Why AI Will Not Replace Teachers

When OpenAI released ChatGPT in November 2022, teachers and schools were amazed with its ability to write essays, solve science and math problems and produce working computer code. At the same time, a growing feeling of alarm started taking over when teachers realized that it can also mean a new era of rampant cheating and even the death of student generated essays, or education itself. A proliferation of AI apps that promised to help or take over many of the functionalities that teachers used to do with their students, did not help to alleviate their fears. In particular applications that had built-in Chatbot tutors trained to evaluate students’ performance and intervene to help them every step of the way. One such tool is Khan Academy’s Khanmigo, which in the near future is predicted to be able to teach a student exactly what the student needs to know at exactly the right moment — in part because it will be able to instantly analyze the student’s voice, facial expression and surroundings. A prediction that many teachers may interpret as the end of their teaching career.

How Students Learn

Most articles I read in preparation for this blog entry made it clear that teachers  cannot be replaced and their reasoning was diverse. A few said that a chatbot cannot teach soft skills, such as critical thinking and collaboration. However, when I asked ChatGPT to teach students to collaborate, it developed a thorough strategy that if followed by students can train students to do just that. In fact, if we think about tutor chatbots that are able to interpret students’ facial expressions, the chatbot can even identify problems that arise amongst students and help them fix them. So, this reason did not seem to be a good justification for saving the teacher role. 

So, what is it that human teachers can do that machines will never be able to? Let’s look at learning and see how babies start their journey of understanding the world around them. Babies’ main source of learning is by watching their parents and people around them and trying to emulate what they say and do. My granddaughter started taking care of her dolls just like her mom takes care of her. She prepared food for them, fed them, changed their diapers, and put them to sleep. As kids keep growing, their parents and people involved in their lives are their role models that they admire and look up to. When kids go to school the expectation is that this growth mindset will continue by learning from and getting inspired by their teachers. 

What Makes Teachers Special

When I look back at my experience as a student, there are only a few teachers that I will never forget. Those were teachers whose passion for what they taught was contagious. When I listened to these teachers, I knew that I wanted to be like them. No wonder that they left such a permanent mark on my life and my experience with them was so well stored in my long term memory. However, there are many more teachers whom we will never remember because we can immediately detect that teaching is not their passion and they are only doing the minimum of what is expected of them. That minimum could include a presentation of the material followed up with questions that we had to answer. The type of engagement that a chatbot like ChatGPT can easily fulfill. 

I was checking out how teachers felt about ChatGPT when it came out in November 2022. Some were really worried because they thought ChatGPT could replace what they do with their students. But others found cool new ways to teach by using the AI chatbots to help out. A survey reveals that as many as 209 academic institutions use AI tech in one form or another. Yet it still remains one of the most misunderstood technologies among the academic community, receiving mixed reactions from educators and students alike. It was obvious to all the teachers that AI wasn’t going anywhere and it was going to really change how teaching and learning happen. It meant they’d have to work hard to change their teaching methods to fit the requirements of this new technology.

Exceptional Teachers

So, what are the characteristics that make a very good or exceptional teacher and why chatbots cannot step in to replace them? In order to explore this question, I decided to review the history of a few of those exceptional teachers and the amazing impact that they had on their students.

Albert Cullum is regarded by academics as one of the most influential educators of the 1960s and ’70s. He championed what is, by today’s standards, an unorthodox educational approach. He regularly taught his elementary school children literary masterpieces, exposed them to great works of art, and engaged them in the events of world history. Without leaving the classroom, his students visited King Tut’s tomb, attended joint sessions of the U.S. Congress, operated on “bleeding” nouns in his “grammar hospital,” and clamored to play the timeless roles of Julius Caesar, Lady Macbeth, and Hamlet. He had an intuitive sense of what worked in education, regularly incorporating teaching methods from project learning to social emotional learning, long before they had academic labels.

In A Touch of Greatness, a 2004 documentary produced by Catherine Gund for the PBS series Independent Lens, Cullum explains his unique teaching method: “We must remember how children learn rather than how we teach,…through movement, through emotions, through activities, through projects, all the basics fit in and they’re learning without realizing they’re learning. Learning’s not painful, learning should be joyful.”

Jaime Escalante was a renowned Bolivian-American educator who made a significant impact in the field of mathematics. One of his most notable achievements was in teaching Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus to students from predominantly low-income, minority backgrounds. He motivated and inspired his students to excel in math, and his students went on to achieve remarkable results on the AP Calculus exams. In 1982, 18 of his students passed the AP Calculus exam, which was an unprecedented accomplishment for a school with a history of academic struggles. Escalante’s story was the subject of the acclaimed movie “Stand and Deliver” (1988), which brought his inspirational teaching methods and remarkable achievements to a wider audience. 

