Audrey Watters

For at least a century now, we’ve been told stories that machines are poised to “revolutionize” education. The rationale for this revolution has remained largely unchanged: machines will make education more efficient. Machines will make education more streamlined. They will make it cheaper and faster. As education psychologist Sidney Pressey, inventor of one of the very first “teaching machines,” wrote in 1933,

There must be an ‘industrial revolution’ in education, in which educational science and the ingenuity of educational technology combine to modernize the grossly inefficient and clumsy procedures of conventional education. Work in the schools of the school will be marvelously though simply organized, so as to adjust almost automatically to individual differences and the characteristics of the learning process. There will be many labor-saving schemes and devices, and even machines — not at all for the mechanizing of education but for the freeing of teacher and pupil from the educational drudgery and incompetence.

Machines will automate education, making it more responsive, more engaging. Or so we’re told. “The average teacher is woefully burdened by such routine of drill and information-fixing,” Pressey had observed. “It would seem highly desirable to lift from her shoulders as much of this burden and make her freer for those inspirational and thought-stimulating activities which are, presumably, the real function of the teacher.”

One hundred years into this so-called “industrial revolution” in education, it’s hard to see how teaching machines have accomplished much of this promise — Pressey’s or otherwise. Nevertheless, technologists still clamor for more machines in classrooms, insisting that these will “personalize education,” somehow making it more human by involving teachers less.

But rather than saving labor as Pressey and others have envisioned, these devices have created new kinds of work — work for both the teacher and the pupil. And with efficiency as the goal, machines enable more schoolwork, not less. The school day extends into the nights and weekend and into the holidays as everyone is expected to be within reach of and responsive to their digital devices; the school day extends into retirement as everyone is expected to participate in what’s now called “lifelong learning” — homework has become inescapable.

Contrary to Pressey’s predictions, much of this work remains drudgery. Even with the advances in education technology, the kinds of tasks that have been automated and digitized — the assessment of multiple choice questions, for example — still require a great deal of repetition and monotony.

We all spend much of our day now clicking on things, a gesture that is far too often confused with “engagement.” (“Engagement” — a word that has come to mean “measurable” and “marketable.”) And because students now spend much of their time clicking on things — and in turn, generating incredible amounts of data — teachers and administrators are told they must pour through these machine-generated signals, an action that is far too often confused with “care.”

It’s not clear that Sidney Pressey envisioned “care” as one of the things he considered “the real function of the teacher.” There’s little evidence that “care” was one of the things his teaching machines were ever intended to facilitate. (It’s worth noting perhaps that he did refer to teachers in most of his writing with female pronouns; the students, on the other hand, are gendered male. Indeed, there was unease among other education psychologists that teachers were too subjective, too emotional, too untrained — hence the need for more scientific and objective technologies such as the multiple-choice tests.) Pressey was, with his machines, committed to enhancing the intellectual and administrative labor of teachers. But it seems unlikely that he even recognized their affective labor. He was much more interested in measuring the intellectual activities of students than with caring for their minds, their bodies, their lives.

Education technology has followed his lead.

Some people will insist that technology is neutral — “it’s just a tool,” they’ll say. “What matters is how you use it.” But a technology always has a history, and it has a politics. A technology likely has a pedagogical bent as well — how it trains people to use it, if nothing else — and even if one tries to use a tool for a radically different task than it was built for, there are always remnants of those political and historical and pedagogical designs. Technologies are never “just tools.” They are, to borrow from the physicist Ursula Franklin, practices. Technologies are systems. Technology “entails far more than its individual material components,” Franklin wrote in The Real World of Technology. “Technology involves organizations, procedures, symbols, new words, equations, and, most of all, a mindset.”

Educational technologies are thus embedded in educational institutions; they’re intertwined with the histories and the practices of schooling. Even the technologies that are imagined to “disrupt” institutions and revolutionize teaching and learning are inescapably bound to cultural expectations about what school looks like (or should look like), what teachers and students do (or should do) — to the grammar and “the work” of education. This isn’t to say that technologies do not restructure our relationships — they do; they have. But often, when there is an urgency to the adoption of new technologies in the classroom, it’s because that work has been deemed inefficient or outmoded, because the workers — students and teachers alike — need to be controlled. Working on computers is necessary, or so we’re told, because the future of work itself demands it.

Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel teach towards a different future — one in which dignity is prioritized over efficiency, one in which agency and freedom are prioritized over compliance and control. It’s a future of education not enclosed by teaching machines but unfolded by teaching humans. It is a future of meaningful inquiry — and not because machines have somehow hidden the labor trying to convince us they’ll eventually eradicate the drudgery of work. As the title of this collection of writing makes clear, in the face of stories insisting the future will be automated — that is, in the face of the urgency of machines — Morris and Stommel want us to agitate instead for An Urgency of Teachers. In positing pedagogy — critical pedagogy specifically — as a lever for change, they ask us to join them in resisting the stories that machines have wants and needs and that their logic dictates the shape of the future. Instead they urge us to center care and justice in our practices — to center humans — knowing that this will require a radical re-ordering of the priorities of our institutions and ideologies as well.


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An Urgency of Teachers Copyright © 2018 by Audrey Watters is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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