The good news is that kids now have access to the whole wide world. The bad news is that there are teachers who think that fact is bad news.
My friend Christine recently posted an article from The Atlantic, the first line of which asked the baiting question,”When the internet delivers its own content, what’s left for classroom instructors to do?”
The article’s author, Michael Godsey (a regular education podcaster and internet article author) opens by portraying a typical dystopian (to educators at least) vision of quasiprogressive technology-facilitated mega-centers of digital content delivery, watched over by (or rather just watched by) an ever-less-relevant facilitator. “Are teachers going the way of local bookstores?” he asks, half-ironic, half-lamentingly.
The article is lengthy and thoughtful, and cites some decent examples and articles, but as is almost always the case, Godsey (a veteran English teacher) fails to drill down far enough into the true pedagogical and philosophical questions he’s tapping up against. This is, to me, one of the hallmarks of “education reform” and where otherwise strong voices (and I like Godsey’s as well as Ravitch’s and Cuban’s and Wormeli’s) sometimes fall down: They do not truly get to the heart of the issue we’re talking about, which is that the conservation of the school, of teaching, and of our cultural concept of children and learning is folly. We cannot, we must not preserve the attitudes, ideas, and understandings of our past as teachers. Children have changed. This is a neurobiological truism that has been true for a long time now, yet many teachers are utterly unaware that the brains of their learners are measurably, observably different than theirs.
Teaching is absolutely going to change. It has changed, and it will change, and it must always change, because children change. Highfalutin abstract notions of “real learning” and archaic lamentations of “real teaching” betray a fundamental misunderstanding of learning and teaching. I don’t suggest here that Godsey has his head in the clouds; he’s right that he’s seeing an explosion of robust, powerful digital learning tools and a constant plummeting of the costs involved (for teachers as well as for students, often totaling zero) in accessing these resources. I see absolutely nothing wrong with children opting to be autodidactic on their own terms, in their own time. But there is a huge difference between a child choosing to do something alone, and forcing a child to be alone. Autonomy is one thing; abandonment is quite another, and the circumstances Godsey describes in the warehouse-like “facilitation center” run by an unskilled, uneducated thrall are conditions of intellectual and psychoemotional abandonment.
The longing for a more comfortable time that weeps out of the interstices of Godsey’s article has good company online, which he even points out: “When I did some research to see if it was just me sensing this transformation taking place,” he writes, “I was overwhelmed by the number of articles all confirming what I had suspected: The relatively recent emergence of the Internet, and the ever-increasing ease of access to web, has unmistakably usurped the teacher from the former role as dictator of subject content.”
And there it is. There’s what Jed Bartlet called “the ten word answer.” There’s your key phrase that’s the nexus of difference between a reformer and a radical, between a position like Godsey’s that apparently yearns for return, and a position like mine, which burns for revolution. “Teacher as dictator” is a nightmare. It’s bad for kids. I know he doesn’t mean it as a political position, and I’m not misunderstanding him: The teacher was, in days of nineties yore, the same a teacher had been since 1635: An ad lib content expert authoritarian who governed a classroom and delivered said content.
But that was never teaching. It never has been teaching. I spend a lot of time in my writing and work talking about what teaching really is, and there is a huge difference between lecturing (“delivering content”) and teaching. In fact, I loathe the phrase “delivering content” because it is so often conflated with teaching. The phrase commoditizes learning as well as learners. This cuts right to the center of Godsey’s article, and his incorrect premise: facilitators can help deliver content, but none of that is teaching, and the technology systems that he describes are incapable of teaching.
Teaching is the bringing about of all necessary conditions for the individual learner to create relevant meaning for themselves and to construct the skills to apply that meaning, which is learning. One cannot “deliver” that as if it is a commodity. Inundating a learner with learning opportunities is not enough to qualify as “teaching,” in my universe. True teachers are more than content experts. True teachers are masters of the craft of pedagogy, able to flexibly adapt in real-time to the individual needs of the individual child, comprehensively inclusive of their psychoemotional conditions, their unique traits of person, their immediate and long-term sociological contexts, their learning styles and thinking modalities… True teachers meet all of the learning needs of their children, and to do so must absolutely be masters of content, but they must also be experts in children and learning. This is a massive field, and no matter how many pieces of paper cultural artifacts someone hangs on the wall or how many bits of comma-separated alphabet soup cling to the end of their names, no person can be a master of children. We try, but we must constantly learn and relearn ourselves, because children are rapidly changing, right in front of us.
