The Spanish painter Francisco Goya lived to the legendary age of 82 – quite a feat in the early 19th century. Towards the end of his life, old, deaf, ailing, and relocated to France, he settled down to draw one last time. Using crayon on paper, he sketched an ancient, bearded patriarch propped up on two spindly sticks. In the top right corner Goya scrawled the message: Aún aprendo. I’m still learning.
I was reminded of the picture when I visited Madrid recently. There’s a subway stop named Goya, where you can see exquisite prints of his engravings from the Los Caprichos and Tauromaquia series on the platform walls as you wait for your train. The picture speaks to me, as an educator; it reminds me to keep learning.
A Third-Age Student
One of my all-time favorite students was a Japanese man in his late seventies, who I’ll call Hiro (an appropriate name if you say it aloud). For half a century he’d dreamed of coming to the UK to study English, but life kept getting in the way. Military service, marriage, family, work. Now happily retired, he’d finally made it. And he was in better shape than Goya’s ancient learner.
Hiro joined me and a class of twenty-somethings. They treated him with reverence. He was a fount of wisdom. He’d seen things others had only read about. He remembered the moon landings. He knew where he’d been not only when John Lennon was shot, but also JFK and MLK. He’d experienced typewriters and video recorders and wars and the first stirrings of rock ‘n’ roll – everything, all the way to the internet age.
He was a gentle soul and an epic listener. And when he spoke, the room went silent. He was also brilliant at English, with a vocabulary earned by voracious reading and a remarkable memory.
Years Bring Wealth
One of the great myths of our profession is that it’s easier for younger people to learn foreign languages. Young children, of course, have an advantage when it comes to pronunciation; they still have the mental and physical plasticity to acquire a foreign language and speak it without an accent. But older learners have other advantages.
Firstly, they tend to be highly motivated. Why, if you are of retirement age, do you need to learn a foreign language? The chances are, you wouldn’t be there if you didn’t want to be.
Secondly, older students often have better learning strategies. Life experiences teach you how to be effective in various situations, for example problem-solving at work or learning on the job. Older students know themselves and how they learn best, and they are able to adapt their behavior accordingly.
Advice to Teachers of Third Age Classes
I spoke with Dr. Alexandra Neves, a professor of Bilingual Education, about teaching older students. Neves used to teach Third Age classes at UNISUL in Santa Catarina, Brazil.
“These were some of the most rewarding classes of my career. Older students appreciate the teacher’s time and patience. And they really want to be there – no one is forcing them to go to class. I remember the atmosphere was great – very cooperative.”
Would these students ever use their English?
“[The course] was part of a program for Third Age people. Some of them traveled; others were housewives who’d never had the chance to go to college, so it was an opportunity to experience college for the first time.”
What advice would she give to teachers of Third Age students?
“They take longer. Sometimes they forget what they learned. Sometimes they want to know exactly how to do things – an approximation isn’t enough; they need very direct instruction. You have to be patient, and speak a little louder. Also repeat a lot and make sure there’s plenty of recycling.”
Does the methodology need to change?
“Not really. They enjoyed group work, like every other class. They also liked to read out loud, just to show they could do it. Some felt frustrated because they found it difficult, and pronunciation was an issue, but I gave them lots of encouragement as I would to any student.”
The Old and the New
Goya was true to his word. He didn’t stop learning. Approaching eighty, and still exiled in Bordeaux, he learned the art of lithography and also made drawings straight from the hellhole of his subconscious: a massive lunatic in rags twisting like a Michelangelo slave, a penitent on his knees, a winged man-monster crashing like Icarus.
Most people head into Third Age somewhat more gently than Goya, but they’ll probably have interesting experiences to relate. If, like me, you are ever lucky enough to encounter a student like Hiro in your class, take full advantage. Get other students to interview him. Have him talk about how the world has changed. Provide opportunities for him to tell anecdotes.
In many cultures – particularly in Asia – the elderly are revered. Their wisdom is sacred. From what I’ve seen and heard, Third Age language learners have much to teach teachers … and everyone else.
