Education Opinion

Welcome to Stepford Elementary School!

By Susan Graham — March 17, 2009 2 min read
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There’s a new teacher at Stepford Elementary, her name is Saya and she meets the need for ethnic diversity on the staff. Saya is from Japan.

Saya demonstrates the Stepford School System’s commitment to “Integrating Technology to Prepare Our Students for 21st Century Learning.” Saya is a Robot Teacher.

You remember Stepford don’t you? It’s the quaint little suburban village where all those stay-at-home housewives are happy and beautiful because Dis, the president of the local Men’s Club, is replacing the old human models with new improved animatronic spouses. The nice thing about a robot is that robots don’t think or feel so all the annoying little habits and opinions of a real person can be programmed right out of a robotic Stepford Wife. No ideas, no ambition, and no negative emotions.

But wait, Saya may have to participate in some highly effective staff development reprogramming.

Saya can express six basic emotions — surprise, fear, disgust, anger, happiness, sadness — because its rubber skin is being pulled from the back with motors and wiring around the eyes and the mouth.

I can understand designing a robot that gives the impression of caring by imitating surprise and happiness. But why on earth program a robotic teacher for disgust and anger? Who thought that would be a good idea?

Now I am beginning to worry---is Saya really a highly qualified teacher? Imagine my concern when I started doing a little research and found out that she is a former receptionist! Did she go through a formal teacher preparation program? A quickie alternative preparation program? Or did she test out through the Japanese equivalent of the “take a test and get the certificate” process? What do we really know about her pedagogical skills?

Saya can…..perform actions such as call roll, smile or scold, but plans for perfecting it already exist.

Wow, is she going to get advanced training in handing out papers and writing names on the board? Before you know it, she’ll be able to give out spelling words!

Oh relax, Saya isn’t going to take your job just yet. She’ s a little bit better than the toucans in the Tiki Room, but not quite up to Abraham Lincoln in The Hall of Presidents. But don’t let your guard down too much; because as I looked for information about Saya, I discovered this….

The research falls under the umbrella of artificial intelligence -- the creation of machines that can behave like humans -- and Whitehill envisions a not-so-far-away future when robots will replace people as teachers, at least in areas that require a lot of repetition, such as foreign language and math drills. He doesn't, however, foresee them ever replacing philosophy teachers, for example. "Mundane subjects or those that try a teacher's patience would be good for robot teachers," Whitehill said. "Robots have infinite patience."

Hummm… So, does that mean that robots would be a good answer for those English as a Second Language kids and the ones who are low-performing in math? If it tries the teacher’s patience to teach that way, I wonder how trying it is on the poor kids? Whitehill points out that this would free up the the “real” teachers for the more “challenging” courses. Makes you wonder exactly how deep his understanding of teaching and learning (and humanity) really runs.

I wonder if Mr. Whitehill would want his robot to teach his own kindergartner? Would that"infinite patience with mundane subjects” be sufficient for his own children? Or would he rather have someone who has had human experience with human children. Well, maybe Saya will have received software updates to expand her knowledge, skills, and dispositions as an educator by then. They say that robots with artificial intelligence will “learn” over time from exposure to “data” (that’s us). She could be the next-generation robot’s mentor. You never know. What goes around comes around because it’s a small world after all!.

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.