Artificial intelligence is big news. Over the last three months, I’ve taken in a half-dozen podcast episodes on the subject, as well as heard and read reports from NPR, CNN, The Guardian, Reuters, and The New York Times, just to name a few. According to some, AI-powered chatbots are set to replace everyone from counselors and journalists to Broadway-bound playwrights. Even 4th grade writers may become a thing of the past! And what of teachers? Could AI-powered robots replace us? More importantly, should they?
Setting the Stage
After presenting at a recent reading conference, I was approached by a researcher who told me she was working on robots capable of teaching reading skills. My first thought was, “That’s crazy talk. Who would want that?” But as I listened to the professor speak, and later, as I reflected on what teaching efforts are required to teach readers who struggle, I found myself thinking yes, robots could teach important reading skills and yes, I am open to the possibility of AI-powered programs and robots that teach certain components of reading.
There are, of course, many excellent reasons why robots and AI should not replace humans in the world of work. From a humanist viewpoint (all technical, historical, ethical, and equity issues aside), my reasoning is fairly simple: 1) jobs and careers often bring dignity and a sense of purpose; 2) humans thrive when they have both; 3) if we allow intelligent robots to take our jobs, our ability to live purposeful, thriving lives will be greatly diminished.
But if we consider AI as a supplement to what humans do rather than a replacement, then my opinion changes: I think it could be somewhat to very helpful to have robots and AI in our world. For example, robots and artificial intelligence are already hard at work in medicine, quickly and accurately spotting malignant tumors, transcribing doctor-patient interactions, assisting with prostate surgery, and designing previously unimagined molecules and proteins for new lines of research and drug therapies.
Obviously, artificial intelligence is now at the point where it is able to perform certain technical tasks better than humans, in ways that are increasingly beneficial to its human masters. In the field of education, robots and AI might function in the same supplemental way, teaching skills that require a lot of repetition for mastery, supporting students during independent work time (when a teacher is engaged with a small group), performing formative assessments and designing maximized-for-learning follow-up lessons. Let’s consider these more deeply, starting with repetition.
Go Back, Jack, Do It Again
As part of my one-day seminar on dyslexia, I present seven teaching techniques useful for teaching all children to read and especially helpful when teaching students who struggle. The first is repetition, a technique common to all effective teaching and a prominent part of tried and true reading interventions such as Wilson Reading, 95%, Corrective Reading, and so forth. Teachers using the Orton-Gillingham program sometimes refer to repetition as “relentless redundancy” but no matter what you call it, when combined with distributed practice, repetition is a foundational component of effective reading instruction, especially when it comes to teaching students on the dyslexia continuum. To become fluent readers, children MUST break the code and for some it will take dozens of repetitions to form sound-letter relationships. Therefore, repetition is a necessary part of their reading instruction.
Like everything positive, repetition comes with challenges. One is to avoid the drill and kill trap, where a teacher and/or program uses the same materials and activities over and over again for too long of a period of time, thus boring the student and possibly the teacher. Once boredom sets in, distraction and irritation follow, along with decreasing levels of learning.
Thoughts About Bots
One way to minimize “repetitive equals boring” is to use a variety of activities that teach the same concept or skill repeatedly over time. Enter intelligent robots! In situations demanding high degrees of repetition, such as teaching sound-letter associations, decoding skills, and spelling patterns to students who struggle to learn, non-human instructors could provide efficient and effective instruction. For students, the instruction would be novel and engaging. Many children might be tickled to spend 1-on-1 time with a robot or an especially clever and chatty computer program. And as we know, motivation and engagement are huge factors in how much a student learns. So, anything we can do to motivate and engage is a good idea.
As for teachers, there are many possible benefits. First, for some teachers, repetitive intervention programs are problematic (i.e. uninteresting). But robots don’t mind repetition (in fact, they don’t “mind” anything at all). Second, a robot running skill practice with an individual student or small group would enable a teacher to work with other students, individually or in small groups. Third, robots don’t have feelings, one way or the other, for any particular reading program and so their ability to carry out a particular methodology isn’t influenced by how they feel about it. Finally, artificial intelligence can easily gather, manage, and translate large amounts of assessment data, an ability that could free teachers to concentrate on the big picture of classroom achievement.
Speaking of data translation, AI is already capable of crafting future lessons that take into account past response patterns, thereby allowing for the fine-tuning lessons for individuals. This targeted instruction can lead to greater student learning in a shorter amount of time. In turn, students who quickly learn basic skills feel less frustrated and more happy. These happy feelings then feed positive feedback loops. Nothing succeeds like success, right? Equally important, less time spent on drilling skills (because students learn more efficiently) means more time spent on other important educational endeavors, such as exploration, discovery, discussion, and synthesis.
As Paul Simon sang in The Boy in the Bubble, “These are the days of miracle and wonder.” Technology, as always, is showing up in our world, whether we are ready or not. And so it behooves us to start carefully considering how, when, where, and especially why we want to use those intelligent robots.
I am a teacher, literacy consultant, author, musician, nature lover, and life long learner.