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Teaching Is Dead. Long Live Teaching: Why School Sucks, But (Some) Teachers Don’t

If you know the AJATT origin story well, then you’ll know that I once took an actual Japanese class. It was a newspaper reading class. One time I showed the instructor, a lovely older gentleman, a website that automatically puts furigana on Kanji. Nearing retirement, he was visibly crestfallen, and somewhat sadly remarked that students would no longer need teachers.

Even then I knew he was wrong. And he still is wrong. But I didn’t quite have the words to tell him. To tell you the truth, I probably still don’t; I’m not very good with words. Since, however, words are just about the best tool we have, let’s see what we can do.

So here’s the thing.

We need teachers.
It’s school that we don’t need.

No technology will ever make guidance obsolete.

Even when true strong AI comes, we’ll need guidance on how to make the best use of it. And, ironically, of course, such AI will have been taught (directly and indirectly) and will itself be able to teach.Which is super exciting! Imagine being able to have the best teachers in the world, in the form of artificially intelligent avatars, personally teaching you.

The teacher as mere purveyor and gatekeeper of raw information is dead. But the teacher as guide, as sense, as master, as holder of wisdom — meta-information — will literally never die.

Teaching is dead.
Long live teaching.

Teachers used to mostly tell us what is and what to do. The teachers of the present and future can spend more of their time telling us what to ignore.

Let me explain.

Information, we have. How to best use that information is what we need guidance on. That’s also a form of information, but it’s information about information: meta-information. Interestingly enough, this is how AJATT works — it’s mostly information about how to learn Japanese, how to use the real Japanese that already exists out there in the world to become, linguistically, Japanese. You don’t find much Japanese here because lack of Japanese content is not the problem that the world needs fixed.

Teachers are like water. Good ones are essential for life. Bad ones are poisonous and must be avoided.

Even when we “self-teach”, we’re still in a teacher-student relationship. Not just with ourselves, but with the creators of the information and techniques we use: autodictatism is just a teacher-student relationship displaced in space and time. The relationship has been disembodied. Learning materials are surrogate teachers…that still need the teachers to create them.

When you learn from native materials, the creators of those materials — the actors, writers, editors — these are your teachers, too.

Perhaps there is a hidden lesson here (actually, I can see more than one, but let’s focus on just the one for now, so that we’re not out here like a Central European Power fighting a multiple-front war).

The hidden lesson is that one is the worst number of teachers. Even the greatest teacher, even AJATTI realize I just implied that AJATT is “the greatest teacher”; this was totally unintentional, but my ego is fragile enough that I’m not going to reword the statement in order to sound more humble, could become limiting and tyrannical if it were your only source of information. Mandarin learning expert Jon Biesnecker once dubbed it, quite fittingly, “The Tyranny of a Single Source of Information”.

Teachers are like food. You need variety both for variety and to prevent boredom.

So we’ve saved teachers from the fire. But what about schools? Can schools be made to not suck?

Probably, yes. The rebel in me wants to say “no”, but the epistemologically fair-minded part of me is always open to nonzero probabilities.

Schools can definitely be made not to suck, but it’s a constant and ongoing process, not an overhaul or an event; continued non-suckage requires the constant vigilance of students and teachers alike.

And I mean real vigilance. Proactive, not reactive. It’s very intellectually demanding. One needs to be humble enough to improve things but also arrogant enough to stick to old traditions.

What do I mean?

Well, for example, it takes humility to admit that spaced repetition works and that we’ve all been idiots for ignoring it. But it also takes chutzpah to buck the vapid trend of valuing meta-skills onlymeta-skills are obviously valuable but they have to be built on foundation of real, raw, core skills and realize that all learning is built on memorization: you can’t think critically when you don’t even know what to think about any more than you can rearrange furniture in an empty room — there’s nothing there to rearrange. Trying to think critically while ignorant is like trying to edit a blank page: literally impossible.

And that’s just one easy, relatively superficial example. There are many more — deeper — ones. One that comes to mind is the school’s organizational bias: an organization will tend to prioritize the whole over its parts, just like we value the whole of ourselves more than an an individual skin cell. This is really bad for learning. Except for a statistical minority for whom the system in its original form works perfectly, learning that isn’t customized (and/or doesn’t sincerely attempt customization) is just coercion.

Anyway, there’s more to say on this, but let’s leave it for another day 😉 .

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