That’s not new.
Yes, the rate of change is accelerated, and that’s highlighting this disparity, this too-slow inability for the social institution of “The School” to keep up, but I say, “Good.” Enough is enough. It’s high time we recognized that the school of 1852 wasn’t good enough in 1916, or in 1954, or in 1975, or in 1999, and it sure as heck isn’t good enough now. Teachers must disengage from the concepts of teaching and learning and school as they have been popularly promulgated for decades (indeed, centuries) in America.
At one point, Godsey quotes a teacher who said, “I don’t ever write my own lesson plans anymore. I just give credit to the person who did.” There was a time when lesson plans were sacrosanct, artifacts of a teacher’s guile and panache, mastery and expertise, thoughtfulness and wittiness and cleverness and genius… only there wasn’t, really. True teachers have no desire to throttle learning, to govern or limit or manage or regulate learning. True teachers want learning to explode vibrantly from the minds of each individual learner, not to be poured into them. Freire called this vessel-like objectification of children into empty boxes to be filled “banking pedagogy,” as if each vacuous little head is a vault into which the tight-fisted teacher carefully places an equal and identical little set of facts. That was never teaching and learning. We called it that sometimes, but that’s never what it was. That was lecturing. That was creating conditions within which children were autodidactic, and while autodidacticism is permissible, it cannot be forced upon the learner, lest we impose solitude, isolate, and abandon.
We know at my school, for example, that over forty percent of our learners like to use YouTube to learn how to do things outside of what is required at school. Four in ten kids wants to learn how to do something that we’re not teaching them, and turn to YouTube for help doing that. Is that child learning? Yes, quite possibly. It’s no guarantee, but it’s possible. Should that child be forced to learn that way exclusively? Of course not. Can that child learn absolutely everything s/he needs from experiencing “delivered content?” While the answer is “yes,” because some students are indeed marvelous autodidacts and vastly prefer that, the answer is an emphatic “no” for many other learners. We cannot overgeneralize kids into any one way of being, and we cannot oversimplify learning into the experiencing of delivered content. Consequently, we cannot oversimplify teaching into the delivery of expert content, and that is precisely what we’ve been doing in our schools for two hundred years.
Enough is enough.
Schools have to change, and they’ve needed to change. Radicals like me say that the institution of the school is incapable of true teaching in the way I describe, and consequently children cannot truly learn within that institution, because we as a culture and as a profession are obsessed with the institution itself. We perpetuate the fallacious idea that schools should be structured as they have been, with classes and classrooms, with desks and rows, with clocks and periods and hallways and Spring Breaks and quizzes and no hats allowed. We self-aggrandize an antiquated vision of The Schoolmaster while the students around us gain ever-increasing access to better ways of doing, knowing, and being, as we become increasingly irrelevant to their lives.
Who can blame them? We do it. We tune out when our leaders prattle on about crap we already know. We turn to our devices when our leaders spend forty-five minutes talking at us reading from a slide presentation that’s being used as a script. We comment, “this could have been done in an email.” We comment “I already knew this.” We comment “I don’t care about any of this.” Why are we surprised that our students not only do this, but they’re vastly better at it than we are?
Schools are concerned with rigor and compliance. They are mechanisms of coercion designed for adults. Consequently, they are irrelevant to the modern learner, who has access to the totality of the information and shared experiences of the human race online, and has no need of us to gain the wider world. Well, “rigor” is just the right word for the way things are going in schools, because they’re solid, rigid, uncompromising, unbending, and in many ways lifeless. However, the future “learning environment” that Godsey describes is another kind of dangerous for kids. It may step back from some of these traditional structures, but it still abandons children into the wild by failing to conceive them as individuals and provide for them individually. “Tailoring content” isn’t meeting the comprehensive needs of the individual child.
The Self-Organized Learning Environment that Sugata Mitra talked about in his 2013 TEDTalk advocates for teachers in a facilitative role, and can be considered taking the so-called “flipped classroom” idea to the extreme. (The “flipped classroom” shifts content consumption from in-school to out-of-school, and similarly swaps content analysis from out-of-school to in-school, thereby allowing the teacher to better observe and, ideally, understand and influence the analytical process.) Godsey went on after watching this TEDTalk to talk about Khan Academy and other massive repositories of information and resources, and then pondered, “For how many more years can I compete?”