I recently gave a talk to a group of young teachers in Brazil. Several were in their first year as professionals. During the talk, I mentioned Action Research (AR). This was met with looks of incomprehension. What on earth was this gringo talking about? When I inquired, it turned out that no one present had done any AR, and most had never heard of it.
It’s an interesting term. Research normally brings to mind the turning over of old bones to make new skeletons. Action is movement – a leap from A to B. Put together, Action + Research means research that leads to a change in practice. It’s undertaken using structured methods and documentation, and it produces observable, usable data.
AR starts with a practical problem or issue, which we turn into a question. The observation “My students don’t work well in pairs” becomes “Why don’t my students work well in pairs?” This is sometimes called problematising.
Problematising can be applied to any area of language education. In my experience, it’s often used to examine classroom practice and affective issues – “How can I motivate my students?”; “Why don’t they do any homework?”; “Why do they revert to L1 when I put them in pairs?” – but it can refer to broader issues involving, say, the learning environment, administration, or parental involvement.
Once the problem has been identified, the next stage is to come up with a solution. We then experiment repeatedly with this solution, and monitor its effectiveness. Finally, the teacher/researcher evaluates the success or otherwise of the experiment.
The process I’ve described is a cycle of question-experiment-monitor-evaluate. (There are various similar sequences for AR, depending on who you read: e.g., plan-act-observe-reflect.) An optional stage for those who want to disseminate their AR is to write up and publish the findings.
As stated earlier, AR requires structured methods. We are not only observing what happens, but why it happens. For this reason, we need some insight into the participants’ beliefs and thoughts about the issue.
This is where it sometimes gets tricky. People, like sub-atomic particles, behave differently when observed. This is sometimes known as The Observer’s Paradox. Formerly troublesome students suddenly act like angels when being monitored. Because of this, AR requires methods that are minimally disruptive to the classroom. These might include questionnaires, checklists, interviews or journal writing.
Some Action Research projects
Sometimes a classroom issue doesn’t need to be solved using the full cycle of AR. A simple inquiry might solve it. Years ago, a colleague of mine at a private language school in London told me his class was wonderful from Monday to Thursday, but they turned into zombies on Friday. A little questioning uncovered the fact that Thursday evenings were Happy Hour at a local bar. Apparently, Happy Hour turned into Happy All-Night-Drinking-Session, so the students rolled into class on Friday morning barely able to speak.
Other issues do require a fuller AR investigation. Here are some I have heard about or participated in:
*Listening to fast speech – the students couldn’t process fast, connected speech. They gave up after twenty seconds or so. The teacher experimented with playing BBC radio headlines every morning for a month while the students took rapid notes.
*Homework – several students didn’t do it because they didn’t see its relevance. The teacher experimented with autonomous learning tasks, e.g. students chose a youtube video in English, watched it for homework, and reported back the following day.
*Student strategy use – some students had poor learning strategies. They didn’t take notes in class or write down new vocabulary or edit their essays. So the teacher included strategy instruction, plus reinforcement, over a semester.
*Regular reading – the teenage students didn’t read enough in English. The teacher persuaded the school to buy graphic novels. He asked the students for a report on one of these books as part of the final grade.
AR is a great tool for professional development. It incorporates academic rigor with practical problem-solving, and is part of a general trend in education for what is known as “reflective practice.” But it goes beyond reflection. That’s why it’s called Action Research.
For those interested in discovering more, here are some excellent introductions to AR:
- Burns, A. (1999). Collaborative action research for English language teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Burns, A. (2010). Doing Action Research in English Language Teaching: A Guide for Practitioners. New York: Routledge.
- Freeman, D. (1998). Doing teacher research. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
- Wallace, M. (1998). Action research for language teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know. (Lao Zi, The Way of Lao Zi)
Most of my favorite writers are introverts.
Kafka couldn’t stand company. When working on a story, he couldn’t even tolerate his fiancée: “There can never be enough silence around when one writes … why even night is not night enough.”
Harper Lee was another. On becoming famous for To Kill a Mockingbird, she disappeared from the public eye for half a century and never wrote another book. She did show up once in public, when inducted into the Alabama Academy Of Honor. She told the audience, “Well, it’s better to be silent than to be a fool.”
