LeiLani Cauthen argues for the symbiosis of teacher connection and technological advancement
Technology dominates the education landscape discussion. It can bridge language-learning gaps and increase access with automation so fine that it can literally speak to a student and correct pronunciation and context, while removing any sense of embarrassment because it can be done privately anywhere. Uber-like language apps can even connect anyone to a native language speaker anywhere for immersive learning. Language learning has never had the wealth of digital assistance that it has now, but can it aid with diversity goals?
Diversity in education recognizes the need to create learning environments that are safe, inclusive, and equitable for as many identities as possible through increased understanding, sensitivity, reflection, and language. While digital tech, like movies, can make people cry and come to new emotional maturity, there are other “techs” for language learning and diversity that are often overlooked. One of them is love.
Love, the New Literacy
To teach when surrounded by technological innovation, it is more necessary than ever to understand what life is doing in order to enhance it to survive among machines and even compete with machines. Even the ability life has known as creative inception, or “thinking,” is now being infringed upon by augmented intelligence technologies made of complex algorithms that mock thinking increasingly well. EdTech that pretests for Lexile level then offers a range of books and monitors page progress has the ability to pinpoint possibly misunderstood material using such algorithms. It may even suggest which words or phrases need remediation. It can do so with encouraging highlighting or instant pop-up formative assessments that are welcomed because they could mean more “points” for a student. It can’t, however, offer love.
It is important to note that despite the EdTech transition, teachers will always be relevant because love may be the greatest ability of life, which machines will never have. Love is an invisible but discernable outflow of emotion whose basic ingredient is admiration. People tend to characterize the feeling of love as a warmth, a welling up of something. By definition, it’s the “motion” of “e.” Unlike in the tech industry, where “e” is “electronic,” in “emotion,” it’s “excite,” signifying that motion is present but not always seen. Love is the built-in algorithm of teachers and the obvious main ingredient in any diversity program. Machines can only ring chimes, tell you “good job,” and hit you with a show of bursting stars on screen.
We all know that this business of living-while-human is a deeply involving, contributive, rigorous activity, and we often need to talk about it because we are so into it. Yet there is an interior complexity to our individual minds that is bottlenecked in connecting exteriorly. We need a bridge. We need language. Language is the concept-symbology bridge between minds.
We are without an ability to directly mind-meld with any other human coherently or completely, with the volume and nuance paralleling the actual intricacy of a mind. Machines, on the other hand, can transfer code packets at the speed of light, but nuance and what educators fondly call “tagging”—the way a human might file something in his or her own mind under infinite categories—is hard to do digitally.
Digital tech is a sort of brute force in that regard. Amazon has full-time linguists just to formulate how digital tags will go for the cataloging of women’s shirts as long-sleeve, flutter-sleeved, sleeveless, three-quarter-sleeved, bell-sleeved, and so on. All their suppliers must comply with this linguistic policy because even in high-tech areas, linguistics count, and many highly paid language analysts are employed.
Additionally, the mind uses a good story to escape its present time environment on merely the wings of thought, with no other conveyance required. If it can’t, it’s not a free mind and is to that degree “illiterate” on another level beyond reading comprehension. A trapped mind would be a mind that thinks only like a machine, linearly, without the ability to “jump the rails” with creative inception and fly.
The biggest driver for most teachers is the saving or freeing of such minds. They didn’t usually sign up to be testers, compilers, researchers, or discipliners, but to help others find freedom of mind.
When most other fields are attempting to drive consumption of things and solutions to various problems and are therefore selling minds a mere accessory—or worse, selling a problem that must have their solution—education as a field provides an expansion and freedom when it is truly causing learning. It is the truest solution there is for humans.
Technology that is leveraged to allow the ingestion of the data students need to master, while letting them participate in a real experience obtaining it, has the promise to bring the mind-expanding freedom sought more efficiently, and with exceptional personalization. Yet it will be all for naught if it’s delivered without love.
Learning Counsel’s 2018 National Digital Transition Survey of 406 schools and districts in the U.S. indicated trends worth mentioning. First, diversity issues in all learning, and especially language learning, are becoming more important in the drive toward personalization of learning. Second, social-emotional learning is the single biggest tech trend in software.
