Incidental Illuminations

The following originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

In a recent New York Times article (6/6/17), Natasha Singer discusses ways technology billionaires are using their expertise and money to reform education. Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, has invested in DreamBox Learning, a math-teaching program that, like Netflix, relies on artificial intelligence to simplify the choices and decisions of its users. An algorithm tracks students’ computer keystrokes, collecting up to 50,000 data points per student per hour. This data helps teachers pinpoint the math concepts a student is struggling with. By streamlining the learning process, the theory goes, education is more efficient and more personalized.

Mark Zuckerberg, chairman and CEO of Facebook, envisions an educational process in which students ultimately teach themselves. Using software that his company helped develop, students select their own assignments, work at their own pace, and, when they run into difficulties, summon a teacher who is on hand to help. He also sees the program as a way to personalize student learning. Rather than sit in a classroom with 30 students following a common lesson plan, students cluster around computers and follow a learning plan they have configured. Mr. Zuckerberg believes this approach is akin to the dynamics of a start-up company, where collaborative sharing of ideas and reinforcement of individual enthusiasm, in this case, boosts student learning.

Responsible educators understand that student learning must take stock of the digital revolution that defines our age. Students should be exposed to ways that computer software and technology have revolutionized research practices, information sharing, and data analysis. Teachers can incorporate pedagogical methods using innovations such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality to engage technology-savvy students. In this environment it seems natural, then, to embrace the investment of technology executives such as Hastings and Zuckerberg in our schools, especially those in dire need of educational resources.

Yet, educators should vigilantly monitor the adoption of successful business tools and strategies. Business practices and goals understandably and often unwittingly eschew much of what is essential in the educational process. An efficient business strives to accelerate routine tasks, such as basic computation and acquisition of industry knowledge. Education, on the other hand, can rarely be successful unless a student wrestles with the difficult work of uncovering truth and persevering in spite of setbacks. This, by its nature, can require time and effort and false starts and errors not readily accommodated in a business setting.

Educators, then, are challenged to carefully discern the ways digital tools can both enhance and limit student learning. To aid in this discernment, we might learn a crucial lesson from an extraordinary leader in the world of competitive sport.

Over the past 20 years, an Irishman named Brian Cody has been one of the most successful managers in team sports around the globe. Cody has managed the Kilkenny hurling team since 1998, the longest tenure of any hurling manager. During that time he has won 11 All-Ireland finals, 15 Leinster Finals, and 8 National League Championships. No other hurling manager has come close to matching his record and only Geno Auriemma, the women’s basketball coach at the University of Connecticut, comes close among contemporary coaches in American sports.

Hurling, alongside Irish football, is the national sport of Ireland. It is managed by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) as an amateur sport, though the players train and perform as though it were professional. Hurling is not a sport for the faint-hearted. A good hurler is strong, fast, highly skilled, and fearless.

Cody is not distracted by the trimmings of his success. He is focused on the work that goes into ensuring that his players consistently perform at their best. This comes through in his interviews; his answers are short and to the point. There are ample ways he could discuss the attributes and success of his players, but he rarely refers to their skill, speed, or strength. Instead, the attribute that seems to be most important to him is honesty.

For Cody, an honest hurler honors a promise to prepare wholeheartedly and pay keen attention to the details of his training. Over time, the players’ commitment creates an ethos of excellence cultivated in the trenches during difficult, unrelenting practices. They recognize there are no shortcuts to their goal. They compete with persistence, giving their maximum performance, yet often falling short along the way. Through their dogged, sometimes unrewarded, efforts, they internalize the humble goal that Irish writer Samuel Beckett pursued in his career—they fail better. On this long road, they learn lessons that they did not set out to learn about themselves, their sport, and their world.

Cody’s emphasis on honesty as the virtue at the core of success is worth remembering as we navigate the unsettled waters of education in the digital age. Like Cody, good teachers sometimes encourage students to take the long, slow, occasionally painful path to understanding a subject. They recognize the value of failure. They know that finding the right answer quickly does not always define successful learning, that efficiency is no substitute for effort.

One of the incomparable benefits and joys of learning is the incidental illumination that sometimes occurs while we try to solve a problem. During the struggle, we learn something unexpected. Good teachers recognize that so much of what is to be learned cannot be anticipated. We lose too much if we simply focus on a controlled outcome.

Without uncertainty and struggle, there is no room for incidental illuminations.

Education that tries to sanitize the learning process by removing the struggle may also eliminate the uncertainty that accompanies inquiry. This approach to education is akin to physicians who over-prescribe medication when the body would be better off relying on its innate healing capacities.

The algorithms of Google or Facebook prescribe and limit how we interact with the world. They clear the way for easy responses. They minimize the struggle. They have their uses and they can enhance our experience, but danger arises when they regulate our effort. When algorithms thwart incidental illuminations that can occur during the toil of inquiry and learning, they diminish our lives.

This is the worrisome issue. The innovations of Silicon Valley make life easier. But there are no shortcuts to excellence. It is on the long road to our goals that we develop character, resilience, and insight into who we are and who we can be. It is in the struggles that we find incidental illuminations and the unique joy that accompanies them. This is what entices the athletes who play for Brian Cody to sacrifice so much. If educators want to look to public titans for guidance and inspiration, perhaps we should look to Cody before Zuckerberg, to the honest struggle before the easy answer.