Why technology will never replace teachers

By | October 6, 2013

This blog’s title is a truism which is fairly uncontroversial, but one worth stating & thinking through if your job involves educational technology.

It’s a little depressing that debate is often this polarised (with some seeing technology as a threat, not an enhancement). It’s rare that technology evangelists believe that ‘their’ methods are always, irrefutably the right ones and that all teachers should just get on board… but they can come across that way from time to time!

It seems pretty obvious to me (and anyone who spends any time in classrooms, I’d think) that there is simply no substitute for good teaching, and that good teaching is fundamentally about good relationships with learners.

Powerful progress in any realm is usually seen hand in hand with powerful social experiences.

This was brought home to me this morning in what I will laughingly call my athletic life;

I took part in a 10k race and fell in step with this guy who was maybe 5 years older than me after about 2k. The main difference between us was that he wasn’t treating it like a race; he slowed slightly every time I struggled to keep up, congratulated me on closing gaps and, with 300m to go, half turned round (I was a few meters behind by then) and said “Come on, almost there!”

Races like this, whilst always comradely, rarely transcend the fact that they are competitions, particularly in the closing stages & when there are lots of club runners involved. But this guy was genuinely interested in helping other people do better than they could do alone, to his cost (he could have gone faster and finished higher up). Inspiring stuff.

Result? A big PB due to being dragged along by someone slightly better at a pace I would not have sustained without social pressure (7 minute miles). After a couple of Ks running together I actually felt I’d be letting this stranger down if I slowed down as my lungs and legs were requesting.

Vigotsky called this the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ when talking about children’s learning and the role of the teacher, which is why I don’t think good teachers will ever be replaced by technology; the social aspect to learning is probably its most crucial part.

Great technology can help put learners in the position to achieve, giving them the tools and the structure (‘scaffolding’ is a term often used in this discussion). But without the input of others, the surrounding social world of expectations and support, technology an echoing void.

Great teachers (who are sometimes adults and sometimes peers) help learners to achieve beyond what they themselves thought possible. Encouragement, challenge, high expectations, the creation of a desire to please, showing how to do something that’s just a half-step beyond what they can already do, positive loops of assessment and feedback, the minutiae of the hundreds of daily interactions between the two… it all adds up to a learning relationship which creates progress. Possibly making use of some awesome tech along the way.

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