Don DeLillo is another. He’s been known to say “Can I go now?” twenty minutes into a one-hour interview.
The most reclusive of all was J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye. He hid away in a house in the sticks, asked his publisher to remove his photo from book jackets, and allegedly pulled out a shotgun every time a journalist came onto his property. Even in death, he took the quiet path: his literary agent announced that “there will be no service.”
The worlds of science and technological invention aren’t much different. For every socially-adept, bongo-drum-playing Richard Feynman, there are probably ten über-nerds re-imagining the world in their labs or garages. Here’s Einstein: “I am a horse for a single harness, not cut out for tandem or teamwork … in order to attain any goal, it is imperative that one person do the thinking and the commanding.”
And here’s Steve Wozniak, the genius behind Apple’s technology: “Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me – they’re shy and live in their heads.” His advice to young creative types? “Work alone.”
Introverts and Extroverts in Education
In the field of education, we value extroverts. Language education positively reveres them. They are the risk-takers, the energizers, the class jokers. And they are the ones who attain fluency first.
Introverts, in contrast, are sometimes viewed as problematic. They don’t work well in groups, and their silence is often taken for lack of ability. (Numerous studies reveal that fast, fluent talkers are erroneously rated by the public as more intelligent than quieter people.)
Introversion and the Communicative Approach: A Match Made in Hell?
As a lifelong introvert who manages to impersonate an extrovert in front of an audience, I’ve grown to recognize certain traits in introverted students. Introverts work better alone, at a slower, more deliberate pace; they prefer to do one task at a time, and they often have great powers of concentration. They score highly in homework and tests while making themselves invisible in class.
This presents something of a dilemma for language teachers schooled in the communicative approach. We are taught to treasure the chatter. The buzz of student-talk is comforting to us (they’re communicating!) while the great void of silence isn’t (there’s nothing happening!). And this is reflected in tasks and collaborative learning and pair-work and the organization of the tables and chairs into communicative pods. Meanwhile, the introverts are squirming inside as we put them into groups to discuss something they don’t want to discuss.
Three Things to Remember
While no one is advocating a return to the days of silent students, endless teacher-talk, and chairs in rows facing the teacher, I think it’s essential to remember that not all students enjoy debates, drama, role play, humor, simulations. Silent time, for many, is learning time.
The second thing to remember is that student propensities are often cultural. When I taught in International House, London, I would often have a mixture of Italians, Brazilians and Japanese in my classes. The Italians and Brazilians tended to dominate conversations. The Japanese, on the other hand, were often excellent at grammar and superb memorizers of arcane vocabulary. But Japanese quietness wasn’t introversion. It was culture. Quietness was simply a facet of Japanese politeness and respect. The same occurred on the rare occasions I taught students from Finland. Finns are famously introverted. A Finnish joke: How can you tell if a Finn likes you? He’s staring at your shoes instead of his own.
Finally, I’d like to consider whether it’s really an advantage for language learners to be extroverts. Intuition tells us extroverts are more likely to be better speakers, while introverts may have better declarative knowledge of the language – knowing grammar rules and the names of verb tenses, for example. However, the research is inconclusive. Wakamoto (2000) found that extroverts were more likely to use learning strategies than introverts, but Naiman (1996) and Busch (1982) found negligible correlation between personality types and second language proficiency.
The fact is, most people are not quite as fixed as the terms “extrovert” or “introvert” imply. It was Carl Jung who described the two traits in his 1921 book Psychological Types, and also Jung who said, “There is no such thing as a pure extrovert or a pure introvert. Such a man would be in the lunatic asylum.”
Students take classes to speak English. We ask, “do you speak English?” It’s unquestionably the top dog of the four skills, and some qualities present in extroverts are undeniably useful for language learners: taking opportunities to practise, trying to extend spoken utterances, and taking risks with new language. But if we can find roles for our introverts in class – explaining grammar or taking notes during group work – everyone wins.
