What are teachers for?

Just as I posted this clip about the way kids use blogs and social networks, David Warlick posted this intriguing analysis of the way kids use online technologies. Dave posted an interesting graph that shows that kids assess that they acquire various skills equally in school and in off-school online environments.


Yes, there used to be a time when you went to school to learn A, B and C: facts, learning skills, social skills with peers, and then went home to learn skills D, E and F: how to deal with adults, perform acts of personal hygiene, and learn to do household chores.

But today, the distinction between school and off-school is blurring. With the increasing use of the Web in teaching, the kids go to school to learn how to learn (including how to find information online), not to sponge-up facts as recited by the teacher. The font of knowledge used to be the teacher, but today that same knowledge is at everyone's fingertips, it just needs to be sought, understood, processed and connected to other pieces of knowledge.

The killer quote for me is this one:

I'd have to say, though, that the most interesting question that came from one of the teachers was something like, "If I gave you an assignment to make a video, would it bother you that I don't know how to make a video and can't teach you how?" The students glanced at each other and then shrugged in unison, each saying, "We'd just ask each other." One of the boys said, "I'd probably ask someone else anyway."

So, the teacher, apart from not being the source of information, is not even regarded as a source of skills on how to find information.

So, what will the role of teacher be in the future?

Not reciting facts. Not teaching technology. But managing the learning process: teaching critical skills - how to find, evaluate, connect and build upon the information that exists out there, how to determine what is important and what not, how to figure out what source is trusted and which one is suspicious.

The teacher of the future will be someone who coaches kids in the skills of media use and criticism. Instead of teaching facts, teaching how to evaluate facts. Instead of teaching this generation's ideas and biases, enabling them to form their own. Schooling as a 'subversive activity' at its best.

Which is good.

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Great! I'm teaching differential equations this semester, so I'll teach them how to find the information about DE's that's out there. In short, I'll tell them: `Here's a textbook with information about DE's in it. Go read it, do the problems, and get back to me at the end of the semester with a video demonstrating your knowledge.'

Yes. And then you will go through it WITH them, not AT them.

I don't think it's talking about university-level classes. At that level, the knowledge is difficult and specialized enough that expert instruction is very important. But for earlier education, I think the post is spot-on.

I've been homeschooled my entire life (I'm going to college in about 20 days), and it's certainly possible to do most high school subjects without a teacher. For calculus and the hard sciences you might start to wish you had an instructor, but even there it's possible to teach yourself.

There is so much information out there these days that it would be a crime to rely solely on what a middle or high school teacher can tell you. Between some good books at the library, blogs and online articles, and some lectures from UC Berkeley, I'm pretty sure I know more about psychology than the teacher of the extremely poor psychology class at the local high school. And I _definitely_ know more philosophy. Students need to be taught how to learn. It's a waste of valuable time to have them memorize loads of facts they could just as easily look up.

By Peter Borah (not verified) on 31 Aug 2008 #permalink

Hi Coturnix,

First, I want to thank you for allowing me to voice my opposing opinion on your other thread.

While I still question your position on the necessity of 'subversive activity', it is obvious your primary focus is doing what is best for the students (at least your personal opinion of what is best).

I wouldn't call the Socratic Method a 'subversive activity'. I think it is a good and honest way for provoking independent thinking. This is how students can quickly learn a majority opinion isn't always right. It is the opinions that can be backed up with logic and evidence that wins the day regardless of popularity or lack thereof.

Having a teacher tell them what to think denies them this opportunity.

I have four kids who went through public schools. The good teachers encouraged arguments among the students. Others lectured. The good teacher/student interaction was far from subversive. The teacher made it clear what he/she was doing and why. The only subterfuge was when the good teachers had to fight school administration and parents to continue being effective teachers.

By Thought Provoker (not verified) on 31 Aug 2008 #permalink

I think you are using a different definition of 'subversive' which jars you. I am using the definition from Neil Postman's book that I linked to in that old post you are referring to - a positive, progressive definition of subversive.

Hi Coturnix,

My first reaction was to agree polite disagreements are often resolved by blaming differing definitions of terms.

However, I took the time to read the Amazon excepts of Neil Postman's 1969 book. A couple of years after this book was published I was in a very conservative public High School in a class titled Comparitive Political Systems.

To set the proper stage, my small High School was 15 miles from Kent State University. Most of the students came from farms or blue collar households. Reciting the pledge of alligence was mandatory followed by a few moments of quite time for optional praying.

I vividly remember May 4th, 1970. For those who do not, it was the day four KSU students were shot and killed by Ohio national guardsmen. We where sent home and school was cancelled the next day. There was no doubt the instant, prevailing adult opinion was the students deserved what they got (regardless of facts to the contrary).

But back to my Comparitive Political Systems class. Imagine being the teacher at the time when our brave soldiers were holding back the spread of communism and the administration is still in lock down mode from the previous year's events.

Subversive? If the teacher would have said anything pro-communist or anti-democratic the parents would have marched on the school and demanded her resignation. She did the only thing she could do, she simply opened the discussion to the class to list the pros and cons of both systems.

It was obvious she was looking for a student to challenge the prevailing thinking. That student was me. I say it was obvious because even though the discussion got unacceptably loud and even threatening. She said took no sides but simply wrote down the points each of us offered. The other students even pleaded with the teacher to tell me I was wrong. She refused.

After that day, the only thing taught was why a democratic system was the best. Nothing more was said about a communism, either pro or con. At the time, I thought the class was a copout and partially blamed the teacher. After I got older and thought back on it, I changed my mind about the teacher.

I can't say for certain this teacher was being subversive, but you could tell by the other student's reaction that they knew what she was up to and did everything to stop it short of punching me in the face.

I wouldn't be surprised if the administration stepped in and directly modified her lesson plan after that day.

I will agree with Neil Postman that a teacher needs to be subversive when it comes to parents and administration.

However, as difficult as it may be, the line must be drawn before being subversive with the students. This cure is as bad as the disease. The teacher's personal bias is no better or worse than society's. Note, honestly and openly being a devil's advocate with the students isn't being subversive in my book. While not being completely open and honest in submitted lesson plans is being subversive, it is probably the good kind.

By Thought Provoker (not verified) on 31 Aug 2008 #permalink

Ideally teachers can provide a bit of wisdom and inspiration. When I was in school, having students teach each other was considered a good thing... getting the students interested and competent enough so that they would actually teach each other was the trick.

@Thought Provoker- I think the idea that "a majority opinion isn't always right" is subversive, in the broad meaning of the word.

In any event, I'm not sure schools will ever actually foster the good kinds of subversive activities. The way they are currently structured certainly does not facilitiate critical thinking about things like authority and hirearchy.