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August 26, 2013

Will computers replace teachers?

by Thomas Arnett

There are some innovation and technology enthusiasts who claim that computer-based learning will soon replace teachers. Just take a look at some recent op-eds by Andy Kessler and Richard Galant. They point to the accessibility of information via the Internet and the recent advances in online instruction and adaptive learning as harbingers of teacher obsolescence. These assertions are alarming to those who advocate the importance of teachers, like Diane Ravitch and Wendy Kopp. They point to a strong body of research that affirms the importance of good teachers.

So how do we make sense of this war of words and tumult of opinions? To one degree or another, both sides are overlooking important considerations.

Those who proclaim that computers will replace teachers often naively reduce teaching to mere instruction and assessment. In doing so, they forget the true breadth and complexity of the job teachers perform. Computers are becoming better at providing customized direct instruction and at assessing student mastery of foundational knowledge and skills. But good teachers do much more than present information and drill the fundamentals. High-quality teachers guide their students through activities and projects that stretch them to analyze, synthesize, and apply what they have learned across academic subjects and into the real world. They provide personalized, qualitative feedback to help students develop their critical and creative thinking. They create a classroom culture that intrinsically motivates students by honoring their hard work and by making academic achievement socially relevant. Going above and beyond the call of duty, many of the best teachers are driven by a “whatever-it-takes” attitude to ensure that all their students receive the resources and support needed to put them on a path to success in life. Those human aspects of good instruction are not going to be replaced by machines anytime soon.

On the other side of the debate, those who emphasize the importance of traditional teachers often do not notice how unrealistic it is to provide high-quality teachers at scale in the current monolithic model of classroom-based instruction. They overlook the fact that the breadth and complexity of the job of good teaching makes it nearly impossible for most teachers to do all of the critical aspects of their job exceptionally well.

Teachers are expected to design and execute daily lesson plans for multiple hours of the school day, orchestrate student learning activities, administer and grade student assessments, develop and implement efficient and effective classroom procedures, and differentiate their approaches for diverse student needs, all while managing the daily wild cards of student behavior. Additionally, we expect teachers to maintain close contact with parents, provide students with social and emotional support, perhaps offer after-school tutoring, sponsor student clubs, coach sports, organize school and community events, and shoulder many of our schools’ administrative duties. With all of these jobs crammed onto their plates, few teachers have the time, stamina, or cognitive and emotional capacity to do each job well. Under these circumstances, is it any surprise that so few teachers produce the results that we demand of them? Exceptional teachers are often put on pedestals in the media and in public debate, but these awesome individuals produce a level of work that is rarely sustainable and certainly not scalable. The model of monolithic classroom instruction from the late 1800s just wasn’t designed to allow teachers to meet 21st-century expectations.

In fact, traditional classrooms were designed to prepare students for jobs in an industrial economy of the past. To meet this end, the system was set up to process seemingly homogeneous batches of similarly aged students through one-size-fits-all instruction. Undifferentiated instruction was acceptable back then because students only needed to understand math, science, and literature at a C or D level in order to “pass quality control,” receive their diplomas, and enter the workforce. Teaching might have been a reasonably manageable job back when these assumptions held true, but in the knowledge-based economy of today, the assumptions no longer hold and teaching becomes a heroic job.

Despite the incredible challenges we face in providing good teachers at scale, there is a bright light at the end of the tunnel. The educators, innovators, and entrepreneurs that are now experimenting with blended learning are completely redesigning our models of instruction. Rather than merely layering technology on top of traditional classrooms, they are leveraging technology to transform the role of teachers, accelerate student learning, and magnify the impact of educators. Blended learning allows much of the work of basic instruction—like drilling multiplication tables or reviewing vocabulary words—to be offloaded to computers so that teachers can focus on the aspects of teaching that they find most rewarding, such as mentoring students and facilitating exploratory learning projects. Properly implemented blended learning does not eliminate teachers, but instead eliminates some of the job functions that teachers find most onerous.

Technology will not improve our education system if we marginalize or eliminate teachers. Likewise, our education system will not meet modern needs at scale until we innovate beyond the factory-model classroom. Innovation may lead us to classroom setups and teacher roles that look very different from today, but a human element will always be an essential part of the equation. By framing the debate as technology vs. teachers, we create a false dichotomy. Instead, our conversations should focus on finding ways to let technology do what it does best so that we can leverage teachers to do what they do best.

