I recently came across an article in The Atlantic with a headline that caught my attention. It posed the question “Are Teachers Becoming Obsolete?” I thought of the many years I spent teaching middle school, the devoted colleagues I met along the way, and teachers who sparked a love of learning in me. An online search revealed others giving this worrisome question a lot of thought, too, particularly as education technology takes off, and the push for more personalized learning gains steam.
Technology has an important role to play in America’s public schools, and personalizing instruction to target student needs is a worthwhile goal. However, no device or technology can replace a strong curriculum taught by great teachers. Teaching is complex, and great teaching rests on strong content knowledge, quality classroom engagement, and a deep understanding of child development and the learning process. Technology should support educators, not sideline them, or turn them into IT support.
In math classrooms, technology is useful for assignments such as accurately finding the intersection points of a cubic and quadratic system, which generally produce only estimates when done by hand. The ease of seeing the effect of adding different constants has on the graph of , quickly changing from positive to negative constants, helps students make generalizations about the transformations they have seen. But it also has limitations. Many mathematical tasks allow different starting points.
Where a student chooses to start the task reveals a great deal about their understanding. For example, a student who uses iterations of “guess and check” will likely come to an answer, but a student who can develop an algebraic equation after a few iterations of “guess and check” knows more about the structure in the repeated reasoning. Both students could enter the correct final answer in a computer making their understanding appear equal, but the latter student has deeper conceptual knowledge which the teacher would never realize looking at just the digital results.
Technology has also enabled us to have more targeted and efficient assessments – including those that meet students where they are academically, often referred to as adaptive assessments. It’s also very clear that the ability to post online notes and slide decks for parents, and absent students, allows greater access to the day’s learning. Computer programs also save valuable teacher time by making grading more efficient. In addition, teachers benefit from new technology-based professional learning opportunities such as online video capabilities that allow peers to view each other’s instruction without having to travel or miss instructional time. And it’s wonderful to see the way new technology is helping teachers to differentiate instruction, providing a translation in a student’s native language in real-time, for example.
But, but, but …
So, as educators, we have to embrace technology and the opportunities it presents to us. But let’s remember that a computer can’t read a student’s emotions, and it can’t understand the nuance of his answer or stimulate classroom conversation. I recall teaching my students a song to remember the steps to solve an equation, “Parentheses, like terms, smaller , solve.” A student challenged me one day when offered an equation that involved distribution, “Why can’t I just divide first?” The answer was, he could, it just didn’t fit my song. We had a great discussion that day about the different appropriate ways to solve equations, I never taught the song again, and without that conversation, neither he nor I would have had this learning experience.
Paul Emerich, a Chicago teacher and prolific blogger who previously worked in ed tech in the Silicon Valley, says the kind of personalized learning that is trending has real downsides. As he put it,” Hyper-individualization does precisely what the emerging body of research says it does and more: it isolates children, it breeds competition, it assumes that children can learn entirely on their own, and it dehumanizes the learning environment.”
It’s important to note that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), adopted by most states, emphasize the need to develop better speaking and listening skills in young people. One of the components of the CCSS is called the Standards for Mathematical Practice. The writers of those stated that “real mathematics lies in the habits of mind, the mathematical practices that create [the] results and methods.” These practices ensure students can: make sense of problems and persevere in solving them; reason both abstractly and quantitatively; and construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
Meeting these standards requires face-to-face interaction between students and their teachers. As an educator, I can see students persevering through their frustration. I can help guide them to success by suggesting strategies and offering support. It is sometimes as simple as saying, “You are on the right track, keep going.” The best change I made in my classroom came when I moved from single rows to pairs of desks. This simple change allowed students to converse with their shoulder partner when they needed clarification. Students were taking control of their learning. This positive class culture that allows students to trust one another, collaborate, share their thinking, and critique the work of their peers to foster dialogue and learning is not possible if the only interaction is with a laptop or tablet.
In my current role as a curriculum writer with the nonprofit Eureka Math, I have the great fortune of speaking with educators and administrators using our curriculum. One Washington DC elementary school principal recently said his favorite classes to visit are the school’s math classes. He said, somewhat to his own surprise, “It’s just great to see those kids having so much fun.” The same principal embraces both technology and great teaching. He likes to shape professional development for his teachers around a video series my peers developed that explains the mathematical concepts and instructional strategies necessary to make the curriculum their own. He said it’s helpful for teachers to watch the videos and discuss what they’re seeing. In other words, just like for students, technology has a role to play in developing the professional skills of the adults in our schools. But, collaboration and dialogue about the videos is where the real learning happens.
Educating children is the most rewarding career I could ever imagine. But it’s hard work, and there’s no one quick fix for getting the job done. Teachers are the most valuable tool in a school’s toolbox. Let’s get them the support they need, not look to find their 21st century replacements.