Why a “digital Aristotle” is a terrible idea

Quick, unrelated update: I just sent a message to the eBay seller of the awesome tutu in my recent post, asking if they would consider making it in plus sizes.  If you want, send them a message as well! I don’t know whether anything will come of it, but it can’t hurt to try.

Also: the election’s over! Phew. And in addition to the candidates who won, I’m happy about a lot of the state initiatives that passed. Hells yeah gay marriage!

Now, onto the post.

While poking about on YouTube last night, I came across this video about a software that’s being developed with the intention of customizing educational experiences for each kid who uses it, and eventually replacing much of the need for human teachers:

And oy, did it cause me to have ALL THE THOUGHTS (and to be honest, more than a little bit of THE RAGE).

I think the Digital Aristotle software could be a useful idea as a supplement to classroom teaching, but using it as a replacement strikes me as a terrible idea, for many reasons:

1.) School isn’t just about kids interacting with teachers. It’s about kids interacting with other kids, learning how to be social beings, developing empathy. A kid sitting alone in front of a computer screen all day isn’t going to get that, no matter how brilliant the software is.

2.) Computers have a lot of amazing educational potential, but they also have downsides. A major, major one is that they make it easier to multitask, which has a demonstrated negative effect on pretty much any kind of performance.

I’ve seen it in my own life–I know I concentrated far better in high school, when I had only dial-up internet, than I have ever since.

Don’t just take it from me. Read Hamlet’s Blackberry, and The Winter of Our Disconnect. Maybe even The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. The internet has great power to connect people…when used in moderation, with limits and structure. When used in conjunction with face-time, and nature-time, and solitary-reflection-time.  It isn’t a replacement for any of those things.

3.) Relatedly, many educational videos (which seem to be a major component of the Digital Aristotle project) are 4 or 5 minutes long. They may be full of fascinating things, but don’t lend themselves to the kind of concentration that leads to deep understanding. I’ve watched plenty of interesting videos about physics and math, but if you asked me what I’ve learned, I wouldn’t remember most of it. It’s not the same as learning systematically from a real person. 

4.) People matter. It’s really important for kids to have adults who get to know them, understand them as people, believe in them, encourage them, keep them from falling through the cracks.

This doesn’t always happen in classrooms, of course, but it should: if the teachers are trained and supported well enough, if the classes are small enough, if the teachers aren’t unduly constrained by teaching to standardized tests (which is a rant for another day). I’d rather work on improving those things than finding ways around the existence of teachers.

There’s no substitute for human connection. If I’ve learned one thing in my life, it’s that people matter. Connecting matters. Different people may need different amounts and types of connecting, but we all need it. A computer-generated “teacher” will never be the same.

5.) Many Japanese schools have already solved the problem of how to teach to kids at different levels of understanding, as I read about in a psych class in college. The students work in groups, and those who are learning faster help the others grasp the concepts. So the “faster” kids don’t get bored, and the “slower” kids don’t get left behind.

6.) If classes are small enough–which they should be–teachers can work with different students’ learning styles, and take into account special needs like autism/Asperger’s syndrome or learning disabilities. Different kids need different approaches, many of which can’t be approximated by software programs.

And speaking of differences in learning styles, what about the preference for self-teaching vs. learning from others? I very much learn better in the latter way, and the thought of having the majority of my education take place at the hands of a software program sounds terrifying.

7.) What about art and music, as well as gym/phys. ed? There are some things that, for most people, just have to be learned in person. Sure, maybe some kids can teach themselves to play violin from a YouTube tutorial. But I doubt that most of them can. And the creative energy of a group, the cross-polination of working with other artists, is so important.

8.) Last but not definitely not least, the thought of most teachers losing their jobs makes me incredibly unhappy. Teachers work ridiculously hard, and are undervalued and underpaid. Sure, people talk about how inspiring they are–but if we, as a society, really valued them, we’d pay them more.

Teachers awesome. And they do a lot more than teach. They’re mentors, they’re listening ears, they support kids and encourage kids, and guide them toward opportunities–which is especially important for kids without that kind of support system at home. If anything, I think there should be more teachers, not fewer. Hiring more teachers would decrease both classroom crowding and teacher burnout.  It would make it easier for each teacher to be an “Aristotle” to a small group of students.

I have friends who are teachers, or on their way to becoming teachers. They’re talented and dedicated, and they absolutely deserve jobs.

Also, I had amazing teachers in high school. They helped make me the person I am today. I absolutely credit all of my English teachers with my becoming a writer. And some of my math teachers too–math was one of my favorite topics to write poetry on, especially when I didn’t want to do my homework.

And, even though high school school was hard and often stressful, we had fun. One of my English teachers, Mrs. Miller, was both tough and wonderful. She kept a “Miller Time” poster hanging from her desk, and gave an infamous three-day test on the Scarlet Letter. Before each test, her previous year’s students would come back and decorate the blackboard with ominous warnings about the Scarlet F.

In my calculus class, I made puns so often that my teacher started marking each one on the blackboard, and threatened to kick me out if I made five in one class. Luckily, I never did.

Elementary and middle school were more of a mixed bag, but I had some gems. My 5th grade teacher had a pet snake named Monty Python. He let us climb on the TV so we could be “on TV.” He took pics of us sitting in his Mazda convertible. He was kind and caring and funny, and I’m so glad I had him.

To tell those teachers: we don’t need you, we’re replacing you with computers? Is the absolute last thing we should do.

We should pay teachers more. We should give them more support, and more training for working with different learning styles. We should have smaller classes. We should give school systems more funding. There are a million ways to improve classrooms, and I’m all for debating them. (Reducing poverty, hunger, and racism would really help too.)

I’m just not ok, ever ever EVER, with the concept of replacing the majority of teachers with technology.

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4 thoughts on “Why a “digital Aristotle” is a terrible idea

  1. PS — When they think they’ve invented the computer program that can replace me, I will volunteer my classroom for a field test. Meanwhile, I will be sitting behind the two-way glass [note to self: install two-way glass] and laughing my ass off. ;)

  2. THIS. I heartily co-sign all of this. Excellent post – thank you.

    The idea of simply eliminating human teachers both infuriates me and terrifies me. Computers cannot do everything that a human being can do, and should not be thought of as replacements – for all of the reasons you mention. I’m heading for teaching myself, but I also think about all of the teachers I have had. Some of them were crappy, some of them were amazing, and some taught me things I did not want to learn at the time but that were, in hindsight, so crucial. I’m grateful to all of them, and the notion that a machine could or ought to replace them is abhorrent.

    • You’re welcome! Infuriated and terrified is exactly how I feel. I can’t wrap my mind around why anyone would want to eliminate human teachers, and the thought of a society without them makes me incredibly sad.

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