By LeiLani Cauthen

With A.I. arriving in schools, questions of its use and possible threat to teaching and learning have erupted across the world. We looked back at what Learning Counsel’s 2022 National Digital Transition Surveys asked about how teachers, and separately, administrators define teaching today. 

Surprisingly, the results showed some big differences. In addition, the top two roles chosen by both teachers at 48 percent and administrators at 71 percent  include the teacher “conducting a formal exchange of knowledge and being a source of knowledge.”

A.I. is set to make some serious inroads into both of these things with its as-formal-as-parameters-indicate outcomes and being of more instantaneous access from anywhere. Teachers competing with the all-internet sourcing of knowledge by A.I. will be hard pressed to defend their knowledge as superior except through fractional arguments about framing, grammar, punctuation and situational specificity. Even lawyers are saying A.I. is putting legal briefs and contracts together pretty well.  Plus, A.I. is already contributing to teachers “building lessons.”  

As you can see from the data, teachers are already on to the ideas that formally lecturing and being the sole knowledge source is out of fashion. More are indicating what they do is act as guides or facilitators or class managers. These assume a one-to-many archetype, the whole group class, more than they seem to indicate facilitation or guidance with one-on-one teaching. 

While teachers consider their knowledge and their formality via human delivery like lectures are no longer as much of the job, administrators still think it is at a much higher rate. This is undoubtedly because most administrators were teachers from another time, all of three or more whole years ago when things were totally different. You know, pre-pandemic. Also, before schools started spending billions more on computing devices, courseware and discrete digital learning objects which have the capacity to do a lot more knowledge delivery automatically.

The time is right for schools to begin discussions about what the use of human teaching really is, what it can be because of isolating its unique qualities separately from what technology can do. It is imperative to do so to raise morale and lessen teachers’ burdens.  

The 7 Things That Make Us Human

There are seven key characteristics of humans that should light the way as to newly defining teaching.

  • Sentience

Sentience is defined as the fact that a human is an “incommunicable self.” They are more than any list of characteristics because they are ever-changing. This is because they are a someone and not a something. When that someone is alive, there is a presence. When their body is dead, the presence is gone. It is interesting to define life and sentience with its adverse, death.

Sentience is also defined as a sense of beingness beyond the corporal. A sentient being or mind can “pervade” or reach out beyond itself to be in sympathy or empathy with things that are not it its own corporal domain, not only of that human body – but possibly derived from the sum of unexplainable senses such as perception of motion, dimensional awareness of spatial qualities and quantities, gravity, air density, time passing and more. Humans do seem to have something akin to an invisible “emotional organ” which concerns itself with motions unseen, such small wavelengths that their vibrational level is undetectable, akin to being above the level of human hearing or sight scale but perceived all the same. The evidence of this is that humans in large groups can “spread” grief such as one might more strongly feel sadness surrounded by others grieving at a funeral, joy such as at parties, and exhilaration at sports games and concerts. There is a “contagion” effect among humans often known as “mob mentality” when it is a negative angry or violent emotion.

When educators speak of the importance of teachers, it is the sentience they are referring to, the empathetic and sympathetic capacities. It is these and other emotional characteristics that have the most significance in the examples they explain. What’s important to do is to pinpoint how and when these should be expressed. Or if they need to be expressed and are more a matter of the attitude of that particular human being which emanates empathy. If this first characteristic of sentience is truly the “brand” your school wants to communicate, do what’s necessary to bring it to high standards.

  • Independent Associative Memory

Human memory is independently associative and so robust it is theoretically at least one petabyte of information. For comparison, one petabyte would be 13.3 years of HD-TV video recordings. There are humans, though, with eidetic or photographic memory which can recall any moment with all perceptics, including qualities of the light, colors, motion, smell, sounds, any sensation of touch, what clothes they are wearing, the position of the sun or moon, taste, all other people or animals and things within line of sight, the dimensions and weight of objects, etc. Most people can do this some of the time and it has been found in 2-10% of children aged 6-12. Such feats of memory would preclude that our human recordings far exceed the storage requirements for even high-def video – so more petabytes would be obvious because if we live longer than 13 years and store more than video does, more memory would be required.

