Education Opinion


By Susan Graham — February 25, 2010 4 min read
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I’m not a cutting edge technology person. I don’t use half the features on the gadgets I have - and the gadgets I have, in many cases, are hardly cutting edge. My iPod is a hand-me-down from my daughter-in-law and my daughter taught me to use it. My digital camera, which was way cool when it was new, is sort of big and clunky by current standards, but I understand it. My cell phone is bigger than a package of peanut butter snack crackers and has neither a camera nor a keyboard. I’m not sure they make batteries for it any more. I’d rather use a land line than Skype. I don’t Twitter and I don’t TIVO. However, I have this fabulous new friend, my GPS system. I’ve nicknamed her Miss Garmin and when she is with me I go boldly where I could not go before.

Miss Garmin and I have been hanging out a lot lately. She drove up to D.C. with us to see those Terra Cotta Warriors and she knew about a great parking garage right across the street from the museum. We were driving down to Richmond for a meeting when traffic came to a standstill on I-95, but when I took the first available exit, she navigated a new route and got us there on time. When we got hungry in a strange town she made restaurant suggestions.

It may be an indication that I have spent too many years with young adolescents, but I couldn’t resist testing Miss Garmin’s patience and endurance. I wondered if she would eventually become a little more authoritarian and correct me or if she might conclude I wasn’t going to use the information she offered and turn herself off. So I purposely and willfully ignored the directions, but no matter how often I went straight when she said turn or went right instead of left, she never said “Hey, you missed the turn back there,” or “You’re wrong!” or “You are obviously too pig-headed to accept good advice because I’ve told you over and over and you still aren’t following my instructions!” No matter what I did, Miss Garmin calmly and tireless continued to respond, “Recalculating.”

The more I use my little GPS, the more impressed I am with its capabilities and the more I trust it. It helps me plan and it gives me information, and it gives me confidence and freedom to go where I want to go. With Miss Garmin doing the navigating, I’m free to think rather than worry when I’m on the road. One of the things I’ve been thinking about is exactly what sort of new approaches to public education would be truly innovative and not simply new packaging of the same ideas. It occurs to me that some people might see a sort of an educational GPS system replacing the classroom teacher. I hope not, but I do realize that in the rush to instructional innovations, a good idea could quickly escalate into a full-blown school redesign initiative.

Even now there are intelligent tutorial programs that use monitors to assess the emotional state of the subject and then adjust their delivery of information, mimicking interest and concern for the learner. It’s an intriguing concept. HAL gets laid off by the space program and goes into education. But no matter how well designed or how sensitive to emotional responses, I don’t believe there’s a software package that can replace human interaction.

At the same time, I must admit that Miss Garmin has some admirable teacher knowledge, skills, and dispositions.

  • She’d knows where I live and if I ask her to take me home, I can depend on her to get me there safely.
  • She realizes that I can’t focus on where we are going if my basic needs aren’t met, but she knows where to find food, a bathroom, gas, a hospital or the police.
  • She encourages me to take little field trips that make traveling fun and enriching by pointing out places of interest like museums, zoos, and parks.
  • She constantly updates her content knowledge and conveys that information to me in terms I can understand.
  • She offers me the big picture of where we are headed as well as specific and detailed information that allows me to zoom in and out depending on how much I need or want to know at the moment.
  • She anticipates and prepares me for change as she calmly tells me to expect to “Turn left in 2.3 miles at exit 123 and continue for 5.9 miles.”
  • She continually adjusts the pacing guide based on her assessment of my progress and performance.
  • She gives me ongoing feedback, allowing me to see and monitor my own progress on screen in real time, but she doesn’t judge me.
  • She believes all drivers can arrive.

So why invest in flesh and blood teachers when high quality technology can maintain pinpoint focus on the objective, provide accurate information, do ongoing assessment, and make instantaneous modifications? Isn’t this the sort of innovation we’re looking for in public education?

It sounds logical doesn’t it? But while it looks good on the surface, there are some deep seated problems. A perfectly programmed machine may assess and adapt quickly and infinitely without being judgmental, but that’s not a sign of patience, it’s a sign of indifference. And it seems a little backwards when you think about the focus. The objective of my GPS is not actually getting me to where I want to go; it’s objective is to reach a predetermined destination. In reality, I’m a tool to get it where it’s programmed to go. It takes input only to achieve it’s own programmed outcome. In truth, it could care less about what I want.

I can see why a policymaker might see the Miss Garmin model of educator as a great innovation. She’s accurate. She’s efficient. She’s cheap. She’s never off task. She never raises her voice. She works tirelessly. And she’s got an on/off switch!

But I wonder, would those same policymakers be willing to entrust their own children to a highly effective efficient teaching machine? Or would they rather have an imperfect human who cared more about the children than the instructional destination?


The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.