Do We Need Teachers or Are They Becoming Obsolete?

This is not a rhetorical question.  Perhaps for the first time in history serious questions are being raised about the long-term need for flesh and blood classroom teachers.  For many this may seem ridiculous but for those on the frontier of technology it is anything but ridiculous.  Consider the following developments.

Computers Approach Human Capacity to Grade Essays

A recent NPR headline* asked: "Can A Computer Grade Essays As Well As A Human? Maybe Even Better, Study Says" According to the article, the answer is a qualified yes:

Computers have been grading multiple-choice tests in schools for years. To the relief of English teachers everywhere, essays have been tougher to gauge. But look out, teachers: A new study finds that software designed to automatically read and grade essays can do as good a job as humans — maybe even better.

The study, conducted at the University of Akron, ran more than 16,000 essays from both middle school and high school tests through automated systems developed by nine companies. The essays, from six different states, had originally been graded by humans.

In a piece in The New York Times, education columnist Michael Winerip described the outcome: "Computer scoring produced "virtually identical levels of accuracy, with the software in some cases proving to be more reliable."

Artificial Intelligence

imageMachines that can think like and interact with humans beings is the goal of Artificial Intelligence (AI).  While holding a conversation with a C3PO or R2D2 is unlikely in the near future, the possibility of holding an intelligent conversation with a machine is not as preposterous or as far away as one might think.  Consider just how unrealistic, preposterous, and futuristic today's technology would have seemed just twenty or thirty years ago.  Imagine your grandfather's reaction if you told him that you foresaw a world in which:

  • Everyone will be connected by an invisible but all pervasive thing called the Internet.  We will access this Internet through computers (machines that can calculate faster than humans can think, play chess and beat the worlds best Chess Masters, and fly unmanned drones that can kill from miles in the sky), handheld phones called SMART phones (pocket sized computers), and tablet computers that look much like the slates seen on Star Trek with which one can store a digital library larger than the Library of Congress, read magazines and newspapers from around the world (mostly free), listen to music, watch streaming movies, shop online, take colleges courses online, book travel arrangements, access a map of your city or of the world, play games, socialize through something to be called Social Media, look up restaurant reviews, keep up with breaking news through Tweets (140 character ubiquitous updates), and search the Internet for almost anything you need to know.
  • Using computers, SMART phones, or tablets, we will connect to the Internet wirelessly from virtually anywhere.
  • Print books will slowly be replaced by digital books.
  • We will be able to call a digital assistant named Siri and ask her for directions, product suggestions, make an appointment, send an email, send a text message, search the Internet, suggest a restaurant, check the weather, calculate a large equation, or create a reminder for us all by voice and she will often do so with a sense of humor.
  • There will be driverless cars and pilotless planes
  • We will send a pilotless rover to Mars that will scamper about on the surface of the planet sending back photos for several years.
  • We will have voice enabled handheld mobile Global Positioning Systems on phones, tablets, and dedicated GPS devices) that communicate with satellites in space  that will give us turn-by-turn directions to our destination.

What once seemed preposterous, the stuff of science fiction, is now commonplace, illustrating that the uniformed and unimaginative dismiss the capacities and likelihood of AI to their own peril.  Consider this summary of research on the progress and promise of AI:

When will human-level AIs finally arrive? We don’t mean the narrow-AI software that already runs our trading systems, video games, battlebots and fraud detection systems. Those are great as far as they go, but when will we have really intelligent systems like C3PO, R2D2 and even beyond? When will we have Artificial General Intelligences (AGIs) we can talk to? Ones as smart as we are, or smarter?

Well, as Yogi Berra said, “it’s tough to predict, especially about the future.” But what do experts working on human-level AI think? To find out, we surveyed a number of leading specialists at the Artificial General Intelligence conference (AGI-09) in Washington DC in March 2009. These are the experts most involved in working toward the advanced AIs we’re talking about ... The majority of the experts who participated in our study were optimistic about AGI coming fairly quickly, although a few were more pessimistic about the timing. It is worth noting, however, that all the experts in our study, even the most pessimistic ones, gave at least a 10% chance of some AGI milestones being achieved within a few decades ... In broad terms, our results concur with those of the two studies mentioned above. All three studies suggest that significant numbers of interested, informed individuals believe it is likely that AGI at the human level or beyond will occur around the middle of this century, and plausibly even sooner. **

AI and Robot Teachers

Mobile technology and ubiquitous access to the Internet combined with online learning have many suggesting that the days of the traditional classroom teacher are limited.  Although hardly ready to take over the class, meet Saya, the substitute robot teacher.

Japanese School Tests Robot Teacher


Crude yes, but by what standard?  Twenty years ago this would have been amazing.  What will Saya be capable of 20 years from now?  The questions is not what is possible now but what may be possible in the not too distant future?

I am not ready to dismiss AI or robots or some other yet to be imagined technology as capable of teaching if one defines teaching as conveying information, assessing knowledge and measurable skills, and then customizing a new teaching routine to address identified weaknesses.  Such technology is already available in rudimentary form through computer aided instruction (CAI).

Teaching versus Educating

However, the transmission of information and the use of sophisticated algorithms to customize lessons and testing are not the same thing as educating students.  Transmitting knowledge is necessary for a good education but is not sufficient.  Teaching and educating are not necessarily synonymous.  No matter how sophisticated our technology becomes, it is doubtful that it can replace educators.  Here is why; the transfer of information does not:

  • Equal nor impart wisdom
  • Provide a role model
  • Convey passion and a love of a subject
  • Discipline
  • Build relationships nor teach how to navigate difficult relationships
  • Add the emotional element vital to learning
  • Question deeply by engaging in Socratic dialog
  • Mentor students
  • Serve students
  • Pray for students
  • Love students

Technology can only be conceived as a replacement for traditional classroom teachers if we reduce teaching to the transfer of information, drilling skills, and preparation for test taking.  Sadly, too many teachers have been reduced to this mundane level: such teachers ARE replaceable.

Loving, wise, dedicated, servant-hearted, educators who mentor, pray for, and discipline their students will never be replaced.  They have nothing to fear from technology.  For such educators, technology is their servant, not their masters or replacements.