Human memories are also cross-associated, seemingly infinitely freely but still in chains of every perceptic as well as the emotional state because we can recall multiple events of our past on such ideas as “when I was sad,” or “when I went to a baseball game,” and in order or randomly at will. No one knows how the brain does this so complexly because there are no obvious chaining links, just electrical impulses jumping between multi-directional neurons. The independent associative nature is so far beyond what computers can presently do, and may never be able to do, that scientists are still boggled trying to develop memory systems that use as small a footprint as the human brain but can contain seemingly infinite amounts of information. For reference, 50 petabytes would be the entire written works of all of mankind since the beginning of time in all languages.

Interestingly, humans can choose to forget things such as what they had for breakfast while also having seemingly inexhaustible memory capacity which recalls flawlessly something they did fifteen years ago. Human consciousness can be narrowly on the present or broadly into the past busily recalling something or both, partially. One theory of memory is that it is stored at different frequencies, higher resonances when we are youngest, and lower and slower as we age. Boring things are stored at low frequency, exciting ones higher and clearer perceptics. Particularly painful memories, physical or emotional, which dim and overwhelm our sensibilities and can cause one to pass out unconsciousness, could also be stored as unconsciousness’s lesser cousin, “forgotten.”

It is important only that this feature of humanity, the independence of association, that allows human teachers to bring additional meaning to lessons because they can associate something they know about an individual student, the local customs or geography, the time of year, the weather and all sorts of other elements. Associative memory is also something heretofore not directly cultivated in learning but should be by routinely instructing students to use all lines of perception in order to write better and ultimately to experience life and work better.

  • Imagination

Humans have the capacity for imagination which is posing hypotheticals, inventing, considering futures and alternates. We dream. We also have a fundamental urge to “link” to other minds, to consider other minds machinations and patterns. This has the advantage over animals and machines of incorporating others’ whole experiences, not just data and facts. Link-building off of other humans’ storytelling builds more scenarios and larger networks of knowledge across generations. Imagination, then, helps guide behavior because it is intrinsically reflective.

In the present age, imagination is at the top of employer’s requests of graduates. Creativity sparks business ingenuity and the economy.

Human teachers who cultivate shared experiences, storytelling, and having students pose problems to solve can be encouraged in any subject.

  • Helpfulness

Humans have a unique ability that animals, even chimpanzees, do not. It is selfless help. Children are innate helpers, acting selflessly before they are socialized not to through perceptions of others insisting their help is sloppy or dangerous. Children are also fair and will insist on fairness and collaboration.

Helpfulness is a drive, a motivator of the majority of humanity. Jobs, governments, any endeavor commercially and most familial efforts are purposed to help, to bring orderliness. Unhelpful people are generally made to be that way through some sort of demoralization or illness.

Teachers and schools should rely on the help drive of humans to create their learning environments. Making learning collaborative and even posing it as directly between a more advanced student and one in need, rather than always independent or whole-group which focus efforts towards pleasing teachers or tests, will necessarily take advantage of the powerful need to help. Teaching techniques and whole schools which harness the help drive will never see A.I. overtake their human-centricity.

  • Language Nuance

Human languages, unlike the simpler sounds between animals indicating mostly alarm or pleasure, are predicated on complex social cooperation and are nuanced. In the human mind, symbols form from our many perceptics to underlie how we then communicate. For example, before you say you are hungry, you may feel hungry. Children learn emotions of affinity and love from being held and will assign their first words to the source of those feelings. Our languages use has been driven to stratospheric heights by how well we perceive and have assigned meaning to all our perceptics.

One of the heights of language nuance is music, whether instrument sounds or lyrics, musicians communicate through their art something much more than the sounds.  While A.I. may be able to render something musical, as anyone who has experienced a live band playing will say, there is just something more happening being added in by the musicians themselves that transcends explanation.

Teaching literacy in schools can be more than reading and writing, it can, and should many times be free-form expression using any language including those we don’t usually think of as languages such as art, coding, music, physical sports and dance, math computations, scientific experiments, and more. Expression through symbols or physicality is largely done for others. A teacher as well as fellow students in the roles of appreciating the nuance and encouraging the artist to seek new depths are not something machines will ever easily do because they are not “someones” which we care about being appreciative.

Language nuance is the evidence that humans themselves are diverse and teachers would do well to cultivate high levels of appreciation for every aspect of how different each individual communicates meaning in order to channel it. Even the student who “acts out” by irritatingly humming in class at inappropriate times might be channeled to inquire into their motivations. Do they have music inside? Too much internal motion wanting to leak out? Could they perhaps create a humming or singing symphony or draw or write this internality to share so everyone could help them expand on their gift? 

