24 May 2014

Four Skills for Teachers of the Future

I'm taking an online HTML/CSS class over the summer and almost of all of it is taught via video and textbook. So it makes me wonder: how hard could it be to simply teach myself all of this?

As I discuss the future of education with other educators, especially regarding how technology is changing it, we almost always end up at the same question: if this works, will it put us out of a job? But there are a few skills that might be irreplaceable by technology, and we'd be wise to develop them now.

Skill #1: Curation

A quick internet search of "learn html" reveals a big problem in the Age of Information, or should we call it the Age of Information Overload? "Learn HTML in 6 Hours" says one video, "Learn HTML in 12 Minutes" says another. The options are endless, and I don't know where I would start.

Museum curators know how to pick and position artifacts for maximum experience.
Teachers of the future will need to be content curators. They know their students, they know their abilities, and they pick exactly the right content and share it at exactly the right time to guide learners to reach the objectives.

However, as I think about it, this might not be irreplaceable. Plenty of services are already attempting to curate experiences for users through fancy algorithms. For example, when I listen to Ratatat and Fatboy Slim on Spotify, it starts making predictions on other groups I might also like. Perhaps a classroom of the future will start predicting what I should learn next based on what I've done so far. That actually sounds pretty awesome.

Then again, I had never heard anything like Ratatat until my brother suggested it to me. There will always be a place for humans, fewer humans, probably, but humans nonetheless.

Skill #2: Purpose

Let's say I did discover the exact set of videos that would perfectly match my abilities, but then what? I recognize that HTML is a skill I would do well to have, but I don't really have anything to apply it to at the moment.

My biggest goal as a teacher right now is to provide my students with a purpose. (You could replace 'purpose' with 'goals' or 'objectives' or 'desire.') If someone wants to do something, they'll figure out a way to do it. Instead of just demonstrating how to use masks in Photoshop, I show them how to morph two animals together. It's an attractive goal that many students really enjoy attempting regardless of the grade they get. Not all my assignments are this successful, but that's my goal. By giving students something to work on, to work toward, I'm offering them something no computer ever could. It's specific to their age group, their ability level, their local culture.

Skill #3: Feedback

Let's say some computerized educational service provides me with fantastic educational content and I also happen to have a project I want to work on as I learn. That's great if everything goes perfectly, but what happens when I run into problems? How do I know if I'm doing it right? or what I could do better?

This is probably the most crucial skill of a teacher in the future. I'm fairly confident that computers will never be able to provide the kind of personalized feedback that a caring teacher can. A teacher can recognize when a student is struggling, can identify where he went wrong, can offer the exact hint or solution or encouragement that helps him keep going.

There are programs out there that attempt to grade and provide feedback. My district uses an essay-grading service that does a pretty good job. Regarding my current class, there are sites out there that can read your HTML/CSS syntax and point out errors. Microsoft Word has been red- and green-underlining things for ages. But anyone who has used any of these services know that they are far from perfect. Students have figured out that the trick to getting a high score on the automated essay grading system is to simply make the essay longer. HTML/CSS verifiers will notoriously point out errors that aren't errors at all because computers simply have a hard time with context. Microsoft Word will insultingly tell you that your own name is spelled wrong, and that you're not allowed to use the same word twice in a row.

Skill #4: Motivation

Most things that are worth learning will likely be hard to learn. It takes time. It takes effort. It takes a good deal of failure. As I create my website, it'll occur to me how much more work it'll take to get to what I want to see. I'll come up with excuses to not work on it. I might decide that it wasn't a skill I needed anyway.

In college, often you're motivated by the money you're spending on it. You're not going to waste it by not finishing your work. At all levels, you might be motivated by grades. Hopefully teachers have linked grades to effort and authentic learning so that the grade actually means you learned something. But throw both of those out and there's still so much that a human teacher can bring in regards to motivating you to keep going. Maybe it's an extension of purpose by the way she gives you goals to reach for. Maybe she's using feedback to encourage you to keep going. Maybe she creates a friendly competition with other classmates, or incites a heated debate on the subject. There are endless ways that teachers can motivate you to keep learning.

Often, with motivation, gamification comes up. Codecademy, for example, is a service that teaches coding skills and attempts to use streaks ("Do some code today to extend your streak to 11 days!") and badges to keep you going. It may work for some, but not many. Like the essay grading software I mentioned earlier, there are too many ways to cheat automated systems. Additionally, gamification is still such a new, untested idea with endless examples of doing it wrong. Humans will be needed for a long time before computers can replicate the motivation they can offer.

Beyond Skills: Proficiencies

The skills I listed are more like soft skills, and I'm leaving out software and other hard skills or proficiencies. Teachers of the future will probably need to acquire new proficiencies. Perhaps a topic for a future blog post, but for now I'll throw it out there that I think coding will be a serious contender for number one desired proficiency of teachers in the future. Teachers will need to create interactive experiences for their students as more and more curriculum goes online. I'll leave it at that for now.

1 comment:

  1. You make some good points. I recently started doing some web development after not having touched it for 8 years. It was difficult trying to sift through all the tutorials to find one that explained things at the level I wanted.