This is an archive of the 2013 version of ocTEL.

Teaching Machines

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    The image of kids operating little mechanical devices designed to “teach” them seems absurd and maybe begs comparison in some way with learning through any electronic “machine” in use today. To me the commonality is mostly in the odd assumption that humans can interact with machines in an educational manner at all. Placing a ghost human inside a machine, even one that may be considered predictive and interactive goes against all seven of the educational thinkers listed as being too detached from and form of responsiveness or exchange.

    For Socrates there would be great frustration in separating the reasoner from the reasoning. While it might be possible to discover particular patterns of thought and bias within the machine’s output how can work together towards an understanding when confronted with a written script across from you. Of course, someone had to have written the lessons but they aren’t there or presumed to be personally associated with the sterile exchange and it would be just as silly to demand evidence to back up advice from a fortune cookie. (Though Skinner no doubt would try).

    Communities of Practice rest on shared activity and learning from actual practice. How would a student negotiate meaning with the machine? Or maybe it should be how would a machine preloaded with content that it itself doesn’t “understand” what the student wants by the incessant pulling of its lever? How would the student understand what the machine “wants” beyond guessing or referring to the teacher for explanation? Hiding the purpose for an exchange (learning) within an object that requires explaining by a third party suggests a process more akin to learning a musical instrument except in that relationship the student participates in making something uniquely theirs. Or maybe not? Depending on the instructor the faithful replication of the score might override accepting the oddities of individual performance. This is like memorization though and I’m not sure what kind of community would emerge from a group of individual unconnected memorizers and their private accumulation of discrete knowings—something by John Cage? “…you don’t have to put the body and spirit together because they are not separate. You don’t have to put the music and the dance together because they are going to be experienced in the same room. Do you see?” (John Cage from “Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists” by Kay Larson 2012).

    As for the other theorists I suspect that both Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich would object to the machine as an object for teaching obedience to the machine as an agent of social control. The learning machine could be any object to be attended to with diligence. A shovel would do to place the student in the social hierarchy. It is not to be understood, questioned or expected to explain itself, it is simply your role to operate it according to directions from others. The power of this approach is it relies on simply responding to stimulus by mute performance. What could be more absurd that asking a machine what it wants of you? You obey because that is all that is required. The content is incidental.

    I’ll stop here with the admission that I am defeated by ANT. Latour and his 5 uncertainties are for others to understand.


    “Evidence is beginning to accumulate that traditional schooling’s focus on individual, isolated activity, on symbols correctly manipulated but divorced from experience, and on de-contextualized skills may be partlye responsible for our schools’ difficulty in teaching process of thinking and knowledge construction” (Reanick, 1989, p. 13) From “Beyond Testing: towards a theory of educational assessment” by Caroline V. Gipps.

    ‘”In her study of beginning teachers, Britzman (1991) comments that “because they took on the myth that everything depends on the teacher, when thing went awry, all they could do was blame themselves rather than reflect upon the complexity of pedagogical encounters”’ From “Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher” by Stephen D. Brookfield 1995

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