Friday, April 26, 2013

When Will Teachers be Replaced by Machines?

Before reading this post, check out this Ted talk by Ken Jennings, the one-time undisputed king of Jeopardy, as he discusses how it felt to be surpassed by a computer:

Technology. It's a blessing and a curse. It makes our lives easier, mostly by automating routine tasks. It also has the potential to kill our jobs. 

The Ken Jennings talk was fascinating. Ken is a master at Jeopardy, a game that requires not only a huge repository of factual knowledge, but also subtle interpretation skills to understand the nuanced word play of Jeopardy questions. He assumed the technology couldn't be developed to beat him at the game.

Then it was. 

In the talk, he mentioned a graph representing his Jeopardy prowess in relation to the increasingly complex Watson computer that would eventually beat him. The graph really could represent any human task in relation to any sort of developing technology... including teaching. Here's my version:

The downward-sloping blue line represents the measurable output from a human teacher. Why a downward slope? 

No Child Left Behind.

The move toward standardized curriculum and testing has created an easily-measurable output. Disregard the validity of this output... just focus on the fact that teaching outcomes can be easily measured. Teachers aren't getting worse; their output as measured by the tests isn't as robust as it once was. due to the crippling of their autonomy.

Note the red line. This represents a combination of outsourcing and computerization. Think automated online learning. The technology is rapidly developing. At some point (if we're not already there), the red line will surpass the blue line. Just like Ken learned, the machines will be able to do a better job than humans.

It's just a matter of time.

Schools are incredibly expensive. Teachers are incredibly expensive. Computers... not so much. The potential for cost-savings is huge. The move toward standardization is removing the "human" element from teaching. The improving technology is making the computers more "human." School budgets are being squeezed. These trends are speeding the inevitable.

Back when I was teaching high school, a colleague and I would sometimes discuss the future of the profession. This person was very technology-literate and understood what computers were capable of doing. This colleague was also aware of the current state of the school system in the US. We were privy to some of the strategy sessions of our state teacher's union, and their state of denial was staggering. They were working under the assumption that the current erosion of teacher pay, benefits, tenure, and retirement was a temporary trend and would soon reverse if only they could find the right combination of motivating the rank and file or rolling out the right publicity campaign. This colleague saw the impending intersection of the two lines from the graph above... and was preparing for that day.

When we were traveling around the country, I met two programmers at an event. Somehow we got on the topic of teaching and computers. They explained how easy it was to write adaptive programs- a kid would do a task, the program would assess the response the adjust the material. In essence, the program could always maintain a perfect level of difficulty. It would always stay within Vgotsky's "zone of proximal development."

Of course humans can do this, too... if we're paired up individually. The problem is scaling. One teacher can easily teach one kid. Two or three? We can still probably out-perform the computers. Things start to fall apart when we reach about five kids. We're no longer able to accurately assess each and every kid and adjust accordingly. A class of twenty? Or thirty? It's a no-brainer. The computer will always win. 

Is there a solution for current teachers?

Honestly, I don't know. The current system is sinking fast, but most teachers are frantically clinging to the Faustian bargain of the teaching "career." I'm not really the kind of person that likes to drown, which is the reason I bailed a few years ago. If I go back into teaching, I'm doing it with the understanding that it's going to be a decidedly temporary position with no promises of long-term security.

In the interim, I'm doing to do my best to plot my own course. I have an idea of where education is going. I know that intersection of the two lines is a lot closer than most teachers would like to believe. I know which direction I'd like to see the profession take. I'm not going to wait around by following an obsolete map. I'm going to make my own map.


Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Logic Behind Volunteer Teachers

Over the last few weeks, I've been discussing my hypothetical school I'm considering opening. I'm still in the very early planning stages and have been soliciting feedback from as many respected sources as possible. 

Some ideas have been very well-received. Others have been met with a degree of skepticism. One such idea is the exclusive use of volunteers. The logic behind the idea gets muddled in my school because I also erase the distinction between students and teachers. This makes the issue somewhat difficult to discuss... so I'll lay out the logic by assuming there ARE designated teachers in my school.

Where the Idea Originated

The seed for this idea was planted by John Gotto. He used the descriptions of the Sophists, which were paid educators in ancient Greece, as written by Socrates and Aristotle. I took his basic ideas and applied various psychological concepts to arrive at the volunteer teacher idea for the school as it stands today.

