The Delicate Question of Teacher Digital Transition
By LeiLani Cauthen
Every teacher and school or district administrator with few exceptions believes you need to have a teacher for education to function, for kids to learn. Also, a physical place is a major part of the identity construct and EdTech is a tool but not an equal collaborator. It is subservient always to the human teacher. It is never, ever, a replacement of teacher functions. That is tantamount to sacrilege to even suggest. Education is delivered by a set of administrators organizing teachers and students into grades, classes, and courses. That’s the way it has always been. The conduit of learning is through the deputizing of human teachers. The mechanism is human.
The human teachers then largely select tools that keep the structure human-delivery centric. It is like using technology in a sort of analog way.
This is only maddening when you understand the enormous threat it is to teacher jobs everywhere because of these things:
- The pandemic, which ripped the covers off the old ways and dropped achievement by 51 percent. Most schools merely moved their analog operations onto digital with hours and hours of Zoom conferences as classes. This mostly didn’t work.
- The mass attrition now somewhere between 33.6 percent and 42 percent of all American students having left traditional public for alternatives (includes charters, which admittedly are also public.) Homeschooling, private, and online schools are experiencing major growth. Nationally, we’ve “crossed the chasm” into a new reality where the threat is enormous to traditional public education because the wins of opt-outers are viral among parents and its becoming vogue to be “out” or require fractured affiliation for only sports and labs and social functions.
- The consumers in America outspend schools by 2 to 1 on digital learning subscriptions of high value adaptive digital curriculum, courses, Apps and book collection sites. They know this is working for them or they wouldn’t keep doing it. Almost all of it lacks all human intervention.
- Learning Counsel national research indicating a teacher burn out rate of 74 percent.
Of course, tech is not a human replacement. It should, however, be allowed to achieve its role of elevating human instruction, particularly 1:1 direct instruction, but how? By way more tech intruding into teacher roles for a new logistics of workflow that isolates teaching into those figure-it-out-and-help moments and social-emotional moments. Tech has replaced a whole lot of human function already with grading systems, reporting, testing, and more, but these were always considered by teachers to be drudgery.
Its incursion into the construct has largely been administrative. Yet when it comes to the purveyance of knowledge, whoa. Stop right there. All eyes on me as the teacher, please. I selected the bits and pieces to learn against the standards and wrote the lesson. I’ll tell you what to read next, show images, ask questions, and deliver through the modulation of my voice the emphasis on the things to know while shepherding all of the class’s attention. I will do all the issuance of every assignment, receive from each and every one of my students each and every response. I will check more than a dozen digital dashboards a day and try to do a few things to personalize some learning. I will manage all the traffic for all my students and somehow pay enough attention to every student so that every single one achieves. The ancient art of teaching is replete with tremendous significances about how it is done, and no outsider may question this. Individual subjects are whole universes of methodology to master.
Besides, teaching is a specialized performance art and requires being a skilled disciplinarian over whole groups.
Ah, and there it is. The crux of the issue is that teaching is defined by nearly all traditional public schools as a one-to-many construct. And a stage. It’s a normalizing construct that retains its shape even while decrying lack of equity because of its shape. It’s a construct that has had to do endless workarounds in order to try to achieve equity because it’s not built for equity. It is institutionalized, systemically inequitable. Teachers will always quietly triage their students, noting who can’t keep up and trying but letting a few fall behind to save the many. Not because they don’t want to catch them up, but they are constricted by time and upcoming testing dates. It’s built for the many, not the one.
Every other industry including retail has perfected 1:1 with extreme personalization, even recommendations engines for what to do/buy next. Schools just aren’t organized like this for this age. Or they think in terms of two rails, either the regular bell schedule in buildings or the online kids – but not a new hybridization of both in magical ways like Fed-X can get a package anywhere in the world in under 24 hours or Uber matches you up with a driver and you have a transactional ride somewhere and then move on with your life. Teachers have not been shown or provided systems that precisely use direct instruction skill and students progress independently. They are going digital in a not so different way than the old days of assigning textbook chapters.
Nationally only about 30 percent of schools use subject-specific adaptive digital courseware. Courseware which most teachers think replaces them and will only use supplementally. Most vendors are even afraid to call it core curriculum, yet much of it actually is core. They tip-toe around the real transformation they could bring because of the delicate sensibilities around whole group teaching.
