Should We Automate Education?

The author of a new book on “teaching machines” ponders the possible effects on teaching and learning.

In 1962, Raymond Callahan published Education and the Cult of Efficiency, a historical account of the influence that “scientific management” (also known as “Taylorism,” after its developer, Frederick Taylor) had on American schools in the early 20th century — that is, the push to run schools more like factories, where the productivity of workers was measured, controlled and refined.

Callahan’s main argument was that the pressures on the education system to adopt Taylorism resulted neither in more refined ways to teach nor in better ways to learn, but rather, in an emphasis on cost cutting. Efficiency, he argued, “amounted to an analysis of the budget. … Decisions on what should be taught were not made on educational, but on financial grounds.”

Fifty years later, we remain obsessed with creating a more “efficient” educational system (although ironically, we object to schools based on that very “factory model”). Indeed, this might be one of the major promises that educational technologies make: to deliver a more efficient way to teach and learn, and a more efficient way to manage schooling.

Deciding What We Want From Education

Adaptive learning — computer-based instruction and assessment that allows each student to move at her or his pace — is perhaps the latest in a series of technologies that promise more ­efficient education. The efficiency here comes, in part, from the focus on the individual — personalization — instead of on an entire classroom of students.

But it’s worth noting that adaptive learning isn’t new. “Intelligent tutoring systems” have been under development for decades now. The term “intelligent tutoring” was coined in the 1980s; research into computer-assisted instruction dates to the 1960s; and programmed instruction predates the computer altogether, with Sidney Pressey’s and B. F. Skinner’s “teaching machines” of the 1920s and 1950s, respectively.

“Education must become more efficient,” Skinner insisted. “To this end, curricula must be revised and simplified, and textbooks and classroom techniques improved.”

Rarely do we ask what exactly “efficiency” in education or ed tech ­entails. Does it mean a reduction in ­errors? Faster learning? Reshaping the curriculum based on market demands? Does it mean cutting labor costs — larger classroom sizes, perhaps, or teachers replaced by machines?

We also often fail to ask why efficiency would be something we would value in education at all. Schools shouldn’t be factories. Students aren’t algorithms.

What happens if we prioritize efficiency in education? By doing so, are we simply upgrading the factory model of schooling with newer technologies? What happens to spontaneity and messiness? What happens to contemplation and curiosity?

There’s danger, I’d argue, in relying on teaching machines — on a push for more automation in education. We forget that we’re teaching humans.

Apr 04 2014