Dude. C’mon. It is hubris beyond measure to think that any one person can “compete” with the sum total of human freaking knowledge and nearly-universal access to every other person on the planet. There is no “competing” with The Internet. That comment, though made in passing (as much as anything in an article published by The Atlantic can be made “in passing”), demonstrates the misunderstanding of the teacher role about which I’m complaining. We’re not arbiters of information. We’re not custodians of knowledge anymore. In fact, the Joshua Starr quote Godsey uses highlights this: “I ask teachers all the time, if you can Google it, why teach it?”
I am apt to say that it is not important, in 2015, for a child to be able to immediately recall the date of Pearl Harbor. The child should instead be able to access that date, and understand its relevance. There was a time in America when the passing on of facts and factual knowledge was much like an oral rote tradition among a native population, and there was a case to be made for having immediate factual recall, but at some point knowing something factual got confused with understanding something and being able to do something with that understanding. They are not, nor have they ever been, the same thing. I do not care about facts and names and dates and places. I care about being able to find those things when it matters.
And I’ll go a step further, and clarify: When it matters to me. I don’t consider that solipsistic; learners only ever learn what is relevant to them. They may recall things that are irrelevant, but how many things were you “taught” when you were a student that you just plain old don’t freaking know now, because it wasn’t relevant?
I, for one, am thrilled that I no longer have to recall the publication date of Stravinsky’s Firebird like I once had to in college. I can whip out my phone, and there it is. Godsey seems to think this is problematic, or at least paints is as an artifact of what he sees as the lamentable shift toward facilitation, exemplified by his reference to the “cliche” of moving from being a “sage on the stage” to being “a guide on the side.”
Priscilla Norton, a professor of mine at George Mason, used to refer to “the sage on the side.” Is it true that teachers need to “get out of the way of learning?” Yeah. It is, in some cases, if the teacher is being a regulator of learning and a manager of process, because those things aren’t part of learning. Those things are part of schooling, and I have no interest in schooling. True teachers – compassionate, powerful experts in pedagogy as well as content – cannot be replaced by any content delivery mechanism. Even adapting learning platforms lack the ability to comprehensively understand the individual child, as an individual human being, with the empathy, analytical power, observation, environmental and even tactile experience, critical thinking, and human relevance that is critical to teaching and learning. Facilitators are not teachers, and neither ever have been nor ever will be. Teachers may sometimes facilitate, this is true, as they may sometimes lecture or train, but these are not synonyms.
Teaching is a craft, and computer technology is a tool. To conflate the two, and fear the latter will replace the former, misunderstands not only psychology and pedagogy, but philosophy and history in education.
Godsey closes his article with a few wonderings, and I’m going to selfishly answer them, because this is my blog and that’s what I do here, LOL.
“Should I encourage this aspiring educator to fight for his or her role as the local expert, or simply get good at facilitating the best lessons available?” he asks. If he wants to fight to preserve the role as it has existed, then I say “neither.” The former is the status quo and the latter is a misunderstanding that one can pull a lesson off a shelf, plug it into a classroom, and cherry-BOOM-sauce! learning happens, like some chemical reaction. Children’s minds are not beakers to be catalyzed with reagents. Instead, I’d prefer Godsey tell the aspiring educator to remember that mastery of pedagogy, and all of its substudies – child psychology, the history of American public education, socioemotional learning, learning and thinking modalities, child development, emergent work in assessment, etc. – is almost more important than content mastery, and content mastery is more important than ever. The role of the True Teacher is not diminishing; it is expanding. We must be experts in children as well as content. We must study harder and know more than we’ve ever had to before, and we must constantly engage in new learning for ourselves in a way that’s never been seen, if we are to aspire to what I believe is True Teaching. I know a whole lot of people who work at schools who I don’t believe are really teachers at all. It’s scary as hell, but I didn’t make the world, I just live in it. I’m no master teacher, but I try like the dickens to get there.
Godsey asks, “Should I assure this person about my union and the notion of tenure, or should I urgently encourage him or her to create a back-up plan?” Listen, I of all people get that teachers are under fire. I’m the guy who went buck-wild on Whoopi Goldberg defending tenure as a valid method of ensuring due process rights, so I’ll defend my bona fides as a teacher advocate any day. But if the union in question believes that teachers haven’t and shouldn’t change, that union isn’t protecting its teachers. If the union in question thinks that lecturers and content facilitators that try to deliver learning like it’s a dish of cocktail wieners are doing right by kids, that union is way out of touch. As a former board of directors member of a union who resigned in protest despite massive local support because my leadership was out of touch, I’ll again defend my bona fides as a teacher advocate. Tenure is fine. Bad teachers are not. Let’s get those two separated before we get poor Whoopi all ticked off again.
