Jack Ma, co-founder of Alibaba, said, “if we do not change the way we teach, thirty years from now we'll be in big trouble.”
(If you are unfamiliar with Alibaba, it’s an online marketplace based in China that rivals Amazon).
Coming from a nation whose inherent belief in upskilling its vast population of blue-collar workers will be integral to the country’s growth - and whose investment in education remains virtually unparalleled - Ma has a point.
We’re supposedly raising the next generation of innovators and inventors, yet the way we teach does not always cultivate those skills. Disruption is occurring at speed and is pervasive, but the educational methods and tools used to equip the problem solvers of tomorrow look backward, not forward.
So how do we modernize the classroom? Machine learning and AI – some sophisticated and some rough around the edges – highlight one thing: our fallibility...our humanity.
A machine is tireless; it can retain and meaningfully interpret vast amounts of data so that insight can be put into action to positive effect. A machine can work longer, faster, and therefore arguably better. It can fly, go stealth, see through objects, predict outcomes with accuracy, and is not prone to the common ‘malfunctions’ of complex human beings, with their emotions, prejudices and idiosyncratic foibles. Its dispassionate, effective and task-driven directive is, in many ways, its strength.
But can a machine replace a teacher?
We can engineer the best tech solutions to address some of the inherent issues facing educators (e.g. workload, engagement, and effective pedagogy), but a machine can never emulate a human. Interactions between teachers and students are still a critical part of a child’s formative development.
Our sentience, passions, and values, shaped by experience and informed by knowledge are our strength. It is often these very same drivers that see people entering the teaching profession in the first place, ditching potentially lucrative careers for a vocation. So many of us invest tens of thousands of dollars into learning to be a good teacher, yet the return on that investment is debt, scrutiny, and taking on second- or third-jobs as Uber drivers, bartenders, and private tutors.
Think about it, every child remembers a good teacher, and surely you remember yours. A good teacher encourages and supports us when doubt holds us back. A good teacher allows us to make mistakes in a safe environment so we can learn and grow. And a good teacher is able to cater to each student’s individual needs.
Will we, many years from now, reminisce with the same tear-filled eyes on how IBM’s 530th iteration of Pepper helped us achieve grades that propelled us from obscurity to Nobel Laureate? “Pepper T18-2000 gave me the strength and determination to carry on when I wanted to give up! Thanks so much!” Unlikely.
We need human teachers to mold individuals we would like to meet in our time of need, and we need technology to work with teachers to give us the freedom to do what we do best...be human.
Teacher-centered practices are falling out of favor in American schools due to their limited ability to encourage students to engage, think critically, collaborate, problem solve, create, and apply. Yet there is still too much focus on testing and too little focus on honing crucial skills needed in preparation for the real world – human skills that cannot be replicated by a machine. My ideal classroom management strategy is to allow students to utilize resources found online to deliver content learning outside of the classroom while having them apply it in creative ways inside the classroom. Digital tools that can transfer much of the bland and tedious work from teacher to machine exist: there are tools that act as a gateway to content (Khan Academy, Discovery Education, and BoClips to name a few) and tools that assist in tracking student progress and differentiating instruction (Zzish and Quizalize).
I am fortunate to have taught in one of the richest countries in the world, that has pioneered some of the best educational technology on the market. But bureaucracy, compounded by complex social disparities, consistently sees only one kind of child reach their true academic and personal potential. I believe that education technology can level this playing field by giving more teachers the ability to personally inspire the most disadvantaged students as well as those that are more privileged.
Will the role of teaching change? I think that’s inevitable given the innovation at hand. We’ve determined that human teachers cannot be replaced, but we also know that machines can complete in nanoseconds tasks that would take us hours. Surely the solution then is one of collaboration and acceptance. Teaching needs to now move with the times to tackle modern problems facing our world and future generations.
One thing is certain: change needs to urgently happen in order to stem some of the fundamental problems beleaguering the profession – problems that are seeing teachers burn-out and quit leaving children to deal with constant teacher turnover. Communities need to invest in schools so they can fund technology initiatives, compensate teachers in a way commensurate with their societal importance, and put tools in the hands of students that help them move forward instead of holding them back. Districts need to do a better job listening to teachers and making them partners in the educational process instead of making decisions in a vacuum and imposing those decisions on the faculty.
Chris Merryman is a former high school science teacher. Currently, he is Schools Engagement Executive at Zzish, a software company specializing in giving real-time analytical insight on student and class performance.
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