The Scoop: Alternative News & Views

People Teach, Not Machines

Mireille Coral, Jeff Noonan

04 November 2016 in Education

The belief that schools at all levels need to embrace new learning technologies is widespread. The belief that they are not fully embracing these technologies is also widespread, even though hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in Canada on technological development: wireless internet has been installed, classrooms have become "smartrooms," and faculty are endlessly pestered to take one or another workshop on how to more effectively use this or that digital technology and this or that "innovative" technique.

But does any of this investment actually enable learning to take place? That is a different question from: can it assist the learning process. The answer to that question is: of course, (but not necessarily). Just as a pen and paper can assist it, or a blackboard, or a mnemonic trick that helps people remember something important, a course web site or powerpoint presentation can help learning, if used appropriately. All are technical devices to help the brain store and recall information, and storing and recalling information is one part of the learning process. But it is not identical to learning.

To learn in the full sense of the term is to master a practice or activity that one could not formerly do to create something that did not formerly exist. That is what tying one’s shoes, constructing a logical proof, solving an algebraic problem, or writing a poem have in common. Each of them is a practice which requires the brain to construct something according to rules (or by inventing rules) which, if successful, results in a conclusion or an object which did not exist before. To learn, therefore, is to extend the human powers of creation. The assimilation of information is involved here, but learning is not reducible to it.

One can read poetry, and never master the art of writing it. One can memorize what the operators in symbolic logic look like, and yet never be able to construct a valid proof; one can read the instructions on how to tie one’s shoes, and never stoop to do it. Learning requires practice and no information technology can substitute for practice.

But people do not practice that which is unimportant to them. If, for whatever reason, you are bored by poetry, you can be forced to read it, but you will never learn to write it. No computer program can ever interest you in poetry, because it cannot be interested by poetry. But a literature professor can interest you, not by transmitting information, but by helping disclose the meaning the information (the poetic form and content) sets forth. Boredom is only ever cancelled by deeper understanding, and deeper understanding can only be achieved by working with someone who can lead you beyond the surface (what things look like or what the rules as rote commands say) to what they are, mean, and can do.

Hence teaching is at root a practice of first interesting students in the material (overcoming the boredom borne of not understanding the significance of what is at stake) and then engaging them in exercises that enable them to practice following or inventing the relevant rules so that over time they become capable of creating in the relevant domain. Of course technologies can help this process, but they are by no means a necessary condition of it. Even in computer science, the scientific work is first of all the code: a mathematico-logical creation without which the computer is just an inert object.

There is also a growing body of evidence that some of the machinery which purports to aid learning (lap tops for notes, web sites to post lecture notes, power point and other software that aids the incorporation of visual media in the classroom hinder rather than assist learning. One recent study has discovered, for example, that when students use laptops to take notes they tend to transcribe lectures verbatim, whereas when they took notes long hand, they tended to think through and interpret what was being said. ("The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking," Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, Psychological Science, 25(6) 2014, pp. 1159-1168). Students in the study who took notes long hand tended to score better on tests of their conceptual understanding (their ability to master the concepts and thus work on their own using them) of the content of the lectures, whereas students who used the lap tops were limited to more superficial understanding. Here, the technological supplement for thinking through on one’s own in the social space of the classroom appears to have impaired learning, not deepened it.

The reason why is not difficult to understand if we put it in the context of the argument above: learning requires that the student become interested in the material, and mechanical transcription is not a sign of interest, whereas interpretation and thinking through is such a sign. The point is not to say that taking notes causes the student to become interested and a lap top causes the student to be disinterested, but rather that participation in the activity of the classroom encourages the formation of interest, and the lap top is an impediment to participation. The argument is not against lap tops or any technology in the abstract, but for a practice of teaching that takes as its primary task engaging students in the material. This task requires that the teachers themselves be engaged with the material. For this essential task there is no technological alternative.

In light of the findings of this research, a case could be made that, in a world increasingly filled with distractions, the classroom is one place where technology should be shut down, restricted for the teacher's use only, or highly supervised. A study conducted in 2010 at the University of Michigan found that in high schools where students were allowed to bring their cell phones into the classroom, 71% of the students sent or received text messages during class; where students were not allowed to use cell phones but could have them in the classroom, the percentage was 65%, and where cell phones were banned entirely, 58% of students sent or received text messages during class, despite the ban on cell phones. In her book No Logo, Naomi Klein (2010) cites one frustrated professor who describes the students at the back of the room as "cruising, shopping, disengaged."

Often, technology-in-the-classroom workshops attempt to provide teachers with ways to embrace technology precisely because personal devices such as cell phones and lap tops have become an important part of the lives of students, as though using your cell phone in class will make school more interesting. Undoubtedly, cell phones and laptops can be used in creative ways to connect students to a world of information, as well as to create interesting assignments, but, as the numbers above suggest, they can also serve as a serious distraction. More importantly, access to the internet in and of itself is not a substitute for good teaching. What characterises good teaching has not changed over the thousands of years that teachers and students have been coming together. The teaching-learning exchange is a fundamentally human relationship. It is a complex interaction between a teacher and a student that includes, among other qualities, dialogue, respect for the interests and values of students while also challenging their positions, engaging students usually by making the course content relevant to their lives, and openness to learning together.

Furthermore, access to the internet cannot by itself foster critical thinking, an important goal of education in a democracy. At a time when parliament can be prorogued to serve the political needs of the Prime Minister rather than the needs of parliament, as Canadians experienced under Stephen Harper, or when election campaigns can be hijacked by the personalities of the candidates rather than serve as an opportunity for debate about issues, as the current election campaign in the United States shows, the need for critical citizenship is urgent. Like the teaching-learning exchange, critical thinking is also a fundamentally human process that involves, for example, reading for pleasure and life experiences, but also a way and a place to reflect on these experiences in dialogue with others.

In our experience as teachers, we have seen students with a variety of apps on their cell phones and lap tops, and the kind of internet skills that come with growing up in the computer age. What they lack is a way to question or critically analyze information, and in some cases a venue in which to have these conversations. Schools can provide these skills and this venue. This is how learning takes place.