“They will have to do what any good teacher does”

Saturday’s New York Times brought us a fascinating article on robot technology and teaching. In their piece Benedict Carey and John Markoff describe the cutting-edge developments underway where “highly programmed machines” with motion tracking and speech recognition tools can engage humans and “rival” some teaching tasks. In one investigation, reported in the NYT article, a […]

Simon-the-robot1Saturday’s New York Times brought us a fascinating article on robot technology and teaching. In their piece Benedict Carey and John Markoff describe the cutting-edge developments underway where “highly programmed machines” with motion tracking and speech recognition tools can engage humans and “rival” some teaching tasks. In one investigation, reported in the NYT article, a robot named “RUBI” was found to significantly improve the vocabulary of two handfuls of toddlers.

No doubt artificial intelligence can greatly enhance learning opportunities for the growing diversity of students entering our public schools. So many other industries and professions —whether in automobile manufacturing or in medicine —increasingly are investing in technology to enhance productivity and advance professional practice.

But as one executive of a company that makes a remotely controlled robot made perfectly clear: “The problem with autonomous machines is that people are so unpredictable, especially children” and “it’s impossible to anticipate everything that can happen” in a classroom. As Carey and Markoff note, “If robots are to be truly effective guides…they will have to do what any good teacher does: learn from students when a lesson is taking hold and when it is falling flat.”

If you do not quite get this point, just turn to another piece in the Saturday edition of the Times, pointing to the large growth in Teach for America — a high-profile effort to recruit recent young graduates of top-flight universities, who receive only a few weeks of basic training before they enter some of the nation’s highest needs schools. Here’s what reporter Michael Winerip writes about Lilianna Nguyen, a recent Stanford graduate, who is struggling to teach a sixth-grade math class about negative numbers.

(Liliana) prepared definitions to be copied down, but the projector was broken. She’d also created a fun math game, giving every student an index card with a number. They were supposed to silently line themselves up from lowest negative to highest positive, but one boy kept disrupting the class, blurting out, twirling his pen, complaining he wanted to play a fun game, not a math game.

“Why is there talking?” Ms. Nguyen said. “There should be no talking.”

“Do I have to play?” asked the boy.

“Do you want to pass summer school?” Ms. Nguyen answered.

The boy asked if it was O.K. to push people to get them in the right order.

“This is your third warning,” Ms. Nguyen said. “Do not speak out in my class.”

This is where the nuance of knowing your students well as individuals and having a deep understanding of child development, sociological interactions in a classroom, and behavior management — as well as varied pedagogical techniques in math — makes the difference in what gets learned. And no robot can do it all. Nor can an ill-prepared and under-supported teacher.

We need Ms. Nguyen and thousands more like her, but we need them and those who support them to make a full commitment to the preparation, support and ongoing professional development it takes to become an excellent teacher.