The Logic

The use of volunteer teachers solves a surprising number of problems related to the education field in general and the teaching profession in particular, including:

  • It requires intrinsic motivation as the fuel for teaching. I cannot place enough emphasis on this point- getting paid to do anything eventually decreases our motivation if the pay becomes a focus. This effect is amplified when pay is increased. Alfie Kohn discusses this idea at length in "Punished by Rewards", and Daniel Pink adds even more fuel to the fire with "Drive." The lesson is simple- there's a high cost associated with extrinsic motivators. Seeing a once-passionate teacher succumb to burnout is one of the great tragedies of modern education. Furthermore, our collective society simply does not understand the pitfalls of using extrinsic motivators. 
  • It keeps teachers from becoming "trapped." Once a teacher has been teaching for a few years and income increases, they do what every other middle class white collar worker does- they buy crap. The buy a house, a car or two, and a crap-ton of IKEA furniture. They rack up debt. The become addicted to the daily Starbucks mocha latte. And they use their teaching paycheck to maintain this lifestyle. It's fine... as long as they're happy in their current situation. If things at the school start to go south, they're trapped. They usually can't move to a new school without taking a significant pay cut, which they can no longer afford to do. They can't leave the profession because it would usually involve  starting an entry-level job elsewhere. Again, they can't afford it. To make matters worse, few teachers develop alternate income streams while teaching because the early years are spent in survival mode. Also, continuing education requirements take significant time. The net result is an inability to leave a bad situation. Volunteering eliminates that problem.
  • Volunteers keep the school budget at a minimum. This sort of goes without saying, but it's FAR easier to fund a school that's organized around volunteers. Personnel usually takes 70-90% any organization's budget. If that expense is eliminated, the organization becomes a lot more flexible... which is exactly what schools need- the ability to adapt to a rapidly-changing society.
  • There is no intra-school friction caused by conflicting groups. School boards, superintendents, administrators, teachers, and teacher unions, by design, are based on an adversarial model. All are fighting for their share of scare resources (usually money.) This conflict has absolutely nothing to do with the goal of education and everything to do with maintaining or increasing power, status, income, or benefits. This forces all parties to focus on the extrinsic elements of the education system (see #1.)
  • The volunteer requirement self-selects the types of personalities I want to attract. Most people respond to the idea of volunteering with statements along the lines of "There's no way I could do that!" A few people have an entirely different answer. They respond with "Hmmm... that would present an interesting situation." Those are the dreamers- the people that can see a problem, assess the variables, then go about overcoming the problem. They don't see the idea as a problem that would threaten their lifestyle; they see it as an opportunity to develop and build something cool. It's okay if people fall in the former group. This idea isn't designed to appeal to everyone.

In a society where we expect to be compensated for anything and everything (including many supposed "volunteer" activities), the idea of an entire organization built on intrinsic motivation seems completely foreign. It's a dramatic departure from the behaviorist-based society we've built. We can solve many problems that plague the teaching profession if only we're willing to sacrifice the associated income. 


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Mastery: Schools, Please Stop Using This Word.


In the school setting, it usually refers to reaching a particular goal like a fourth grade reading level or a 90% or better on the state-mandated standardized test. It's a word educators adopted to use to describe benchmarks their students must strive to reach. Unfortunately, it's a lot like using the word peace-keepers to describe armies... sounds good, makes you feel good, but is completely off base.

"Mastery" refers to the act of perfecting a particular skill, subject, or other such ability. No matter how good we are, we'll never reach perfection on a regular basis. The pursuit of mastery is a journey, not a destination. This is the principle reason use of the term in our schools is off base. As much as our schools like to claim to help students along this journey to mastery, every single action suggests otherwise.

The journey toward mastery is just that- a journey. It is fueled by the intrinsic motivation to continue toward mastery with the realization that the final goal can never be reached. The journey itself is the reason we work.

In schools, we replace that intrinsic motivation with rewards. Worse, we also use punishments. We set externally-derive goals (think adequate yearly progress.) We systematically kill intrinsic motivation to embark on the journey. We're no longer working toward mastery... we're working toward a series of short-term goals that must be met or else. 

Sadly, most elements of the education system, from the policy-makers to the members of the PTO, are complicit in this system. They're not intending to do harm... they just don't really understand human nature. We have a wealth of motivation research that's pretty clear: the methods we use in schools (or the very design of our schools) is the exact opposite of an ideal learning environment. The misuse of the word "mastery" is an unfortunate side effect of this fundamental problem.

