I'm the Director of Analytics & Algorithms for Math Academy; of particular relevance to this question, I also spent about a decade teaching/tutoring math human-to-human, as well as several years working hands-on with students who were using the Math Academy system.
I don't think math teachers will be made completely unnecessary. At least, not for all students.
It's true that as we've refined our content and algorithms over the years to better scaffold the instruction, personalize the learning experience, and adapt to the needs of individual students, we've enabled more and more students to achieve comprehensive mastery without the need for a human math teacher in any capacity. (For instance, many students get a 5 on the AP Calculus BC exam working solely on our system, no human teacher needed.)
This works for surprisingly many students. But the thing is -- despite our best efforts, there are also many students who will go off the rails without a human teacher or tutor to keep them on track. For example:
Some students have major attention issues and need a human to reel them back in when they get distracted every minute.
Some students have severe math anxiety and will totally freeze up if they don't have a human next to them providing encouragement.
Some students find basic math extremely hard and need a human to help them work with physical manipulatives (e.g. counting blocks) and/or explain a concept a hundred different ways until something sticks.
There are also students who are "on the edge" in the sense that most of the time, they are fine learning without a human teacher, but every once in a while, they need some human support. Some teachers whose students are like this use Math Academy as the primary resource in their classroom and walk around checking in and helping students as needed.
Additionally, there are other students who are capable of learning without a human teacher but who enjoy the environment of a classroom with a human teacher where they can have ad-hoc enrichment discussions about various aspects of math that interest them.
All this to say, when it comes to teaching math, I think humans and machines can enjoy a symbiotic existence. There is so much demand for math learning that goes unserved -- so much that even if machines are capable of serving a lot (or even most) of it, there will still be more than enough demand to require a supply of human teachers.
Human-vs-machine reliance in education is on a spectrum, and while the distribution will likely drift towards less human involvement over time, I think the following things will always be true:
Some students will learn entirely from machines.
Some students will learn their core curriculum entirely from machines but will enjoy ad-hoc enrichment discussions with humans.
Some students will learn primarily from machines but will need human support every once in a while.
Some students will need humans throughout most or all of their learning.
And if you replace the word "machines" with "books" in the above, they have always been true. The distribution has always existed; new technology (books ⟶ computers ⟶ adaptive learning software) just shifts it upwards.
(I'm happy to answer any follow-up questions anyone might have.)
Response to Follow-Up Question 1
Doesn't help from humans during ai learning confuse the ai feedback loop?
Sure, if a human is sitting down with a student and carrying them / correcting them on every problem so that they get everything right, then without any explicit mechanism for detecting this, the AI is going to pass them through and treat them as stronger than they really are. The same will happen if the student is relying on online calculators as a crutch (e.g. WolframAlpha, SymboLab).
However, in practice, students' overreliance on outside resources isn't as huge an issue as it may seem in theory. There are a handful of forces working in our favor:
It's rare that a student would be getting that much help from another human. Teachers usually have too many kids in their class to spend an inordinate amount of time with any particular student, and it would be unusual for a parent to work with their kid on the system all the time (or hire an expensive tutor to do so) because one of the big value propositions of the system is that it frees up the parent's bandwidth while remaining way less expensive than tutoring.
We measure knowledge repeatedly into the future. Our system does not take a "one-and-done" approach to learning. Even if a student gets carried (by another human) through a lesson, they'll still receive spaced reviews and quizzes on the topic in the future, and if they do poorly on those, they'll move backwards in the spaced repetition process, potentially back to the very beginning when they initially got carried through the lesson.
