We are not algorithms!

Last time I checked, I teach in a decidedly human way. And my students are spectacularly human in their reactions to my teaching. Their learning is uniquely their own in a very human process. Together, this combination of student+teacher is an unstoppable equation. But any way you add it up, we are NOT algorithms!

Deep Learning equation

Deep Learning equation

In responding to some controversial concepts in an article by Michael Godsey written in The Atlantic, I can confirm that there are many roles teachers are asked to take on – sage, guide, facilitator, model, coach, designer, developer, promoter, supporter and activator to name a few. It is with certainty that I can also agree that technology is changing the way teachers and students interact and do the work of teaching and learning. There is no doubt that these changes are evolving in dramatic ways and that things will never be the same. That is not necessarily a bad thing. But removing the human relationship and conversation from the process of teaching and learning, through the algorithmic equations of computers and data management, is certainly not the vision for education that any parent would wish for their child. While computers can be programmed to calculate equations, compute incorrect responses, present information and collect content, there is no human originality or creativity involved. There is no spark that creates an ‘aha’ moment, shared by teacher and student, when ideas finally click.

Godsey’s vision of a teachers’ role being the ‘dictator of subject content’ is not one that rings true for me. Teachers in K-12 classrooms are teachers first with subject content taking a secondary role – “I teach science” or “I teach English literature”. The idea that one teacher imagined they held sole rights to all information within a subject domain is absurd. Teachers in K-12 settings have looked to others to share ideas and information. Lesson plans written and shared are always adapted and modified to suit the learners in the classroom. Human teachers focusing on the needs of their human learners.

Since the time of Plato, teachers have always relied on a collection of content and subject matter resources to engage students in a number of ways, based on interests, needs, readiness or aptitude. This hasn’t changed in these digital days. Flipping, blending and engaging online still requires the discerning mind of a teacher to ensure the learning opportunity fits the learner. It’s now easier to find or create large repositories of information and apply great resources to excite and entice learners to engage with content. Godsey uses the example of a golf coach using video created by a golf pro to teach mechanics of a swing. That isn’t changing the essential teaching equation. It’s still a very human endeavour to match the materials to the student and shape the learning with great questions and close relationship.  Algorithms, no matter how fast the computational speed of the computer or engaging the game, cannot fully engage the mind of a young learner in the right way, at the right time, or detect the newly discovered learning opportunity.

Godsey encourages educators to draw a line between being the local expert teacher and the teacher facilitating packaged education created by big business. This is an important distinction to make. However, this is not a new line that needs to be drawn in the educational landscape. Educational vendors and publishing companies have been interjecting and dictating educational directions since textbooks were first published and blackboards were mass produced. Digital directions for education will continue to create opportunities for education venture capitalists. Human decisions will continue to determine where, when, why and how these materials and resources are applied to engage learner with learning.

Godsey comments about advice for new teachers considering a move into the world of education. Making a decision about teaching is never an easy one, particularly in today’s educational climate. It takes a very strong and confident individual to tough it through the many tasks, roles and responsibilities found in today’s classrooms. Technology is only one of the many challenges teachers face. But it’s not false hope to tell students that it is the most exciting time to be a teacher.  Connecting and conversing with students about subjects and content has never been more deeply rewarding and life fulfilling. It’s about making a difference for individual children in significant, life inspiring ways.

One thing Godsey does have right though – expert teachers, and all teachers around the globe, need to talking about a ‘line in the sand’. It’s a matter of importance that teachers continue to talk to policy makers, publishers and parents and emphasize that every teacher is and will continue to be the resident expert in knowing why, when, how and where to engage and excite each individual child to learn about subjects, ideas and dilemmas. But it’s not an either/or decision – expert or facilitator – it’s BOTH. Expert teachers will continue to apply every role to ensure that children learn. It’s about teaching first, and that requires a very human element.

It’s the addition of a human student with a human teacher, factoring in human unknowns and creating uniquely human events where deep and lasting learning results. There’s the equation that adds up – done without an algorithm in sight.

References and Resources

Godsley, M. (2015, Mar 25). The deconstruction of the K-12 teacher. The Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/03/the-deconstruction-of-the-k-12-teacher/388631/

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2 Responses to We are not algorithms!

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