Jeremy Côté

The Educator's Tax

What is the work we do as educators?

“Transfer information” may be the instinctual response, but I want to argue this is wrong, and we’re past the stage where this could have been enough.

The short reason is that there are simply too many high quality resources available for learners. From textbooks, blogs, online courses, videos, and essays, learners can find much of what they want for free, engage with the material at their own pace, and skip through a lot of the administrative hoops that our education system requires. If a learner wants information, going to an educator may be an unnecessary hassle. Technology for custom delivery of information is also improving, which further exerts pressure on the purpose of educators.

I believe educators are just as important as ever. But the point of an educator isn’t to transfer information. Instead, the point of an educator is to pay a cognitive tax on behalf of the learner.

I first came across this idea from an issue of Dan Meyer’s newsletter on the topic of artificial intelligence tools for education. In the issue, Meyer writes (emphasis mine):

All of this means that if I am to learn from ChatGPT’s response, I need to draw connections from my thinking to expert thinking on my own, as a novice. This is a cognitive tax, one that skilled teachers and tutors generally pay on behalf of learners.

Meyer was reflecting on some of the recent discussion surrounding large language models like ChatGPT, which can play the role of a dialogue partner. While these tools can stimulate discussion, their facts and arguments are often in error, reducing their effectiveness as teachers (since learners may not be able to distinguish fact from hallucination). Moreover, when it comes to teaching a topic like mathematics, Meyer showed that even when ChatGPT provides a correct answer, it can’t necessarily correct a student’s thinking. It just provides a blank explanation of the topic.

Putting aside the technology though, I think Meyer’s point about an educator’s tax has two parts.

First, educators expend effort to curate the vast wells of information available so that the learner progresses without overwhelm. This requires the educator to be familiar with the space in order to craft a logical progression for the learner. Curation allows the learner to focus on learning and not on choosing the right resources. In my own experience with self-learning, one of the big struggles was the lack of curation, forcing me to both absorb large quantities of information as well as figure out which parts matter most. An educator can ease the latter burden.

Second, educators know how to connect standardized resources to the individual learner. This is the bulk of an educator’s work. How do I connect a learner from their current position A to my position B? Can I build a conceptual bridge such that the learner isn’t taking a leap of faith on my authority and instead understands the reason for why position B is useful? Can I first really understand position A, go to the learner, and then encourage them on a journey towards B? These are tough and abstract questions, but I believe they get at the heart of being an educator.

The educator’s tax is really the whole point of the job. As an educator myself, it’s why I do it. Sure, I love science and mathematics, but the work is seeing the learner where they are, recognize where I am, build a bridge so I can get to them first, and then have them traverse to where I am.

All of that requires paying the educator’s tax. We pay it when we brainstorm ideas about how to explain the same concept in multiple ways. We pay it when we spend time and effort creating animations, metaphors, and analogies to paint a picture in the minds of our learners. We pay it when we pause after hearing a wrong answer, resist the temptation to efficiently correct it, and instead take the time to understand where the learner is coming from. We pay it when modify our lesson plan based on the feedback of the learners in this particular group, not the group we had beforehand or in our head. We pay it when we see every learner as an opportunity to share the wonders of our subject with, not as hard drives to download information into.

As far as I can tell though, connecting learners to concepts isn’t easily scalable. I’m agnostic to whether technology will improve to where it can pay the educator’s tax. In the meantime, educators still have the same work they’ve always had: Figure out how to forge connections between the ideas you’re teaching and the starting point of every individual student. It’s not easy, it’s the work that sometimes takes weeks and months with few external signals, but it’s what we want for our learners, isn’t it?