacher who, with inaccurate data, falsely accused you of something. But to explain how you were unsure of yourself in high school, and how one teacher showing you your first computer made you suddenly feel like you fit into this crazy world? This story makes you vulnerable to ridicule. Early in life, we learn to protect ourselves from vulnerabilities. But the impact of teachers in teaching us resiliency and giving us confidence to overcome and succeed will never go away.
Why am I so confident that teachers are here to stay? Because they bring many emotions, including passion, joy and empathy to the equation. This alone, for every parent out there, has to be a factor. It is better to have a human making sure your child is OK and treasured, that your son’s passions are ignited, and that your daughter’s triumphs are celebrated. Computers and technology can’t do that.
The number one factor in narrowing the achievement gap is class size, as noted by National Education Policy Center, by David Zyngier in his paper addressing how the Australian Government can deal with their declining educations issues, and in an article from 2012 from the American Education Research Association. Class size is more critical than technology, according to the New York Times, and even more important than digital skills. If these researchers are correct, then why does the debate over class size continue? A Harvard study of 11,571 Tennessee school children showed that small class size correlated positively to earnings at age 27, college attendance, home ownership, and retirement savings. Similarly, a study conducted by researchers at Northwestern University showed that student success is related to “having more adults per student in schools.”
If the debate were changed to “Will computers change the job of teaching as it is defined today?” Absolutely. But I would argue that teachers spend much of their time today not teaching. The Oxford Dictionary defines teaching as to “show or explain to (someone) how to do something.” Hopefully, our teachers spend some time today teaching, by both developing or enhancing their curriculum and by actually teaching the curriculum. But what else do they do? Just a few examples of the roles they play in a day include:
- Administrative assistant to all of their students: “Timmy, did you remember your homework?”
- Social Director: “Sophia, I see Mila playing with the blocks. Why don’t you go help her?”
- Emotional Mentor, and sometimes full on therapist: “Avery, play nice. Kate doesn’t like it when you call her fat.”
- Shift manager: “Julia, it’s time for your extended math period with Mrs. Higgins.”
- Triage Nurse: “I don’t think you need to go to the nurse, I have a Band-Aid.”
- Project Manager: ” Can everyone please write down the assignment on the board? This is due on Wednesday. On Friday we will be having our quiz.”
- Copy Clerk: “Let me run over to the office, I need 25 copies, collated and stapled. After that, I’ll laminate the covers…”
- Theater director: “Alright, tomorrow your parents are coming in to hear your reading assignment. Let’s start with Billy reading…”
- Assembly line worker: “Tomorrow we’re studying metamorphosis. I’ll cut these paper plates in half and staple them on a green background…”
Many of these responsibilities will go away as technology improves, leaving teachers with the sole responsibility of teaching.
Products like Canary Learning remove the tediousness of managing the students’ workload, the need to remind a specific student that their paper is past due, or remember the most frequent used feedback last year on the same assignment. Moreover, Canary Learning keeps track of scores by adding up all those half and full points on an assignment and automatically adding the final score to the gradebook. These are little things to save 90 seconds here and 15 seconds there, but in a day it works out to over two hours of stuff teachers do that isn’t about teaching. Educational applications like IXL may help students retain compound words, but they didn’t explain where compound words came from or how to detect them. Ten Marks does a great job helping provide math practice, but when kids don’t understand a concept, it takes a teacher to listen and help the student understand and learn. Raz Kids does a great job bringing excitement to reading, but no one watched Reading Rainbow and assumed it threatened teachers’ careers.
Computers enable teachers to educate and impact thousands of kids all at once, or to inspire and reach a single at-risk kid over time. Technology allows one teacher to teach one student thousands of miles away. Software has already taken away the cruelty of killing frogs for the yearly introduction to biology and dissection, and it has made cellular science way cooler than the balls and sticks I used as a kid. But technology will never be able to replace my 11th grade English teacher who gave me an encouraging smile when I argued the importance of Taming of the Shrew as a historical piece of literature to a class full of feminists who didn’t want to hear it.
A few years ago, a little girl in my daughter’s 3rd grade math class was falling behind. Her mother, a teacher as well, wasn’t sure what was happening. The girl’s teacher sat down and taught the little girl how to finger knit. And the child’s comprehension improved. I asked the teacher why? “Linda was having a hard time sitting still in class. We tried the tactile cushion on her seat, but it didn’t work. I needed her to sit and listen, so during recess, I gave her some yarn and got her hands busy doing something her hands loved. Finger Knitting is monotonous enough that it wouldn’t hurt her ability to concentrate.” That same child is in my daughter’s compacted math program today.
Stories like that amaze me, and yet they are everyday occurrences. I meet students who are dealing with emotionally crushing blows at home and healing at school. I see art that should be in museums, kids tasting the concept of programming only to run home to log into Scratch. I can’t express my overwhelming awe at the teaching profession. This is the consummate group of professionals, 56% of which have master’s degrees or higher. It seems not only reasonable but necessary to provide them with software to take away the mundane aspects of their job, to spark children to learn more, and to come up with more entertaining ways to remember state capitals. Technology enables teachers to spend more of their time teaching and to enable teachers to deepen their influence on the next generation. Great teachers will become even more relevant as their influence spreads from 25 students per class, but to thousands of students seeing their work online. Teachers will be able to build better emotional relationships with their students when they have more time for one on one conversation. And specialists that cover very specific topics now have the tools to share their learning across the globe. Are teachers going away? No, but they are finally getting the support they deserve.