The Academe Blog

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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 DeliverTo 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.

About Aaron Barlow

English faculty, New York City College of Technology (CUNY) and Faculty Editor, "Academe."

12 comments on “Teachers and Students: Machines and their Products?

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  2. Jim
    May 26, 2013

    Straw man arguments. No one claims that “education … can be structured identically to business” or or that that bringing information to students is sufficient and so forth. Nor is a “belligerently anti-teacher attitude” common in the US. (A belligerently anti-teacher UNION attitude, sure. Not the same.) No one doubts that capable, motivated teachers are the gold standard. Since those are in short supply, online learning, self study, and other approaches can ALSO have a place.

    I’ve separately argued that patterns of automation in industry and elsewhere can illuminate what happens when automation is applied in another area. Automation does some things well, others not, reduces human effort in some areas and not in other areas. These patterns can be projected in education, as MOOC can be analyzed as a type of automation. This doesn’t mean that MOOC trend will be success or useful, but what’s nonsense is to deny that automation in education cannot possibly ever help any students anywhere.

    • Aaron Barlow
      May 26, 2013

      Jim, they do claim that education can work better on a business model. Just look at Mayor Bloomberg here in NYC. And you forget that the unions are made up of, and controlled by teachers. An anti-teachers-union attitude is an anti-teacher attitude.

      How do you know that capable, motivated teachers are in short supply? You are making assumptions you can’t back up.

      Your analogy of education and automation is specious, with absolutely no basis in anything but imagination. Furthermore, no one argues that there is no place for the use of technology in education (something different from automation, by the way), only that automation is not education and no correlation between the two can be made.

      • Jim
        May 26, 2013

        That Bloomberg claims that education can work better on a business model is a single point, not a commonplace. He might be right, for all we know, at least in places. Certainly aspects of education such as textbook publishing and testing have long been dominated by for-profit businesses. Who says that today’s division between profit and non-profit will never change? Regardless, your claim is excessive. Arguing for a business model is not the same as arguing that “education … can be structured IDENTICALLY to business.” [my emphasis]. Your choice of “identically” is what makes it a straw man.

        I disagree that being anti-teachers union is the same as being anti-teacher. Teachers unions are seen by many as rent seeking entities that are concerned first about union jobs. One can predict union positions on issues such as charter schools, firing for cause, new evaluation schemes, etc. from this alone. Mind, I diagnose here, not advocate. Don’t confuse a union with a profession.

        I should have said, capable, motivated teachers at the price society is willing to pay. If we have a surplus of capable, motivated teachers, where are they? By all accounts there are lots of children in poor schools who might do better with better teaching. How do you know that capable, motivated teachers are abundant? You are making assertions that you can’t back up.

        To repeat, I’m not arguing that automation IS education, I’m arguing that many areas go through a period of increasing automation, and that understanding how automation played out in one area can illuminate how automation may play out in education. This is basic stuff. I write “patterns of automation can illuminate” and you respond with “automation is not education and no correlation between the two can be made.” You don’t seem to be actually reading my words..

        I’m well aware of the difference between technology and automation. Strictly speaking, many areas of education have already been automated to a degree, such as standardized testing, the Common App for college admissions, grade reporting, and so on. It’s ludicrous to think it impossible for automation to extend further into the teaching process.

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  6. professor_at_large
    June 2, 2013

    Of course, the number of universities that have longstanding versions of Syracuse University’s Project Advance — where high school teachers are given the “script” for a college course which they enact at their schools and their high school students pay tuition to the university and receive that university’s credit — is in many ways a fore-runner of these sorts of technological business models.

    Where were the faculty’s objections then? When high school teachers with lesser credentials than the full-time university faculty were accepted as “adjuncts” because they were trained to teach one single course and generate revenue streams for traditional departments?

    Do you think those high school teachers had any semblance of university academic freedom in teaching those courses? Not on your life: the courts have been clear that the academic freedom of teachers in the schools in no way approaches that of the traditions and legal precedents carved out in the courts for faculty in colleges and universities. And now, some courts are even displacing that individual freedom up the chain of command and lodging it with the university qua administration rather than with the faculty as individuals or as a collective.

    So much of what is happening today has its roots in the senior faculty’s failure to safeguard AAUP academic freedom principles for decades now, in flagrant self-interest and neglect of governance. The trenchant ironies inherent in new-found voiced opposition to these same old wines — now simply encased in technological bottles — are more than palpable.

    The university is dead — long live the university!

    • Aaron Barlow
      June 2, 2013

      You are right. “We,” the faculty have failed. And for a long time. One of the reasons I did not start an academic career until my mid-50s was that I did not care for the smug, apathetic, “I’ve got mine” attitudes on the part of too many professors.

      Yes, none of this stuff is new–it is just electronic, or digital, as the phrase is, today. But neither that nor the fact that “we” failed in the past excuses any inaction today.

      • professor_at_large
        June 2, 2013

        Far from “excusing” inaction today, an expose of such past actions and inaction indicts and condemns the inaction of today exhibited by the majority of the professoriate.

        In the spirit of the Sun King, “après moi, le deluge” appears to be the motto of the senior full-time faculty — who are only too happy to take their paychecks, retire, and continue to take paychecks as adjuncts…etc., etc., and so forth.

        And as for the recent vote in CUNY, yes, very nice PR (and I am not minimizing the achievement — which could never happen in SUNY, for example). But will it be followed by a majority of the full-time faculty putting shoulder to the wheel to do the grunt committee work and organize the collective action to meet the transfer needs of students by other means than those proposed by the CUNY Board?

      • Aaron Barlow
        June 2, 2013

        Yeah, I certainly hear what you say… but I am not willing to give up because people will probably act like fools once more. Occasionally, after all, sense does win out.

  7. Pingback: Teachers and Students: Machines and their Products? | Blog de Norman Trujillo

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