I’m a fan of Star Trek. The newest iteration with Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and Zoe Saldana. I love J.J. Abrams’s sleek modern vision for the U.S.S. Enterprise and his ability to cast a star like Benedict Cumberbatch, convincingly, as the villain in a big–budget, Sci–Fi action movie. I also love Simon Pegg, so his reprised role as Scottie throughout the franchise is just another among numerous reasons why our household owns DVDs of all three movies and watches them ad nauseam.
Why am I talking about Star Trek? There’s a scene in the first movie as Abrams introduces the audience to his new and improved cast of characters and fills in his version of their backstories that not only offers a glimpse into Spock’s early personal narrative but also into an imagined space–aged era of education. Individual students drilled in highly–advanced technological pods operated by AI and designed, apparently, to respond to each student’s learning needs and proficiencies.
Sound familiar? Yep. Familiar to me, too. The oddest part of this space–aged scene? The fact that I got it. Immediately. I never had to ask myself or anyone else in the audience what was happening. NLP devices like Siri and Alexa, commonplace features in our world today, conditioned me to “get” Spock’s personal educational assistant without so much as a blip on the radar.
Something happens next in the movie. Something profound. Spock, who responds at near–genius level to his AI tutor, confronts three boys, flesh and blood classmates who are obviously also rivals, and shuts down. His confident responses vanish. He listens in mute agony as they taunt him, pushing him to the point that they “elicit an emotional response.”
This scene is familiar, too, eerily so to many of our early personal narratives and certainly to my professional narrative as a teacher and counselor. What better way to introduce a complex character at once familiar to the audience, as he is half human, and utterly unknowable, as he is half alien, than to portray him in a classic schoolroom stand–off with these emotional bullies?
This scene and its protagonist offer an excellent metaphor for education today: at once alien and familiar. We stand poised on the edge of a technological landslide promising to take the field of education screeching into the digital age. There is so much talk of the future in education and so much excitement around ways that technology can alter and shape that future. A recent article in Campus Technology offered a vision of medical education in which the world’s future doctors will learn anatomy from inside a virtual 3–D representation of the spleen or vascular system.
There are voices in the technology conversation today, specifically in the edtech conversation, who talk with equal excitement of the streamlining and cost–savings for education. This truly is alien territory for many educators who don’t know quite what to expect in the digital landscape of tomorrow or what, precisely, their role in it will look like.
Think about it: the reduction in cost of salaries alone represents enormous savings. When one teacher can do the work of three or even five assisted by machine–based learning programs that respond to students in real time, personalizing instruction in ways that same teacher in a classroom of twenty to twenty–five can never manage?
It can be exciting and panic–inducing in equal measure for many to contemplate: teachers, administrators, and parents included. I’m asked quite often in conversations with parents and friends, who know I’m an educator, how long I think it will be until computers and AI replace teachers altogether. It’s an interesting question.
When I contemplate the future, I don’t necessarily think specifically of technology. Edtech is so much a part of the present that its ongoing and progressive presence in the classroom seems a given. Granted, I come from a school with a fairly advanced technology agenda, perhaps a part of both my degree of comfort and acceptance, but I’ve also been told from the beginning and repeatedly that technology is meant to be a tool. A powerful tool in the hands of a teacher to transform the classroom in ways not possible to do without that technology.
We have been trained to think of its potential not merely to transfer from pen and paper to computer the exercises we’ve used for generations but to explore new and transformational ways to instruct that would not be possible without the computer, SmartScreen, whatever. In these terms, the technology is essentially dead without the teacher just as the teacher is hamstrung without the technology.
I simply don’t envision a future classroom in which there is no teacher. Allow me to return to my young friend Spock to explain.
Remember the tech pod and Spock’s perfect recitation of each correct answer? Remember, too, the frightened, confused look on his young face as the other boys surround him? Spock turns to his father for guidance after the tussle with his classmates has left his lip bloodied and his heart bruised. Many of us have done the same. Many of us, too, have known teachers and coaches whose mentorship turned similar moments for us from the edge of disaster into defining moments of selfhood.
Can we envision a future in which students turn to a machine–based, natural language processing teacher for compassionate guidance and wise mentorship? In the classrooms of tomorrow, will Artificial Intelligence outpace human educators in the role of social–emotional as well as academic learning? Is this even desirable?
Teaching and learning are complex processes. They are, at their core, collaborative processes, and technology has made tremendous strides in the areas of personalization and collaboration. Teachers have at their fingertips responsive technologies for every conceivable skill and competency so that there seems no longer to be a reality in which any student, regardless of age, ability level, or area of study, gets left behind.
The core competencies of social–emotional learning, however, take both teacher and student into a different dimension of collaboration. Spock’s social quandary is not easily solved, and his father, Vulcan to the core, seems to reject the quandary as illogical. Spock’s half–human identity is the simple and logical result of his having a Vulcan father and a human mother. The social difficulties his parentage breeds for the child do not seem to compute.
When we talk about education, we talk about a complex and multi–faceted endeavor. Many aspects of it may fall into that illogical space that doesn’t quite compute: at least, not to a machine–based learning program that has never navigated the narrow straits of middle school emotion and social place–shifting.
Teaching and learning, as we’ve said, are complex, collaborative, and relational processes. We do not teach only the brain to master science and mathematics, grammar and writing, and so on. We train the mind and the emotional intelligence to recognize social cues and to embrace pro–social attitudes and behavior. To grasp values such as compassion, kindness, honesty, and trustworthiness. To rise above difficult circumstances and uphold the highest standards of moral and ethical excellence.
There are circumstances in which only a mind can teach a mind. Only a heart that has been bruised and broken can speak truth to another heart enduring its own bruising. Only a will that has sustained its values against the slings and arrows of the social maelstrom that is high school can offer worthy counsel to another caught in its furious grip.
Please don’t think that I oppose technology in schools. Nothing could be further from the truth. I embrace any and all means that empower teachers to improve the quality of their instruction, to differentiate and truly personalize that instruction so that students receive the full potential of each learning experience. I only reject the notion that any technology can ever replace the teacher absolutely. There is no technology extant or promised that can substitute for the core humanity of a flesh and blood teacher.
Our humanity not only sets us apart from technology; it is the core truth that establishes an absolute hierarchy of human above technology and an absolute role for technology as tool. Artificial Intelligence will always be artificial.
I mean no insult to computers when I call them computers. Or to machines when I refer to them as machines. I respect the awesome computing power of many machines: the laptop on which I write these words, the cell phone that has just notified me of an incoming text message, my full day’s appointments, and the current time (since without it, I would not receive the message or make any of those appointments on time). And I mean no insult to any tech developer when I say that I am the best tool my students will ever have in a classroom.
Quite beyond the experiential wisdom that allows me to step into moments of social–emotional significance, I am passionate and curious and given to sly humor. I can smile even as I tell a student he’s just given an insufficient response. I can drop hints of shared experience to help him get there. And I can give, I’m told, an extraordinarily effective stink eye when I see he’s getting himself and his neighbor off task. Again.
The ultimate classroom of the future seems to me one in which teacher and students, equipped by cutting edge technology, engage in a new and transformed collaboration. Where every sphere of learning, mathematical, scientific, artistic, historical, or literary serves as a playground for students to sound the depths of their passion, curiosity, and creativity. I believe that technology will map the road to that classroom and that teachers, ever and always, will stand at the door in welcome.