Comments

  • Tom,,,This is a wonderful article,,,and I for one, think that we need BOTH..the teacher, to provide the human aspect,,,and the computer. Speaking from personal experience, I realize that not all kids learn the same way, and can learn and retain information a lot better while seeing and hearing it visually on a screen. We will always need the teacher there to direct, observe and grade, but they should also take great advantage of all the great technology that is at their disposal.

    by Carol Alexander on Aug 26, 2013 11:37 AM PST REPLY
    • > Teachers are important not to ‘grade’, but to provide FEEDBACK, GUIDANCE AND ENCOURAGEMENT.

      by SDE on May 2, 2014 6:39 PM PST REPLY
  • Great article, Tom. I especially liked your observation that today’s teaching model is more of a reflection of the needs of past industrial societies than our current societal circumstances. Do any national education systems outside the US serve as a better model for applying education methods that are more in sync with their societal needs, such as Germany? And do they utilize education technology tools and methods to a greater or lesser extent than the US model?

    by Joe Zuback on Aug 26, 2013 4:40 PM PST REPLY
  • Great post. I like the idea of teachers and technology rather than teachers or technology. I think the important thing is going to be creating technology to assist and magnify teachers as opposed to tech that constrains or complicates their work. I have heard a lot of complaints about tech that makes teachers jobs harder. Given, there is a generational effect at play here as well.

    by Justin on Aug 26, 2013 6:46 PM PST REPLY
    • Justin, thanks for bringing up the concern about technology potentially making teachers’ jobs harder. I think it is a legitimate point and I’ve definitely seen it happen in schools I’ve observed.

      My sense is that technology can make teachers’ jobs easier in some cases and more complicated in others, depending on the overall educational model where the technology is being used. In models where technology is used to augment traditional methods of instruction, it often becomes one more thing that the teacher has to manage on top of the jobs he or she was already doing. On the other hand, in models that were designed from the ground up to leverage the technology (such as the flex model and the enriched virtual model), technology can make teachers’ jobs easier.

      Our recent white paper “Is K-12 Blended Learning Disruptive?” touches on this issue. It distinguishes hybrid innovations from disruptive innovations and notes that hybrids are often less “foolproof.” http://www.christenseninstitute.org/publications/hybrids/

      by Tom Arnett on Aug 27, 2013 9:32 AM PST REPLY
  • “Despite the incredible challenges we face in providing good teachers at scale, there is a bright light at the end of the tunnel. The educators, innovators, and entrepreneurs that are now experimenting with blended learning are completely redesigning our models of instruction. Rather than merely layering technology on top of traditional classrooms, they are leveraging technology to transform the role of teachers, accelerate student learning, and magnify the impact of educators. Blended learning allows much of the work of basic instruction—like drilling multiplication tables or reviewing vocabulary words—to be offloaded to computers so that teachers can focus on the aspects of teaching that they find most rewarding, such as mentoring students and facilitating exploratory learning projects. Properly implemented blended learning does not eliminate teachers, but instead eliminates some of the job functions that teachers find most onerous.” – See more at: http://www.christenseninstitute.org/will-computers-replace-teachers/#sthash.r8Jigxza.dpuf

    I agree with this. There is a vast opportunity to leverage the very best teachers using technology. However, I would add one additional resource: study groups (face to face or online). I have found study groups to be a great resource in the learning process, fitting between the best teachers and computers. Help from a study group can eliminate hours of “beating ones head against the wall” trying to understand a concept. On the other hand, I have heard it said the you don’t really understand a concept until you can teach it to others.

    by charles hart on Aug 27, 2013 7:38 AM PST REPLY
    • Charles, thanks for sharing your insights on study groups. I’ve had similar positive experiences with study groups throughout my education. They are definitely a part of the equation that I’m interested in exploring more in depth.

      by Tom Arnett on Aug 27, 2013 9:13 AM PST REPLY
  • As someone in the workforce trying to change how people think and solve daily problems in their work, I wish we had an educational system that better prepared individuals for what most organizations need today: nimble, systems-thinking, lifelong learners. I can’t imagine how to get there without the combination of teachers and technology you are advocating here!

    by Tania Lyon on Aug 27, 2013 8:43 AM PST REPLY
  • Tom – great article. I think your point that technology can eliminate some of the job functions that teachers find most onerous is spot on.

    I’d actually take your argument a step further and say that technology should replace any task that it can do more effectively and efficiently than teachers. For example, if a computer program is capable of helping students mastery their multiplication tables twice as quickly as the best teachers, why would schools not adopt it? By no means does this imply that a teacher in a classroom that used that program would be eliminated; instead, she could spend more of her time supporting other learning goals (e.g. the application of multiplication) for which technology is less effective.

    By continuously optimizing learning environments based on the relative strengths of technology and teacher-led instruction, I believe we can achieve significantly greater outcomes for students than we could with either technology or teachers alone. That is the true promise of blended learning.

    by Scott Benson on Aug 27, 2013 8:44 AM PST REPLY
  • One of the lessons learned from Communist era Romania’s practice of taking babies from their mothers to be raised by the state was what became known as “failure to thrive syndrome”. This came about because of the lack of adequate physical contact contact between the caregivers and the newborns. Even as adults don’t we often tend to “feel” alone in the absence of all physical touch.

    Indeed, teachers must use great care in our ear when touching their students, but still the actual physical presence of a teacher must count for something in the educational process.

    My point? It is not an all or none issue – we need both technology and human teachers. Even nature fails under extremes.

    by Glenn Irwin on Sep 2, 2013 8:02 AM PST REPLY

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