Am I Feeling Frustrated? You Betcha

By 1970, almost everyone who had worked to create “programmed instruction” during the 1950s and 1960s had moved away from the idea of teaching machines as the centerpiece of education. These tools, they had realized, were only widely effective when in the hands of master craftspeople—that is, trained teachers who understood both the limits and possibilities of their tools. For most instances of successful learning, as I have said and written again and again for almost thirty years now, the programmed-instruction psychologists had found that face-to-face interaction cannot be replaced by machines.

But no one listens.

I thought of this again while re-reading Kentaro Toyama’s excellent piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education in May. I’ve written about it before, and probably will again. It’s title says it all: “Why Technology Will Never Fix Education.” I’ve long tried to explain why this is myself, often using the following passage from a fictional novel inside Philip K. Dick’s 1963 novel The Man in the High Castle, where the United States ships an:

almost witlessly noble flood of cheap one-dollar… television kits to every village and backwater…. And when the kit had been assembled by some gaunt, feverish-minded youth in the village, starved for a chance, of that which the generous Americans held out to him, that tinny little instrument with its built-in power supply no large than a marble began to receive. And what did it receive? Crouching before the screen, the youths of the village—and often the elders as well—saw words. Instructions…. Overhead, the American artificial moon wheeled, distributing the signal, carrying it everywhere. . . to the waiting, avid masses.

Dick is parodying the nonsense idea that people naturally want what the elite imagine they want. And the idea that what “we” imagine as useful knowledge is the same as everyone imagines. And the idea that motivation to learn is inherent in everyone and that such motivation is a primary drive. That poverty doesn’t matter, only gumption does.

Although it is true that the occasional autodidact exists, most great learners also had great teachers. Socrates for Plato, Plato for Aristotle even Aristotle for Alexander. And yet American political structures continue to try to strip education of the teachers so integral to its success. All of us can point to the teachers who inspired us—listing them has become one of the great clichés of conversations about education. Yet we are in the process of reducing k-12 teaching to a post-undergraduate experience that need last no more than a couple of years after training for a month or two (Teach for America) and of reducing our college and university professoriate to part-timers and limited-term instructors without the stability necessary for great tutelage (Wisconsin, most recently). Yet, as Toyama sums it up, the “real obstacle in education remains student motivation.” All of the rest is diversion.

Technology alone will never provide what teachers can and do–real and directed motivation. It couldn’t do that when my father was working with teaching machines in the 1950s. Working alone with the various devices he brought home as a result of his consultancy with Field Enterprises, I was more likely to tear them apart than use them in the way meant. That was cool and fun, but it did not produce the kind of learning that Nicholas Negroponte, a generation later, imagined for his One Laptop Per Child project based on the belief in self-directed learning that Phil Dick was parodying while Negroponte was still an undergraduate. It certainly did not follow the “path” to knowledge set out by the likes of Common Core creator David Coleman.

Toyama asks:

So what is to be done? Unfortunately, there is no technological fix, and that is perhaps the hardest lesson…. More technology only magnifies socioeconomic disparities, and the only way to avoid that is nontechnological: Either resolve the underlying inequities first, or create policies that favor the less advantaged.

Ah! That’s the key, is it? We’ve been looking for technological fixes to education where only human ones will work. That is, we have to actually work, and care for others—first. We can’t fob off on technology what we are not willing to do ourselves–though that’s what we’ve been trying at least since the early sixties.

Mark Naison, a professor at Fordham, posted something on his blog With a Brooklyn Accent that sums up what focus on technology is deflecting us from:

Instead of blaming teachers and public schools for the growing wealth gap and the shrinking of the middle class, how about looking at the impact of:

The closing of factories and outsourcing of jobs
Low wages and stagnant salaries
Rising student and consumer debt
The drug war
The massive imprisonment of non violent offenders
Warehousing of abandoned properties
Racial profiling and Broken Windows Policing.
Tax relief for the very wealthy coupled with rising taxes for the middle class

He ends by asking, “Teachers are responsible for all those policy decisions and economic trends, right?”

I guess that’s what frustrates me so much, the use of assumptions about technology in order to deflect us from the real work we need to do to improve education (see above) and, at the same time, to reduce the impact of one of society’s most important professions, teaching.

Instead of fighting teachers, why not (I ask, plaintively) fight the ills of society so that teachers can actually be effective? Scott Walker, I address that question to you. Chris Christie, you, too. Andrew Cuomo, you also….

Anything else, even the bells and whistles of technology, is mere deflection from the real issues.


“Skinner teaching machine 01” by Silly rabbit – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

2 thoughts on “Am I Feeling Frustrated? You Betcha

  1. Excellent post. No matter what discipline one pursues, it is not about the facts and the principles and the various pieces that comprise the whole… all of which could be spewed out by a machine. It is about the thought process. Training ones mind to think in a certain way. We can’t get that from a machine. It has to come from learned mentors.

  2. Yes, my university — like almost all of them — has been chasing the online dream, despite the fact that our Vice Provost for Student Success (yes, a new administrative position) keeps reminding everyone that the students we serve–and need to serve–are not the highly self-motivated ones likely to succeed without direct personal interaction.

    Also worrisome: I gave a talk at a regional U recently, where my host explained that their Dean gave them raises and then told each department head to pay the raises out of the dept. revenues from online classes. (Incidentally, I asked if online faculty were involved in shared governance at the U–of course, I knew the answer before asking it.)

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