Will Teaching and Learning Become Automated? (Part 3)

Part 2 of this series described the spread of software-driven automation across the economy in the past half-century. I used examples of automated flights, driverless cars, and electronic medical records. I did not mention that now software programmers have written precise instructions for clinicians to diagnose X-rays and MRIs, provide legal documents—called “discovery–for a trial, and  design ships and skyscrapers across the globe through CAD–computer-aided-design. The shift to automating the work of professionals has been stunning.

Driving this change is the market imperative to cut costs, raise productivity, and increase profits. That imperative, married to remarkable gains in applying artificial intelligence to professional tasks, has swept across the private sector. To those enamored with technology, spreading automation means progress. And there has been that kind of “progress” in K-12 schooling as well.

Advanced software to handle administrative work in K-12 districts have been put in place to manage payroll, personnel, purchasing, and similar tasks. Systematic collection and analysis of student personal and performance data has also multiplied over the past two decades. Automated processes, then, are hardly foreign to administrators. Nor to the three million-plus K-12 teachers who have latched onto software to help them keep tabs on students, assign grades, and manage their behavior. It is in the realm of teaching and learning in classrooms, however, that automation has stumbled.

No, I have not forgotten about online tutorials, screens filled with skill-driven worksheets, and the onset of automated grading of essays. Such software has helped many teachers.

But claims from technological enthusiasts that “progress” means classroom teachers will be obsolete in the 21st century are, at best, premature, or, at worst, mindless. It is this conceit that super-duper software will eventually, not today but in some future tomorrow, automate teaching that I take up in the final part of this series.


The onslaught of automation in the private sector and its seeming success in industrial, commercial, and professional work has given strength to those who see smart software conquering hitherto unassailable occupations like teaching and medicine. In schooling, the advance of automation has raised anew the most basic question of purpose: Toward what ends should schools strive? And exactly what role do teachers play in reaching those ends?

The purposes of tax-supported schooling

What technophiles forget, neglect, trip over—pick a verb–are the multiple purposes for tax-supported schools in a democracy. They and many others futurists err—my verb choice—in equating access to information with becoming educated. The purpose of schooling is reduced to acquiring information.

But information is, I hate to repeat the obvious, not knowledge. Googled facts do not add up to knowing something. Surely, knowledge depends upon accurate information but without context, interpretation, and experience facts are forgotten quickly. That obvious distinction between information and knowledge has been skipped over in the current passion for more classroom software to automate teaching.

Tax-supported public schools have been and are social, political, and moral institutions whose historic job has been to help children and youth acquire multiple literacies, enter the labor market well prepared, vote, serve on juries, contribute to their communities, think for themselves, and live full and worthwhile lives.

Until three decades ago, these diverse purposes for tax-supported public schools were obvious; now those purposes have been narrowed to job preparation; the other purposes are mentioned when diplomas are handed out. Engaged citizenship, contributing to one’s community, and living worthwhile lives remain in the shadows. Few policymakers, philanthropists, technology futurists have challenged (or are willing to challenge) the swelling embrace of automated instruction that promise transforming schools into information factories.

Teacher roles

The community–taxpayers, voters, families, and businesses–expects teachers to help children acquire multiple literacies, prepare for  the labor market, serve on juries, contribute to their communities, think for themselves, and live full and worthwhile lives.

Effective teaching, like work in other helping professions such as medicine, social work, and religious counseling is anchored in relationships. Those student/teacher relationships convert information into knowledge and, on occasion, knowledge into wisdom about the self and world. Teachers, then, from preschool through high school  are far more than deliverers of information.

In classrooms, they set and enforce the rules that socialize the young to act consistent with community norms. They set an example of adult behavior becoming for some students exemplars to model. They create classroom cultures that can encourage individual achievement, cooperative behavior, and independent decision-making. I may have left some roles off the list but readers who remember their student days can supply others that have gone unmentioned.

Obviously, not all teachers are stellar in performing these complex roles. Like doctors,  therapists, nurses, social workers, and clergy engaged in the helping professions variation in performance occurs. The key point is not the variation but the public and professional expectations that teachers do more than give information to their students. And in performing these multiple roles in classrooms, teachers have to decide moment-by-moment what to do.

