What Computers Still Can’t Do

I have been contemplating another spin on my possible dissertation topic. Some people frame the argument about blended classrooms as being about using computers for what computers do best, and using humans for what humans do best. I think over the last several years we have been developing the kinds of technology that can capably deliver reports, give real-time feedback, and allow students to work at their own pace. I think we could all say with a fair amount of surety that the Instructional Technology industry has been focused on Technology.

But what about teachers? Are the humans being trained to do what they do best to the same degree that we’ve worked on perfecting technology to do what it does best? Do teachers see their role in the classroom changing as they progress from using traditional classroom methods, or is their role basically interpreting the numbers they get on their data dashboard?

I just checked out from the library a book entitled, What Computers Still Can’t Do by MIT professor Hubert Dreyfus. Though published in 1992 (in its latest edition), the argument still stands for many situations in which we, or our children, find ourselves interacting with artificial intelligences of a computer.

A phenomenological description of our experience of being-in-a-situation suggests that we are always already in a context or situation which we carry over from the immediate past and update in terms of events that in the light of this past situation are seen to be significant. We never encounter meaningless bits in terms of which we have to identify contexts, but only facts which are already interpreted and which reciprocally define the situation we are in. Human experience is only intelligible when organized in terms of a situation in which relevance and significance are already given. This need for prior organization reappears in [Artificial Intelligence] as the need for a hierarchy of contexts in which a higher or broader context is used to determine the relevance and significance of elements in a narrower or lower context…if each context can be recognized only in terms of features selected as relevant and interpreted in terms of a broader context, the AI worker is faced with a regress of contexts. (288-89)

So, we see that contextually, the teacher is well-placed to understand some things about a child that a computer, no matter how intelligent, cannot perceive. The technology as a tool may inform the teacher of some relevant information concerning the child’s interactions with Artificial Intelligence (AI) or with other content within a computer program but will not tell the teacher everything they should know in order to make a difference, or to make a meaningful connection with the student.

We need not just use teachers as sophisticated interpreters of data. Teachers have many good things to offer. Their hearts. Their ears. Their hands. An encouraging smile, a pat on the back. Teachers should desire to figure out what their role in teaching is now that they have extra tools at their disposal. We outsource certain roles to different technologies, and use teachers to be very human with the kids (or adults).

This doesn’t have to mean over-involvement or prying into the students’ lives, but it should mean that we help teachers see their role differently than they ever have before. How can they discern individual student needs and offer counsel or help (in the form of mentoring)? If teachers aren’t seeing their role as changing, what do they see themselves as?

In the book Blended by Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker they quote a teacher from Idaho who has begun to teach in a blended classroom. She says, “In some ways it feels less … teacher-ish. You almost have to redefine how you see yourself as a teacher.” She explained that her role had changed to something like a sideline coach or cheerleader (p 44). Are there other ways for this teacher to see herself? How can we assist her, and others like her, in cultivating a personal character that will desire to assist students in character building, or other life qualities that are desirable beyond grade school?  I feel as though there are many skills that teachers can help students acquire during school that will have some transferability, such as problem solving, teamwork, communication, service, compassion, and wisdom. Could we help teacher see themselves as coaches especially in these types of life skills rather than in content-area specifics? What if each teacher in a classroom were a business leadership coach who read self-help books and learned about effective communication in school and work environments and passed down wisdom like that to their students? Might our students be gaining some real-life wisdom then, that only humans could truly teach?

To first observe some of the events occurring in blended classrooms across the nation would be my first step. Then I would conduct interviews with a select group of teachers, and possibly some of the students. I want to get at the root of whether or not the student-teacher relationship stays the same or if there is a noticeable shift when technology is introduced. I suspect that some of the change in relationship will be variable to each blended environment’s different ecosystem, as well as the personal characteristics and motivations of the teacher. I wonder what kinds of questions might be good for me to ask the teachers.



Dreyfus, H. L. (1992). What computers still can’t do: A critique of artificial reason. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Horn, M. B., & Staker, H. (2013). Blended: Using disruptive innovation to improve schools. Jossey-Bass.


You may also like