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Will Teachers Become Obsolete?

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In the early 1980s, I was having breakfast with some of my new in-laws. One of them, Uncle Joe DaSilva, was a watch-maker. He had a little shop in a strip mall in Hempstead and he was contemplating his future. At one point he held up a $5 Casio watch and said, "Why would anyone bother to get a watch fixed?" He estimated there were maybe a few hundred such people left on Long Island -- those with an appreciation for finely crafted time pieces -- maybe a few thousand. A few weeks later he started stocking his little shop with inexpensive watches for sale so that he could stay in business.

At around the same time, my father was at the height of his career as a motion picture music editor and supervisor, recording and dubbing and cutting the music for large-scale musical films such as Hair, The Blues Brothers, and Amadeus. He was a master of the moviola, precise with his splice, but by the early 1990s those skills became, suddenly, useless as film went digital and he was suddenly having to learn anew how to do his job from people half his age. Soon he was relegated to laying temp tracks for TV movies.

I remember thinking I was immune from that kind of obsolescence because I'm a teacher and children will always need teaching and a machine cannot do most of what we do. I still believe that, though I wonder now if I'm not living in a false sense of security. I wonder if there aren't more ways than I am calculating in which we might all be made obsolete.

When I walk past a classroom full of bored students, and see some of those students seeking an escape on personal electronics, I wonder if at least some of these children would be learning more in front of a properly programmed machine.

When I see teachers not making an effort to understand very much about their students, especially the reluctant learners, I cannot help thinking that they are squandering the very thing that might, for good reason, make a living human teacher irreplaceable.

When I see teachers resisting change, refusing to recognize the changes around us, including our students, when I see teachers refusing to believe there is a place for technology in education and refusing to figure out how better to integrate it, then I fear we are asking to become obsolete.

When I was a community college student in the mid-1980s I had an English teacher who marked one of my papers down because I put only one typed space after each period. He insisted that two spaces were required. Aside from his pettiness, he was wrong. I was, by then, a published writer and informed him that editors and publishers no longer followed that rule, that one space was now the accepted practice. The teacher would not concede and seemed, after that, to vindictively and arbitrarily find fault with everything I turned in. I have never forgotten this man. He taught me more about teaching than almost anyone else.

It is my responsibility to stay current in my subject area and to always find new ways of mixing the rhetoric and literature of the moment with the vast expanse of the past. It is my responsibility to understand the newest technology and how it might be applied to teaching children.

Some children, at various times in their lives, may actually learn better from a well-programmed computer than from a person. We ought to recognize that and use whatever resources are available to help every child we can. On the other hand, we all -- teachers and anyone else who cares about children -- vehemently oppose the false idea that all children can learn better from computers and other technology. Those devices are tools for educators; they do not replace human teachers and I sure as hell hope they never do.

Even if the virtual classroom (which, at the moment, is still a pretty false idea) were to become the virtual reality classroom -- in which students, all wired up in their living rooms, meet in some manufactured reality on a computer server somewhere and each student has an ideal educational experience tailored specifically to his or her needs and completely interactive and with a dynamic and caring and attentive virtual teacher... what a horrifying possibility. Students might learn more content and skills, they might avoid the boredom and bullying and peer pressures of school, but would it be worth the alienation, the lack of true human experience?

Perhaps we are heading in that direction -- and if we are then it might be up to teacher, hamstrung as we are by shameful working conditions, to hold these Orwellian alternatives at bay by showing that we can do what machines can never do: care about children, empathize with them, and always find new ways (ways that those virtual reality programmers would never conceive of) to reach them and inspire them.

Maybe it's up to us to face the digital age and make sure humanity itself doesn't become obsolete.