Is it possible that teaching could be designed so that software could do the same
job a teacher does? Can a teacher’s role be broken down into a piece of
Seth Godin shares the following law in his book Linchpin.
The Law of the Mechanical Turk
"Any project, if broken down into sufficiently small, predictable parts, can be
accomplished for awfully close to free."
A prime example of this law would be Wikipedia. Seth explains, "Wikepedia
took advantage of the law of the Mechanical Turk. Instead of relying on a
handful of well-paid people calling themselves professionals, Wikipedia thrives
by using loosely coordinated work of millions of knowledgeable people, each
happy to contribute a tiny slice of the whole."
"The internet has turned white-collar work into something akin to building a pyramid
in Egypt. No one could build the entire thing, but anyone can haul one brick
So how is it that we have arrived at a place in education where instruction can be
provided by a computer and an Internet connection?
Roger Martin, author of The Design of Business, would say we have driven the teaching (not all) of students through
the "knowledge funnel.”
Mystery-Knowledge Funnel Stage 1: Roger describes this stage as the “mystery.” Ask questions and
exploring the mystery. For example, "What should students be able to do or
what should they know when they complete school." Or maybe, "What
should education look like?"
Heuristic- Knowledge Funnel Stage 2: A heuristic is a general rule of thumb. We create a
rule of thumb because it helps us break down our question or our mystery of
into a manageable size. As Roger describes it, "It is a way of thinking
about the mystery that provides simplified understanding of it and allows those
with access to the heuristic to focus their efforts."
In teaching a heuristic might be that we should start by connecting to prior
knowledge and then build background knowledge or that we want to have student
engaging each other. Another might be that using graphic organizers helps
student better organize the information they are working with. Its what we
would call best practices. Generally, it is a rule that should be followed in
teaching a lesson, etc.
Algorithm-Knowledge Funnel Stage 3- Roger describes stage 3 this way. " As an organization
puts its heuristic into operation, studies it more, and thinks about it
intensely, it can convert from a general rule of thumb...to a fixed formula.
That formula is the algorithm..." We might call it research based. There
is validity and reliability to applying the algorithm. We get the result we
want each time we apply the formula.
So I am wondering as Educational knowledge is being driven through the knowledge
funnel, are we still in the mystery stage, the heuristic stage, or have we
arrived at the algorithm stage? The mystery of stage 1 requires the asking of
questions and seeking of problems to solve. The general rule of thumb required
of the heuristic in stage 2 requires some artistry. The algorithm of stage 3,
standardized, codified, honed, and refined to such a point that ultimately
anyone could with access to it could deploy it and achieve more less the same
As Roger Martin points out, the ultimate destination for the algorithm is computer
code. "Once knowledge has been pushed to a logical, arithmetic, or
computational procedure, it can be reduced to software."
Isn't this what much of the current developments in educational software is doing. A
student responds to the software and the software responds with what is needed
next. Over time and with enough opportunities the software is able to move the
student through all the required learning tasks it was designed to provide and
do so using research based methods to instruct these tasks
Teaching on the algorithmic level.
Now if teaching can be achieved on the algorithmic level then Seth Godin might say,
"It only follows, then, that as you eliminate the skilled worker...then
you also save money on wages as build a company that's easy to scale. In other
words, first you have interchangeable parts, then you have interchangeable
Teachers viewed as interchangeable. Is this possible? Is this something that software
designers and on-line learning researchers would desire?
Online learning is opening the doors for thousands of willing students and willing
students to connect and to break down knowledge into smaller pieces. The
teacher in the classroom is slowly losing his or her monopoly to an online
crowd or teachers who have the knowledge and expertise to teach their subject
to thousands of willing students who want to connect and learn at their own
Is online learning disruptive enough to begin the making the classroom teacher
Seth compares the Dispensable Employee vs. Indispensable Employee
"The cause of the suffering is the desire to of organizations to turn employees into
replaceable cogs in a vast machine. The easier people are to replace, the less
need to be paid. And so far, workers have been complicit in this
"The future belongs to chefs, not to cooks or bottle washers. It's easy to buy a
cookbook (filled with instructions to follow) but really hard to find a chef
Are we in education chefs or cooks?
Artists or house painter?
Composers or players of musical instruments?
Architects or builders?
Movie producers or movie viewers?
The inventor or the factory worker?
Designers or users?
Teachers or computer code?
Do we adjust to the new reality described by Seth and become indispensable?
"The indispensable employee brings humanity and connection and art to her
organization. She is the key player, the one who's difficult to live without,
the person you can build something around."
Design Thinking, which I think is a powerful approach to re-designing education,
requires a sense of humanity at its core. Teaching and learning is
fundamentally a human experience. Teachers, along with students, provide the
human experience that makes the learning experience so powerful. Teachers are
indispensable to a well-designed learning experience. My hope is that teachers
are never replaced with code.
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