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Teachers or Technology: A False Forced Choice

In an age where robots are slowly but certainly taking over rules-based tasks, and where schools are relying more and more on standardized tests as the basis for measuring “success”, and where politicians and taxpayers want to pay less for public education, it is enticing to believe that technology can be used to replace teachers. After all, computers never ask for sick days, never join unions, and once they are paid for and programmed require no attention from administrators. But, as Thomas Arnett explains in his recent essay, the choice between teachers and technology is a false one. The real choice is between the status quo, where teachers spend time performing many rules-based tasks to the detriment of student contact, to a more technology based environment where teachers intercede when students run into obstacles completing a task or mastering a concept.

After describing how technology has changed the kind of work professionals do in other fields, Arnett offers this set of ideas for how technology might help education:

When it comes to education, computers’ speed and computational accuracy give them a comparative advantage for tasks such as assessing students’ knowledge of basic facts and skills, tracking students’ learning progress, presenting academic content, and adapting instruction to students’ individual learning needs. Meanwhile, good teachers are irreplaceable assets for coaching and mentoring students, addressing the social and emotional factors affecting students’ learning, and providing students with expert feedback on complicated human skills such as critical thinking, creative problem solving, communication, and project management.

Mr. Arnett is cognizant of the fact that teachers are concerned about the notion that they might be replaced by computers, especially when they read about what is happening in other occupations and when they hear politicians overpromise on the potential of technology to save money. Mr. Arnett is far more sanguine about the future of teaching because he understands the limitations of technology:

Yet, job displacement fears are unlikely to pan out in the teaching profession, given the very different skills needed to be a teacher. Innovations that automate and commoditize professional expertise only threaten the job security of professionals when their jobs consist entirely of complex yet rules-based tasks, such as preparing common tax returns or legal documents. For professionals whose jobs are full of higher-order tasks that cannot be reduced to rules-based instructions, innovations that simplify and automate professional expertise serve to enhance—rather than substitute for—experts’ abilities.

Mr. Arnett notes that his forecasts are predicated on one key factor: what we— the public— expect from our schools… and he insinuates that if we continue to expect only high test scores we will short change students and short change the potential of technology:

Given the many ways in which technology can enhance and amplify great teaching, I think the future of the profession looks incredibly bright. But that future depends on what we expect of our education system. If we task schools merely with helping students memorize basic facts and skills to pass bubble tests, then teaching will likely become entirely automated.

But if our goal is to help students develop deeper learning and 21st-century skills that they will need to thrive in modern society, then technology cannot eliminate the need for teachers. In fact, technology will be critical for enabling teachers to rise to the enormous responsibilities we place on their shoulders. As the paper points out, combining teachers and technology affords education leaders new options for addressing teacher shortages, providing students with differentiated instruction, and giving teachers capacity to focus on deeper learning and noncognitive skills.

Until a few months ago our education policy was dictated by the standardized test regimen put in place by NCLB and reinforced and exacerbated by RTTT. We have an opportunity now to change the thrust of education, to expect students to develop deeper learning and 21st-century skills that they will need to thrive in modern society. With that goal in mind, we need BOTH technology AND teachers… and we need a system that allows children to advance at their own pace pursuing items of particular interest to them once they have mastered the basic reading and computational skills that are foundational. As Mr. Arnett notes at the conclusion of his essay:

Investing in teachers and technology should not be seen as “either/or” propositions. With recent advances in the science of teaching and in artificial intelligence, educators have unprecedented opportunities to redesign traditional instructional models and rethink traditional teaching roles in ways that amplify the impact of teachers. In short, let technology do what it does best so that teachers can focus on the teaching activities for which their human expertise is most needed.

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