Teaching is a social interaction

Howard Gardner suggests that the next big leap for teaching will be “personalized education,” in which people will learn from computers that adapt to their individual learning style:

Well-programmed computers—whether in the form of personal computers or hand-held devices—are becoming the vehicles of choice. They will offer many ways to master materials. Students (or their teachers, parents, or coaches) will choose the optimal ways of presenting the materials. Appropriate tools for assessment will be implemented. And best of all, computers are infinitely patient and flexible. If a promising approach does not work the first time, it can be repeated, and if it continues to fail, other options will be readily available.

My response to this is a big fat humbug. Gardner has put forward some interesting ideas about multiple intelligences and different learning styles. But the notion that computers will supplant human teachers strikes me as overreaching.

Teaching is, at its core, a social interaction between teacher and student. That is why MIT isn’t putting itself out of business by putting gobs of course materials online. Teachers do not create new information. (Or at least — if they’re at a university and also do research — not in their role as teachers.) And frankly, they don’t often package it into some novel format (“here is a bodily-kinesthetic presentation of Bayes’ Theorem”). What teachers do is convey information through a social interaction with their students. Perhaps some day we’ll know enough about how to turn computers into compelling social agents that can reproduce that experience. But until then, I’m not worried about technology supplanting human teachers.

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