A letter to fellow educators

G Gautama

Dear teacher colleagues,

Greetings of the day to co-travellers who choose to work with children and education!

I write this letter on the occasion of Teacher’s Day to fellow educators who work with children in schools. This is not addressed to the large ecosystem around education– the publishers, the content providers, the marketers of seats in colleges and schools, or for the organizers of the  education system. And certainly not for the Mega Solution Providers (MSP) that have swamped schools with a rapidity that none could have imagined. MSPs came as enablers, but often stand now as definers of the educational processes, directions and policies.

You and I were working in schools till a distant yesterday, March 2020, and we saw children as they grew from very young to near adulthood. We taught and offered what we could, managing the complex chemistry of groups, and conditioning of gender and inner landscapes. We tried to provide an anchoring and a stability for children, knowing that we did not have all the answers.

We taught subjects and tried to create opportunities for the children in our care. This was the terrestrial world, where the bright-eyed faces and meeting colleagues over meals was a daily ritual.  Yes, we drew salaries and tried to meet the structures, the expectations of society, and the aspirations of children, in an imperfect world. We did this, as we were– and are — teachers.

We were not perfect! We sometimes missed the quiet child, when correcting papers we did not know exactly what to say to help the child take the next step, and we were less than kind, sometimes expressing irritation, anger or plain impatience. We felt the deeply conditioned superiority of the elder, and rarely apologized for our errors and omissions. And in the face of easily available information, media, movies and social media, perhaps we felt less and less significant, less worthy in our own eyes. We tried hard, to make sense of the changing world and salvage dignity for ourselves in an increasingly impatient world. We always did not keep our ears open to learning. We did grow stale, often even to ourselves, and anxieties slowly crept up. “Where are we headed? What is my role now?”

Suddenly the virus emerged and we were all transported online, the magic of weightless electrons. We had books, animations, videos, audio, whiteboards and annotations. You can miss a class and hear the recording. Whatever you do can be recorded, replayed and analyzed. Learning when you want and where you want! Not bound by classroom and time and timetable or teacher! A ‘more perfect, ‘fool-proof’ way?

What an adventure it has been! Like a science fiction story, attending school became synonymous with logging into an app. Teachers have dredged out opportunities during the pandemic and provided beautiful solutions for the young in their classes. There are poignant narratives of government school teachers managing against all odds to meet small groups of children. We have all adjusted, accommodated, innovated and admirably at that.

Many children who do not have gadgets seem to have lost out, and they will be behind with academics. Sitting before a screen, bodies unmoving for long periods of time, children have gained weight or grown pale, and so have teachers. Is this better than moving about, speaking to another, doing something with the hand or running an errand?

Perhaps, for some of us, this has been a wake-up call, a grim reminder to take responsibility for our bodies and minds. For most of us, however, it is as if there are two domains. One side is represented by the screen, and is driven largely by electrons, visual and mental. The screen has a space for the teachers and education. But so do the news, information, games, visual and audio forms of entertainment. The body and all that goes with it, the protons and neutrons, kinaesthetic, relational and spatial, is the remaining domain. With the electronic school, the latter has become the sole domain for parents. The village that grew the child, has become now a cyber village of service providers with few who care for the non-screen life of the child?

The electronic classroom reduced our school, our classes to the essentials of screen and speaker, streaming over the Internet, in real time or asynchronously. Of course, there are small handicaps. You can’t always see into someone’s eyes and will know if one limps a bit today or if the other is feeling ill and cannot eat. Of course one cannot shout and play and peer over the shoulder of another as they draw. But this was never the purpose of school. Or was it? The Artificial Intelligence revolution and the coronavirus, together have brought many questions to our door in a stark manner. For instance take the trolley problem:

The classic trolley problem goes like this: You see a runaway trolley speeding down the tracks, about to hit and kill five people. You have access to a lever that could switch the trolley to a different track, where a different person would meet an untimely demise. Should you pull the lever and end one life to spare five?

The Moral Machine took that idea to test nine different comparisons shown to polarize people: should a self-driving car prioritize humans over pets, passengers over pedestrians, more lives over fewer, women over men, young over old, fit over sickly, higher social status over lower, law-abiders over law-benders? And finally, should the car swerve (take action) or stay on course (in action)?