Seattle Public Schools has recently announced a major initiative to address diversity in its schools, and Dr. Aleigha Henderson-Rosser, executive director for instructional technology at Atlanta Public Schools, also mentioned equity of access as a major concern. Most of the major public school systems are finding themselves wading into the deep end of diversity and equity issues.
EdTech solutions do abound for addressing both equity and diversity, but schools and teachers must have the will to employ them with a heaping helping of their own humanity and love. Schools everywhere are experiencing massive attrition rates.1 Opting out to charters, private schools, and a massive homeschooling movement utilizing a plethora of online resources custom built for consumers are making inroads at an alarming rate.
Schools in Southern California have said their attrition to alternatives has already reached 30%, and many major cities in the northeast experience similar levels. The reasons to not attend public schools keep piling up. Possible shootings, bullying, arguments about bathroom policies, disagreements about female athletes being undermined by transgender athletes identifying as female, perception of shaming one culture while exalting others, and sex education at very young ages are all reasons many parents say no to public school.
Education is experiencing a sea change in the same way other markets have as they mature in their use of technology. It’s not simply about nifty tools in the classroom; tech is a disrupter of epic proportions. A duality is born. Tech creates a rift, offering alternative modalities and efficiencies of function that humans used to cover while at the same time forcing human roles to streamline into perfected humanity. As the most glaring operational inefficiencies fade into the background through tech, human issues come into focus. We may think that something about humans has cropped up just recently, requiring greater focus on diversity and equity, but the antecedent is tech change. The issues have been there for a very long time, perhaps forever.
When books were the distribution of knowledge, equity meant everyone had the book. Diversity meant desegregation and inclusivity. Now equity means mobile access with machines allocated, internet, and abundant resources for all. Diversity now means more than what most schools often tout it to mean—it actually means personalization. This is because the same cultural lesson for all could be a recipe to offend or be labeled a plot to indoctrinate or insidiously imply perpetual victimhood. At worst, it could instill resentment for one group while encouraging others to act up.
A certain finesse is required of the human teachers and administrators on the scene, a finesse only well executed when the teachers and administrators themselves are conscientiously personalizing learning lovingly.
Tech as Diversity
The other tech for language learning and diversity is the all-ness of available knowledge through tech distribution itself. The open internet is a treasure trove of viewpoints. Professionally wrought, discrete digital-learning objects, digital curriculum, courseware, and digital collection sites number in the tens of millions. Monolithic curation that narrowcasts viewpoints has a losing hand against both the wealth of these available resources and the open internet—where it’s anyone’s bet what a student might find. Using professional-grade resources, often with animation and embedded video, and ensuring a multiplicity of viewpoints with various sources is the winning hand.
Tech itself brings needed diversity in this way but has the unfortunate aspect of appearing even more authoritarian than a lone teacher if the portrayal through the tech is overwhelmingly biased toward one viewpoint contraindicated by some religious and cultural belief systems. If students find their homegrown views roundly trounced, they are even more likely to search the open internet for an equal amount of counterintelligence and form a disinclination to believe their teachers or feel welcome in the institution. It encourages lack of sensitivity by demonstration of insensitivity, the exact opposite of the desired outcome.
An understanding of the power of tech to both substantiate and undermine authority repositions human teaching as guiding, helping students to synthesize and granting individuals the space to hang on to belief independently of “facts,” while still informing about facts to achieve greater sensitivity.
Authoritarian facts interfere with love anyway, which is, again, an emerging main asset for the survival of schools. Love has bloomed from one human for another all through history, crossing language and cultural barriers willy-nilly to form the unlikely love stories handed down through the ages, seeding especially strong roots when there was no reason at all for them to happen.
Sacramento City Unified School District to Cut Teacher Jobs (http://www.capradio.org/articles/2019/05/08/sacramento-city-to-lay-off-170-teachers-and-district-staff/)
LeiLani Cauthen is an everyday philosopher and author of The Consumerization of Learning. As CEO and publisher of Learning Counsel (https://thelearningcounsel.com/), a research and news media hub for K–12 education focused on digital transition, she produces leadership training events in 30 U.S. cities annually. She is also the founder of Knowstory (https://knowstory.com/), a new social media site just for education.