Education policy makers are vocal in their lamentations about the current teacher shortage. Although state school leaders across the country espouse their state has it worse than every other state, the reality is that nationwide, fewer and fewer students are going into teaching. Even Teach for America — which has notoriously staffed classrooms with non-teacher, Ivy League grads who don’t really want to be teachers, either — has shown a decrease in applications. “The erosion is steady. There’s a steady downward line on a graph. And there’s no sign that it’s being turned around,” said Bill McDiarmid, past Dean of the University of North Carolina School of Education, in an NPR interview. But, why?
Speculation is rampant about why this downward trend in teacher prep programs, ranging from low teacher pay, to teacher evaluations tied to student performance on standardized tests, to budget cuts, workload, and administrative headaches. Add to that a fairly accurate perception that the profession suffers from a lack of respect, and it’s no wonder teaching students are turning to greener pastures or that young teachers want out. One other thing that doesn’t seem to have been discussed in any meaningful way is the marginalization of teachers, as more and more often they are being replaced by artificial intelligence.
Historically, the education field has been a hotbed of change, dating back to the implementation of the chalkboard in the late 1800s or pencils in the early 1900s. Overhead projectors, the ballpoint pen, photocopiers, and handheld calculators have all made significant impacts in the classroom. But nothing to this point has turned the classroom, and education as a whole, on its head like the current trend in education reform to replace teachers with tech. Whatever you choose to call it — personalized learning, flipped learning, student-centered learning, or some other variation of screen-based education — teaching as we know it is about to become teaching as we remember it.
To a large extent, software-driven learning tools either minimize the time a teacher needs to spend with a student or, in some cases, eliminate the need for a teacher altogether. While education tech peddlers insist this is a huge leap forward for education, the threat of being minimized or eliminated can’t be having a positive impact on how college students perceive teaching as a vocation — especially when it’s feasible your job may ultimately be replaced by a computer. Computer-led learning, by design, re-brands teachers into facilitators. That’s all fine and good, with one undeniable caveat: facilitating is not teaching, and most teachers don’t sign on to be facilitators.
Students become teachers for a lot of reasons, but surveys routinely show that making a difference in students’ lives, and being able to share content knowledge, consistently appear in the top five answers. The latest push toward a classroom dominated by technology and digital learning effectively eliminates the need for teachers to be content experts. Even in my daughter’s private school, it’s rare to find a teacher who writes his or her own lesson plans. Whatever a teacher needs, on whatever subject they may be teaching (the word “teaching” being used very loosely) is available online. Videos, worksheets, tests, etc., can all be found with the click of a mouse. There no longer seems to be a significant need for content knowledge or specialization in instruction. Just Google it.
Teachers are also becoming little more than curriculum facilitators, reducing the amount of time they actually work alongside young people creating important personal relationships. Those connections are only developed with face-to-face communication. Curriculum facilitation leaves little time to inspire students and more time to make sure the WiFi is connected and students are paying attention. Those two things sound an awful lot like the responsibilities of my high school babysitting jobs: overseeing the selection of movies and making sure no one filled the VCR with peanut butter. You don’t need a college degree to do that for a living. In fact, most people go to college to avoid having to do that for a living.
Yet that’s what education reformers would have happen to teachers. Not only are college students being dissuaded from becoming teachers, and teachers marginalized to the point of being little more than glorified childcare workers, electronically governed classrooms could entirely eliminate the need for teachers within the next two decades, if not sooner.
Sugata Mitra, Professor of Educational Technology at the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University, was given the $1 million TED Prize in 2013, “…in recognition of his work and to help build a School in the Cloud, a creative online space where children from all over the world can gather to answer ‘big questions’, share knowledge and benefit from help and guidance from online educators.” Professor Mitra’s TED Talk was interesting, yet chilling. Mitra pronounced, “Schools as we know them now are obsolete.” The education system is not broken, as he said, “…it’s just that we don’t need it anymore.” He proposed a world where teachers are essentially non-existent, except for the nominal number of facilitators who would “lead” these virtual classrooms. As Mitra stated, “The teacher only raises the question, then stands back and admires the answer….The teacher sets the process in motion, then stands back in awe and watches as learning happens.” Based on Mitra’s prediction, the future of teaching will involve an awful lot of standing back and admiring in amazement without having to teach.
Remember those teachers who became teachers because they were inspired by a teacher? In the brave new world Professor Mitra envisions, you can forget about them. They won’t exist. Because you won’t find a teacher who became a teacher because he or she was inspired by a virtual instruction or the classroom facilitator. It’s just not going to happen. The teacher-student dynamic can never be reproduced with a machine.
Teacher wanna-bes with any forethought will recognize the increasing likelihood of extinction and jump from the sinking ship into private sector jobs. Policy makers with any forethought will stop scratching their heads in befuddlement and send out the lifeboats. Education fads come and go — good teachers should not.