Teachers: Endangered or Essential?

Are teachers even going to be relevant to education in rest of the 21st century? As I introduce my 5th grade students to blogging and moodle, I sometimes wonder whether, in my desire to engage students using the power of technology, I might not be helping to guide the Trojan Horse into the teaching camp, ultimately leading to the end of our profession…
In this post. I’d like to share some worried, yet essentially optimistic, wonderings.

Looking ahead to the future, it seems self evident that education will inevitably look very different in the digital ages to come. In a world where computers are able to use data analytics based on our every click, our personal computers will come to know our interests and be able to connect us with related resources much more effectively than any teacher. Materials created by the “best” teachers will be available to all who can access technology. Kahn Academy already claims to be filling this niche. Their clear explanations can be played over again and again with no sense of embarrassment for the student or time limits on the part of the teacher.

Will the classroom be a thing of the past or will teachers still have a unique role in such a context? I would like to argue the latter! A good teacher does not just repeat and repeat the same lesson. She questions a confused student to analyze and respond to the source of misunderstanding and then reteaches it the way the child needs to learn. She subtly reads a multiplicity of non-verbal and verbal cues ranging from doubt to incomprehension, wavering focus, or incipient boredom. In response she continually orchestrates a response for the class: varying the pace, energy and level of activity to meet their needs. A good teacher explicitly scaffolds a shared context for new learning by telling stories or eliciting student experiences to connect the lesson to prior knowledge. She brings with her an in depth knowledge of this particular community of learners and uses this to facilitate a collective exploration in which students debate, discuss and spark ideas off one another.

Teachers inspire their students through example and through sharing a contagious enthusiasm for their subject. This can open whole new and unexpected areas of interest that might never be ignited by merely passionless Stumbling Upon a web page. Complex new ideas are often off-putting and a teacher who can pose and answer questions to help a student find meaning is a personal guide as the student becomes familiar with new territory. A teacher ensures structure and direction towards collective growth in the best long-term educational interests of her students. Will the students of the future be learning independently, yet meander in endless fractals, elaborating a small area of interest at the expense of wider knowledge?

Teachers engineer discussions bringing students into conflict with their preconceptions, challenging their established beliefs, and raising ethical dilemmas. They introduce students to the ambiguity of truth. They even set up group projects and activities to challenge existing social dynamics. Will a world of education based on yet more of what we “Like” already, not comfortably ensconce us all within our prejudices so we never need to venture out to associate with, or understand, others who are not “suitable” or “nice”?

A student encounters many teachers throughout their school life. Each different personality brings positive, and negative, lessons in how to relate, what it means to be human, how to work productively in society and an insight into the varied perspectives there are on the human experience. So many of us remember those teachers who took a personal interest in us. The trust that they engendered enabled them to become influential in shaping our lives. Without this essentially human interaction with our teachers will we grow up like Vulcans, rational yet unable to feel?

In the future, will access to insightful teaching become the prerogative of the privileged few or will it continue to democratize the access to knowledge and subvert the standardization of truth?

What do you think?

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8 Responses to Teachers: Endangered or Essential?

  1. Amanda Arman says:

    I love your thoughts here! Great teachers inspire students to work to their fullest potential. The paradigm of teaching is shifting from ‘ learn to do’ to ‘do to learn.’ Good instruction, including presenting students with high level and relevant tasks, prompts learners to synthesize and evaluate their learning.

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  2. Penny Kynigou says:

    Thank you, Elissa Raffa, for your helpful comments while I was writing this post.

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  3. Elissa Raffa says:

    This is a wonderful description of what teachers do, and why it matters! I have been working in online education since 1997 and I find that many people, when talking about the impact of technology on learning, confuse content push with teaching. American educator James Comer is widely quoted as saying, “There is no significant learning without a significant relationship.” When you introduce your students to blogging you are helping them to build relationships and create meaning; you are not bathing them in a stream of decontextualized content.