“He so buried himself in his books that he spent the nights reading from twilight to daybreak and the days from dawn till dark; and so from little sleep and much reading, his brain dried up and he lost his mind.” (Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes)
Language Learner Literature
In April 2017 I hosted the Language Learner Literature Awards (known–by me anyway–as the Lalalas) for the Extensive Reading Foundation of IATEFL*. These awards are given to the best adaptations or original works of literature for students.
This year, the winners ranged from a Sherlock Holmes story miraculously made comprehensible for Beginners to an original tale about a Native Canadian girl who goes to live in a tree to stop loggers from cutting down the forest. My favourite winner was Vera the Alien Hunter, for Very Young Learners. It’s about a girl who hunts aliens while being mentored by a blue alien cat called Luca. OK, it wasn’t Dostoyevsky, but it was a whole lot of fun to read.
During a conversation before the ceremony began, someone mentioned that extensive reading is an endangered species. Does anyone, including language learners, read extensively these days? Many parents would attest that their teenage children read nothing longer than 140 characters. The current President of the United States, according to his biographer, has rarely finished a book in his life. Investigative journalism and extended essays, in all bar a few periodicals such as The New Yorker and Atlantic magazine, are being given less and less room in newspapers around the globe.
Extensive Reading Works
Extensive reading (ER) is hugely beneficial for language learners. It has a number of names with silly acronyms – Positive Outcomes While Enjoying Reading (POWER); Free Voluntary Reading (FEVER); and Drop Everything and Read (DEAR) – but there’s plenty of research that tells us it’s a serious business: big readers are big winners in terms of second language acquisition.
Stephen Krashen has long argued the benefits of extensive reading. He emphasises the gains students make in vocabulary, writing and spelling. In a 2007 meta-study of the research, Krashen concluded that “in-school self-selected reading works.” Nation (1997), Day & Bamford (1998), Elley (2001), and Waring (2006) all concur.
The wise owl Alan Maley identifies seven benefits of ER: learner autonomy, comprehensible input, general language competence, general knowledge, vocabulary growth, improved writing, and motivation to read more.
Why don’t schools have ER programs?
Bearing in mind the effectiveness of ER, why isn’t it used more in language schools? The main reasons are cost, time, and the attitudes of teachers and students.
Cost: Schools need to put aside money and space for books, and many decision-makers, not seeing the immediate benefits, choose to spend the money elsewhere.
Time: Teachers never have enough time to cover everything on the syllabus, so unstructured activities such as ER get dropped.
Attitudes of teachers: There’s a feeling that learning needs to be measurable, i.e. testable. For school decision-makers, it’s difficult to quantify the benefits of ER, so ER becomes an optional extra.
Attitudes of students: Students tend to be grounded in internet culture, which encourages short reading experiences. It can be tough to convince them of the value of spending days reading the same book when exam results aren’t riding on it.
How can schools implement an ER program?
Here are some suggestions:
1. There should be a wide selection of books available in a variety of genres and at different levels, including graphic novels and comic books.
2. Students are free to choose what they want to read, with no obligation to finish anything.
3. There are no comprehension questions, tests, or progress checks.
4. The goal is to enjoy reading the book.
5. The students read alone and in silence or, if timetabling doesn’t allow this, at home.
6. The teacher models the process as co-reader, reading and periodically reporting back what he/she read.
7. All pedagogical activities are to enhance the reading experience and not to focus on language. So story maps, time lines, student illustrations, reading logs, journals, mock trials, Readers’ Theater (reading and dramatizing a script based on a story), literature discussion circles, etc., are optional.
Pleasure and Privilege
Extensive reading is a privilege. As Gavin McLean, Business Development Director for Europe, Middle East and Africa at National Geographic Learning, put it during his acceptance speech at IATEFL:
“We think of reading for pleasure and we think that it is something that all parents do with their kids, but in many parts of the world, it doesn’t happen at all. And the work that we do in developing English language teaching readers is so crucial in building up the confidence of children and parents, to get that sense of reading as not just an activity for learning, but for social interaction and a joint enterprise that can benefit both generations.”
