Mystery Machines or Master Teachers: Which Do You Prefer?

What’s optimal for education, the teacher as adjunct to the machine—or the other way around?

Whatever the rest of us might decide, Silicon Valley has answered this question to its own satisfaction—one way for other people’s children, another for its own. While the kids of tech millionaires study in small groups led by expert teachers accompanied by minimal technology, these same parents peddle cheap educational “solutions” like the Summit program to cash-strapped schools across the country. Classic rich-folk attitude: what’s sufficient for the masses will never do for our precious babies.

In an unintentional parody of Fred Keller’s Personalized System of Instruction, the programs these millionaires are making more money on are lauded as also “personalizing” instruction.

Personalizing? Oh, come on.

They take the person out, both the student and the teacher. Their idea of personalizing is much like the auto industry’s of customizing. In both cases, an array of choices created by marketers and designers is claimed to make the options “personal” or “custom.” They are neither; all they really are is controlled variety.

Again, adapting machines from afar to individual ends isn’t “personalizing.” It’s “enfolding,” wrapping the individual so tightly in a commercial and/or mechanical web that the individual effectively disappears. Just look at Disney fans: They are so wrapped in product that you can’t see who they are.

Trying to “personalize” something for someone from a thousand miles away of necessity does the opposite. If you want to personalize something, you need to be right there with it. Look at the word: It involves a person.

But let’s get back to education: If you want to educate someone, it takes two. Two there in person. You can’t replace either with a machine.

Why not?

As Ken Robinson argues, there are four basic principles to education:

Health: Promoting the development and well-being of the whole student, intellectually, physically, spiritually, and socially.

Ecology: Recognizing the vital interdependence of all of these aspects of development, within each student and the community as a whole.

Fairness: Cultivating the individual talents and potential of all students, whatever their circumstances and respects the roles and responsibilities of those who work with them.

Care: Creating optimum conditions for students’ development, based on compassion, experience, and practical wisdom.

None of this can be “personalized” through a machine or an array of opttions. All of it happens only when two people are connected without mediation. HAL ain’t in it.

The other day, I wrote about unheralded teachers. There was a subtext there, one about the destruction, the purposeful destruction, of a profession of people in favor of mechanization—and the dishonesty of it and the unstated rationale behind even that.

As the Silicon Valley “campus” dwellers believe, replacing teachers with machines is OK for hoi polloi instruction, but not for the elite. To support the fiction of a meritocracy, as Silicon Valley does, the children of the rich and famous must be shown to be making it on their own, just as their parents supposedly did. This is why some of the more naïve sort of rich families got caught up in a college-admissions scandal recently.

Smarter and more savvy parents successfully cheat the system by helping insure that education of the masses will never be as good as that for their own children. Private schools with few technological aids and intense personal tutoring starting early lead to elite colleges with small classes and attentive professors who don’t have to race from campus to campus to eke out a living. So that needs to be reserved for the already privileged. Combined with contacts developed with others among the established elite, such a background allows one with even minimal talent to race past others with greater ability but less comfortable backgrounds while still maintaining the illusion of meritocracy.

There’s another aspect to the movement to destroy the teaching profession, of course. You guessed it: money. Teachers cost money. Even when squeezed, when overworked and underpaid, teachers cost more than machines.

Not only that, but teachers can’t be trusted to replicate quantifiable results (they focus on the individual, after all, and not on generalized assessment). And you have to trust them, something today’s corporate structure refuses to do with underlings.

Machines, on the other hand, bring profit. Maybe not on a personal level, but they certainly help the rich get richer. Just ask Henry Ford or Steve Jobs or Elon Musk (well,,, he may not be the best example, but you get the picture). They can be used to keep taxes low, especially on corporations and the one-percent. And you don’t have to negotiate with them.

There’s only one way to create a real meritocracy (if that’s what you want; I’m not sure I do) or good education available to all, and that’s to spend sufficiently on teachers, on training, salaries and support. And to respect the work that teachers do.

As we learned fifty years ago when the teaching-machine projects began to shut down, no machines will do what teachers can. Technology may have changed in the meantime, but this reality still holds.