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  4. Mark Kynigos says:

    This discussion seems to perfectly frame the meaning of the popular meme phrase “you scientists were so preoccupied with whether you could, that you failed to consider whether you should.” A bit of context here: Modes of communication, and therefore teaching, are changing radically and quickly. Just some months ago, scientists managed to transfer brain data from one end of our world to the other, over an IP connection. In layman’s terms, someone in Paris, France was able to “think” to someone in India through an internet connection! Imagine the possibilities of that! What if you could somehow isolate Stephen Hawking’s understanding on quantum physics, and “download” it into your brain? Or a contemporary artist’s interpretation of space? Or a literary genius’s life philosophy? All the “best” knowledge, from one brain to another at the speed of your internet connection. A development like this might easily usher in an age where teaching is rendered obsolete. Another prime development that further endangers the profession is, of course, AI, intelligent computers. In a matter of decades it will probably be possible for a computer to analyse a potential student’s strengths, weaknesses, facial expressions, bio-metric data, and generally create a real time profile of his/her’s reaction to a subject he/she is exposed to that is much more effective than a teacher’s intrinsic sense of whether a student is actually “getting it”. But is teaching only about passing on academic knowledge?
    Students view teachers as their role models, are trained in human interaction by being in a classroom. They acquire social skills that are necessary in all facets of life, from getting a job to creating social circles to ensuring the creation of their own family, thereby continuing the species. Imagine young adults who have not lived through the trials of high school, who cannot, under any circumstances, interact with their peers in real life. Is this the kind of society we wish for our descendants? Do we want to condone this kind of dehumanization? These and more are all valid reasons why teachers should not become obsolete, under any circumstances.

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  5. David Preen says:

    Discussions get deeper every time! Marcos takes us out to wide horizons.
    Now I have a career-long habituation to secondary patterns. Apart from maybe five half hours at the start of the day as form teacher and in overtly pastoral role, there are those rotating hours of teaching where , say, five different classes turn up in a jumble of hours for specialist study, in my case of mother tongue English, maybe drama, and maybe sixth form advanced study(.Mind you this pattern is still rather closer to your pattern, Penny, than is that , say, of the R.E teacher, meeting maybe twenty five classes once a week). All this even for the English,or the maths teacher, entails probably a less intimate role than for you and other Primary-based commentators, not only because of the time factor, but of course because year on year the classes are maturing, and are in some ways less adult dependent. Yet interaction for me remained the key: no grisly “delivery of the curriculum” on some mechanistic lorry. With older classes especially(??!!) the teaching must enter into their formed society; must draw upon it; must rely upon it for a tradition of mutual generosity and support.Teacher is often catalyst, and like catalyst at some points has a less intrusive function. because the reactions are already fizzing away creatively. Community and communication are cousins.
    The wondrous complexity of teaching that makes it art as well as science, will always require human beings aware, through all their senses, through all the subtleties of language, and of body language.The diagnostic element in teaching that you mention,Penny, does not diminish in secondary work; it may even grow more complex.

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  6. kboser says:

    Reblogged this on Individual Differences in Learning and commented:
    What a great discussion of the role of the teacher in today’s digital age by my friend and colleague Penny, who teaches in Athens. I was reminded of recent articles in NPR about computer algorithms for judging student progress. They simply cannot supplant the teachers insight. More on this soon!

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  7. eburdick24 says:

    Something I worry about frequently as a teacher just starting out in the field! However, I am comforted by teachers before me that have left an impression on me that a computer simply cannot do. We teach our children more than arithmetic, grammar, and basic facts – we teach them to be human. We emphasize respect, responsibility, compassion…and so much more that a computer cannot draw out of a human. I am also comforted by Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence theory. Every child will not respond to computers (I suppose an argument can be made that every child will not respond to teachers either!), but a teacher has the ability to adapt lesson plans to each child’s needs and interests. Computers? Computers can make a calculated guess, but cannot factor in the many character traits one individual holds. I think there is a shift in the mind of schools switching to more computer based learning (tests are now given on computers, children type essays, poems, and other works of writing, YouTube and Ted Talks are shared in class, Skype is introduced, Khan Academy is an AWESOME resource), but they can never replace the essential teacher. I must keep hope, i love teaching too much to not 😀 Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

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