Finally, Godsey closes by suggesting that he might be giving young new teachers “false hope” by suggesting that the teacher role we know it will be gone in 20 years, because he suspects it might be gone sooner.
Sorry, my friend, but I have to be the one to say it: It’s already gone. It’s been gone for a long while. The reason teachers are scared is because a lot of teachers aren’t really teaching, and haven’t been, and to wake up suddenly and realize that your kids aren’t who you thought they were, your school is completely irrelevant, and our entire profession is teetering on the brink of eradication at the hands of laypeople who have absolutely no idea what they’re doing because we have lost our way so badly and are in such deep need of revolution, is a nightmare. It is terrifying.
I’m sorry to be the one to say it. When I woke up, I experienced what I called “My Professional Heartbreak.” I cried. I absolutely, seriously sobbed, for about two days. My entire concept of my career path, where I was going, what I was doing, it all disintegrated. I worked my way “up” from teaching at a poor, rural secondary school as a new, young teacher to a senior (at least that’s what my title says) instructional administrator (at least that’s what my contract says) at an incredibly affluent and renowned school, in a position intended to help teachers enhance their teaching practices… and then realized there is no “up,” and that every school I’d ever taught at, independent of socioeconomic conditions, was basically “the same.” The structures, the institutions of the American public school, are basically “the same,” and that led to a comprehensive review of the history of American public education, tearing through the collected works of Lawrence Cremin… “The same.” That led to digging deeply into the social and psychological structures of teaching and learning, of parents and children, of adults and kids, of individuality versus group, of homogeneity versus uniqueness… The deeper I dug, the more I wanted the answers that terrified me. I became “a radical” in the way Vidal used the word, someone who seeks the root of the problem and wants viscerally, desperately to understand the truth.
My teacher truth is the epigraph of my manuscript. Ken Robinson said it in his legendary 2010 TEDTalk. He rightly said that our schools cannot be reformed, but must be transformed. They must be revolutionized. I believe that. I believe, truly, that our school institutions are preventative, not facilitative, and I do not believe that the future vision Godsey portends is any less prohibitive and restrictive for all its facilitative trappings, because it continues to misunderstand what teaching and learning is.
Teaching is not the delivery of content. Learning is not the consumption of content. These objectifications of meaningful, autogenic, constructed, and relevant processes that are totally unique to the individual continue to plague our national, state, local, and classroom attitudes… as well as well-meaning articles in The Atlantic.
I hope my writing, when it sees the light of day, will help explain what I think we should do instead.
I’m going to add something here that I sometimes forget to when I blog, because I confess I don’t want to get ahead of myself and my writing as I come into the home stretch: I know some wonderful teachers. I know gifted, incredible, fantastic teachers. I know that sometimes it sounds like I’m being terribly harsh and judgmental, and I do think I’m harsh on schools as institutions (rightly so, IMHO), but I believe so, so many of my favorite teacher colleagues would thrive in the conditions I want to bring about. I also think we can do some really remarkable things in classrooms, given these tools and opportunities, in the intervening time between the now of the hardly-changed-in-three-centuries nonsensical, contradictory, anti-child, self-defeating institutions in which we work, and the freedom-loving, learning-loving, child-loving learning environments for which I advocate in my work. I went into educational technology because I believe that I can do great things to connect to my individual students, as individual intellects, using tools that we didn’t have twenty or thirty years ago. I’m not trying to discourage you.
But we cannot allow ourselves to mope about and yearn for times gone by. Pick up the tools, embrace them, and use them… but don’t forget pedagogy. Don’t try to “do it for the sake of doing it.” Don’t use YouTube just so you can say, “I use YouTube with my kids!” Instead, ask yourself the deep questions of learning, skill mastery, assessment, and understanding the unique child that you should ask every day, and use the tools that fit best the needs of the individual child. That’s the key, for right now. That is my advice:
Don’t forget that every single individual child in your classroom is a thinking, feeling, creative unique individual human being with individual experiences and situations. That should be the center of absolutely everything we do, and no technology – not even adaptive and purportedly-individualized technology – can replace you when you do that.