Headmaster’s Thoughts — October 2015

There comes a time in the beginning of the career of a young barrister in England when he (or she) becomes a pupil to a senior barrister. For the first six months of that period (a carry-over from the era of Guilds), he or she cannot take a case but sits behind the “pupil master” merely listening and learning.  Since one cannot earn money as a lawyer during those months, when I was in that situation, I made ends meet by teaching law for insurance clerks at night school at the Willesden College of Technology in North London, now known as the College of North West London.

The insurance clerks were only there just to pass the law part of a test they were required to take in order to become “chartered.”  It was very basic law that they would have to answer correctly on a multiple choice exam. “What is a tort? Choose the right answer.”  “ What are liquidated damages?”  And so on.

Today, what I taught could effectively be done by a good software program on a home computer, laptop, or IPad (and is, in fact, now “taught” in this way).  The material required no judgement, just a presentation of facts to be remembered. No interpretation, no creative thinking; ideal for using the technology now available.

One can contrast that type of pedagogy with the course that I teach all seniors which I call “Ethics.”  They may call it something else. It is a course that is philosophical in nature and poses ethical quandaries about which there are no right or wrong answers.  My favorite topic is trolleyology, perhaps because I knew its creator, Phillipa Foote, when I was at Oxford.  It would be difficult to teach by computer because there is a great deal of back and forth between student and student, and there are no simple answers. You could not have a multiple choice test on trolleyology. 

The central premise of trolleyology is this: a trolley is running down a hill out of control and will kill five people in its path on the track unless you decide to divert that trolley onto a siding, where there is only one person in its path. Do you do nothing, or do you interfere, pull a switch, and have the trolley kill one instead of five? 

That is the first of multiple scenarios. There are many others: the trolley is running down the hill, and the only way to save the five people is to push a (very) fat man off a bridge above the trolley’s path, effectively stopping the trolley with his death.  If the idea of physically pushing the fat man is too “yucky” for you, we can conveniently have him standing on a trap door on the bridge which you can open by pressing a button.  There are many more scenarios.  Most people (but certainly not all) would pull the diverting switch in the first scenario and not push the fat man in the second.  Interestingly, if you reverse the order and pose the “pushing the fat man” scenario first, fewer people would say they would pull the switch when offered the “diverting” scenario.

The various reasons why people may or may not act to interfere in these scenarios are also interesting.  The first scenario (when we are pulling the switch) seems to fire the logical part of the brain, while the second (when we are literally pushing the fat man with our hands) fires the emotional part.  Also a factor is that in the first scenario, the death of the one man is “collateral damage” while in the second we “use” the body of the fat man to save the others (and he dies in the process).  

When these problems were first presented, they were dismissed as mind games without any real relevance. Then the 9/11 tragedy happened and the scenario became all too real.  A plane takes off from Boston heading towards California and makes a turn so that it now (menacingly) heads for Manhattan.  Do you shoot it down over White Plains (where the population on the ground is not too dense) or leave it alone?  Such scenarios are currently presented in every military college in the world, on the basis that it is better to discuss a problem that might occur rather than to have the problem occur when there is no time for discussion and action must be taken immediately.

My point is that facts can be taught using a good software program, but we do not have (and may never have) a software program that can interact with a class of students on an emotional level about contentious issues when there may be valid, differing opinions.  So, while I cannot justify my role back at Willesden Technical College, I am attempting to validate my role as a teacher (and by teacher, I am often merely facilitating the debate among students) in the senior ethics class.

Limiting my arguments to what is available now in 2015, the line between computer-taught education and human-taught education seems clear when you have two widely different types of lesson.  In fact, life is not usually so simple, and most lessons are a hybrid in that there are some facts that need to be taught, some issues that need to be discussed, and some opinions that need to be shared.  We already have segmented off the purely factual lessons.  If you want to learn typing, get a good software program.  There is little to discuss as to why the top line of the QWERTY keyboard begins with QWERTY.  It is what it is, and although the history of how it got that way is interesting, if you want to learn how to type, then that history is irrelevant.  But translating Voltaire’s “Candide,” as I did line-for-line for a year with the Head of my secondary school when I was a junior, is clearly best done with a knowledgeable teacher.  Even though part of the class involved learning to translate French words into English, much of the class involved debate about why a particular phrase or word was used or what Voltaire’s intentions were in writing such a short (and fascinating) story.

The other component of teaching that a computer cannot do as effectively as a human is to encourage the student.  It is one thing for a script on the screen to say “well done!” and a totally different thing when a teacher authentically congratulates a child on his or her achievement.  The emotional part of teaching, the human support, is so important, that I doubt that the teaching profession is in much danger of total obsolescence because of computers.  There are interesting studies showing that two students who work together by “skyping” each other on a computer take twice as long to solve a math problem as two students sitting next to each other.  We can gauge human reactions so much better when we connect in person.

Not that lecture-style teaching is always so different from computer learning.  While we were in in China, I watched several classes at one of the finest schools in Shanghai.  “Number 2 Normal School” accepts only three percent of its applicants.  These are exceptional children taught in very large classes by lecturers.  When I visited, everything the teacher said was copied down, no questions were asked, and the students never challenged their teachers.  Without interruptions, you could work out exactly where in the curriculum the class would be at the end of each class period. In my senior class, I have not the slightest idea where we will be by the time the bell rings because (thankfully) they interrupt with questions.  Frankly, I encourage them to do so and hope that they will also debate among themselves. I could see that the school in Shanghai might replace its teachers with videos of a master teacher and get rid of the humans who actually spoke in the front of each room.  Maybe it is for that reason that I was less impressed than I expected, with the pedagogy I saw there.

The subject gets particularly important with very young children or with children who are anxious (as we all somewhat are).  When a young child is in school, they may be concerned as to whether they can keep up with the class, and whether they have the skills they need. A skillful teacher deals with these anxieties and calms them down, a skillful teacher comforts and supports, a skillful teacher teaches in an atmosphere of empathy and understanding.  A computer….not so much!

In sum, the “closed” teaching of facts (those insurance courses) and the “open” teaching of ideas are really two completely different actions that share the name “teaching.”  Most classes are a combination of both.  My hope is that as students move through school, they move towards the “open” format, and their minds are challenged more to question and be curious than to just remember. The goal of educators should be to encourage students to take intellectual leaps off cliffs without safety nets, to inspire them to think out of the box, to challenge old approaches and to praise them when they imagine new solutions.  If we can do that, then America will always stay creatively ahead, and American graduates will continue to produce innovative solutions that others can only copy.

Ronald P. Stewart
Headmaster
York Prep