Decades ago, I attended a conference at which a few tech companies promoted the idea that soon, every student would have a personal laptop for daily use in school. As I watched videos of Australian children walking into school toting their laptop bags, I had a sense that I was seeing something momentous at its beginning. While I was unsure about the timeline, I persuaded my school’s head to join the movement before the turn of the century, and in 1998, our school “went 1:1.” The time to adoption varied greatly among schools, but assuredly, the school that Gen Z children have experienced is vastly different from my own Gen X education, in large part due to the technology available.
Something that has never changed in my 20+ years of working with faculty toward the effective use of classroom technology was that the teacher always brought far more to the table in crafting the student learning experience than the technology ever did. Teachers adapted their skill sets as new technologies emerged and occasionally transformed different aspects of student learning. This was, of course, followed by the more recent wave of educators embracing learning technology as they pursued remote and hybrid learning at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Evolution of AI and Technology in Teaching
As technology has continuously evolved, teachers have drawn upon their wisdom, discernment, and expertise in forging connections with their students to craft curriculum and rethink pedagogy. The most successful uses of technology have happened when academic leaders and faculty focused on a highly curated set of technology resources, and “less is more” has certainly applied. For example, some schools have moved away from allowing teachers to choose the learning management system (LMS) they feel best meets their needs and toward the adoption of a single school or division-wide LMS. As it turned out, this switch also provided teachers with more opportunities for collaboration as well as the mental space to focus on developing the content of their course sites.
“As technology has continuously evolved, teachers have drawn upon their wisdom, discernment, and expertise in forging connections with their students to craft curriculum and rethink pedagogy.”
— Sarah Hanawald, Senior Director, Association for Academic Leaders at One Schoolhouse
I have the same sense that school is about to change again in watching the emergence of generative AI. I’m not sure about the time to full adoption, but I’m positive it’s going to be exponentially faster than previous technological adoptions have been. In the Academy’s “AI Considerations for Academic Leaders” course, participants shared that they felt under tremendous pressure to “figure out” this powerful tool. Many said they believe generative AI has already become ubiquitous and would only continue to be so in the future lives and work of today’s students.
AI Won’t Replace Teachers. But It Could Help Them With Certain Tasks.
Who will teach these students what they need to know to make generative AI a resource while still developing their intellectual capacity? It will be their teachers and parents, not the AI itself. When social media emerged to become part of the landscape, we (educators) let social media teach students about social media for far too long. We need to do a better job this time around.
ERB President Tom Rochon wrote a compelling blog post about how writing instruction should evolve to leverage generative AI while still helping “teach students to write so they are able to formulate and communicate their thoughts.” It’s well worth a read for all educators, not just ELA faculty. Notably, nowhere in his post does Dr. Rochon posit the idea that educators will be less important in the future than they are now! What he addresses instead is a glimpse into the future of meaningful instruction.
What’s essential is that students grow confident in their ability to think critically and deeply – traits that teachers typically assess via writing. Will students who aren’t taught to use generative AI critically succumb to feeling, “My writing isn’t as good as AI-generated text, so why bother?” It’s never been more important to explain the why of every lesson to students and emphasize the importance of cognitive skill development over producing a final product.
Along with the call for teaching students about generative AI, there are also tremendous implications for how AI can support the professional work of teachers. When generative AI can assist teachers and academic leaders in more effectively accomplishing various tasks like grading, personalized instruction, and administrative management, what does this recaptured time empower teachers to do more of? In other words, generative AI isn’t going to teach or replace teachers. Teachers are going to use generative AI to better support student learning.
When Teacher Intelligence Trumps Artificial Intelligence
Let’s consider some areas in which teachers excel and how having access to artificial intelligence might further empower them.
Human Connection and Emotional Intelligence
One of the most crucial roles of a teacher is to foster a connection with their students. Research suggests that the human connection between teachers and students is critical in promoting student motivation and engagement. Leading a classroom is not just about content expertise in a subject matter but also teachers’ empathy, insights, and inspiration. Machines cannot match that.
AI tools can help provide personalized learning for a student but only when directed to do so by a skilled and empathetic teacher. AI cannot discern emotions beyond a coded response, and even a bot “trained” to be supportive will be limited when compared to a human teacher. When teachers leverage AI tools to fast-track their ability to provide personalized instruction in light of each student’s needs, that’s an empowered classroom.
Teaching well has never been a one-size-fits-all approach. Teachers are flexible in adapting their approach to their students’ varying needs and learning styles, flexing their ability to read their students’ emotions, and respond accordingly with empathy and support. Unlike AI, teachers can observe their students’ progress in real-time, witnessing the smallest signals that a student needs support, noticing a furrowed brow long before that student has generated “output” for an AI tool to examine.
Teachers are also aware of the outer world impacting students’ ability to learn. Is it the night before the state semifinals? The day after a heart-breaking loss in double-overtime? Tech week for the musical performance? Teachers know when external factors are at play and can adjust their classrooms to new realities quickly. AI simply cannot match the adaptability of a human teacher to the emotional and developmental needs of students.
Trust and Ethics
Teaching is far more than imparting knowledge and developing skills; it’s also helping students become responsible, ethical members of society. Teachers promote trust, honesty, and integrity in the classroom and serve as role models for students to emulate. Thoughtful teachers help students grow their metacognitive skills and develop a growth mindset; these teachers truly inspire students to be their best selves.
Further, in specific relation to generative AI, teachers are essential in encouraging students to be critical consumers and thinkers not just about the results of their interactions with generative AI but also about the bias, inequity, and exploitation that might be a part of the tools they are using.
Yes, generative AI can be a valuable tool for teachers in supporting student learning, but it’s important to remember that it cannot replace human teachers. Teacher intelligence is far more effective in fostering human connections, providing real-time adaptability, and promoting critical thinking and creativity, emotional intelligence, trust, and ethics.
It’s crucial that we continue to invest in teacher development and provide all faculty with the resources and support they need to become better educators. Artificial intelligence serves as a support for educators, yet at the end of the day, teacher intelligence is still the driving force behind effective and meaningful learning.
Hear more from Sarah Hanawald as a keynote speaker at our ERB Connections Regional Conferences Series, where she will speak on topics including the role of AI in the future of teaching. Conferences are open to educators from both ERB member and non-member schools and will be held in Pasadena, Houston, Atlanta, and Philadelphia.
About the Author
Sarah Hanawald is the Senior Director for the Association for Academic Leaders, a professional association supporting educators who hold academic leadership roles in developing the competencies that empower them to further their schools’ mission-aligned growth. Hanawald spent over 35 years leading education innovation in curriculum and pedagogy in independent schools. During that time, she worked as a classroom teacher and advisor, a technology director, and an academic dean at three independent schools in North Carolina. Sarah also worked as a consultant to schools seeking a strategic partner in making sense of the intersection of technology, curriculum, and pedagogy.