Teachers consider that tech can stay in the shallow end of what its capable of such as being a scrap of text that is now a digital document, a video, an image, a quiz, a mechanism of display, a communication relay. But it can’t go into the deep end. It can’t possibly automate the lesson sequence, giving each bit of knowledge, assessing along the way, remediating automagically, use active animations and digital manipulatives, then relay the student to the next sequence. That’s going too far; it is replacing the teacher! Aaaaaack! Many can’t even imagine this potential because tech is just a tool for them. They’ve never seen the good stuff, the fully loaded adaptive digital curriculum. Yet, for increasing numbers of students in the voraciously digital consuming public, its not just a tool, it’s the way they bypass the ancient model of human teaching by 3Xing the speed of a YouTube video to learn about gravity and then skip out to play with the other kids in the real world.
Let’s make sure we all get one thing very clear. Tech is replacing the old whole-group model, it’s not replacing true human direct instruction. It’s making direct instruction a premium.
The delicate question is:
Will we let human teachers be human? Will there ever be a day when human teachers are used precisely and fortuitously only for their human qualities? Never leave any student behind but work like maestros of direct instruction and unfettered depth of digital accoutrements to pull off any student “getting it” in any subject?
Or will teachers and entire schools and districts be subsumed into a myriad of digital functioning bits and pieces until they are veritable megaliths of tools and systems, but teachers still do fairly “flat digital” text-based lessons? If so the digital ed-tech sophistication that is already here will go elsewhere and like water going downhill, seek its least path of resistance to get to its destination. It will build up the consumer markets like it has been until public education loses all of its luster. Already several CIOs from districts have mentioned that a forthcoming master system for consumers that uses on-demand tutoring and all sorts of paths and side trails of standards-based and testing aligned adaptive components could not just replace teachers but all schools.
The threat to traditional public education and its traditional structure is here, and it is not going away. Leaders are the ones who must lead their schools into a new distribution structure, one that uses teachers for their premium humanity in direct instruction, not in digital lessons and distributions functions to whole groups. The only thing missing is professional-grade logistics and workflow management of schedules, space (campus or remote) and student pacing logs so that the entire student body is managed despite being on normalized paths at independent points. Not necessarily based on competency, just pace.
It’s a delicate question about how we really help teachers digitally transition, one most leaders never let float through their minds. A big challenge. I am very brave for saying it because some won’t want to hear this and will reject it forcefully because the old way is the only way they know. They are happy with mild change. I cannot in good conscience stay silent, though, when I am seeing the truth of the data in school losses, the consumer trends, and the science behind the evolving tech systems.
One has to imagine how an alternative system would distribute all learning to every student in a personalized way and not necessarily only competency-based but follow a similar sequencing that learning has always had, just with a change to using human teachers at precise direct individual instruction intersections and some small or whole group intervals. Most people in education still don’t get this delicate distinction between human teaching and the death of whole group. They think what I am saying is “teacher replacement” when speaking of the full capacities and function of software, that it would be human-less.
Is Walmart human-less? Despite automation of check-out, Walmart still has greeters. Why? Because the humanizing of the stores is important to the brand. It almost is their brand. The same is happening in finance and healthcare. All service markets have a premium on the human aspect of their services. Doctors do not do everything for all patients, they have an array of nurses and administrators who do the bulk of the heavy lifting and their software systems are extremely complex for routing, records and prescriptions. In the news business, the newscasters themselves are in front of the camera but they do not do all of the work of their hour in the spotlight. Whole armies of behind-the-scenes people do that scripting. Yet in an interview style interaction, it’s that newscaster’s style and professionalness that matter.
Nothing is static in the business of education. It is wise to realize that this delicate question is asking leaders to realize this at a much deeper level since the start of the pandemic.
Stay tuned for my next articles set to expand on this theme:
- “Don’t Read This unless You’re a Superintendent”
- “Ending Whole Group Teaching & Learning by Building the Ultimate in Hybrid Logistics”
- “Saving the Overwhelmed Teacher”
About the Author
LeiLani Cauthen is the CEO and Publisher of The Learning Counsel. She is well versed in the digital content universe, software development, the adoption process, school coverage models, and helping define this century’s real change to teaching and learning. She is an author and media personality with twenty years of research, news media publishing and market leadership in the high tech, education and government industries.