Is a student recalcitrant, not engaging? Perhaps they are engaged elsewhere and have no outlet to express this elsewhere reality.  Find a language for that student, it is what defines us as humans.

  • Competence

Competence is the ability to do something without having to be told every detail of it. While A.I. is coming close to this definition now, being able to render a text or image or data set, it must be given close parameters and be vetted and possibly edited to reach the desired work product. It is generally low-level competence.

Human competence can be described as specific or general, and as high-level or low-level in each. If you are specifically competent as a pilot, carpenter or teacher, it is anticipated you can produce the work product within your specific arena. For pilots this might be a high-level of competence with a commercial airliner and a low-level of starter-competence in a new hobby Cessna Turboprop. There might be no competence with a helicopter. 

A teacher may be competent in their subject, but not competent in managing a class or discipline or crafting advanced cross-curricular experiences. If a teacher has a specific subject competency, perhaps high-level, it does not mean they are high-level in other aspects of the job. Teaching jobs curiously require high-level subject competency, sometimes in many subjects, and further competency in many other skills.  This is an important distinction to make at this time of A.I. intervening in the delivery of knowledge, distributing materials, and periodically assessing student progress and reporting back problem areas with specific students. What could it be doing that then removes some items from the needed list of teacher skills?

A specific subject competency may not be necessary for every teacher since it could be used on a wider distribution flanking advanced courseware and pre-built digital pathways intersected with collaborative experiences. Subject expertise could be leveraged broadly.

Conversely, competency in managing human students is still a skill to cause learning, and being human being the greater need, could be amplified in schools. This could be the main definition of a teacher in today’s paradigm, not subject expertise.

It’s important to mention that in many instances the leaders of schools, being largely former teachers, lack what might be called high-level general competence. If they do have some general competence, it is not always high-level competence, unfortunately. They lack the ability to do work that is beyond clearly defined boundaries, crossing various disciplines well outside their field. This means they cannot alter the overall form of how things run and do things like create contiguous strategic plans with orders and processes that can be executed uniformly. They will instead rely on past experiences to initiate programs only within what they have known. This is not the time for things we have known before only, it is definitely a time of dramatic innovation and change.

Many highly competent teachers in their subjects could be terrible corporate sales leaders or financial planners, as one example of inapplicable competencies. Competence does not necessarily transfer. Operating objectively is a general competency known from research to be especially high-level and rare. Other high-level competencies include the ability to bring change, to be curious about things beyond one’s field, to seek expertise in specific competencies, to admit a wrong decision and correct it, and to think independently. All of these are found mostly in people with very high IQs.

Only about 16 percent of the American population are at least as high as 115 IQ, so the pool of potentially high-level general competency is small to begin with. However, then you have to look at objectivity, willingness to manage change, and independent thinking – those may not be attributes of those lower than an IQ of 125 or better which is only about 5% of the population.

Starting now to cultivate the traits of general competency, especially including objectivity, independent thinking and the ability to lead change, are important for students and also for teachers. 

  • Ability to Withhold

To withhold action and to withhold thought is a uniquely human trait. It is an ability which separates us from beasts and machines and creates civilizations. Our ability to discipline our bodies and our minds to not do something makes it so we can focus to produce a positive outcome, or to protect ourselves from harm.

A machine once directed and energized cannot withhold its outcome. It must be programmed to delete or cancel non-optimum outcomes. A human selects action or withholding action at will.

Humans who cannot withhold themselves are sometimes derogatorily called “animals” for their horrifyingly maladjusted and often criminal behaviors. That’s because they are not quite human to the rest of us. They cannot withhold themselves from adverse behavior so society must erect laws or put them in jail, or they will bring more harm, even unto themselves such as the case with drunk drivers.

Young children who have yet to formulate full analytical capacity through language and familiarity with life will frequently not withhold themselves from potential harm and must be parented or taught until they can operate on their own. They may burn a hand on a hot stove or fall from climbing up on furniture. A delicate balance of helping a child withhold themselves from harm teaches them to withhold even thoughts in addition to actions.

How does that mechanism of learning to withhold work? It is intriguingly a force-vs.-intelligence logic. A parent may use a counter-force such as grabbing the little one’s hand away from a stove. At that moment, the swift redirection of the child’s motion, a mild bit of force, causes the child alarm and ignites their mental processes. The force used causes the receiver to think because their autonomy was interrupted. As a person loses bodily autonomy through force, their consciousness pools interiorly, and they think, resulting in having an intelligence about the circumstances.