The solution?

Redesign schools from the ground up. Question every assumption we have. Have the courage to make radical changes.

We have the answers. We know what would work. We just need the courage to take the plunge.


Sunday, April 14, 2013

Are We Teaching a Slew of John Henrys?

The story of John Henry is a cautionary tale about the effects of modernization. The gist of the story- John Henry was a former slave working as a steel driver (hammered holes in rocks for the placement of explosives) during the railroad boom of the 1800's. A man of exceptional physical prowess, Henry was known far and wide as the greatest steel hammerer of all time. The railroad owner purchased a steam-powered hammer that could out-hammer an entire crew. Responding to the threat to himself and his crew, Henry challenged the owner to a contest to prove he could beat the machine. After a close back-and-forth contest, Henry narrowly wins in the end. He then dropped dead from exhaustion.

The moral of the story- humans can't compete with machines. This is a lesson we've confronted again and again. Here are some examples:

  • Cars replaced horse and buggies.
  • Robots replaced humans on assembly lines.
  • Self-checkout lanes replaced cashiers.
  • The shake machine at McDonald's replaced the milkshake maker.
  • TurboTax replaced CPAs.
You get the idea. 

So what does this have to do with teaching? 

We spend most of our time and money training John Henrys. We have a tendency to ignore the effects of technological development when we consider what and how we should teach, and this is a monumental mistake. For example, we still have teachers that insist on making students memorize the capitals of the 50 states even though this information is easily researched with devices most of us carry in our pockets. There's absolutely no justification for this. That particular nugget of information does not help the student in any discernible way. We do other stuff, too, such as:
  • Teaching kids to defer to authority.
  • Teaching kids to follow directions.
  • Teaching kids to do the same tasks again and again.
  • Teaching kids linear thinking will reap rewards.
  • Teaching kids to suppress creativity in favor of standardization.
All of these skills we relevant in the past... but no longer. Our world has changed dramatically. Some teachers are hip to it; most are not. Many like to give the idea lip service by confidently stating they're preparing kids for the 21st century workforce, but they're not. Most are still stuck in the past because they cannot see the world for what it is. They have no idea what the 21st century workforce really requires. They're preparing an army of John Henrys even after it's clear John Henry cannot compete with the steam hammer.


Saturday, April 13, 2013

How Can Teachers Survive No Child Left Behind?

Let's face it- No Child Left Behind sucks. It strips teachers of their most valuable asset- sovereignty. Teachers can no longer rely on their experiences and instincts to make sure each and every child has an amazing educational experience. We have strict standards. Standardized tests. Accountability.

Schools were already ill-prepared to handle the rapid change represented by the Internet age. Schools were designed to churn out factory workers then later white collar workers. Automation and outsourcing have effectively killed most careers our schools were designed to train. NCLB makes the problem infinitely worse. Teachers and administrators may have been able to navigate the rapid changes of the Internet age, but not under the oppressive weight of NCLB.

The task is Herculean- prepare kids from a diverse background to take tests that are marginally valid with ever-growing "adequate yearly progress" to avoid stiff funding penalties. It forces schools to teach to the test. Gone are creativity, autonomy, and even dignity. Kids are reduced to numbers. If most kids were unmotivated by school in the past, they're REALLY unmotivated now.

The worst part- kids aren't stupid. They realize their schools are doing a poor job of preparing them for the world they'll soon enter. The age-old question 'Why do I have to learn this?" has never been more relevant. 

So what are we to do? 

Teachers and administrators need to take three steps:

1. Eek out as much freedom as possible, then use that freedom to let kids explore using organic learning. We get so involved in trying to solve the riddle of teaching kids in schools, we sometimes forget every human can learn perfectly well on their own outside school. It's all about intrinsic motivation.

2. Become marketers. There ARE good things being taught in schools. Unfortunately, those good things are being obscured by a lot of unnecessary crap. We need to do a better job of selling ourselves, our schools, and the genuinely good things we have to offer.

3. Put ourselves in a position to hit "eject." Far too many teachers and administrators build a lifestyle that makes it impossible to leave. If we're part of a district that's not aggressively seeking authentic change, we need to get out.

What do you think? Do you have any other useful tips? Share them in the comments section!