Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Unnecessary and replaceable.

“A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary.” - Thomas Carruthers

“Any teacher that can be replaced by a computer probably should be.”- David Thornburg

Both of these quotes came across my twitter feed this week. At first glance, these seem to be conflicting goals. How does one make himself “progressively unnecessary” while NOT working himself out of a job (or being replaced by a machine?)  However, these two statements speak to a growing tension that today’s educators are becoming more acutely aware of, even if they can’t quite describe it.

Operating under the assumption that the goal of all teachers and educational systems is to challenge students to become independent thinkers and learners and to apply necessary working and life skills without the support of another,  the Carruthers quote makes a ton of sense philosophically. However, the idealism of “guide on the side” is often not realized in many classrooms. The “sage on the stage”  model is comfortable, convenient, and requires compliance from the student (not the independent thinking we claim to value). It requires little daily instructional change and promotes passivity for both teacher and student.  This pedagogy (and the inherent instructional and assessment practices) is what many educators experienced (persevered through?) and succeeded in throughout their own schooling.  Asking ourselves to reject a system in which we found success is a daunting challenge. However, this mindset, where the teacher is disseminator of all knowledge, represents a need for control and maintaining comfortability at all costs. It also flies in the face of the established goal of helping all of our students to truly become independent learners.  It is believing that our students can not learn without us.

Thornburg’s quote speaks to a different fear many teachers are realizing when they look out at their students. These students are becoming increasingly disinterested in traditional schooling and prefer to engage with peers and content online. We often make the mistake of assuming that they aren’t learning when using these devices or engaging online. We then begin to believe that schools should be places where we must “slow down” the learning. They become places where we must disconnect from the outside world. Classrooms become places where students must master the most basic content and skills before ever being allowed to move into higher-level, critical, and creative thinking.  The birth of cyber charters, self-paced content delivery, and good old fashioned “surfin’ the web” are scaring the heck out of teachers because it means that they no longer control the flow (or accuracy) of information. It also proves that our students CAN learn (and are) without us.

We can either continue to be terrified by this, or we can rise to the challenge and realize the potential opportunity that embracing technology affords us. It doesn’t replace us, it asks us to envision a classroom much different than the one we experienced. It asks us to allow our students to take control of their learning.  It asks us to provide more opportunities for students to be independent learners. It liberates us from having to know it all or be able to do it all. It asks us to rethink our roles as educators. It demands we think more about questions and less about answers.   This kind of thinking is device agnostic and in many ways, doesn’t require a device at all. “Technology” is shaping the world around us in ways we can’t possibly yet comprehend and denying the impact on our students and classroom is akin to burying our heads in the sand.

Many of us have not accepted that much of what we value and believe about teaching has already been replaced by technology. Holding on to the belief that we lose value because we no longer disseminate all of the information is detrimental. Tightly gripping the mantra “Hey, I taught it therefore it’s their responsibility to know it” is downright damning. Once we accept that our roles must change,  what will remain are our steadfast beliefs about learning and the unquenchable desire to see our students become successful and independent learners. Every educator (and parent) has had that moment. It’s the one where the toddler is able to take a few steps on their own. It’s the one where the child is able to write a sentence by themselves. It’s the one where the teenager says “Hey, I got this. Let me do it by myself.”  In these moments,  we should beam with pride knowing that we have made ourselves progressively unnecessary. It is also in these moments we should recognize that by putting their needs above our own, we have truly made ourselves irreplaceable.