Can Computers Replace Teachers? What Should the Role of Technology be in Education Reform?

When I began teaching four years ago, differentiation was a major buzzword among school administrators. For those of you who have never taught in a classroom, differentiation is the idea that a teacher should tailor his/her lesson to meet the needs of different learners. Advocates of differentiation believe that it is not enough to “pitch to the middle” of the class—teachers need to find a way to challenge the kids at the top of the class without losing the kids at the bottom. Teachers who differentiate will make sure their lesson caters to visual learners, auditory learners, kinesthetic learners, and special education students.

As a new teacher I was told “Differentiate, differentiate, differentiate”—but few administrators or even education professors bothered to specify how I was supposed to differentiate. When I tracked down special education teachers in my building and asked them how to better accommodate my students with learning disabilities they told me to simply have the kids complete fewer items on class assignments. I felt frustrated– giving some kids less work than others hardly seemed to fit the concept of differentiation.

Essentially, differentiation is wonderful in theory, but difficult to achieve in practice. Most teachers I knew were already overwhelmed and did not have time to develop multiple lessons plans to meet the needs of different students. Furthermore, it seemed like although everyone agreed that differentiation was important—there was a lot of confusion among educators around what differentiation was actually supposed to look like in the classroom.

Recently, a friend sent me a link to a “Freakeconomics” podcast about a new educational pilot program in New York City called “School of One”. School of One is a computer program developed by TFA alum Joel Rose. Put simply, the program crafts individual learning plans for each student, depending upon that child’s needs. Students can use the software to engage in online lessons, group work, or independent practice. Best of all, the program collects data on each student so that a tech guru back at the School of One office can monitor the progress of every kid.

I was intrigued by the “School of One” project because it seemed that this program could be a valuable classroom tool for teachers looking to differentiate for their students. The program accomplishes what no single human being can—it specially designs an individual learning “playlist” for each student. (On a side note: it was refreshing to see an innovative technology applied to solving social problems. I often lament how so many of our latest technologies, the Ipad, Facebook, Groupon etc, are solely geared towards making a profit.)

We all know that large percentages of teachers (especially in urban schools) fail to make expected gains with their students. The creators of School of One argue that we’re already recruiting plenty of talented and motivated teachers to work in our public schools. The problem, according to Mr. Rose, is an issue of design. In other words, we need to think differently about the way we structure the job for teachers. Perhaps having one adult lecture a room full of thirty students isn’t the most effective way to get kids to learn.

Personally, I think Mr. Rose has some pretty valid ideas. Teaching can feel like a Herculean task sometimes. Teachers must find ways to manage inappropriate behaviors, communicate regularly with parents, form meaningful relationships with students, plan stimulating lessons, secure funding for classroom supplies, interpret classroom data and find ways to motivate kids. As a teacher I was faced with the daunting task of engaging students who could not read in the same High School Spanish classroom with students who were college-bound. Perhaps Mr. Rose is right to think that we have not organized the job of teaching in a way that sets teachers and students up to be successful.

I think the “School of One” program offers some insightful suggestions on how we might re-think the role of teachers. I think one of the most impressive aspects of the program is its ability to collect and summarize lots of data on student achievement. It is difficult for educators to collect meaningful data on daily student progress. (Believe me, I’ve tried it.) With the School of One program, educators can easily track the progress of students and identify which kids are mastering the material. This way, teachers can step in and make sure a kid understands the material right away—rather than waiting until a student fails a quiz in order to take action.

One of the most important adjustments we can make in teacher training programs is to make teachers data experts. Right now, schools of education rarely emphasize the importance of data or teach educators how to collect and use data. The result is that few teachers are able to keep track of whether or not their kids are learning.

As a Teach for America teacher, I was required to keep data on my students. Essentially, this meant recording whether or not students mastered various objectives on quizzes and tests. While this data was useful for motivating kids (they were eager to achieve 80% mastery), I often wondered whether or not this data was actually meaningful. How did I know if I was testing the objectives in the right way? What was the correct measure of mastery? Furthermore, what does it mean when a student masters the academic material but then fails my class because he/she missed too many classes or failed to turn in important assignments? Is there a difference between mastery and preparing our kids for adulthood?

My point is, that teachers need to be taught how to do more than record data. In order to evaluate lessons and practices, educators need to be taught and encouraged to think thoughtfully and critically about what data means. The “School of One” program does not solve this problem—but it might be a useful tool for getting teachers to engage in data about their students.

“School of One” could be a great classroom aid for teachers (that is, if we could afford to provide laptops for students citywide). However, I believe this sort of program should assist—NOT replace teachers. One of the most important aspects of a teacher’s work is forming relationships with their students. Computer programs can’t express compassion for a kid whose parents are going through a divorce, or notice if a kid is coming to school everyday without breakfast. The discretion, empathy, passion and charisma of teachers will always be an important part of any quality education.

Note: To access the Freaknomics Radio podcast on the School of One use this link: http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/12/freakonomics-radio-how-is-a-bad-radio-station-like-the-public-school-system/

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  1. Hi — thanks for the interest in School of One! Would you like to be added to our School of One email list? We can keep you informed on our progress and let you know about visitation dates and other updates.

    Mickey Muldoon
    Manager, External Affairs
    School of One

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