Teachers and students: Machines and their products?



It startles me each time I hear another person (usually, but not always, a non-educator) adamantly claim that education can successfully follow the same patterns of automation as industry or that it can be structured identically to business. This is nonsense. To be blunt (and has been pointed out for years–to unresponsive ears), it arises from desire to commodify education, to move it into a “free market” paradigm, opening new doors to profit, not from any understanding of the needs of learners. It arises from the belief, raised to new heights by the fall of purported alternatives (actually just authoritarian centrally controlled economies dressed up as “communism” or “socialism”) over the last generation, that an unfettered marketplace makes everything better.

That it doesn’t should be obvious on the face of it–but that’s a story for another time.

The old saw, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” is old and a saw because it contains a great deal of truth. Students have not just water before them today, but a huge smorgasbord of information, of “content.” If the education “reformers” were right, this should already have had an impact, improving the knowledge of an entire generation–for they do believe the old saw wrong. They do think that bringing instruction (and information) to the student, like bringing a bucket of water to the horse, is sufficient.

You can learn something about almost anything from the internet–just as you can from books. But that’s not what education is about. The autodidact has always been able to figure things out using available tools, but the improvement in those tools has not increased the number of learners. There are as few Benjamin Franklin’s out there today as there were two hundred and fifty years ago.

We, in the United States, have had numerous movements based on personal desire for education, including the Lyceum Movement, Chautauqua, and even New Thought. People flocked to these but, for most, they proved insufficient. Only the person who brought real passion to them was able to make effective use of them. Then again, such a person, such a Franklin, wouldn’t need them in the first place but would find ways by himself or herself.

The MOOC is only the latest iteration of this tradition.

A great deal of what today’s education “reformers” believe is based on the idea that every student is a nascent autodidact. The only thing they are missing is opportunity. Most people, including most children, however, don’t see themselves as “starved” for knowledge or learning. They are getting along quite fine with what they have, thank you.

Education, real education, is based on the idea that effective learning is based in motivation–and that motivation can be developed through the teacher/student relationship. On some level or another, culturally, we all know this: Witness the popularity of movies, such as Stand and Deliver, To Sir, With Love, and Dead Poets Society, to name just a few. It’s true that few teachers are able to do this, especially without support from administrations, colleagues, and parents, but it is something that many students, even those who seem passive, often yearn for–and respond to well.

For a number of reasons, many of them having to do with the fact that it is only the rare teacher who is able to really motivate students, the United States has taken on a belligerently anti-teacher attitude these past few years. There are two ways to go with this: First, we can react like Jeff Bliss in the clip above and demand that our teachers do more than ‘hand out packets’ and really teach (that is, motivate). Second, we can react like the “reformers” and try to remove motivation from the equation completely, making education a factory-like script.

The reasoning for this can be found in an opinion piece in The New York Times that appeared last week, about an educational start-up called Bridge International Academy:

Yes, adhering to a script tamps down any spark of teaching genius. But genius is rare. Incompetence, sadly, is not, and Bridge argues that having the script greatly expands the pool of people who can become competent teachers.

No matter how much Bridge tries to dress this up, saying “It’s far from rote learning: The lessons budget time for students to work individually and in groups, for the teacher to walk around and interact with students as they work, for games, praise and for a class cheer,” rote-learning is going to be the result, for both teacher and student, as personalities, are taken from the equation. Anyone can be a teacher, according to Bridge, if they follow the script. By the same token, anyone can learn in exactly the same way.

Experienced teachers can all tell you this is nonsense.

The success of the “reformers” is, unfortunately, that we are, for the most part, no longer willing to listen to experienced teachers or to follow their advice. No more than we are willing to listen to our increasingly frustrated student population, the youth who made the clip of Jeff Bliss a YouTube sensation.