Teachers make thousands of decisions in planning, conducting lessons, and assessing how well students are doing. Hundreds of those decisions are made in the nanosecond during teacher/student exchanges in daily lessons. Many decisions are moral ones in that they involve her authority as teacher, parental expectations, and student behaviors. Decisions over right and wrong are ever-present in classrooms. Teachers sort out conflicts daily among students over truth-telling and differences between parental values and school norms. They make both moral and intellectual decisions.  No software program that I know has algorithms that either make instantaneous decisions when events pop up unexpectedly or split-second moral decisions.

So, because of multiple purposes for schooling and the daily press of classroom decisions, I believe that automation of teaching is not around the corner. Were teaching to be defined as wholly the delivery of information, then teaching could be software-driven. But, oh, what a loss it would be to the intellectual and moral lives of students and a democracy that depends upon tax-supported schools to educate the next generation.



Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

18 responses to “Will Teaching and Learning Become Automated? (Part 3)

  1. Hi Larry.
    Your blog forces me to reflect and think about my daily decisions in my curriculum work. Currently, I am leading PD with teachers about technology and from my learning and work we will not replace teachers with automation.
    Technology should be considered when planning activities for students to engage in like any other resource such as texts, supplies, manipulatives, etc… if it is considered a tool to enhance the pedagogy and core content then it will empower teachers and more importantly shape how students learn in school, which will best prepare them for the future.

  2. Bravo! I agree that the fundamental distinction between information, knowledge and instruction is lost on many technologists and policy makers. Even more centrally, allowing the dialog to include only cognitive learning is a fundamental error. But I would argue that even teachers often act as though their primary role is to impart information, and this leads to a variety of beliefs about teaching and learning that result in the worst kind of teacher-centered classroom instruction. It also denies the importance of informal and self-guided learning, implicitly assuming that learning can only occur through formal instruction.

    I would make the point slightly differently: of all the things a teacher can do in a classroom, imparting information is probably the least important instructional function, as well as being the one that lends itself most easily to automation. If we go one step further, there are a variety of instructional strategies, well beyond imparting information, that can be implemented well using ICT, often in partnership with the teacher — not as a replacement.

    So, I’d like to see us get past the idea of replacing teachers. Instead, I’d like to treat the teacher as the scarcest and most valuable resource in the classroom, and try to automate as many teacher tasks as possible (including instruction/assessment and management), in order to maximize the value of the teacher by freeing his/her time to do only those things that teachers can do. This effectively places the teacher in the role of managing the learning environment, but specifically does not require that only the teacher can do instruction, or that formal instruction be provided for all forms of learning.

    • larrycuban

      The direction you lay out for the teacher in a quasi-automated classroom (or school) exists in scattered places, Rob. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  3. If we want a citizenry of robots, then it makes sense to be taught by robots.
    I suspect the rich will still raise them the old-fashioned way.

  4. charlesdschultz

    Larry, I very much agree with your conclusion, and I thank you for this enlightening three-part series; very well done.

    As someone who blogs about local education and public schools myself, I found it easy to see the many points you make. Specifically, I thank you for reminding us what tax-payer public education is all about. If nothing else, that is a HUGE take-away I hope we all remember. Technology is a tool, and should be used as a tool to accomplish a specific task; hammer for pounding nails, screwdriver for screws, wrench for bolts.

    My other take away is this. All this automata really opens the door so that children (or anyone who sucks air) can learn the nuts and bolts of grammar, math, science, etc from any location on the planet (give or take). So why not do that at home, or the library, or the park? Make that the homework. But when they get to “school” (whatever it looks like for you), there they can then be taught to participate, successfully and with confidence, in society. Teach my child how to live. Help me teach my child how to craft persuasive arguments, how to resolve conflict, how best to respond to oppression, how to fight for justice. Allow my child to create, to wonder, to inquire, to explore. That is what I want my school to excel at.

    Thanks again.

  5. Pingback: Larry Cuban’s three-part series on automation in education | Citizen4: A citizen's blog about Champaign Unit 4

  6. Pingback: The Limits of Technology: It Can Provide Information. It Can’t Educate. | Network Schools - Wayne Gersen

  7. Pingback: What happens when computers, not teachers, pick what students learn? - The Hechinger Report

  8. Hello Dr. Cuban. I continue to enjoy learning from you and reflecting on your perspective. Your work has had a profound effect on the work that I do and have done over the years! Keep writing … I need to keep learning. 🙂


    • larrycuban

      So nice to hear from you, Charlotte. The experience that Gary, I,and the rest of the team had in Mapleton added much to how a superintendent, like yourself, can make a series of incremental changes that accumulate into a fundamental reform of a district. Thanks for the comment.

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