In Sugata Mitra’s TED talk, Mitra wonders aloud whether we really need teachers and then enthusiastically exclaims that “any teacher who can be replaced by a machine should be.”
Towards the end of last year, one of my colleagues and I had a long talk about whether or not teaching would be a viable profession in the future. My colleague insisted that he would dissuade his own sons from pursuing teaching as a profession because he felt quite sure that down the road we teachers will be replaced by machines and peer-interactions. He began to describe the ultra-sophisticated software that is being created to teach children. Later in the summer, I read a slew of articles on how all of America’s top universities are now putting all their courses online. Additionally, I constantly read articles about the benefits of students teaching each other and themselves: peer-editing, peer-teaching, discovery-based learning.
And perhaps even more specifically, in an increasingly visual digital world, are English teachers necessary? What part of my teaching practice is relevant for these kids and their futures? Do they need to know formal English grammar when all the rules are changing so rapidly? Do they need to know how to structure a linear argument with a thesis supported by well-organized body paragraphs that lead up to a thoughtful conclusion? In today’s world of hyper-linked text, information is not really presented in a linear fashion. We can click our way through information in a variety of ways; we don’t start with a thesis, follow an argument, and then arrive at a conclusion. Do students still need to read books? They are so used to visual images and on-line text; can books possibly compete with screens? Does it make sense to spend so many hours getting kids to read books, write papers, and edit their writing for grammatical errors? When kids blog and text, they use language very differently. Is that the language of the future? What makes sense for these kids’ futures? I really don’t know, and increasingly, I wonder what role I’m supposed to play.
Reason 1: We humans are biologically designed to need human interaction, particularly when we are young
I genuinely care about my students, and I think (hope) that they value my caring. If I see a kid looking upset, I feel genuine concern, and I check in with the kid. No online instructor or machine will ever genuinely care about his/its students. In a world where physical contact is diminished and easily replaced by virtual relationships, I think it is important for kids to have real teachers who care about them. Almost all the teachers I know are compassionate people who care about kids; I think that’s worth something.
Reason 2: Books are beautiful.
Even if books become an anachronism in our modern world, my students will get something beautiful and enriching from the books we read and discuss together. Books have enriched my life tremendously, and I find few pleasures greater than that of reading a good book. If nothing else, my students will be able to experience these moments of beauty and pleasure. Who cares whether or not books prepare them for the future? Reading books will sustain their souls, and that is important.
Writing in Standard English with accurate grammar and spelling may be a dying art in schools, but in the real world, people are still communicating via writing. Yes, we have AV presentations, you-tube videos, photographs, movies and podcasts, but we still communicate a lot via writing. Kids need to learn how to write well, and they need to learn how to organize their thoughts, and they need to learn an appreciation for the written word. Perhaps kids could get this kind of instruction from an online course as easily as they could from a live teacher. I’m not sure. I would like to think that I customize my instruction to my particular students, and that I give kids feedback that is specific and helpful, far more so than any on-line instructor ever could, but in the future, perhaps screen-based instruction will be comparable. Alot of teachers today are fans of peer-editing because they believe that kids can somehow teach each other how to write. In my experience, this does NOT work. Kids need a qualified teacher to explain the rules of grammar and writing to them. Kids can give each other feedback and positive reinforcement, but they can't actually teach each other how to write.
Kids need teachers who help them, encourage them, and support them in the learning process. Can an online-instructor do this? Can Google do this? Can a robot do this? The whole idea behind kids learning independently with the aid of technology is that they will be more motivated to learn. I question this. In my experience, great teachers can motivate a child in ways that technology cannot. Most kids, given the choice, will spend their time on Facebook or video games, instead of learning about anything remotely educational. We teachers can inspire (and demand) that students get off those social-media sites and engage in learning about their world in more productive and useful ways. I can help students stay on-task; no online instructor or website is going to do that. I can model a deep love of learning and passion for ideas, and I can engage the kids in exciting activities. Can an online class or website or teaching software do that? In my opinion, technology can distract as much as it can motivate, perhaps more so.