We are often able to structure questions in a way that prevents or makes it much harder to cheat using online calculators. Here's the first example that comes to mind: instead of asking a student to select the graph of the transformed function $2\sin(-3x)+4,$ we might give them the graph, tell them the graphed function takes the form $a \sin (bx) + c,$ and ask them to compute $a + b + c.$
Because math is so hierarchical, knowledge debts quickly come due. Most mathematical topics feed into more advanced topics. If a student manages to get through topic X by relying on an online calculator, then they're not going to be able to get through the more advanced topics that depend on X unless they find an online calculator for those too. They quickly run into topics where there is no online calculator and they're unable to do the topic by hand because they never learned how to do the prerequisites by hand. So the only way forward is to go back to the prerequisites and actually learn those properly.
Interestingly, item 4 above is such a barrier to continued overreliance on outside resources that the overreliance tends to manifest primarily as a customer support issue:
- student uses an online calculator for topic X,
- student runs into "post"-requisite topic Y that they're unable to do by hand but there is no online calculator,
- student tells their parent/teacher that topic Y is too hard for them,
- parent/teacher sends a support message,
- we look into it and pick up on clues indicating that the student used an online calculator for prerequisite topic X,
- we explain this to the parent/teacher and help them get their student back on track.
What a headache!
To avoid these kinds of support issues, we have recently started working on explicit mechanisms for detecting overreliance on outside resources. (This will also increase learning integrity, which is always a plus, though it wasn't too much of a problem for us in the first place.)
Response to Follow-Up Question 2
Teaching is much more than delivering knowledge to a student's brain. A teacher is a secondary parent. Children imitate their role models and become like them. 90% of being a math teacher is just being (at whatever level) an adult who likes math. I don't think AI will ever be able to act in the capacity of a passer-on of passion. We can't enculturate children without human adults. Optimizing instruction strategies and holding students accountable is the easy, mindless part of teaching. And these things are rarely neglected. Instruction strategies and accountability don't need to be optimized. They just need to be good. Trying to fine tune them is being penny wise and pound foolish.
I do agree that there is a dimension of "passion" along which teachers can be very positive or negative, while AI (at least in the current conception) is more neutral.
However, if a math teacher spends "90% of their time/effort just being an adult who likes math" at the exclusion of optimizing instruction strategies and holding students accountable for learning, then the outcome is still a disaster.
I've seen this on multiple occasions -- a well-intentioned teacher focuses all their energy on class discussions about mathematical beauty and cool applications, thinks that because they're so good at that they don't have to optimize instruction strategies and hold students accountable, and graduates students who can't solve even the most basic kinds of problems that they were supposed to have learned in the class.
And that leads to situations like the one that came up a few weeks ago: What can I do when advanced undergraduate and/or early graduate STEM students cannot perform correct math manipulations?
In my experience, when you weight instruction/accountability versus passion, you get the following outcomes:
best outcome: HIGH instruction/accountability, HIGH passion
good outcome: HIGH instruction/accountability, NEUTRAL passion
bad outcome: HIGH instruction/accountability, NEGATIVE passion
bad outcome: LOW instruction/accountability, HIGH passion
very bad outcome: LOW instruction/accountability, NEUTRAL passion
worst outcome: LOW instruction/accountability, NEGATIVE passion
So I would argue that, even though there is value to be had from a passionate human teacher, even students who learn solely from an AI machine can still enjoy good educational outcomes (which is better than most students receive from most human teachers).
And that's even an understatement. In our experience, optimizing instruction/accountability has allowed us to accelerate student learning by 4x -- meaning that on our system, serious students learn 4x the amount of material in the same time (or the same amount of material in a quarter of the time) as compared to traditional classrooms. And that's being conservative, since our courses tend to be even more comprehensive than what you'd find in a traditional classroom (our courses aim to cover the superset of all content that one could reasonably expect to find in any major textbook or standard class syllabus).
Of course, it's hard for a human teacher to achieve this level of effectiveness by optimizing instruction/accountability. Using long-known learning strategies (like mastery learning, spaced repetition, the testing effect, varied practice, interleaving, layering, cognitive noninterference, cognitive load minimization) to their fullest extent requires an infeasible amount of effort for any human teacher. But just because a human can't do that, doesn't mean that there's little to gain from it.