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Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Teachers: Do we need them?

If kids have google, online courses, social media, and peer-learning communities, do they need teachers? Is teaching going to become an outdated profession in the 21st century?

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.

In this world of abundant information, are we teachers necessary?

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.

To reassure myself, I’ve come up with a list of reasons why I am, in fact, far superior to a machine. These are reasons why my students benefit from sitting in my class as opposed to sitting somewhere else in front of a screen.

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.
      Additionally, we teachers teach students how to be good people and live good lives. Interwoven in all our discussions and classroom interactions are teachings about character. If the twenty-first century involves students learning entirely from each other (peer editing, peer interaction, peer teaching etc.) and from machines (online courses, teaching software, you-tube videos etc.), what will happen to character education? Who will teach children how to behave? How to be kind? How to empathize with others? Kids have always learnt this from the adults in their lives: parents first, then teachers next.

   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.

     Reason 3: Yes, we could just chat in online chat rooms or through our blogs, but I personally love the heat and emotion of a live discussion. No one can hide behind a screen, and no one can edit and perfect what he/she is going to say. In a real-live discussion, we are forced to contend with our own humanity and that of others. I honestly believe that there should be no substitute for this. (I can already see all my tech-savvy friends disagreeing – what about video conference calls and skype? Not the real thing, Not the same thing. Really it isn’t.)

     Reason 4: Trade skills - how we write still matters.
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.

     Reason 5: Encouragement and motivation
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.

   Critical thinking? Working through the messy process of understanding? Risk-taking and experimenting with ideas? Building self-esteem and confidence? I can help kids with all of these areas.  Can an online instructor? Can a website or video? Can kids do this for each other? I don’t think so.

So, yes, in conclusion, I feel quite certain that teachers, real-live teachers, should not be compared to machines, on-line classes, and peer-run classes/discussions. We offer something valuable; and perhaps, in a world that is so wired and technological, having real-live teachers is even more important than it used to be. But still, if my own kids decide on teaching as a profession, I think I’m with my colleague. I will dissuade them.

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