Socrates & C-3PO

If you’ve opened a newspaper lately, you may be under the impression that teachers are a dying breed. A New York Times article highlights how school districts across the county are increasingly turning to virtual education, while The Nation is even more blunt: How online learning companies bought America’s schools. Indeed, it seems like it’s only a matter of time before the obituary reads, “Socrates replaced by C-3PO.”

Fortunately, the death knell is overstated. Instead of replacing teachers, technology has the potential to transform what it means to teach: to free us from the shackles of basic skills and standardized testing, and inspire a renaissance of teaching.

To be sure, there is a land grab underway in public education. For-profit companies like K12 Inc. and their lobbyists have convinced policymakers that online learning is a legitimate alternative to traditional schooling. A few years ago the Florida legislature considered cutting state aid to virtual school programs; today, high school students there have to take at least one online class to graduate, and it’s now possible for a child to go from kindergarten to high school without ever stepping foot inside a classroom.

As dystopian as this may sound to us “traditionalists” --- to those of us who believe that school is by definition plural (just ask the fish!) --- the prospect of all online, all the time is a bit of a red herring. Our national obsession with technology notwithstanding, it’s unlikely that a critical mass of parents will be content to outsource their children’s education to a million lines of JavaScript anytime soon.

Still, we would be foolish to assume that technology is just a fad, and that we’ll eventually return to the “good old days” where teachers didn’t have to compete with anyone…or anything.

To do so would be to ignore the economic realities of public education. The collapse of housing prices means that school districts across the country --- which get most of their funding from local property taxes --- are slashing budgets. Under No Child Left Behind, half of the nation’s public schools are classified as failing, with sanctions ranging from staff reorganization to closure.

Together, these financial and testing pressures are forcing administrators to do more with less, and it’s understandable when a superintendent looks at her balance sheet and wonders, “My test scores are low. Teacher salaries represent the bulk of my budget. Is there a cheaper alternative?”

There is. Inexpensive iPad apps like Motion Math have been shown to improve students’ understanding of fractions, while Virtual Nerd and Khan Academy offer thousands of videos and assessment modules on everything from basic addition to calculus, and for free.

Of course, educational technology is still in its infancy, and even the most popular resources leave a lot to be desired in terms of their pedagogy. (For instance, “rise over run” is an ineffective way to teach slope, and turning it into an app won’t change that any more than publishing Dick and Jane as an e-book will make it literature.) On the flip side, great teaching has heretofore been difficult to “scale” beyond the classroom. This suggests a unique opportunity for technologists and teachers to work together to build tools that harness the power of technology with the expertise teachers have developed over their careers.

Which is to say, educational technology is not a fad, and it won’t go away. We’d be foolish to think it will...and we’d be even more foolish to want it to.

With an emphasis on high-stakes testing, teachers have been forced to spend more and more of their time teaching (and re-teaching) basic skills like converting fractions to decimals, solving proportions and calculating the slope between two points. This is necessary, but it’s also mind-numbingly boring.

But as computer algorithms get better at teaching and assessing these skills, this will free teachers to spend more time on topics that don’t make them want to tear out their eyeballs. They can teach the types of lessons that got them into teaching in the first place.

In one of the more popular Mathalicious lessons, students watch an episode of Wheel of Fortune and determine whether “bankrupt” comes up more often than it should. As a teacher, which would you rather do: spend an entire period converting fractions to percents; or use that skill to lead a discussion about whether game shows are rigged?

Nobody goes into education to teach a kid to multiply fractions. Let the computer do that we can use them to estimate the odds of finding life on other planets!

From Mathalicious to dy/dan to Frank Noschese to Buck Institute for Education, there are plenty of great resources out there to help teachers extend and apply learning with their students. And thanks in part to technology, now they'll have time to.

The Los Altos School District in California recently launched a pilot program with Khan Academy. A participating teacher blogs:

"KA has really freed me up to introduce more [project-based learning] opportunities to my low level students…Khan Academy is great for practicing the skills, but the concepts really begin to stick when they are able to see the math in context and understand how it applies to the real world."

Technology can’t replace teachers, but it can replace the part of teaching that we weren’t that excited about in the first place. We can finally stop acting like C-3PO, and go back to being Socrates.

2 thoughts on “Socrates & C-3PO”

  1. "Nobody goes into education to teach a kid to multiply fractions. Let the computer do that…so that we can use them to estimate the odds of finding life on other planets!" Well said! Technology should free up teacher's (and student's) creativity.

    Thanks Karim for the shout out.

  2. Well said, Karim. Education should be about liberating our minds and spirits, not just scoring them. It will only happen through collaboration between developers & educators.

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