We have all heard the keynote addresses at conferences that are meant to bounce us from our complacency; to tell us that, because of the technological revolution, unless we change our practices as educators we will soon become obsolete. At a school like Graded, which has already gone through huge transformations as a result of integrated technology, these speeches no longer inspire us to action. We want more... we want to know what's next. Specifically we want to understand how to function more effectively as teachers in this new context.
I must confess that I am somewhat irritated by the tech prophets who tell us that everything has changed and that only NOW students need to construct their own meaning; teachers serving as facilitators and not information providers. They neglect to say that this educational philosophy is NOT new. Constructivists have been saying this for over 100 years. John Dewey, the most important educator in the Progressive Movement stated the following:
The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these. Thus the teacher becomes a partner in the learning process, guiding students to independently discover meaning within the subject area.The reality is that we are better positioned NOW, with the support of technology to become those "partners", because our students have unlimited access to information. But we also have road block that are hard to overcome. Digital distraction is pervasive not only amongst our students, but also for us, as we keep multiple tabs open and check the sports scores, Facebook and the latest gossip on the Huffpost. Helping our students focus in a digital context is not easy and will not happen without the astute guidance of a teacher. While Sugata Mitra's Hole in the Wall experiment is compelling and tells us that kids CAN learn on their own, that does not mean that they always WILL. At the heart of the success of Mitra's experiment is motivation. And we know that often students are not always motivated to learn things that are difficult. As Carol Dweck says, the brain is like a muscle that must work out in order to be strong. Those work outs can be taxing and require the constant encouragement of a coach. If we want our students to be critical thinkers, and skilled communicators, then they will need the grit to refine their skills and pursue the more challenging path.
As we move deeper and deeper into technology-rich learning environments, I would argue that the role of the teacher will become increasingly important. Our students need to become effective navigators of information overload, critical readers of manipulative images and advertising, and effective communicators in a connected world. They cannot do this by themselves, nor can they construct powerful knowledge without guidance, encouragement and effective feedback. But teachers need to be more than merely "guides on the side." They are also the builders of classroom cultures that are based on social relationships. We must remember that social relationships for our students often look like this:
In this context we must balance the digital environment in our classrooms with rich face-to-face interactions, and collaboration that is multi-layered (both digital and non-digital). Educational theory about the social nature of knowledge building has been around for a while. According to Vygostky in Mind in Society:
"An interpersonal process is transformed into an intrapersonal one. Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people..., and then inside the child. This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher [mental] functions originate as actual relations between human individuals”In order to build a culture in the classroom where students cultivate relationships, they must have a teachers who deeply care about them as individuals. A recent post by George Couros on his blog, The Principal of Change, reinforces this point. The title of the post was 3 Things That Should Never Change in Schools. Couros' number one item is The Focus on Relationships. He states:
My best teachers during my time in school, are people that I still hold dear to my heart to this very day. Was it because they inspired me by a test that I had to write in the classroom? Never. What I appreciated was how they made me feel valued as a person, and not simply a student...As the old adage goes, students will never care to know, until they know you care. In 100, 200, 300 years, relationships will always be the foundation of a good school. Without that focus, schools would surely become irrelevant.As long as we care about relationships and building community, teachers will always be at the core of the educational enterprise. With the advent of technology in the classroom, teachers take on the additional role of facilitating learning in a context that is highly complex. Teachers who can navigate this new role will be more vital than ever before.