woman teacher with male student

Digital Learning Will Never Replace Human Teachers

[Editor’s note: Names have been changed to protect the privacy of teachers and students.]

Before the pandemic, I had so many wonderful opportunities to watch wise teachers make strategic, in-the-moment decisions to support students. Our ninth-grade English teacher, Ms. Watkins, is one of those wise teachers.

Ms. Watkins has a glow about her that radiates to kids. Her warmth is contagious and she laughs frequently in her classroom. Given the relationships she has established with students, she also knows a powerful tool in her repertoire is to crack down with a stern voice when necessary. 

After watching her class one day, I asked, ““Can you explain the decision to call on Donnell to review the class process on problem 3?”

“Donnell has been struggling with his self-esteem in this unit. He recently bombed a test, and has been participating whole class much less. So, when I was having students work in groups, I noticed he had the right answer. I saw this as an opportunity for him to share whole-group to build his confidence,” she told me. “After, he’ll be more willing to take risks and build a stronger culture of error for him and the rest of the class.”

“That’s a great move.” I said.

And it’s just one example of thousands of such moves, which happen daily in the classrooms of highly-effective teachers.

In recent years, there have been advocates urging we move students exclusively to digital learning. Entire schools now award high school diplomas without students ever having to engage with a teacher in person. Advocates offer a number of rationales to support the change: technology enables individually differentiated learning, it cuts costs, and students can work at their own pace. This thinking is short-sighted at best and, at worse, undermines the impact and power of our educators.

In many respects, digital tech is no different from a pencil. The teacher is the facilitator who guides learners on their path to create meaning between the tools we use to educate and the learner. The expertise of effective teachers lies in their understanding of the huge number of factors that lie between their tools and the learner.

No Software Understands Students Like Ms. Bradley Can

Before schools closed, I observed our 10th-grade geometry teacher, Ms. Bradley. Ms. Bradley’s class promotes so much student agency, it appears to run without her. When I entered, students were working quietly in groups of five. When the timer beeped, a student hit cancel and the whole class went silent without prompting.

Then, one student, Tyonna, began explaining her process of solving a complex, multi-step word problem. Ms. Bradley was at the board recording her mathematical steps and procedures while she spoke. At one point, Ms. Bradley interrupted, simply saying, “I disagree.”

Tyonna looked down at her paper, looked back at the board, and continued to look at her paper. 20-30 seconds passed where she struggled to identify her error. In many spaces in life, watching a person struggle for this long feels like an eternity; in this room it felt normal. Students began snapping (a sign of support in our school) as Tyonna continued to struggle.

“How much time?” Ms. Bradley asked her. 

“3 minutes,” Tyonna replied. 


In Three Minutes, Big Learning Happened

The student holding the clock put 3 minutes on and hit start with a beep. Students instantly started discussing Tyonna’s process and her error in their groups. There were disagreements, work explained, and bold transparency as some students proudly stated they were lost to their groups. 

I went over to Tyonna’s group. With urgency, a teammate, Curtis, showed Tyonna where she went wrong in her explanation. Tyonna stopped him along the way to recap and make sure she understood. After Curtis’s explanation, another member of the group, Demetrius, asked Tyonna to check her understanding by explaining the entire problem to the group before the timer went off. 

Meanwhile, Ms. Bradley circulated through the room, offering limited guidance as she peered over student’s shoulders. The timer went off again. Tyonna began speaking and Ms. Bradley recorded. This time, when Tyonna finished explaining her answer, Ms. Bradley said, “I agree.” 

Immediately after, several students’ hands went up. Tyonna called on one student, Jaime, who said, “I’d like to shout out Rihanna who showed our core value of growth because she admitted to the group what she didn’t know and asked for help.” The rest of the class snapped.

Two more students shared shout-outs, then Ms. Bradley gave constructive feedback, “I want to see groups doing a better job of sharing the air. Bring in teammates who are speaking less. Everyone’s thoughts are essential to our learning.” 

Then they moved on to the next part of the lesson. That was it. This took about 10 minutes to execute. On the surface, it appears Ms. Bradley didn’t do much. She spoke for less than 30 seconds, and the only things she said to the class were: “I disagree,” and, “I agree.” 

To an outsider, this may seem like a task that can be replicated on a machine. However, with a more nuanced understanding of the factors which lead to this moment of learning, we understand that Ms. Bradley acted as a conduit between the tools of learning and the learners, creating an extremely rich moment of student thinking. 

What Did Ms. Bradley Do Behind the Scenes?

It’s essential that our society better understands the factors that go into this moment, so we can afford it the proper value. All that Ms. Bradley did can’t be captured here, but for our appreciation, here’s a short list:

  • With her nuanced understanding of students’ abilities, based on extensive data collection, Ms. Bradley created a lesson that balanced many factors: grade level rigor, SAT standards, students’ culture, long term view of standards to be covered and how this lesson fits into that puzzle, and previous teacher learnings centered on student misconceptions incorporated into the current lesson. 
  • She relied on her detailed personal knowledge of each student to design small groups which strategically maximize learning by considering student personalities, student ability, student-to-student dynamics, etc. 
  • She has cultivated a culture of error which enables students to admit misunderstanding and not feel shame. We could write an entire book about this, but in short, a culture of error is created through a constant affirmation of students taking risks when they are wrong and an explanation of how errors make us stronger. 
  • Classroom systems put student agency at the center. Ms. Bradley has taught her students systems for what to do when they are lost (i.e. one avenue is to request group time), students use the timer, students call on each other for shout-outs after group work iterations (also further building a culture of error, as well as positive classroom culture among students). 
  • She systematically and intentionally cultivates classroom values that instill the soft skills students need to build a class culture where the students control much more of the learning process while still maintaining a physically and emotionally safe environment.

These short observations are merely CliffsNotes on all the detailed and nuanced work that went into creating 10 minutes of excellence in her classroom. I don’t know of any computer program which can accomplish this. Do you?

Photo by jose aljovin on Unsplash.

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Sean Healy

Sean Healy is an Assistant Principal of a high school in South Chicago. Before becoming an administrator Sean was a Literature teacher for 5 years. Sean enjoys writing, reading, gardening, yoga, and improv. He lives in Wicker Park. You can read more of his work on his blog: onlyeducatedarefree.wordpress.com.