Machines That Think, Diagnose, and Teach–Brave New World

Plaque marking Alan Turing's former home in Wi...

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In 1950, the Turing Test–named after Alan Turing, a British mathematician and founder of computer science–was established to determine if an artificial intelligence (AI) program could be written that would convince judges–who would pose questions through a computer terminal to a human and the AI program–that they knew whether a human or machine was answering their questions. For the past two decades, a prize of $3,000 was given. In 2009, a human won–but just barely.

Recall also Garry Kasparov beating Big Blue in chess in 1996 and then losing to the machine next year.

And just a month ago, Watson beat two human contestants at “Jeopardy.” Looks like AI machines are on a roll. Maybe.

Treating patients and teaching students also have advocates touting medical high-tech procedures (e.g., MRIs, CT Scans, electronic health records) and student learning (e.g., hybrid schools, online learning– seeK-12 online programs.) Yet, and this remains a big “yet,” there are voices, albeit in a distinct minority, who, recognizing clearly the advances high-tech devices have made in both health and schooling, point out the critical importance of doctors and teachers using low-tech ways of caring for patients and students.

First, most doctors have come to increasingly rely on CT scans and MRIs while fewer physicians actually probe a patient’s body. Physical diagnosis, touching a patient’s body to ascertain normal and abnormal functions (think stethoscope), is becoming a lost art even when it is taught in the first two years of medical school because once students enter the clinical phase of their training they see that daily practice means “getting tests ordered and getting results, having procedures like colonoscopies done expeditiously, [and] calling in specialists.” Abraham Verghese points out that beyond the importance of carefully touching the body of the patient to diagnose illnesses there is the ritual of a physical exam, one that often establishes trust between the patient and the doctor.  After examining an elderly woman in his hospital ward, Verghese said, “[r]ituals are about the crossing of a threshold, and in the case of a bedside exam … is the cementing of the doctor-patient relationship, a way of saying: ‘I will see you through this illness. I will be with you through thick and thin.” Caring and trust, the precious ingredients of the doctor-patient relationship, are not one of the metrics used to measure medical effectiveness; it is also missing from the Medicare incentives that reward the high-tech tool-kit that doctors use rather than listening to the patient or spending time doing a physical exam.

It is that all-important human connection in medical practice that also exists between teachers and students in classrooms daily for deep and lasting learning to occur. Both researchers and experienced teachers have found that teachers with the requisite skills and knowledge of children and subject matter have built strong bonds of trust, respect, and caring with students–classroom relationships–from preschool through graduate seminars. Surely,  high-tech aids in the hands of competent teachers can and do enhance learning. Nonetheless, those high-tech aids depend upon both teacher’s knowledge and skills and those hard-to-measure bonds of trust that unfold between teachers and students. Note the phrase “hard-to-measure” and that is the rub.

Philanthropists, the U.S. Secretary of Education, governors, and CEOS have elevated standardized test scores as the primary metric for determining effective schools and teachers. Inexpensive to administer and easy to collate into data bases these test scores, the above leaders assert, can tell evaluators which schools and teachers are winners and which are losers. Using test scores, of course, to determine teacher effectiveness is popular with the current crop of reformers simply because it is a low-hanging fruit suggesting productivity–the holy grail of business-driven reformers. Let’s be truthful, it is just too hard to find reliable measures for the trust and caring that constitute teacher-student relationships and produce long-term learning.

With all of the importance attached to test scores, however, those very same cherished numbers matter little in the rush to judgment that reformers make about online learning. The evidence, at best, is mixed on online learning in both university and K-12 schools but it doesn’t matter. Online teaching is cheaper and fewer classroom teachers are needed. Again when it comes to online learning, building trust and respect between teacher and student is a non-issue.

All of this is to say that the drum majors for high-tech use in medical practice and schools and the recent victories of artificial intelligence in chess and game shows in acting human display hubris in their dreams of transforming medical and teaching practice. Doctors increasingly rely on high-tech tools to diagnose illnesses rather than investing time in asking questions and touching the patient. School reformers, enamoured with high-tech devices in classrooms and online learning, devalue the worth of the building of trust and caring that goes into the teacher-student relationship because it is too difficult to measure and, anyway, students can learn more, faster, and better from machines. Illusionary proxies for productivity trump trusting relationships. This is the brave new world for patients and students.

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4 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

4 responses to “Machines That Think, Diagnose, and Teach–Brave New World

  1. Bob Calder

    Ref: John Seely Brown & Paul Duguid’s The Social Life of Information, pp 21.
    Early on in the book, they point out in 6-D Vision, the problems of over-reliance on data or information. Disaggregation and disintermediation in particular imply a single arrow of progress when reality tells us there is much more going on.

    I would like to point out the similarity of the “narrative of the hero” to the search for the perfect answer that exists in groups that oppose science and groups that oppose changing our system of governance one iota from that which the founders intended.

  2. Steve Davis

    Online learning is neither all good nor all bad. It has great potential, especially in the “developing world,” but in the current economic and political climate of the U.S. it will likely lead to the further dumbing down of the curriculum in order to skirt class size mandates, save states money, and fill the coffers of corporations.

    The Miami-Dade County school system is throwing kids into online classes to evade the class room cap of 25 students. Many of the students don’t want to be in these classes. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/18/education/18classrooms.html

    As far as I can tell, parents are not shelling out $30K a year to one of the top 20 private high schools in America to have their student participate in drill-and-kill software while a “facilitator” holds court over a class of 35-40 students. Online learning is being foisted upon those students with the fewest resources, and skills.

    Let’s be clear on one thing, “facilitators” are not teachers. They are clerks. They simply make sure that a student can access the course content, help students trouble shoot tech. problems, and in some cases provide supervision of physical spaces dedicated to online course access.

  3. “Let’s be truthful, it is just too hard to find reliable measures for the trust and caring that constitute teacher-student relationships and produce long-term learning.”

    Larry, that’s the simplest summation of the argument against testing madness that I’ve read.

    What’s gone wrong with this country? I’m reading B. Barber’s _Consumed_ and feeling really, really hopeless. Thanks for speaking truth to deaf power. Cheered me up.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Patrick. It has been some time since that principals’ workshop in which we met so I do appreciate your note.

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