*You can see watch the ceremony here: https://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2017/session/extensive-reading-foundation-reception-and-awards-ceremony
Many years ago, I was asked to teach an Advanced student one-to-one. He was a Spanish politician. He’d been moved out of the Advanced class because it was too easy for him. Within a minute of meeting him, I realized his English was as good as mine. Horror of horrors, he already knew the Third Conditional. What could I teach such a rare creature? In a blind panic, I asked him why he was at a language school. It turned out he didn’t want to be taught. He just wanted fluency practice. He proceeded to talk non-stop for several weeks, and, like most politicians, he didn’t want any correction. In the end, I loved teaching him. He had hilarious anecdotes and all I needed to do was listen.
Teaching Advanced classes isn’t usually like this. It’s a challenge. Here’s what I recommend for teachers of super-motivated, super-sophisticated Advanced students.
Profile the Learners
Find out what motivates them to keep improving and where they are on their learning journey. The term “Advanced” contains the widest spectrum of all the levels: it can be anything from post-First Certificate (B2) to post-Proficiency (C2+). Although Advanced students should be fluent and fairly accurate, their ability may be unevenly spread across the four skills. Some are good speakers and poor writers; others great readers and average listeners, etc.
Go Easy on the Grammar
If they’ve been studying formally for a long time, Advanced students will have seen certain items of grammar six times or more. They can probably quote you the rules of the Present Perfect in their sleep. Teaching more and more obscure grammatical items (e.g., cleft sentences and inversion) may not be that useful for them. Instead …
Focus on Vocabulary
Don’t focus on obscure “hundred-dollar” words. Low frequency vocabulary items are low frequency for a reason – people don’t use them much. Advanced students often need to learn more collocations and combinations with common words. A good example is phrasal verbs. These rarely contain difficult words, but they often have multiple meanings. Pick up, for example, has about 20 meanings: we can pick up bad habits, signals, diseases, people, pizzas, and suspected criminals.
Highlight Idiomatic Language
If the students’ first language has Latin roots, they probably don’t have many problems with formal English. The latter uses cognates from Latin languages. But many Advanced students need help with colloquial or idiomatic language. The meanings of idioms, proverbs, and prepositional phrases are frequently un-guessable. In fact, English is full of odd combinations of simple words: a loose cannon, a couch potato, a wet blanket, a tough cookie.
Go Beyond the Syllabus with Authentic Materials
When possible, use authentic materials as a source of language, and “mine” the texts. Text-mining involves analyzing written and recorded material for useful language – an essential skill for teachers and Advanced learners. Often, this language includes little phrases and chunks that don’t appear in any syllabus. Just listening to my colleagues for two minutes, I heard: “you’ve got to be kidding me,” “nice try,” “I have mixed emotions about it,” “well-deserved.” I’d bet my house these aren’t taught in any coursebooks on my shelf.
Don’t Let the Students Play it Safe
Advanced students have advanced avoidance strategies. If they’re not confident about using new vocabulary, they find ways to avoid it: circumlocution, paraphrasing, changing the subject. And so they stay firmly on their plateau. Through vocabulary games and speaking activities, encourage students to experiment and take risks with language.
Point out Fossilized Errors (but don’t keep insisting on the correct form)
Most Advanced students, completely oblivious, have been making the same errors for years. Maybe the errors were never picked up (that phrasal verb again!) or the student never learned the standard form. Fossilized errors are a natural part of interlanguage and often occur because of L1 interference. Point out the error a few times; try writing the incorrect and correct forms on the board for the students to analyze; and get students to transcribe short recordings of themselves, focusing on accuracy. And then leave it. If it’s a fossil by the time the student gets to Advanced, like most fossils it’s usually set in stone.
Advanced students are often very specific about the tasks they need to achieve in English. Tailor the homework to their individual needs. They may have to write academic essays or give presentations or discuss world politics with their in-laws. Whatever their task, our job is to facilitate it.
Critical and Creative
Use critical thinking and creative activities. When using texts, dig deeper, looking at tone (irony, humor). Get students to question author intention (persuasion, entertainment). Ask them to probe critical features of writing (bias, omissions). When planning tasks, get students to brainstorm ideas and invest time and thought. If your instructions include verbs like make, create, build, illustrate, devise, and come up with, you’re asking for creativity. Such approaches can push Advanced learners to the limits of their language use and beyond.
