Tue 14 May 2013
The entire debate about electronic learning, MOOCs and open education hinges on one central question: why do we need teachers? It is often sadly misunderstood what the added value is that teachers bring to learners. For this reason, they are increasingly put up to be replaced by technologies in different guises and roles, for example data algorithms that aim to substitute human judgement, or multiple choice tests instead of continuous qualitative assessment.
It’s time to think about the qualities a teacher needs to have and where they outperform computers, often by miles:
Psychology: especially where family relations are stressed or difficult, teachers are often the first (adult) advisors for children in trouble. Also in other cases (break-up relationships, uneasiness about oneself, etc), the experienced teacher is most likely to notice and able to put the finger on the problem.
Knowledge and Enthusiasm: computers and the Internet contain loads and loads of collective human knowledge (including also piles of unworthy garbage), but they don’t contain wisdom and competence to act on this knowledge. They are also incapable of enthusiasm for a subject discipline – hence they are unable to install excitement in the learner.
Gut feeling and empathy: “a feeling is worth a thousand datasets” (I don’t know who said that, but it should have been said by someone important). Even without being able to articulate and quantify the multitude of granular circumstances that play a part in a learner’s life, a good observant teacher in direct contact with a learner gets a feel for where they are and can pick them up from there. They are able to understand and factor in when and why a learner is distracted, puzzled, or otherwise limited in progressing. Teachers are able to show empathy and understanding for the situation and in most cases are able to mediate them. Note carefully that this complements and goes beyond the help that peers will provide.
Pedagogic qualities and qualifications, therefore, necessarily emphasise not only the knowledge and competences of a teacher in a given subject area, but also their interpersonal aptitude and mental stability. Teachers, nowadays more than ever before, need to be able to cope with criticism from parents, politicians and even CEOs and other outsiders. They need to be able to see through the eyes of the learner and balance their interests with the general context.
Given these demands, it’s clear that not everyone is suited to be a teacher. Allthemore concerning is the fact that these scarce human resources are not given the attention, opportunities and acknowledgement they deserve, in a world that’s drifting to become more like an industrial factory floor dominated by forms and robots than by human conversation.