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Computers Make Poor Substitute Teachers

When I was manning the Learning Assistance Centre in a public high school, I often helped students who were taking online courses. One day a young man came to see me in the throes of immense frustration with his “distance learning” course. He wasn’t understanding the material and didn’t know what to do about it. He looked at me with pleading eyes and said, “I need a teacher!”

Computers have threatened to displace teachers for some time now, but it hasn’t happened yet. Those who think that a computer can deliver the content just as efficiently as a teacher overlook the relational aspect of education, which, I would argue, is one of the key components in how well a child learns.

Technology has had an undeniable impact on modern education. But is it really as crucial to education as some would like to make it out to be? Former US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was quoted as saying that, “Technology isn’t an option that schools may or may not choose for their kids.”

Now that I teach at a classical Christian school without a computer lab, tablets, smartphones, or a smartboard, I beg to differ. I have used many such technological devices for teaching in the past, as well as specialised technology for students with special needs. Here is what I found since teaching at a classical school: I haven’t missed it.

I haven’t missed policing the computer lab to make sure that students were not on unauthorized websites or getting distracted while playing at changing their fonts. I haven’t missed worrying that something inappropriate might come up on a Google search and get through the filter. And I haven’t missed dealing with technological glitches.

What I have found is that a small class size takes care of much of what I would have had my students use computers for in the past. Rather than surfing the web, we use library books and articles printed from the internet, and I can take the time to read the parts to them that they are unable to read on their own. Their research is deeper, because they are not frantically clicking around but rather immersing themselves in their books.

They hand write their drafts and we edit them side by side. We use a dictionary to check our spelling. Then they revise and carefully re-write their good copies. And their writing is good, even without a spelling and grammar checker and fancy fonts.

I appreciate this grounding in the writing process, without technological distractions, at least in the early stages of learning to write. Do I appreciate my word processor? Of course – and yes, I used it to write this article. I do wonder if word processors have changed the way we write, however.

I once read about Thomas Aquinas and his writing method – how well ordered his thoughts were, even before he dictated them to be written down. His dictation to his scribe “ran so clearly that it was as is if the master was reading aloud from a book under his eyes.” Now that we use word processors, we edit constantly while writing. I am not sure if this is a good or a bad thing, but it does make me think of Marshall McLuhan’s statement: “The medium is the message.

In computer delivered instruction, for example, how is the embodiment of the message in a computer rather than in a human being altering the learning?

A teacher is the embodiment of the message that she teaches. That’s the relational dynamic in teaching. The message is brought home by a living, breathing embodiment of the message right before the eyes of the students. This means that we as teachers have to stop and ask ourselves what message we are giving our students with our lives.

The teacher who is indwelled by Jesus Christ has the opportunity to get out of the way and let Him be seen. “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Do we, by drawing attention to ourselves, encourage our students to venerate us, or to worship Christ? Do we teach them to rely on themselves, or to rely on Christ? When our students look at the way we live our lives, are they able to see that Jesus is real, and that He lives in us?

The perfect Teacher, Jesus Christ, is the perfect embodiment of the gospel. As the Incarnation of the Word of God, He perfectly represents in His body the message of His Father in Heaven: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Although we as human beings are imperfect, nevertheless God can and will use the teacher who is wholly given to Him to put flesh on the gospel.

Teaching is incarnational. We teach what we are; we are not solely passing on facts and information. Truth comes to the student wrapped in a body – our bodies. If we love the Truth, we communicate that love to our students.

A mere computer cannot do that.

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