Deconstructing “The Deconstruction of the K-12 Teacher”

In a recent blog post I argued that teaching is not becoming obsolete. I was writing in response to the Atlantic article “The Deconstruction of the K-12 Teacher” (subtitle: “When kids can get their lessons from the Internet, what's left for classroom instructors to do?”) that claims that teaching will soon be outdated. In the blog post I maintained that the same logic could be mistakenly applied many people and professions that are not going away any time soon. But I didn’t delve into the details of the article and why I believe its conclusions are wrong, which I will do here. The article opens by describing a vision of the future classroom that the author, Michael Godsey, believes may become prevalent in as little as five years:

“…a large, fantastic computer screen at the front, streaming one of the nation’s most engaging, informative lessons available on a particular topic. The "virtual class" will be introduced, guided, and curated by one of the country’s best teachers (a.k.a. a "super-teacher"), and it will include professionally produced footage of current events, relevant excerpts from powerful TedTalks, interactive games students can play against other students nationwide, and a formal assessment that the computer will immediately score and record…in each classroom, there will be a local teacher-facilitator (called a "tech") to make sure that the equipment works and the students behave. Since the "tech" won’t require the extensive education and training of today’s teachers, the teacher’s union will fall apart, and that "tech" will earn about $15 an hour to facilitate a class of what could include over 50 students. This new progressive system will be justified and supported by the American public for several reasons: Each lesson will be among the most interesting and efficient lessons in the world; millions of dollars will be saved in reduced teacher salaries; the "techs" can specialize in classroom management; performance data will be standardized and immediately produced (and therefore "individualized"); and the country will finally achieve equity in its public school system.

Why does Godsey believe this? Apparently the answer is because as he looked around the Internet he found many sources describing this future: “I was overwhelmed by the number of articles all confirming what I had suspected…”

Numerous problems exist with his sources and his reasoning. Among them are the following:

  1. As any good teacher will attest, the Internet is full of erroneous or misused information, some of which looks accurate and impressive. For example, see Blended learning taking over schools, which the article references. The statement in the infographic that blended learning is now in 70% of school districts is undefined, not referenced, and highly misleading, because the casual reader may think it means that 70% of schools or classrooms are using blended learning. But as written, a single online credit recovery course that students are taking in a computer lab anywhere in a district could qualify. That type of scenario is likely occurring in 70% of school districts. It is hardly a takeover of K-12 education.
  2. Several of his supporting points are based on the ways in which teachers are sharing resources and lesson plans on sites such as sharemylesson.com and TeachersPayTeachers.com. But not only does the presence of these sites not support his thesis, in fact it refutes his point. Teachers in physical classrooms across the country are using these sites. These websites and others like them are supporting teachers, not replacing them.
  3. He quotes several other organizations that, similarly, are providing services to teachers. These include Edmodo and Listen Current, which are clearly not trying to replace teachers. Even Kahn Academy, which is among the best-known sources for educational videos, shows little sign of replacing teachers, especially in the U.S. The reason is that most K-12 students are not entirely self-motivated learners. As Slate put it, correctly in my view: Bill Gates Is an Autodidact. You’re Probably Not.

The article is accurate in one respect: in many classrooms, the role of the teacher is changing because of the availability of information. Godsey seems upset about this:

“There is a profound difference between a local expert teacher using the Internet and all its resources to supplement and improve his or her lessons, and a teacher facilitating the educational plans of massive organizations. Why isn’t this line being publicly and sharply delineated, or even generally discussed? This line should be rigorously guarded by those who want to keep education professionals in the center of each classroom. Those calling for teachers to "transform their roles," regardless of motive or intentionality, are quietly erasing this line—effectively deconstructing the role of the teacher as it’s always been known.”

This line of reasoning raises two additional points worthy of consideration.

First, anyone who is arguing that technology is on the verge of radically transforming education ought to acknowledge that the same arguments have been made for decades, if not centuries. Radio, television, and computers were all supposed to fundamentally change education. None of them did. There is reason to believe that perhaps this time could be different, but the jury is still out.

Second, the article is so focused on teachers, with little reference to what is best for students, that the reader might reasonably conclude that the goal of education is to give teachers jobs in which they can feel proud to be the keeper and disseminator of all knowledge, regardless of student outcomes. But I doubt that anyone, including the author, believes this.

I was fortunate last week to visit two schools, in different states, that are using digital learning in creative ways to address students’ needs. Both schools are using digital content and platforms in ways that are far more innovative than much of what Godsey describes. In each, teachers often work individually with students and rarely lecture the entire class, and students receive information online. But there is no doubt that in each school, teachers remain at the center of student learning, and they are the single most important factor in student success. This may change someday. Currently there is no sign that such a change is occurring at any scale.

UncategorizedJohn Watson