Opinion

Arnett: What Does the Future Look Like? If We Do It Right, Teachers Plus Technology Can Free Educators to Focus More on Students

By Thomas Arnett | August 5, 2019

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

The McKinsey Global Institute’s recent report on the future of work for women made for an interesting headline at Education Week: “Forty Percent of Elementary School Teachers’ Work Could Be Automated By 2030.” The report’s case study of elementary education teachers points to an automation trend that could be a good thing for teachers and students. According to the report, “Many routine administrative tasks can be automated, potentially decreasing workloads and enabling teachers to spend more time on problem-solving with, and coaching, students, which could lead to better learning outcomes and increased teacher satisfaction.” In short, the future of automation points to amplifying teachers’ ability to meet their students’ learning needs.

So, what might this future look like?

As educational software improves over time, it will both streamline many administrative tasks and start to rival educators’ abilities at teaching basic literacy and numeracy. But elementary school teachers do much more than take attendance, prepare handouts and teach foundational knowledge and skills.

Although futurists like to imagine machines that think, act and feel like humans, that kind of sci-fi-level artificial intelligence is a long way off. This means that the odds of teachers being entirely replaced by machines are pretty slim. Software can gather and analyze a lot of student data — from demographics to keystrokes — that flag that a student might be struggling in ways unnoticed by a teacher. But gathering and analyzing data to detect patterns isn’t the same as knowing, caring about and having a relationship with a child. Software is good at generating immediate, automated feedback on students’ mastery of basic knowledge and skills. Higher-order feedback, such as reviewing the quality of reasoning and rhetoric in an essay, falls outside its purview.

Research consistently shows that teachers are the most important school-level factor affecting student outcomes — and good teaching goes well beyond presenting information or grading assessments with discrete answers. But the mountain of academic and nonacademic tasks educators must tackle each day often leaves them doing triage.

How often do teachers give their students multiple rounds of individual feedback on their work? How many teachers have regular one-on-one conferences with each student just to ask about how he or she is doing? Caring about students isn’t constrained by time, but showing that you care is.

Unfortunately, when push comes to shove, most teachers’ days quickly fill up with planning lessons, writing quizzes, running copies, covering content, attending staff meetings and grading lower-order assignments; little time is left for many of the high-value activities described above. This is why automation is so important. The more technology can automate some aspects of teachers’ work, the more teachers have time for the work that matters most.

As we look to the future of education in an age of automation, we have a choice. If our goal is cheaper rote learning, the machines are coming for teachers’ jobs. But if we want more student-centered learning that empowers all children to reach their potential, then teachers plus technology is the formula for expanding the frontier of educator capacity in school systems constrained by fixed time and resources.

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow in education for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on studying innovations that amplify educator capacity, documenting barriers to K-12 innovation and identifying disruptive innovations in education. 

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