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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Education Requires People, Duh!

The title seems obvious to me, and yet, we keep trying to find ways around it.

October 15, 2014

I turn 45 in six months’ time. Recently, my wife asked me what I wanted.

“A six-pack,” I replied.

“That’s it?” she said. “Sam Adams? Sierra Nevada? Westbrook White Thai?”

“Abs,” I said.

It’s not that I’m particularly vain, it’s just that reclaiming a flat stomach at 45 would signal – to myself above all others – that I’m capable of holding off the worst of the inevitable decay for a bit longer.

The goal isn’t so out of reach. For an almost 45-year-old, I’m in reasonable shape. I exercise three to four days a week and try to limit my intake of animal flesh. A combination of 10 pounds of fat loss combined with maybe 5 pounds of muscle gain would probably do it. With a dedicated program of diet and exercise over the next six months, it’s totally achievable.

So of course I went online and searched for “ab belt,” because sitting around watching TV while my abs are electro-stimulated to rock hard goodness seems preferable to a dedicated program of diet and exercise.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, the “ab belt” doesn’t actually work. Sure, it can do a little bit to tone muscles, but without the diet and cardiovascular exercise to lose the fat surrounding those muscles, the six-pack will remain as hidden from view as Donald Trump’s humanity.

Of course, I didn’t need the internet to tell me this because we all know that there’s no shortcut to fitness, that it requires the hard work of diet and exercise. For some reason, however, knowing this doesn’t stop us from pursuing one fad after another in an effort to do an end run around this fixed reality.

I thought of the ab belt when I read about the recently announced Global Learning XPRIZE in education, a competition with a $15 million prize to “develop open source and scalable software that will enable children in developing countries to teach themselves basic reading, writing and arithmetic.”

The subtext of the techno-solutionist vision is clear. People aren’t going to save these children, so we need to turn to software.

Something similar is afoot with Turnitin’s acquisition of LightSide Labs to foster their goal of rolling out automated feedback and grading software. The assumption is that it is somehow not possible for students to interact with a teacher, so the software needs to step into the breach.

Or how about the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation announcing plans to use some of their $700 million endowment to partner, “with technology companies such as IBM to produce virtual college search and advising tools, among other technology-mediated initiatives?”

They mean to solve the “problem” of “undermatching” for low-income students by developing software on the computers those students likely don’t have access to.

Just as I am looking for the magic bullet to bullet-proof abs, the ed tech industry is looking for, in the words of resident IHE ed tech blogger Joshua Kim, the “magic bullets of scale.”

Never mind that all the available evidence shows that education technology expands, rather than narrows the achievement gap and ed tech utopian projects like One Laptop Per Child, have been almost total busts.

Somewhere along the line, we have decided that humans are standing in the way of progress[1] when it comes to education, rather than acknowledging the truth, which is humans have always been, and must remain, central.

Because we know what works. We know what’s important to students: close contact with teachers who do more than convey information - or “exposit” in former Harvard President Larry Summers’ formulation - but also model, inspire, and mentor.

We know these things are important to future success because the data tells us so. The Gallup-Purdue Index that surveyed over 30,000 college graduates found that the most important aspect of a college education is the emotional support provided by engaged faculty. In the words of Brandon Busteed, the executive director of Gallup Education, people who received this kind of support during college were significantly more likely to “end up with great jobs and great lives.[2]

The survey dovetails with Daniel Chambliss and Christopher Takacs findings in How College Works, where they say, “Human contact, especially face to face, seems to have an unusual influence on what students choose to do, on the directions their careers take, and on their experience of college. It has leverage, producing positive results far beyond the effort put into it.”

And do we really need data to prove something we already know to be true? I dedicated my most recent book[3] to my teachers, “past, present, and future,” because it is these people who have inspired me to write and become a teacher myself.

This would not be my life if not for them.

There’s nothing hidden or mysterious about this, and yet, we repeatedly try to find technological workarounds because humans are inefficient, expensive, imperfect.

If we think software is going to solve the “problem of education,” we are delusional.

The real problem in education is that we refuse to do it, the same way I balk at crunches and forgoing mint chocolate chip ice cream in pursuit of my six-pack abs.

Pretending there’s a shortcut doesn’t make it so.

Dumping billions of dollars into this fantasy seems like madness to me.

Just imagine what we could do if we invested as much time, energy, and money in teachers and teaching as we do in pursuit of these technological follies.


Twitter isn't a replacement for face-to-face communication. It's a different, often useful, thing in its own right.


[1] What humans have been mostly standing in the way of is corporations monetizing the educational marketplace. We need to get rid of teachers before we can have space for software and technology to replace them. Whenever I say these things I get pushback from people in ed tech saying that there’s good people working to help teachers, which is absolutely true, just as there are bad people working in face-to-face education, but the reality is that corporations such as Pearson and McGraw Hill will not succeed unless they replace teachers, and ultimately, schools themselves.

[2] Is there another goal we have for our students?

[3] Not to brag, but Publishers Weekly said, “Like George Saunders and Etgar Keret, Warner plays with conventional mores, turning them on their ear. Also like those authors, Warner successfully layers his satire with rich characters and a general playfulness with form that somehow renders a deep emotional resonance. The result is a well-written and wonderfully comedic collection of short stories that gooses as much as it gives.” Okay, that actually is bragging.


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