In 1992, almost 30 years ago in “School’s Out: Hyperlearning, the New Technology, and the End of Education” Lewis Perelman suggests he anticipated the ending of school as we know it. One of the reviews says, “Perelman, senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, proposes a bold new plan for education that hinges on the use of hypermedia and electronic networking to facilitate hyperlearning. He recommends that the current educational system be abolished, along with its bureaucracy and credentialism. The schools that remain would be private, competitive, and mainly vocational.”

Machines and programs run on algorithms, the predictable patterns. Robots are taking classes and AI will rapidly, with the data gathered on a global scale, inevitably produce nuanced learning programs that human teachers can never match. If Grandmaster and world champion Kasparov could be beaten by Deep Blue then it stands to reason that computers will perform better than humans in most measurable tasks.

The individual does not count, only trends and statistics do. The local is also the global! MSPs build on the irrelevance of the individual and the power of numbers, statistics, patterns and trends. They can pool the resources and insights of teachers of the world to do this, something that individuals cannot do as efficiently. Seeing this is not a call to futility but one to think deeply.

Meanings change over time. Teaching was once called a service to society. Now delivering knowledge and skills to an individual is considered service. Machines which offer tailor made algorithms will soon be superior to the human teacher at this task. Anything that is a ‘service’ will be programmed and automated, delivered and consumed.

Krishnamurti asked in the 1970s, “When computers take over all that you do now, what will you do?” Is there something that the human individual can offer our young that the machines cannot? The question has acquired an urgency and begs an answer. For the teacher, the educator who is also a learner, this is a good question. From teachers using computers to every teacher on the planet, teaching online is like crossing into a new world, a new definition of school.

Has the ancient approach, of students and teachers sitting together, proximate, sharing space, words, tasks and atmosphere, become irrelevant, outdated? The teacher in ancient India treated vidya as dana, something shared, expecting nothing in return. The learning of the student could not be predicted. Seeing that any act of completion depended on multiple factors; the teacher knew he was, and would always be, but one factor. How then could he claim that the other learnt because he taught? The teacher thus surrendered responsibility for recognition and the success of the student, as also lack of it.

Krishnamurti was prophetic when he said, “A school which is successful in the worldly sense is more often than not a failure as an educational centre. A large and flourishing institution in which hundreds of children are educated together, with all its accompanying show and success, can turn out bank clerks and super-salesmen, industrialists or commissars, superficial people who are technically efficient; but there is hope only in the integrated individual, which only small schools can help to bring about. That is why it is far more important to have schools with a limited number of boys and girls and the right kind of educators, than to practise the latest and best methods in large institutions.

Unfortunately, one of our confusing difficulties is that we think we must operate on a huge scale. Most of us want large schools with imposing buildings, even though they are obviously not the right kind of educational centres, because we want to transform or affect what we call the masses.

We need to see the inevitability of the tech revolution and that of MSPs as well. The fact that MSPs deal only on a global scale. We also need to digest that this is bringing dramatic changes to schools and across all institutions. To meet this as teachers we need to clarify to ourselves that our role is not dependent on platforms, apps and operating systems.

Man does not live by bread alone, and all that can be delivered can be replicated, programmed and made into an algorithm. Nourishing the spirit of the younger generations with affection is the teacher’s mandate and this cannot be delivered in neat packages. This can be done only through the careful study and understanding of the difficulties, tendencies and capacities of each child.

Is there anything we carry as human beings which is beyond automation and consumption, that cannot be made into a service? Is there something in the relationship between an adult and the young that is not a product? What can I bring as an offering to the young, an offering that cannot become a product or a service?

Maybe as human beings first and teachers next, we stand with such questions that cannot be answered through programs. And as we enquire maybe we can say, ‘There is a field beyond what can be measured, I will meet you there’1?. This will separate the service provider from the teacher.

The author, an educator-learner at Pathashaala, a young residential school under Krishnamurti Foundation India, has worked in KFI schools for about 30 years, of which 18 were as principal, The School KFI Chennai. He can be reached at gautama.2006@gmail.com.

Leave a Reply