As I See It: Yet Another Modest Proposal
April 22, 2013 Victor Rozek
No more pencils. No more books. No more teachers’ dirty looks. Why so modest? Why not just get rid of teachers altogether? It is seldom presented so bluntly, but that’s the general thinking of a fledgling movement called Minimally Invasive Education, which prefers technology to teachers. As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. Given what educators are grappling with these days, the prospect of escaping the classroom may seem like a blessing.
We have been tossing educators into the fray for several thousand years with tolerable results. But the world is changing faster than the president’s commitment to Social Security and the old model is no longer working–for anybody.
Why silicon-based rather than carbon-based education?
In retrospect, the die was probably cast when Socrates was executed for corrupting the minds of Athenian youth. He was undoubtedly not the first to be punished for questioning orthodoxy, but at least his students weren’t chucking spears at him. These days, everywhere we look, teachers are under attack–by their students as well as their employers. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 127,120 teachers in the K-12 arena were physically attacked at school during the 2007-2008 school year. Another 222,460 were threatened.
When they are not actually getting assaulted in some way by psychotic teenagers, their pay is being linked to mandatory testing, their unions are being assailed, and they are savaged by politicians, accused of budget-busting greed for the great unpardonable sin of having a pension.
Beyond the threat of violence, the push for austerity, coupled with a punishing economy, combined to erode educational effectiveness. On the one hand, teachers are mandated to do more with less. On the other, the stress of parents pushed into crisis by joblessness and an economy sucked dry by deregulation, filters down to their children. A mind under constant stress relies on the reptilian brain for fight, flight, or freeze responses. When a threat is perceived, the reasoning parts of the brain are essentially shut down in order to respond to the immediate danger. It’s probable that children under the pressures of poverty or violence or family disintegration respond to testing as just another threat. And poor performance ratchets up the pressure, which only amps up the threat and manifests in a further lack of resourcefulness. The traditional teaching model is producing a lot of students who just want to escape.
Small wonder that in the past decade, diagnoses of ADHD increased by 41 percent. Are children less focused, are teachers more boring? Who knows? But when you have to drug kids just so they’ll listen, something has gone terribly wrong.
Software teaches year-round and is cheaper and easier to replicate than competent teachers.
Hard as teachers may try, whatever they are doing is not working very well. Compared to children in the rest of the developed world (particularly in Asia), our kids are lagging further and further behind. Corporations are becoming increasingly desperate for math and science competence, and are airing commercials urging America to solve the problem by investing in teachers.
But in these times of shrinking budgets, that’s problematic. Austerity advocates howl at paying decent salaries to people who get the summer off, not to mention two weeks at Christmas, a week in the spring, and all those oxymoronic in-service days when no actual teaching goes on. Add to that the cost of the huge educational bureaucracy in Washington, plus state administrators, school buildings, busses, cafeterias, and mountains of support staff, none of which actually educate anyone, and critics wonder why we need to keep doing the same thing if we’re not getting different results.
There is an alternative, say the technologists, and it resides in the cloud and in the children.
Education is still largely based on memorization and recall, all made less necessary by computers. Having knowledge is not as important as knowing how to find it when you need it. Open learning proponents imagine a shift to self-guided cloud-based education, with students supported by mentors instead of teachers. It is not so much that our educational system is broken, argues Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology at Newcastle University in England, it is that it has become obsolete.
Our current system dates back some 300 years to the heady days of the British Empire. It was Britain’s answer to the problem of running a global enterprise prior to the invention of phones or computers. Computing functions, says Mitra, were provided by hordes of people, educated to be obedient bureaucrats, each identically trained, each able to be posted anywhere in the world. This one-size-fits-all model, still popular with the standardized testing crowd, has little relevance in a world brimming with choice and amplified by technology.
Mitra conducted a series of telling experiments that became known as Hole in the Wall. He installed computers in kiosks imbedded in stone walls, in some of the poorest slums in India for children to use as they wished. And then he left them alone. This is what Mitra calls “minimally invasive education.”
These kids had no English skills, and no computer skills, but in short order they became computer literate; every bit as capable, says Mitra, as a secretary in the West. They taught themselves enough English to use email, chat, and navigate search engines. In several months, they could search the Internet for answers to questions. Their math and science scores improved, and they were able to answer test questions that would normally be asked of older students. And perhaps most valuable, they were able “to form independent opinions and detect indoctrination.” Corporations won’t like that.
Mitra found, however, that minimal human guidance was helpful. So he enlisted mentors. They didn’t need to be knowledgeable, just friendly and caring. Whom better than grandmothers? He put an ad in a British paper asking grandmothers to donate a few hours a week mentoring kids. They were to listen, offer encouragement, and perhaps ask a pointed question or two, but the essential learning process remained self-organized and self-directed.
The model proved so successful that, to date, eight other nations have–to varying degrees–adopted the Minimally Invasive Education model, including Switzerland. And while it would be difficult to impose this model on kids who are accustomed to abandoning any thought of learning once the bell rings, a new generation is being groomed to take full advantage of self-directed learning.
Software developers are producing thousands of educational (and entertaining) applications for toddlers. Hanna Rosin, writing in The Atlantic, says that touch-screen technology was the “game changer.” To a child in diapers, the causal relationship between operating a mouse and getting a desired result was a bridge too far. But any kid can swipe a finger. Rosin quotes technology writer Marc Prensky, who calls these kids “digital natives,” children who grow up comfortable and fluent with technology. Later in life, when they find something they’re interested in or passionate about, they will already have developed all the skills and habits to be self-directed.
Combine this minimally invasive approach to learning with an internship program for real life experience (in case you’re wondering, eBay, Facebook, and Google on average pay more than $6,000 per month for interns), and you have a low cost, high yield education system that gives students the freedom to pursue subjects that actually inspire them. And a system that also transforms teaching.
Most adults are certainly appreciative of the teachers who have touched their lives. But, truth be told, very few were truly memorable. A child could probably find more inspiration from several hours of TED Talks than from a month of classroom talks. Maybe we love the concept of teachers more than the actual teachers we’ve had. What many of us longed for, but couldn’t articulate, was mentorship, which we often didn’t find until we entered the workforce.
Perhaps the grand possibility embedded in the minimally invasive/mentorship model is that educators could transcend teaching and, in Robert Frost’s words, become awakeners.