Will Tablets Replace Teachers?

No.

There will always be a need for teachers, especially good teachers.

As human beings, we are led to action by our emotions, will and intellect, in that order. For it is only when we feel strongly about something that we call up the strength (develop the will) to get moving and then use our brain to work out the ways and means to achieve our purpose.

Those of us who are lucky to have access to and benefit of a formal education at school and beyond will come in contact with teachers in the system; but one can also be taught informally, for example when one is an apprentice in a job, by someone who earns as much respect even if he/she may not be a teacher in the conventional sense of imparting knowledge in a classroom. The setting where the teaching takes place itself becomes the ‘classroom.’

In the olden times in India there were ‘forest academies’, and much of Indian philosophical thought that has come down to us emanates from teaching that took place in green surroundings under the canopy of the blue sky through a process of open dialogue and reasoning out through questions and answers.

The distribution of tablets among school students led me to some reflections on the subject of learning and teaching, and of course teachers – not least because of following upon the recent event of a magazine launch that sent memories racing to the good old days. I sure hope there are better days to come, despite the fact that, like many advanced countries – but without equivalent resources to cope – we have rapidly, too rapidly perhaps, become a post-industrial society that focuses on consumption and leisure. I went back to some basics, like this one:

“Earlier this year, I learned that my high school chemistry teacher had died. This was not surprising, since he had been my teacher in 1961. What was rather astounding was the outpouring of appreciation from his former students that followed. All of us mourned the passing of a man who had motivated us in a way that no previous instructor had been able to do, but each of us had thought that we alone had been so imprinted. This self-described “simple Kansas farmer” somehow knew how to leave a mark on his students for the rest of their lives.

“I was fortunate to have such motivating teachers not only in high school but also in college and medical school. In college, the inspiring figure was a professor of electrical engineering, who taught me to use my reasoning ability to solve problems and how to use the solutions to improve our understanding of physical processes. I learned that if I did not really understand the problem, I could not find a true solution to it. In medical school, I was lucky enough to study with a professor of physiology who taught me that the search for truth meant accumulating an understanding that would let one reason from observations to root causes. All these teachers were nurturing in that they demanded the best from us and would not settle for less; they had the gift to motivate their students.”

The italics are added in the above extract which is from a short article by a doctor, J. Drazen, in a 2006 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, introducing a new series on medical education. If we are not searching for the truth of things by reasoning from observations to root causes then we are not really getting a true education. And the teachers we remember most are those who made us do that – which neither computers nor tablets can ever do.

As is to be expected and as is also too well known, the education sector is a very dynamic one and educators and pedagogues are always on the lookout for and experimenting with various ways of teaching, which is as it ought to be. This trend has not escaped medical education, and from time to time there is a review of current practices and reflections about how to improve teaching methods so as to cope with the information explosion that is hitting all sectors. As it is, medical studies are probably the longest among all disciplines, even at undergraduate level, and not least because so many different subjects have to be studied, each with its complex, unfamiliar terminology, which makes the studies even more bewildering, not to mention the continual addition of new knowledge.

A number of medical schools have introduced pioneering and innovative methods of teaching which no doubt help a lot towards better understanding and assimilation. However, all these techniques still depend on the key link in the chain: the human element represented by the good teacher. The technique and technologies underlying them are but instruments, and no instrument by itself is sufficient to transmit knowledge: the blackboard and the chalk by themselves cannot teach, nor the IT devices! That is why we need teachers, good teachers – for they make the difference.

Elsewhere I have written that the unique role of the teacher is to fire the imagination of the student: he evokes such interest in his subject that the student decides it’s worth pursuing further, and thus “takes off” to explore, study, learn by using his power of reasoning to analyse and think afresh, to sum up and synthesise for himself the stock of knowledge that he builds up, and gain better and deeper understanding by further discussions with his peers and teacher(s). Not only is this self-effort rewarding, it makes lighter the teacher’s task, and the ensuing interaction between student and teacher is then set at higher and higher levels to the benefit of both: a “win-win” situation.

Some might think that this is sheer idealism. No: it is doable, and it happens. It happened with my own students, as it happened between me and my teachers whose empathy, skill dedication and passion ignited me when I was at the budding stage. That is why the extract by Dr Drazen about his teacher struck a chord, and more so because at around the same time (1960s) I was exposed to fabulous teachers. Their pedagogic skills were even more remarkable in those days of simple chalk and blackboard – the student of today who has moved from pentels and white boards to laptop and now tablets will have no clue! For that matter, of course we have also had to adapt to and use these modern tools, but the respect for the old that is gold is undiluted.

And explains the veritable awe, and even affection, in which teachers of yore were held. If this is no longer much the case, the blame I believe is shared, both teachers with more collateral concerns and wayward students cheating on their parents – who dote, and also sacrifice – being responsible. In those days of hardship that I am referring to, we could not afford that luxury. Our teachers were very special to us, and whenever we met them afterwards, even long afterwards, the respect and emotions came tumbling out.

I remember one such occasion many years ago when a group of us, all ex-RCC students and all specialist doctors, were walking back from our Sunday trek to Trois Mammelles and were passing through Quatre Bornes. We saw an elderly gentleman playing with a little child in his front garden – and all of us instantly recognized him as our ex-Chemistry teacher. We decided that we must greet him, and we approached the fence looking pretty odd I must say, because our trousers were somewhat muddied, we all were wearing caps and carried ordinary walking sticks – not the “badines” but staffs of “jonc” and “goyave de chine.” So, to say the least, we were quite a sight as we lined up against the fence on that Sunday afternoon around two and called out to Monsieur. It was but natural that he came to us with a measured pace and some hesitation, squinting somewhat to make out our faces. And then, without delay, we identified ourselves as his ex-students – and the dramatic transformation was sheer magic! No need to say that he was not only extremely happy but very proud to meet us and learn about what we had become.

Our encounter lasted about ten minutes, for we did not want to tire the old man that he had now become, but our gratitude was profound and our happiness genuine. Around the same time, when I was working at PMOC, I went and greeted another teacher who had been admitted for treatment with a fracture under the care of another colleague, also an ex-RCC and a laureate (1952 if I am not mistaken). He did not remember me too much, but I did – amongst others because once he had given me an hour’s arrest! I did not appreciate him much then, but that day in the ward, I understood that he was indeed one of the “good teachers”: for he “demanded the best from us and would not settle for less”, and initiated us into looking for root causes from observations in his subject physics.

When the tablets become obsolete – there must be a Murphy’s law of tablet obsolescence? – they will simply be discarded and new versions picked up. Old never becomes gold with expendable objects. But you can never dispose of a teacher similarly; certainly, you can never have a new version of an old teacher! He is ever the original, the one and only whose whole persona and pedagogy are ever imprinted in you, almost as to become ‘hardwired’. That’s the old that is truly gold, and so we can say ‘Hail good teachers!’ – but what’s the equivalent for a tablet eh?


* Published in print edition on 18 April 2014

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