Teacher, student, text: Of these three fundamental education components, which is the least necessary to the learning process? The teacher.
That’s the view of this former educator, at least. The hundreds of thousands who make up our teacher unions would vociferously disagree, but I’m hardly alone in seeing that those who occupy space in the front of the class do not always deserve the authority they’re given. For all the inspiring stories we hear about teachers who rise above impossible challenges and make remarkable sacrifices, there are those we don’t hear about who bury their head in a newspaper while students do little more than fill out worksheets in class.
In 2010, the New York Times Magazine published a sobering statistic in an article profiling outstanding charter schools: The only profession in the U.S. that needs more people — more actual bodies — than teaching is the janitorial profession. The sheer demand for public school teachers explains why the bar for certification is set lower here than in many countries. It also explains why so many teachers keep their jobs despite students’ low performance in fundamentals like numeracy and literacy.
In 2010, the documentary Waiting for Superman also came out, presenting the case that schools often cause children to end up in prison. The education scholar Ken Robinson, meanwhile, argued in his wildly popular Ted Talk, Changing Paradigms in Education, that our schools are destroying creativity and intelligence (and very likely are among the causes of ADHD). So, what do we do? As more students enter higher education with a need for “remedial” coursework, questions about how to ensure student outcomes improve in college are also on the rise.
Here’s a proposition: Ditch the terrible teachers. Increase compensation to attract a pool of amazing educators who use AI sidekicks — i.e. bots — and choose superb course materials. With this combination, students would be encouraged to develop the sort of independent and creative learning skills they need in the marketplace, while receiving ongoing feedback from interactive bots and challenges from the outstanding reading material and teachers.
Doug Lemov, the charter school expert profiled in the Times Magazine article pointed out in his book Teach Like a Champion that, with a handful of teachers and a large number of the right books, we can bypass our excessive need for bodies in the education industry. Reading is the most fundamental skill a student can develop. If a child can learn to read well, Lemov writes, he can teach himself to build a house. He only needs a teacher — or, I would argue, a bot — to make that connection clear.
In this way, Lemov echoes the pedagogy of the esteemed educator Mortimer Adler, who helped develop the reading-intensive Great Books curricula at Columbia University, the University of Chicago and St. John’s College. Adler famously said that with “a book, a pen and a light,” any person can learn the world.
In higher education, teachers have already begun to use AI as a form of classroom support. Many students don’t even know the difference between the human TA and the bot.
With bots offering individual instruction, answering specific student questions, providing reassurance, assessment and ongoing encouragement, you could assign a single “super teacher” to hundreds of students at a time — without skimping on student support. Meanwhile, you could require students to really put their reading material to use, discuss and debate the work and develop collaborative assignments. Some students could even get together and build a house. Why not?
It may be years before the K–12 industry sees the wisdom of introducing bot assistants to the classroom. However, there is little doubt that many books we already have could do a better job instructing students than some of our teachers do now if they were put to proper use. All we need are teachers willing to point that out, give the students good books — and then get out of the way.