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.

Research for America

Stimulus money is seeping into the research world. Federal funding agencies are offering one-time-only funding opportunities for researchers through programs like the NIH challenge grants, which are intended to inject money into the economy while correcting some of the recent decline in federal research investment.

Another idea that’s being floated is to use some of the stimulus money to fund post-bac research positions. Over at the NY Times, Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt have proposed creating a Research for America program that would create paid 2-year scientific research jobs for recent college graduates.

Some might use it to kickstart a career in science. However, for those who go on to other careers, they would carry with them an understanding and firsthand experience of how science works. Considering the current low level of scientific literacy in America, that couldn’t be a bad thing.

Wang & Aamodt’s piece, as well as many of the comments in the thread, talk about the pros and cons of traditional investigator grants versus the RfA program. In psychology, I think the benefits would overlap a fair amount. Labor makes up a large part of the expense of conducting behavioral research. Our measurements are acquired not just through equipment, but also through human beings who do things like FACS coding or other expert judgments. The 2-year, full-time commitment would be a boon to researchers who use labor- and training-intensive methods, many of whom currently depend on student research assistants who work a few hours a week for a few months and then move on.