We had an interesting conversation at dinner last night revolving around the changes that are occurring in classrooms these days. Since we’re in the middle of our Tablet PC pilot at our school right now, I know this is especially acute as I’ve seen some pretty remarkable things this first week with teachers and students. But last night we were talking about the access to information that many (but not all) students and teachers have via the Web. And we were talking about how few educators had made the Internet a significant part of their practice. If we’re entering a world where much of what we do in business, communication, politics, etc. will be done online, we have to prepare our students for that reality. And the most effective way to teach these skills is to master them ourselves.
Case in point: I was talking with a math teacher who is a part of our pilot, and he told me that in the course of his lesson on Monday he used a term that was unfamiliar to his students. Rather than simply give them a definition, he modeled his own practice by having his students watch as he went from the OneNote page he was projecting via his tablet, opened up a browser, surfed over to Wikipedia, looked up the definition, and started a discussion about not only the math but about the workings of the site. Now I would bet that only a handful of teachers would model that same process.
And why is that? I’m back to that again, I know. The Web and these technologies have transformed the way I learn, provided me with many teachers who push my thinking, given me the potential to direct my own education as it is. Why don’t more educators make it a part of their own practice?
What I realized more clearly last night is that for many teachers, the idea of teaching kids to be able to access information and find mentors and communities of practice basically means teaching themselves out of their jobs, at least as they know it. I mean, at some point, we’re going to have to let go of the idea that we are the most knowledgable content experts available to our students. We used to be, when really all our students had access to was the textbook and the teacher’s brain. But today, we’re not. Not by a long stretch. And we don’t need to be. What we need to be is connectors who can teach our kids how to connect to information and to sources, how to use that information effectively, and how to manage and build upon the learning that comes with it. That’s a much different role than “science teacher” or “math teacher.” Now I’m not saying that subject matter expertise is irrelevant and that there aren’t core concepts that discipline specific teachers shouldn’t teach. But they should be taught it a much wider context, not in the fishbowl this is our traditional classroom.
This is a scary idea, I think. But it takes me back to something I wrote a couple of days ago that was almost a throw away line at the time but one that got me thinking much more deeply about all of this stuff:
The best teachers are the ones we find, not the ones we’re given.
There’s much more to write about that…
John Pederson says
When you say “what we need to be is connectors”, were you thinking about “connectors” in the Malcolm Gladwell “Tipping Point”. As I was reading this post I made a note to re-read “Tipping Point” thinking of it in the context of what you laid out here.
Raj Boora says
I think the ability to access more information on the part of students means that good teachers (in terms of content knowledge – and of course everything else that makes a good teacher) will be even more important.
I’ve always seen teaching as the “art of putting myself out of a job” as with any luck,a teacher can get their students to the point where they are ready to move beyond what they have to give in certain situations.
What I agree with is your comment that we need to look at how this moves us beyond the classroom. This movement is what scares many people, as before teachers would bring content within their rooms and deliver it in a way that they were comfortable with. Now, the information is too big to be inside and there is no way for the teacher to present it in the exact manner that they want to. What the teachers out there are going to have to accept is that they are going to have to be more of the “guide on the side”.
Tom Hoffman says
Aren’t you over-thinking this one, Will? People don’t model their internet usage first and foremost because they don’t have TabletPC’s and wireless projectors.
Christian Long says
Your recent post brings to mind the following challenge:
Imagine that no such thing as a ‘school’ had ever existed…and yet generations of bright and capable individuals had managed to ‘learn’ and create our current society, culture, etc based on seeking information, interacting with experts and lay-persons alike, tested theories, and attempted to engage ideas/skills in the ‘real world’.
Now, imagine that someone came along and suggested that we create the first-ever school today based on what we know about learning, technology, etc.
Where would we start?
Will, your post appears to invite the question of evolving ‘place’ (or ‘relevancy) of ‘teachers’ in schools of the future as opposed to the value of ‘teaching’ per se. As Raj suggested, the most talented educators always act from a desire to put their students in charge of their own learning. This means, in essence, teaching oneself out of a job. [excellent point, Raj]
I am always struck as both an educator and school designer by what we would create, facilitate, offer, and expect if we were to ignore the ‘add-on’ or ‘…out with the bathwater’ mindsets when it comes to re-form, re-design, or most importantly, re-conception of what learning truly is.
In Thomas L. Friedman’s recent book (The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century), he discusses this very same set of questions/principles within the entire outsourcing (insourcing, et al), ‘flat’ world paradigm. He makes a point of suggesting that while many jobs at the functional and low-ability level will disappear (or be transferred to other parts of the world), this will in turn open up new opportunities for those who re-conceive their roles in the future. In other words, the ‘tasks’ will be taken away, but the higher-end ability to specialize will gain in potential.
I can’t imagine a more accurate reflection upon the ideas you tossed out there, Will, but like Tom, I do not think it is merely a matter of techonology, one way or another. While technology will allow an infinite range of possibilities in terms of linking knowledge, facts, content, experts, questions, ideas to the learner, it takes an ability for the teacher to fully re-conceptualize their very presence in the room. Most computers act as typewriters and paper-weights to most teachers. They same is true of most technologies that purport to transport classrooms to a brave new frontier.
Because of this, anything that is seen as suggesting it will remove the teacher from the center of the room (or ‘teacher’s wall’, as architects inquire) is seen as a threat or at least simply new-fadism to be ignored.
On the otherhand, when the ‘middlemen’ (myself included) who have been blessed in the past of standing at the ‘gates of knowledge’ begin to realize the great potential in terms of being ‘learning mentors’ in evolving ‘learning communities’ where students seek customized ‘learning paths’, then…and I believe only then…will the idea of ‘teaching onself out of a job’ be a blessing for the teacher rather than a thing to fear.
At the end of the day, schools arose out of a specific set of needs to draw society together at a time when technology, society, urban growth, and so many other factors were just coming together. Curriculum, bell schedules, athletics, standards, certifications and diplomas were all pieces of that rather than holy grails. Learning happened long before schools came into vogue/request. One doesn’t have to imagine too far into the future before schools will have to respond to a new set of factors or be out-sourced themselves.
Fortunately, learning will exist whether curriculum standards, teachers, or schools remain necessary. Hopefully each of them will take the time to ‘own’ the change that is coming and find a new and evolved place in the larger context of learning as time, technology, and learning needs unfold.
Excellent post, Will. Thank you for saying what so many know to be true in their hearts but worry about when it comes down to protecting their job, title, classroom. I do hope that all of us who are teachers will begin to see the ‘competitive advantage’ of evolving into ‘knowledge mentors/facilitators’, rather than waiting for the powers-that-be to make the change for us.