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Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Role of Teacher

With the growing integration of technology in education and life and the emphasis on personalized and competency-based approaches in the classroom, the role of the teacher is changing dramatically. It is no longer enough for us to present information to students and then test them on it with some worksheets or questions from a textbook in between to let students “practice”. Teachers who are actively engaging the changes in the world and classroom in an effort to do what’s best for student learning are discovering that as we do what’s best for students, the traditional role of “teacher” is fading. A reflective lot by nature, educators are struggling to find new ways to describe what we do. Common terms I’ve heard recently are: guide, mentor, and facilitator.

I’ve been teaching math in a blended learning environment for three semesters, and when asked how my perception of my own role has changed, I called myself a “tool maker”. Perhaps in the evolution of education, we are seeing the emergence of a new “species” of educator: “magister faber” (the teacher who creates/makes). This kind of educator engages in a process of designing and engineering learning experiences that engage students in a process of experimentation, discovery, and knowledge building through activity. Allow me to present a sketch of magister faber:

Considered “out there” or “pushing the boundaries” by his colleagues and administrators, Mr. Smith saw that his methods of presenting information, assigning homework, and quizzing and testing students on material was not producing high levels of learning for all students. Perhaps his students had changed, perhaps the world had changed, perhaps the state tests had changed; but regardless of the cause, there were students who just didn’t “get it”, and Mr. Smith knew that presenting more of the same wasn’t going to help them. At the same time, Mr. Smith recognized that the world had become information rich, and that students had a plethora of information at their hands. What students needed to learn was how to tell the important information from the unimportant (spot the signal amidst the noise), and then how to assess and think critically about information.

Taking a step back, Mr. Smith went to his state standards and developed specific measurable student performance tasks with rubrics that lined up with the standards. Then he grouped these tasks into clusters and looked for applications of these tasks in the world. Mr. Smith began presenting his students with challenges and tasks, and then worked with them and encouraged them to work with each other to solve these challenges and perform tasks that demonstrated their mastery or proficiency in various domains. When students fell short of proficiency in a domain, they were given other opportunities to grow and develop the necessary skills until they got it. Students progressed at different rates, and Mr. Smith had a difficult time fixing a “grade” on his students’ work at a specific time, but his students were actively engaged in the learning experiences he had designed, and often commented that it didn’t feel like “school work”.

Some of the ideas in this sketch involve parts of competency-based learning, project or problem-based learning, personalization, and blended learning (allowing student control over the rate at which they learn, the method of learning, the method of assessment, sometimes even the content), but ultimately, this sketch is about an educator who becomes a learning engineer for his students. If Mr. Smith’s method is so good for students, why isn’t everyone doing it? There are many reasons, but here are a few points:

1. It’s hard to fit new learning experiences into traditional grading and grade-reporting practices. As I have implemented various forms of competency-based education in my classroom, I have always run up against the wall of having to assign a numerical grade to each student at the end of each quarter. Educational systems need to be open to new ways of reporting and recording student learning: portfolios with artifacts, videos of students doing things, projects with a product that serves as a demonstration of learning.

2. In my sketch, I glossed over the part of the story where Mr. Smith spent his entire summer reading, researching, and designing those awesome learning experiences that engaged his students. I also didn’t mention that he did it all without getting paid more than his colleagues who didn’t spend their summer doing that. Time and money are serious limiting factors for educators. If we truly value student learning and we want teachers to invest their time in designing learning experiences for students, we need to give them the time to do it, and compensate them for their work.

3. I didn’t mention in my sketch what happened when Mr. Smith’s students took the state mandated standardized test at the end of the year. The early evidence from teachers who are adopting these new learning practices seems to indicate that students who learn in this environment actually do better on standardized tests than they would have if they had been taught in a more traditional learning environment. But whether or not this is true, I wonder: how good are state standardized tests at measuring personalized student learning? In some states, teacher compensation is being tied to student scores on state standardized tests, and so it is understandable that teachers would be reluctant to change everything they do when it could impact their salary and job security.

4. Lack of knowledge and training also holds back well-intentioned teachers. Most teachers didn’t learn about cognition, neuro-science, brain-based research, design principles, etc. in their teachers training programs. The skill set required to be a learning-centered teacher is a shift from what was required of traditional teachers. I think colleges are still adjusting to this, and even if every college started turning out new teachers who were trained in these skills tomorrow, the majority of the teachers in the country are not new-hires. Teachers need support and training in how to design engaging student learning experiences.

5. The last reason I want to mention here is fear. Some teachers are afraid of taking risks, of doing something different, of letting different students produce different end products, of how parents, students, colleagues, and administrators will react to what they’re doing.

What I’ve put forward here is nothing more than a discussion of a shift from teacher teaching to student learning. For the past one hundred years or so, in the United States, we have had an educational system that put a teaching teacher (i.e. a lecturing teacher) at the center. We fixed curricula (what will be learned and in what order) for our core subjects. We created tests to “measure” students based on these fixed curricula (although I’m not sure exactly what those tests really measure).

If we’re going to shift to an educational system focused on student learning, then we will need to give students choices around what they learn, how they learn it, when they learn it, and how and when they demonstrate their mastery of the material. We will also need to support and train teachers through this transition and beyond. A teacher with a growth-mindset who models continual learning for students is an essential piece of a true student-learning centered educational system. And while all of these changes may be scary (to all stakeholders), the alternative of continuing to do what we’ve always done and allow some students to simply not “get it” is even scarier.

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