The Atlantic published an article by Michael Godsey this morning entitled “The Deconstruction of the K-12 Teacher” – a real pot-stirrer for those of us who find ourselves trying to square how all of this data-driven driven, venture-capital-funded, business of edtech startups fits into the ramshackle behemoth of government-mandated curriculum, publicly demonized unions, and enduring inequity that is the education system. The article discusses the changing nature of teaching in a brave new world of flipped classrooms, personalized-learning apps, and high-quality instructional resources that are being shared (and sold) online for anyone. The problem with all this technology and access, it seems, is that it “marginalize[s] the teacher’s expertise.” Godsey predicts that in the next 10 to 20 years (some colleagues of his suggest it’s more like half of that, or 5 to 10 years), the quality of and access to educational tools and resources online will be so high that it will essentially eradicate the need for a teaching profession as we know it today. If Godsey’s prediction is correct (which I don’t think it is), I see two incredible tragedies resulting from this “brave new world” as he calls it. First, it would mean the loss of what many consider to be one of the most humanizing and noble occupations in our society. And second, it would mean that decades of reform efforts would have failed miserably in destabilizing our oft-criticized “factory model” of education. The former would be a tragedy for obvious reasons. The latter, however, is more complicated today, precisely for the points Godsey addresses.
One thing we know about educational technology, from Khan Academy to xMOOCs, is that they are very good at delivering content. And I think Godsey’s assumption is somewhat on point about this – in most of my experience as an academic technology specialist, it seems that technology integration, from elementary school to university, by-and-large revolves around helping teachers curate online resources and information for their students. And this is what he seems to think is the primary force at work in the “deconstruction” of teaching. Because there is so much high-quality material available online, why should schools pay teachers to do anything other than organize content, when they can pay a single expert to develop the materials? In the classroom, Godsey suggests, teaching will eventually be reduced to “facilitating the educational plans of massive organizations”, with the best content developers being whisked away to the private sector for presumably higher salaries than those of less expert classroom “facilitators.”
The reason why I don’t think this prediction will come true is because it presumes a fundamental driving force of education will continue to be the acquisition of content, and that a model of education based on knowledge acquisition will somehow improve learning outcomes across the board, eliminate longstanding social inequities in schools, make college more accessible for poor or disenfranchised populations of students, and all the while, reduce the cost of educating a growing population of children with individual learning needs. Such a model of education would not be sustainable, and I optimistically believe that, just as the hype around xMOOCs (which arguably, was also driven by an ideology of knowledge acquisition) has so swiftly quieted, it would quickly expose the limitations of a system built around the mere delivery of content. It would also mean reversing a growing trend and interest in theories of informal learning (such as Youth and Participatory Politics), connected learning, maker spaces, and learning as practice (such as the Next Generation Science Standards). As Godsey implores, we need local experts to organize these learning experiences for youth, not just hand over content resources. In fact, if anything, I predict that K-12 teaching will begin to resemble emerging changes in libraries, museums, and other informal settings – that is, knowing how to take advantage of digital resources to create meaningful experiences that engage youth in learning that is more holistic than simply sitting in front of a screen all day. I don’t think that the Internet will ever reduce the need for teachers. If anything, it is showing us that we need more teachers who can scaffold students into the new roles that are being created by digital education tools, can help students understand what it means to take up authority over their own learning, and can inspire students to become experts in their own domains of interest. I have yet to see anyone in Silicon Valley create an app for that.