And finally …
You may not find a genial chatterbox like my Spanish politician in your class, but Advanced students tend to be self-starters: motivated, organized and curious. If you can find ways to harness their curiosity, teaching them can bring terrific rewards.
I was recently asked to deliver a workshop on helping low level students to cope with authentic listening material and DVD clips. In my scramble to say something intelligent, I’ve come up with a few principles, some time-honored, others I think I just made up.
One argument for using authentic material in the classroom is that it’s motivating for students. But there’s nothing more demotivating than listening to something and understanding nothing. The selection of the material is the starting point, and you have to get it right.
Authentic material, by definition, is not graded for learners. In many cases, this material is in a coursebook, so the writer has already chosen it. But if you, the teacher, are choosing the material, you need a mental checklist to decide what’s usable at low levels.
The checklist includes factors related to content and factors related to delivery. Content: familiarity of context, cultural accessibility, engagement. Delivery: clarity of recording, speed and grammatical complexity of speech, range and level of vocabulary, number of speakers, and difficulty of accents.
Lots of pre-listening/viewing support is essential. Use anything and everything to activate the students’ schemata: pictures, realia, key words, questioning. What is the topic and what do we know about it already? What vocabulary is connected to the topic? How is the speakers’ task achieved in the students’ native language and culture?
If appropriate, do a dictation of the first two sentences or first thirty seconds of the recording. This attunes students to the vocabulary and topic, and is less pressurized as the teacher can slow down her speech, repeat what she said, and give time for students to check.
For genuine Beginners in a monolingual class, I believe it’s sometimes appropriate to do some pre-listening work in L1, i.e. a very short preamble about the recording.
Where possible, make the material personally relevant to the students before listening/watching. If the recording is about travel, get students to mark on a map all the places they’ve been and brainstorm words connected with travel. If they are about to listen to someone describing her home town, get the students to say what they like about their home town first.
This is a form of priming. It gets the students ready to hear certain words in a certain context using a predictable discourse structure (predictable because they have just done it themselves).
‘Low demand’ first task
You can’t grade the material, so grade the task. Even Beginners watching or listening to authentic material will be able to understand something. “What is his name?” “Where is she from?”
For Elementary students: “What is the relationship between the speakers?” “What does X want?” “Where are the speakers?”
For the first task, don’t ask students to use more than one skill. If they are listening, let them listen. Dealing with incoming speech signals is a tremendous challenge for low level students. Don’t ask them to listen and write answers to comprehension questions at the same time. The writing should be done later in the sequence.
Productive second task
Try to get students doing something with what they heard/watched. Productive responses can be very simple: students write a large Yes on a piece of paper and a large No on the other side. They hold up the paper in response to the teacher’s questions. For example, pause the recording and ask, “are they in a restaurant?” “Yes!” “Is the woman happy?” “No!”
Use variants of Total Physical Response. Students raise their hand when they hear a name. Students follow instructions. Students mime actions.
Long passages – more than one minute – can be demanding for low level students. They are more likely to lose the thread of the conversation because they are dealing with more language. One solution is to ‘chunk’ long passages: the teacher uses the pause button to divide the recording into manageable sections, stopping to check comprehension of each section.
One of the main difficulties of English is the lack of correlation between how words are written and how they are spoken. Going to becomes gonna. Want to becomes wanna. After the first couple of tasks, let students listen and read the transcript at the same time. They’ll see how written words are pronounced and where speakers speed up and slow down, and they’ll perceive pronunciation features such as elision and assimilation.
Many minds know more than one mind. Although the receptive skills – listening and reading – take place, by definition, in our minds, students can collaborate in order to piece together what they “received.”
One activity: put students into groups. Give each group a large sheet of paper. They write down everything they understood about the recording/DVD clip, even if it’s just isolated words. Together, the students begin to reconstruct the material. They listen/watch again and add more words and ideas.
Plan a sequence that makes a verbal task into a visual one, then a visual task into a kinesthetic one.
