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Gone missing

A "phantom" tollbooth

There are a number of people I just don't see much of anymore...

  • I don't see the toll booth operator when entering or leaving the airport parking lots anymore. My credit card talks to a machine on the way in and again on the way out. My only interaction is answering whether I want a receipt.
  • I don't talk to check-in people at the airline counters anymore since I rarely check bags. My credit card talks to a terminal that prints out my boarding pass (if I've not already done so at home.)
  • I am seeing fewer bank tellers and grocery clerks. My cash card talks to the ATM and to the cash register at the supermarket after I have scanned my own groceries.
  • My son thinks I am telling tall tales when I tell him that I once had "people" who pumped my gas, washed my car windows, filled my tires and sometimes gave me a free tumbler as a gift when I went to a service station.
  • I don't hear the voice of a human telephone operator, tech support or reservation clerks until I've waded through a half dozen phone menus. "Trends in Tasks Done by the U.S. Workforce 1969-1998 (1969=0)"

Dr. McLeod shared a chart similar to the one above in his keynote last Friday. (This one comes from Levy and Murnane's article "Education and the Changing Job Market" in the October 2004 issue of Educational Leadership.) My tollbooth operator and his kindred that have gone missing fall into the "Routine Cognitive Work" category. The information given and processes performed were all standardized - multiple choice, if you will. Any higher order problem-solving in the interaction usually required finding a supervisor.

So some questions...

  1. Who else in your life encounters has "gone missing?" Who might be next?
  2. Are teachers vulnerable? Can those who are only information dispensers, flash card holders, babysitters and multiple choice quiz givers be automated? One of Scott's possible futures scenarios was one teacher per 90 station computer lab with all students doing programmed instruction.
  3. How do we give our students experience in "Complex Communications" and "Expert Thinking" skills? If we are really paying attention to these skills, why do we still give objective tests over the recall of trivia and only test low level basic skills?

I keep thinking about a prediction made in the mid-90's by a federal DOE official that in the future, economically disadvantaged students will all have computers while the wealthy students will have human teachers.

If all educators don't attended to adding value as expert thinkers and complex communicators, rebelling against  "teacher-proof the classroom" models, this future may be here sooner than one thinks.

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Reader Comments (7)

I am reminded of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. Clarisse, an enthusiastic student of an earlier time, craved conversation and teachers who asked meaningful questions. Instead, her school had 'film' teachers who asked rote questions and students who talked about fashion, parties, and swimming pools.

Meaningful education will always need empowered and impassioned teachers.

October 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPaul C

I read Disrupting Class a few months ago, and the scenarios described in that book come up often - teachers changing from the center of learning to facilitator, with students working on educational software that helps meet the learning needs of each student. I think it will be reality in my career. Calc and language classes with 35 plus kids and one teacher with one computer and one projector isn't a sustainable business model in this day and age.

What's most frustrating is watching one teacher sitting in a lab equipped with new state-of-the-art computers teaching keyboarding skills while another teacher is doing their best using 6-year old laptops to do in-class projects and group work. Sometimes those that have the most resources do the worst job of making the most of it.

Whats sad is young innovative teachers and support specialists get cut while old-school teachers sit protected by old-school rules.

October 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNathan

I doubt if any of the under-40 crowd will believe it, but there used to be elevator attendants, people who would operate the elevator and call out the floor (and, in stores, which departments were on this floor) in every building. I can remember them in the public buildings prior to about 1960. They would call out "Going Up!" or "Going Down!" and close the doors with a manual lever. (Trivia: the words to the theme song in the old BBC sit-com "Are You Being Served?" are based entirely on elevator operator chatter.)

October 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSmitty

Don't talk to machines. Really, don't.

If you find yourself having a meaningful interaction with a machine, you are contributing to the problem. Don't leave messages on voice mails. Don't use the self-checkout. Take the extra few minutes to go through a human toll booth. (Trust me, there's a human hidden somewhere to help idiots like me who "forget" to use the parking machine.)

Where does the money saved go? What do you do with the extra time? Why are we even on this God-given planet?

If the graph serves as an accurate predictor of the future, we are all screwed. Machines can handle the yellow, green, and red-line stuff. We may all be screwed anyway.

But in the meantime, I'm still chatting with the nice (employed) check-out lady instead of cussing at a machine.

October 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Doyle

Hi Paul,

Yet it seems we are heading ever closer to the Bradbury's future with scripted teachers, mandated curriculum and closed-ended testing. Why is this happening when work is requiring ever more creativity and problem-solving? I am stumped!


Hi Nathan,

Seniority and tenure are certainly arguable roadblocks to change. So how do we protect teachers from unfair administrative decisions but still reward innovation?


Hi Michael,

Your comments remind me of my dad's standard message whenever he got my answering machine: 'Doug, if I wanted to talk to a machine, I'd go out in the garage and visit with my lawn mower."

I can see your argument, but it is really nice just sailing through the parking lot turnstiles without waiting for all that "human interaction."

I think I've been place on earth to embarrass my children and annoy my wife, but who knows?

All the best - I always love your comments!



Go to the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. You will find elevator operators who still push the buttons for you. And bow in the process.


October 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

I'm afraid to say it, but in the district where I work Media Specialists have gone missing. From three, to two and now one in a matter of a few years. A ratio of 1 MS to 5000 students - it doesn't take "expert thinking" to figure out what is wrong with this picture. Help! Media Specialists are on the endangered list and quickly moving toward extinction.

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