The Folly of Scaling the Best Teacher

One of our SchoolHouse teachers said to me recently 

"An educator's truest job is helping them (students) figure out how they best interact with information, the benefit of this system (micro-school) is that it allows us as teachers to get into the dirt with the students to help them figure that out."

The common theory in most educational technology discussions is that we should “scale the best teacher” to as many students as possible, that is how we’ll solve the achievement gaps, find the best teacher in every subject and have every student attend this teacher’s class. Simple right? The internet makes this easy, let’s just put the best teachers online. 

But this point of view mistakes what makes the teacher valuable to the student, and the embedded assumption here is that the way a teacher disseminates information is what makes them valuable. Scaling the best teacher is thinking by analogy and not first principles of what constitutes a great education. 

We’ve done this before, our society gets caught up in ideas and some concept becomes all the rage in a period of time. When our current educational institutions were founded industrialization was popular and working miracles. Look at Henry Ford and his assembly line, look at how many cars it can produce! As industrialization spread, we found all sorts of great products were now available. And so we built a school system that embodied values of the day, and it had success in things like reducing the illiteracy rate, building the middle class, etc., Over time the institutions carried these values forward, but the world changed and now we all question it, “Is grouping by age group the best way to learn?” “Is 30 students in a classroom really the ideal class size?”

Today’s adored idea is scale, driven by tech culture, and so we look to apply the miracles of scale to everything including education. Yet, we’re making the same mistake today with the adoration of scale as we did with industrialization, we’re solutioning instead of looking at the first principles of what makes the teacher valuable to the student. 

What makes the teacher valuable to the student is attention. Direct attention, the kind of attention a great friend or a parent gives. You see, scaling the best teacher has an embedded assumption that the true value from the teacher is in the dissemination of information, i.e. activities akin to lectures, but the true value is in the consultative and adaptive aspects that the teacher provides to the student. It’s in their ability to see the gaps that the student has and derive ways of altering the lessons to make sense to the student. 

This is why we haven’t scaled the best managers, or the best chefs or the best parents or boyfriends. Like these other professions, teaching is partially a consultative act, and it’s quite hard to scale consultation. And it’s potentially impossible to scale human relationships. 

You see the true value in the teacher to the student is in the consultative relationship that occurs over long periods of time to ensure that the student is progressing in the subject matter and growing as a person. 

We’ll talk about one aspect of this consultative relationship between a teacher and student - specifically how the teacher is perfectly set up to address the unique gaps of the student in the next post.