Thomas Edison’s big idea that failed!

Thomas Edison was a great inventor and thinker.  I have profound respect for him and his obvious contribution to our way of living.  However, he did get one thing wrong.  He really believed that the Phonograph and the Movie Projector would replace live teachers.  Thomas Edison is not alone — in this age of “tech” — some people are seduced into believing computers can and will replace live teachers.

Nothing irks me more than this errant belief that all teachers do is dispense knowledge — like a computer  — and if we just developed “teacher-proof” materials student achievement will improve.  We have all kinds of examples of this wrong-headed thinking — and it is sold to us by textbook companies, online virtual schools, the reform agenda, and pundits who only see $$$ signs in reducing the human teacher.  They subscribe to this idea that teachers simply give knowledge and kids simply are passive receptacles of that knowledge.

Anyone who has spent any amount of time with children knows that is simply not the case. Kids are a little more complex than simple machines. Each one of them is unique and one teaching delivery model will not always work with them — that is why we rely on the expertise of teachers to teach children what they need to know and understand.  Kids rarely learn by simply watching. Kids learn by doing and great teachers understand this and create learning environments in which all kids work and think with the material.  No computer or machine has the ability to do that…so why do some people think this way?

Technology should enhance learning….and great teachers incorporate technology seamlessly in the classroom.  Far too many people think if they purchase lots of  technology that education of children will be immediately be enhanced and improve.  Everytime I hear that, I imagine all the times I have watched teachers use a the Smartboard like an electronic chalkboard  or the kids who all have chromebooks but the internet connection is so slow they use their phones as WIFI hotspots — bypassing the filters — to play video games!

This kind of thinking minimizes and marginalizes the impact of teachers.  This is just another example of reformers attempting to deskill our professional teachers and administrators.  If computers could do the job — why in the world would be need brick and mortar schools?  Think of the cost savings without a building — you have no buses, no cafeteria, no grounds to maintain, no repairs, no utility bills, no kids, the list is endless.  It is easy to fall under this spell of “tech” will save us —  in an era of reduced budgets and increasing demands to do more with less.  But school is more than simply minutiae to be memorized.

School is an “experience” and it helps kids understand each other in this complex global world.  It is the very foundation we build and maintain our democratic society upon.  That is not to be taken lightly.  One of the curious outcomes in today’s “tech” rich world is our ability to be so connected digitally yet completely disconnected and isolated in reality.  Kids need face to face social interaction.  We need to see and talk with people — not virtually or via a screen.  Kids need to experiment with ideas to grow and develop their unique personalities.  Understand how to get along with others, to share, to collaborate, to create and find new ways of doing things…something a machine could never facilitate or create.  School is so much more than just content delivery that is why no machine will ever be able to replace the human element to education.

Teachers are vital to that human development and the complex job of teaching cannot be done effectively by a machine.  “Tech” continues to be a tool — much like the Phonograph, then the Radio, then the Television and now Computers.  They can and often enhance learning under the careful planning of those professionals who understand the human development process and the specific needs of the kids they teach.  Sorry Mr. Wizard of Menlo Park but your prediction was wrong….we still need schools and teachers.


About James Herrholtz

Consultant, Teacher, Coach, Administrator for over 23 years. I have been a superintendent of schools, College Instructor, and worked at the Ohio Department of Education heading up the Division of Learning.
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