Imagine you ask the students to compare what they understood. After doing that, ask them to present it graphically: a sketch or line drawing. Then ask them to act out the scene. This won’t work for all authentic materials, but it will allow certain students a ‘way in,’ a method to access and understand the material by interacting with it in a different mode.
Be a cheerleader!
Last but not least … provide lots of encouragement. It’s easy to get demoralized when you’re listening to a foreign language at full speed. Trying to catch words is like trying to catch leaves in a storm. That’s why every little success matters, and should be quietly celebrated.
On the 90th anniversary of Fritz Lang’s dystopian film Metropolis – one of the earliest to include a robot – we ponder the role of robots in education.
In 2004, IBM executive Charles Lickel was eating in a restaurant when he noticed his fellow-diners abandoning their meals and heading towards the bar. Why the desperate scramble? They were rushing to watch Jeopardy!, a long-running and addictive quiz show. Seven years later, after Lickel had repeatedly fought for it, IBM built a machine called Watson to compete in Jeopardy!. It was to be a grand test of computing capabilities: a machine that could answer general knowledge questions about any subject at any time in history. Watson at first had some problems. When asked a question about 19th century British literature, the computer came up with the Pet Shop Boys – an English pop group – instead of Oliver Twist. But after much tweaking by its programmers, it eventually beat its human competitors.
The struggle between man and machine is nothing new. Back in the 15th century there were complaints that Gutenberg’s printing press would make monks lazy (part of their job was to copy manuscripts by hand). In 16th century England, William Lee presented his newly-invented knitting machine to Queen Elizabeth I in order to get a patent. She was so worried that hand-knitters would lose their jobs that she refused.
Half a millennium later, the world of work has changed drastically because of automation. Fritz Lang’s vision of workers slaving away in cavernous factories, as seen in Metropolis, has largely come true in developing countries. But has the world of education changed, too?
If you look at pictures of classrooms around the world over the last 150 years, the surprising thing is how little they have changed. There’s a teacher at the front with some kind of screen or board on which he or she writes. There are children in rows or clusters. Only in a few societies – notably in South Korea – has the paradigm occasionally been challenged by replacing the teacher.
In 2011, news came out of South Korea that the country was piloting a robot-teacher program for Elementary students. The robots, called Engkey, were controlled by remote teachers in the Philippines. The program helped to make up for the shortage of English teachers in the country, and while the robots were apparently motivating for the children, the idea was not to replace real teachers.
The fact is, automatons – by which I mean robots and any form of artificial intelligence – are extraordinarily good at some tasks and extraordinarily bad at others. When the parameters of the task are limited, such as knowing the finite possibilities of a chess match or doing calculus, automatons are brilliant. (In 1997, IBM’s machine, Deep Blue, beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov, who promptly accused IBM of cheating.) But other simple-sounding tasks are beyond them. While trying to build robots to do housework, inventors realized the biggest problem was teaching the robots to walk. In fact, most household chores are tricky for robots. In 2010, a team of UC Berkeley researchers built a robot that could fold towels. Unfortunately, each towel took 24 minutes to fold – fine if you have all week to do the laundry.
Ask any educator if robots will ever replace teachers and they’ll say no. Teachers have multiple roles: guides, mentors, facilitators. They do the soft skills – motivating students, explaining nuances of language, and building rapport – that machines can’t do. Most importantly, robots can’t inspire us.
Tucker Balch, associate professor of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, says, “I don’t think a robot will ever be better than a person. Teaching is probably the most challenging role for artificial intelligence. It is a creative role and to teach well you really have to understand the person you’re teaching.”
Similarly, Daphne Koller, president and co-founder of Coursera, identifies three reasons why human teachers are essential: creating content, answering tough questions and providing inspiration.
Replacement of human teachers, then, seems unlikely. Having said that, what teacher wouldn’t appreciate a robot to help with the menial tasks machines excel in – checking attendance, grading homework, cleaning the board? Or perhaps our model should be a movie robot, but not the one from Metropolis, which ended up getting burned at the stake. In Star Wars, C-3P0 was designed by Anakin Skywalker as a translation machine, “fluent in over six million forms of communication.” Now that might be useful in a language classroom.