Teachers on the way out

August 16, 2011 § 1 Comment

Human teachers may be one of the first skilled professions to be eliminated by computerized learning.

Up until now, computers have been used to augment classroom teaching – just as in the past films, overhead projectors, TV’s and so on, have been used to try to make education a bit more interesting and effective.

But it’s never made a difference to the classroom outcomes: it’s like sprinkling glitter on dog poop, if you’ll excuse the expression. The stuff underneath hasn’t changed, and it’s still crap in terms of what it achieves.

What we have at the moment is not much different to what we had 200 years ago. Education is basically industrialized. A teacher stands in front of a group of 30 students, and spouts out what he knows, hoping that the students will pick up some of it.

The drawbacks of this approach are obvious to all of us. I’ve been a high school teacher. I’ve seen twelve and thirteen year olds swarming into their new high school, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, excited and ready for the new and challenging experience they expect. And I see them six months later, slack eyed, bored and dispirited. The present educational system fails them on the way through, and it fails most of them in terms of outcomes. It teaches some how to play the academic game long enough to get to university and get a degree. But for most, it utterly fails to provide anything useful at all.

There is a wider debate about what should be taught in twenty-first century schools.

Right now, all I’m talking about is how stuff should be taught.

Today’s education process is not far from the mass production line of  Henry Ford’s factories. But manufacture is rapidly moving away from mass production, particularly for anything individual and valued. The same thing applies to education – we need individual production, not one-size-fits-all.

What would this look like?

Start by considering  the qualities an ideal teacher should have.

First,  each student has their own tutor. And that tutor is tuned to what the student will most respect, and want to please. A teenage boy may respond best to an All Black. A girl to a movie star. A small child might get most from his father or his grandmother. So ideally, the best tutor will be someone who strongly resembles that model. It’s built on a simple premise – you cannot teach someone if they don’t want to learn. (The old adage said it all: “You can  lead a horse to water … “). If you can’t motivate the pupil, you’re wasting your time. The easiest way to motivate a learner is to identify someone they’d like very much to please, and put that person in front of them.

Second, the teacher has to be able to respond to the changing needs of the student. If the learner is sick, hungry, tired or upset, he’s not going to learn. So the tutor has to be a psychologist and a therapist, and supply those emotional or physical needs before learning can start. And although the teacher needs to be totally responsive to the student’s needs, he is not allowed any needs of his own. He has to be reliably cheerful and positive; never tired or irritable or negative.

Third, the tutor needs to be an ‘educationalist’. There multiple ways of teaching any particular piece of wisdom, knowledge or skill.  A student will usually have a preferred way of learning, but if he doesn’t understand something explained one way, he needs a teacher who can try another method. And if Plan B doesn’t get it across, then try a third method, or step back to the stage before and redo that. Again, it comes back to the idea of personalized education: teaching at the pace the student can cope with, in the way that he understands.

And only after all that is achieved do we need to start worrying about what the teacher knows. We shouldn’t even need to belabour this point for two reasons . Everyone understands that what they learn at university is outdated and obsolete within 10 years. And, everyone understands that there is a huge body of knowledge on the Internet – the skill lies not in knowing stuff but in being able to identify the good stuff, and shape it to the individual’s stage of development.

This is the ideal teacher, that is, if we start from what the student needs.

Our present system is set up from the other end: what is the cheapest way to teach a whole bunch of kids something, to keep them and their teachers off the streets while the rest of us get on with real world stuff?

Obviously this is impracticable if you expect a human teacher. One, far too expensive to provide one-to-one tutoring, even if you could find enough people to do it. And two, humans are just too fallible in terms of sublimating their own emotions to those of the student. By that I mean that when a teacher is tired or grumpy or sick, he becomes a far less effective teacher.

The only way to achieve this ideal teacher will be with robots, and they are coming.

Many people will resist this changeover. Some will be the self-interested – the teachers, administrators and support staff  who depend on the existing system. Some parents will fear the impact on their child’s education. But the process is remorseless.



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