Inverting the Teaching Pyramid with AI

Key Points

  • AI is the best – and often the only – tool to automate away repetitive simple tasks. 

  • Automating the simple, recurring tasks that dominate our teachers’ days can make a big difference.

teacher pyramid

By: Eric Wang

We hire teachers to instruct, connect and inspire. Then we saddle them with repetitive, simple tasks that eat up all their time and get in the way of the important things we want and need them to do.

We need to change this before we can change anything else.

AI is the best – and often the only – tool to automate away the repetitive simple tasks, which is why I strongly believe in the power and efficiency that it can deliver for teachers. I have confidence that it will change education for the better. Though as I’ve written before, not yet. It’s unfortunate that the leaps forward we will make with AI will be, or should be, delayed. But automating the simple, recurring tasks that dominate our teachers’ days can make a big difference. In these areas, there’s little reason to burn more time or energy discussing. Where we can, we should move to planning and implementation quickly.

Programmers like to say that no one should ever do the same thing three times. Once, fine. Twice, alright. By the time you have to do that thing a third time, write a program. In education, that’s hyperbole; but it’s also pretty true.

Today, AI can do things such as catch grammar errors, ill-conceived transition statements, comment on use of passive voice, even auto-grade simple algebra and calculus questions.

How much time does a teacher spend in any given day correcting, commenting on, or offering suggestions on the same common error in grammar or arithmetic? The answer is too much. Teachers ought to be able to see the error once, write their comments, make their deductions if necessary, and let AI find and handle the rest – leaving the teacher free to scan, spot check or double-check the AI’s accuracy.  

Teachers ought to be able to do that. And they can. Right now. We don’t need better data or better data interoperability for that. We don’t even need better AI. The AI we have right now can handle those tasks with ease.

Using AI to condense or eliminate repetitive tasks isn’t even necessarily controversial. No one raises an eyebrow when AI tries to predict and fill in the text I’m writing right now. I can accept or reject it. But if I accept it, it saves considerable time and leaves me free to consider bigger, and hopefully better, thoughts.

Every second of doing repetitive tasks that we can offload will save instructor and instructional time for the high-value things AI cannot do – teach, for example. Mentor. Make learning fun and full of passion again. Wouldn’t teaching be better for instructor and student alike if teachers could spend more time doing the highly social, uniquely human, messy, emotionally complex, immensely time consuming and incredibly fulfilling task of helping people find their way to understanding concepts and acquiring knowledge?

Automating the simple, recurring tasks that dominate our teachers’ days can make a big difference.

Eric Wang

It’s a rhetorical question. Of course, teaching would be better if we do that.

Again, we can.

Here’s another way to think about this question of where and how AI could be applied in education now. The pyramid image represents the way many teachers invest their time now – too much time on the most simple, repetitive things and not enough time on the highest value endeavors. AI can flip that pyramid or at least chop down the largest, most basic level.

That’s a really important thing to visualize as it relates to how AI and education work, or will work together.

Right now, much of the AI software tools and platforms being built and marketed and even sold to schools are aimed at the top of the work time pyramid – powerful solutions designed to help teachers teach better. These include personalized learning interventions, curriculum enhancements and unique assessment paradigms.

And while all of these can be and likely are incredibly powerful, teachers simply do not have time to learn and use them. The tip of the teacher work time pyramid is incredibly tiny and we simply can’t empower teachers to use those technology tools unless and until we invert that pyramid until we create more time for them at the top. That’s something we can do if we unleash AI in the right place right now.

Education is a process. So is programming. And sometimes you have to take things out of the way before you can really move ahead. The question isn’t whether we can or if we should. The better question is why we’re not already.  

Eric Wang is the Head of Ai at Turnitin. He writes about artificial intelligence, equity, and machine learning. He holds a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering from Duke University.  

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