The Covid-19 pandemic shutdowns have destroyed a major myth upon which some of the recent attempted reforms to public education are based. The myth is that classroom teachers can be replaced with remote/distance learning. One of the leading promoters of this myth is former Florida governor Jeb Bush. Bush has proposed that computers and distance learning could somehow take the place of in-person classroom teaching by real live teachers. Many of our current education reformers have longed for a way to replace classroom teachers with much cheaper forms of instruction using technology and automated teaching. Jeb Bush and others have invested heavily in teacher replacement technology, even starting technology companies that supposedly could greatly cut education costs and possibly make a lot of money for the companies providing automated teaching systems.
The Federal Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, had been aggressively pushing for the replacement of traditional public schools with on-line distance learning private schools. School privatization advocates such as DeVos, without evidence, had proposed that such “choice” schools could provide superior education by giving parents the freedom to escape supposedly “failing” public schools. The concept expressed often in testimony to state legislatures was that "parents know best what type of schooling would be most effective for their child" and the parent should be granted the power to place their children in schools of their choice bringing with them their allocation of education tax funding. None of this type of education reform had ever been field tested to see if it was an effective replacement for traditional classroom based public education.
Education researchers who have studied this trend to privatization and distance learning have demonstrated for several years that the actual results of distance/computer based learning as measured by standardized test scores are generally much inferior to traditional classroom instruction. Probably because of the powerful political influence of the privatizer advocates, most of the data demonstrating the inferiority of distance learning has been ignored.
But now with the Covid-19 shifting of instruction of many public school students to at-home remote learning, parents have been able to see for themselves how little their children are progressing in their remote learning studies. Many parents have been shocked at how difficult it seems to be to keep their children on task with computer learning even if the teachers are providing assignments and tutorials for children to view online. Education does not seem to work as well when the teacher is not working directly with children in a real classroom situation.
I am writing this post to highlight some of the most recent research about learning which demonstrates very clearly why remote/distance learning does not work as well as in-classroom learning.
It is a coincidence that I was in the middle of reviewing some of the most recent research on cultural evolution and cultural learning when the pandemic hit, forcing this recent shift to remote learning. Cultural evolution is a relatively new science that is contributing greatly to modern learning theory. It is now believed that the great advances of mankind in just the last 10,000 years have occurred because of a rapid process called cultural evolution. That is, instead of relying on the extremely slow process of genetic evolution to help our species cope with changes and challenges in our environment, mankind has been able to rely on our highly developed brains to help figure out how to survive and to pass this knowledge on to our children.
This process of cultural evolution happens, according to cultural scientist Joseph Henrich, with the invention or adaptation of various tools and procedures that allow humans to deal effectively with often lethal changes such as harsher climates, food shortages, deadly competitors, overpopulation and many other challenges to survival. In his recent book: The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Henrich uses extensive studies of various primitive cultures to show how humans adapt to survive by passing on highly complex learning of skills, tool making, and survival techniques to their young during the long period from childhood to adulthood.
In other words, humans teach their children what they need to know in order to survive and thrive in their environment. These are skills that are learned, not inborn, compared to skills exhibited by many other animals, which are inherited genetically. For example, it is known that bees inherit the ability to direct other bees to a particularly rich patch of flowers from which other bees can harvest honey. They inherit the ability to do a sort of dance that gives other bees the direction and distance to the honey source. Humans on the other hand, would use language they had learned from parents and others that allow them to give much more explicit directions to a food source they have discovered. This ability to use and pass on learning has given humans a huge advantage over most other forms of life on earth.
So even though our present system of public schooling funded by taxpayers for all children is fairly new, the process of passing on vital knowledge from adults to offspring has been going on for many thousands, maybe millions of years. The use of various forms of schooling of children is what allows humans to adapt very rapidly to changing conditions and to pass on knowledge that will allow their offspring to survive. Schooling is actually the process of cultural evolution that has made mankind the ruler of the earth over all other living species.
This is how an understanding of cultural evolution can be essential to understanding how schooling can be made most effective: It turns out that human beings in addition to being smart, are also social creatures. That is we depend greatly on our close connections with other humans for knowledge about obtaining food, shelter, mental support, security, and feelings of wellbeing. We naturally cooperate with other humans to provide for the wellbeing of the whole society. Children depend on close connections and communication with adults they trust to teach them what they will need to know to get along in life. Books, video, audio, and other teaching aides are useful tools in the learning process, but the human connection is the most important ingredient in learning survival skills. A kid can learn a lot from a two-dimensional TV or computer screen, but he trusts much more what he/she learns from a real live human being whom he has accepted is a mentor. In-person adult mentors (teachers) are most effective in passing on the complex culture of human beings.
Experienced teachers know how to use the social dynamics of the classroom to produce cooperation, healthy competition in learning, encouragement and motivation for each child. That is the secret to effective schooling. Mercedes Schnider makes important points about the social nature of learning in her recent post here. There needs to be a human-to-human connection. That’s what happens in most classrooms in our public education systems that makes learning most effective and efficient. The promoters of distance learning are wrong about this impersonal process as a substitute for the human-to-human connection.