A further encouragement of a child withholding themselves from harmful things or ideas will cause more thinking. A teenager might wonder why they can’t go to a dangerous place when forbidden, for example, and will seek diligently to find out a few reasons. Discipline, creating guardrails, narrowing permissions encourages learning to think and at the same time the ability to withhold through mimicry. Encouraging a smaller and safe field of purview until a child can think for themselves and withhold themselves from danger is one of the paradoxes of being human which is different than machines. Thinking is after all not just inputs, it is an ability, one which withholds some ideas while spotlighting others, amalgamating them together, dissecting them and in general evaluating to arrive at reasoned conclusions which advance their survival. When there is no ability to think, any input is inculcation because the human cannot withhold their mind from the thought, or themselves from the action. It is for this reason that at times jails have been suspected as abetting further criminality through the exposure of one criminal to the knowledge of another’s crimes or deviancy, criminals being largely devoid of an ability to withhold.

Overzealous crushing of a child’s or anyone’s reach to experience their environment and life will sometimes cause the opposite, an inability to withhold actions and thoughts, and to seek to manifest them covertly in defiance of the over-estimated counter-force. Using force, any discipline, then, must be correctly estimated, the right amount. The right amount is individual.

Knowing this aspect of being human, a teacher in this age should concern themselves with cultivating the ability in students to withhold by using the right amount of concern or discipline for the individual student. In so doing, students will learn to think independently and be able to have productive focus.

A Final Word on Our Machine Metaphors 

Humans are not equivalent to many of the computational metaphors that are rife in our present -day language. For example, we have a lot of talk about bio digital convergence, and other attempts to recast living biological humans in with being programmable like machines. As if there were a computer that has gone wonky or is so old it can’t run more modern software, there are some governments like Canada encouraging despondent or severely ill citizens (considered as non-functioning units) to use the government funded assisted suicide. Then there is the whole body of work decoding our DNA which has led to a burgeoning god-complex of wanting to manipulate the human genome.

We also have a lot of comparisons being made to machine efficiencies against the non-efficiencies of some human efforts, scandalizing our humanity as if we should be the servo-mechanism to the machines. Which is of course to say, if you follow it to its logical conclusion, to be servo-mechanisms to the machine’s masters. This is essentially a covert enslavement through the machines to other dominating humans. The end result would be less humanity in humans as those unwanted human units are marginalized and possibly then forthrightly removed. After such demoralizing actions, human civilization breaks down, leaving nothing for the masters to rule through their ingenious machines. We can know this to be a certainty because of what we are as humans. We are sentient, and there will be a contagion of negative emotion. We are also helpful, and our will to help will be demoralized when we realize only a very few enslavers are being helped while the remainder are in inescapable subservience and base purposelessness. A doom loop will ensue. No one wins.

In other words, over-emphasis on machines is the unmaker of the human game of life.

It cannot be stressed enough that our human qualities need their own noisy advertising campaign, celebration, and exhaustive facilitation amongst our young. This century has to be the century of studying our human qualities, realizing our humanity, and perfecting it. It will start with educators who dive deeply into these seven characteristics, redefining their practice and subsequently lifting students’ humanity.

If we did succeed in “deleting” humanity or switch the channel of importance entirely to A.I. and other advanced technologies, we will have erased the someone in the scene. The end user. Us.

Editor’s Note: Special thanks to our editorial partner The Learning Counsel for providing this article.

About the author

LeiLani Cauthen is the most connected thought leader in K12 education. She is the CEO and Publisher of the Learning Counsel and produces leadership training events in twenty-two or more U.S. cities annually and keynotes other conferences. Her on-the-ground approach for the last ten years connected her with districts of all sizes as well as charter schools, private schools, and government leaders. LeiLani has over 28 years of experience in News Media and both quantitative and qualitative research, four years in software, two years in legislative work in California – a particular achievement of which included language in SB1386 passed by Senator Steve Peace in California related to software security and encryption. LeiLani Cauthen is well versed in the digital content universe, software development, the school adoption process, school digital curriculum and systems coverage models, and helping define this century’s real change to teaching and learning. She is an author of The Consumerization of Learning, many articles and Special Reports, a Podcaster, and can be seen frequently on video recordings of live events.