Fires in the Mind

Robots for teachers

Am I the only one who gets a weird, sad feeling when I read quotes like these, in the recent New York Times piece on how well kids learn from robots?

Preliminary results suggest that these students “do about as well as learning from a human teacher,” said Javier Movellan, director of the Machine Perception Laboratory at the University of California, San Diego. “Social interaction is apparently a very important component of learning at this age.”

Ahh! And wouldn’t that make kids want to have more of that social interaction with a human adult who actually cared about them?

If robots are to be truly effective guides, in short, they will have to do what any good teacher does: learn from students when a lesson is taking hold and when it is falling flat.

Scientists could equip a machine to understand the nonverbal cues that signal “I’m confused” or “I have a question” — giving it some ability to monitor how its lesson is being received.

So shouldn’t new teachers also learn that, with those good teachers at their side? Instead, TFA runs a prestige contest to see which top grads can parachute in for two years, after a summer’s training, then leave for their real careers.

If robots can learn to learn, on their own and without instruction, they can in principle make the kind of teachers that are responsive to the needs of a class, even an individual child.

Parents may have more pointed [questions]: Does this robot really “get” my child? Is its teaching style right for my son’s needs, my daughter’s talents?

The right question. A teaching practice is profoundly human, to my mind the most honorable profession of all, with the most enduring effects. It depends on someone being able to “get” each child in his or her living, breathing, maddening, frustrating glory.

I just posted a wonderful example of this on our Resources page—a glimpse of how students are growing into strong and independent learners under the guidance of some wonderful adult humans at Phoenix High School, a small high school in western Washington State. You’ll see the projects these students imagined and executed, which emerged from their own individual affinities and curious minds. You’ll see the discipline their school fostered in them as the kids created every day’s work plan for themselves. And you’ll see the thoughtful back-and-forth they have with teachers like Tracy Money, as human and inspiring and honorable a guide as any of us could ask for.

I’m all for technology in learning, but after reading through that document, the thought of turning learners over to robots chills my blood. What about you? Please, write in and tell us!

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