Education and the "Self-Checkout" Mentality

My spiritual colleague in Jesuit education Matt Emerson wrote a very nice post over at America titled "Avoiding Education as Self-Checkout Line." It's a great read, and he does an excellent job of getting to the heart of one of the key challenges as more and more technology is introduced into classrooms, namely the potential for dehumanizing the classroom and the interactions between students and teachers. I'll quote a few things here, but please do go read the entire article.

He summarizes his thesis pretty concisely:

But the more we embrace an “app-for-everything” mentality, the more we marginalize the human role.

I think he's spot-on with that danger, but I do think he glosses over some of the ways in which using apps, even some of the specific apps he calls out, can actually increase the engagement that is so important.

For example, he mentions a "Pick a Student" app, that helps teachers call on students at random.

[The app] encourages a corresponding disengagement from those same students. In the few seconds it takes to walk around and scan the room, deciding whom to call on, teachers can learn valuable information from faces, posture, or scribbles on a notebook.

Again, he's not wrong, and an app like that (which I have used on occasion) could certainly discourage teachers from being mindful about what's going on in their classroom. But is this any different from the English teacher when I was in high school who relied on "The Fickle Finger of Fate"? He would assign every student a card from a standard deck, and, when appropriate, draw a card randomly to call on students. Was he unaware of what was going on in the classroom? Not at all. I can't speak for him, but when I have used a similar process (or app), it's because I want assistance being random. Rather than get distracted by the student who is making (or avoiding) eye contact, sometimes I just want to call on somebody without having to think about it. Using an app for that process frees me up to actually be more observant about what's happening.

Now I don't mean to focus on just that one app. Obviously it's just one example that he uses. But I do think more attention should be paid to the ways in which these apps can free us teachers for the more important tasks.

I'm also, perhaps naïvely, less worried than Matt is about losing those specific content skills because of apps.

After all, do we want math teachers who cannot generate equations? Do we want English teachers who, having depended so long on software, can no longer explain semicolons, who can no longer create sophisticated sentences that showcase various usage rules? I hope the answer is a unanimous "no."

My answer is of course "no", but is that a straw man? If I had an app that generated, say, Latin grammar practice (I haven't found one, but it probably exists), that wouldn't prevent me from writing my own exercises. Maybe that's just me, and maybe it's naïve. But if I had a way to give my students more practice at the mechanics of Latin grammar, while freeing up my time to work on entirely new kinds of projects and assessments, or to spend more time connecting with the students one-on-one, that would be a net positive. Of course I should still write my own exercises, my own test questions. But I see these new technologies as freeing me up to focus on the higher level work of a teacher, the tasks that technology cannot readily replace.

All the dangers that Matt Emerson lists are very real. But so are the benefits of this technology. Perhaps it's a bit like the "cognitive surplus" that Clay Shirkey writes about. When I look at all this new technology, I see the dangers, but I cannot help but see the potential. I'm not looking to offload any of those personal, humanizing aspects of teaching, and I try to find apps that help me focus on precisely those things.

For example, the "Speed Grader" app that works with Canvas can automate some of the process of grading, enter the scores into the grade book directly, etc. That doesn't mean I'm going to be less mindful of my students' performance. Instead, if I can cut a few minutes off the logistics of keeping track of grades, that gives me more time to ask questions like, "How did they perform on this, as a class?" or "What can I do next to really see if they understand the material?"

I couldn't agree more with Matt's conclusion:

That kind of learning requires wise and prudent guides. It requires men and women who evoke a love of inquiry. It requires teachers who know when to challenge and when to console and who offer advice more ennobling than what students see on social media.

All of this is not tangential to the curriculum; it is intrinsic to the curriculum. But none of it can be outsourced. None of it can be downloaded. It can only be lived, every day, by teachers confident in who they are and who care deeply about what they do.

He is exactly right. The most important things we do can't be replaced by technology. But the parts that can be outsourced? That's where we need to ask ourselves the right questions: What am I gaining from this technology and what am I giving up? And once answered, we have to discern what is best for our students–and for us.