Escalante’s passionate belief was that all students, when properly prepared and motivated, can succeed at academically demanding course work, no matter what their racial, social or economic background. He remains a symbol of the transformative power of education and the importance of high expectations and dedication in helping students overcome challenges and achieve academic success.

Using his own words, Escalante believed that “To be able to teach, you need three things. Number one is the knowledge of the subject. You have to have the domain of what you’re going to teach…..The second thing is I have to motivate the concept I’m going to be teaching…… .With each new concept …., I have to use some toy or something for the concept itself. So from that you start. Third, you have to understand human relations. you have to look at the kid as a person. And you respect the kid. And that way, you motivate them. And you develop that gradually over a whole semester or two weeks or three weeks, that good relationship. And if you do that, when you have the feedback from the student, mathematically speaking, then the kid speaks back and you know he is learning.”

Erin Gruwell is a remarkable teacher whose unconventional methods transformed the lives of her students. As she finished college in 1994, she started teaching in Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California. The school, reeling from the aftermath of the Rodney King riots, was a hotbed of racial tension, gang violence, and deep-seated mistrust between students. Filled with idealism and not fully grasping the challenges ahead, Gruwell faced a class of students segregated along racial lines, hostile and disinterested in education. 

In an attempt to break down these barriers, Gruwell employed innovative teaching methods that included the use of journals and books like The Diary of Anne Frank, relating their contents to the students’ own turbulent lives. Initially, this approach was met with skepticism, but gradually began to turn the tide, sparking interest and engagement among her students. Gruwell’s teaching method has demonstrated an unwavering commitment and resilience; she recognized that traditional teaching methods were ineffective for her class of at-risk students, who were more preoccupied with survival in their neighborhoods than with academics. 

In order to get through to her students, Gruwell introduced projects that encouraged students to express their thoughts and experiences through writing. This initiative led to the creation of “The Freedom Writers Diary,” a compilation of the students’ powerful and raw journal entries. Her approach not only transformed the lives of her students but also challenged and changed the educational system’s approach to dealing with at-risk youth. Erin Gruwell emerged as a beacon of hope and a testament to the impact a devoted teacher can have on students who are otherwise written off by society. Her commitment to not only educating her students academically but also enriching their understanding of humanity and compassion, was a lesson that extended far beyond the walls of the classroom. Erin Gruwell’s story was depicted in the movie “Freedom Writers,” a poignant and powerful drama released in 2007, that delves into the challenging yet transformative journey of a teacher and her students in a racially divided urban high school.

Characteristics of A Good Teacher

What are the common denominators of how these teachers handled their students and why these teaching methods cannot be replicated by AI? It starts with a genuine passion for the subject they teach and for transforming the lives of their students. It continues with a deep belief that they can change students’ mindset to be as excited about what they learn as they are about the subject they teach. In the example above we saw proof that students became deeply impacted and completely immersed in everything they learned. As Jaime Escalante said above, understanding human relations had a great impact on the successful outcome that their students managed to achieve. If not for Albert Cullum’s deep observation into the way students learn and Jaime Escalante and Erin Gruwell’s understanding of the social and emotional problems that their students had to struggle with daily, the outcome of their teaching would have been completely different. Finally, connecting learning to real life is a common denominator for these three exceptional teachers. Albert Cullum’s students used to act out almost everything they learned, Jaime Escalante’s students had the benefit of looking at math concepts from a real-life perspective and Erin Gruwell’s students got transformed into an equivalent era in history in which a major group of people were also discriminated against.

Why AI Will Never Replicate A Good Teacher

A great description that summarizes some of these points was provided by Joel Kupperstein, Senior Vice President of Product Strategy at Learning A-Z, who said that “AI can’t replace high-quality teaching because it doesn’t understand the human context around students’ struggles and cannot replicate a real human connection.” There is no AI chatbot that can put together in real time all the variables that high-quality teachers need to consider when designing a learning strategy for their students. Those variables may include: the ability of each individual student, the class atmosphere, the social and emotional state of each student and the characteristics of the community, the complexity of the material that needs to be taught and deep understanding of how students learn. Teachers update these strategies continuously as they detect changes in these  variables. If we are getting back to the way that young students learn by emulating adults, AI will never be able to become a role model for any student, not to mention inspire or looked up to.