On Building Education from Scratch
Starting Again is the Best Way Forward
Education will be Transformed (like it or not)
Some popular views: the primary school system stifles creativity; high school is a minefield of bullying and conformity; university is a treadmill for earning increasingly irrelevant acronyms. The education system done be broke.
Teachers of all stripes (professors, tutors, instructors, mentors, facilitators: choose your preferred title) are not, as you’d expect, favorably disposed toward such views. Most teachers I know are committed seriously to their craft and to the careful, caring mentorship of young people. Sure, I know some slackers too: folks who chose teaching for career security, or the perception of ease, or simply by the meanderings of laziness. If you’re a slacker, teaching seems like a great career choice: low accountability, high flexibility, decent pay (not great pay, but still better than almost any form of manual labor). I also know a few teachers who chose the profession simply because they did not know what else to do. Some of them came to embrace teaching as a profound and purposeful devotion (which it can and should be). Others just drift along.
But most of the folks I work with every day are teaching with purpose. They recognize the mentorship role that they play in the lives of learners, and they are constantly seeking ways to improve the quality of engagement that they coax from their classes. But here’s the rub: teachers are not taught how to teach. Instead, they inherit a set of old and discredited practices: the practices of lecturing, of being an expert, and of being an authority. Most teachers model for one another that standing at the front, monopolizing the time, and adopting the postures of experthood (a.k.a the tragedy of the empty suit) are best practices. And these practices are ingrained into the culture of teaching by two hundred years of what might be called industrial education — in which content delivery is the primary role of the teacher.
A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a university professor who told me that he wanted to remove the tables from his classroom and encourage his students to sit in a circle. He had been thinking about the teaching methods of Socrates, and the many troubles with tables (among them the recent tendency for learners to use tables as a shield for texting), and he wanted to try something new. But he didn’t. He was worried about the backlash from his peers, the ways in which they might judge him as flaky or unprofessional or just kooky. He thought his reputation might suffer, that the learners might be less serious about his class, that the administration might frown upon the radical statement made by a group of people seated as in real life.
This is the core of the problem: almost universally, the cultures of teaching face backward rather than forward. Teaching institutions focus on the past, on the way things were done (and, accordingly, how things might be done today). Tradition, history, and established norms are greatly valued within the teaching professions. This makes sense: after all, the reason I am the teacher in my Counseling class (or my Creativity class, or my Writing class) has everything to do with the implied endorsement that I know more about counseling than anyone else in the room. The truth of this endorsement is essentially irrelevant; what’s important is the perception that my knowledge counts.
But it doesn’t. Not really. My ability to teach has little to do with my knowledge of a given subject. And it doesn’t matter whether the subject is Mythology — which seems, on the surface, to be a subject entirely focused on the past but which, in actuality is focused equally on the future — or Physics or Philosophy or Podiatry. Teaching skill is primarily about presence, not knowledge. This is especially true in the contemporary educational landscape, in which learners have immediate access — via the web — to repositories of knowledge that are far greater than anything I could hope to provide. Everything I might say in the classroom, about any subject in which I am perceived to be the expert, can be found more easily and quickly on the web. And the context of that knowledge — on websites, in videos, linked to countless other snippets of information — is a more robust delivery system than me speaking at the front of the room. In a knowledge contest between me and a learner with a browser — even a learner with no knowledge of a given subject of my expertise — the learner would win every time. Every single time: quicker, more complete, easier.
What then, in this new environment of traditional teaching irrelevance, is my job? Simple: it’s to help learners build a context for their knowledge, to assist them in leveraging information into wisdom — whatever that means for a given field. My job is to point out signposts, to facilitate navigating the sea of information, to promote synthesis and integration, to watch and help learners build their own skill, to cajole from learners a sense of what their educational journey means, to promote communication and people skills — in short, to encourage learners to take ownership of their learning experiences.
Teachers who teach well are more important now than they have ever been. The world is more complicated, the ratio between signal and noise is more nuanced, our environments are ruled by uncertainty and black swan events. And the pressure is going up: climate change, political and economic instabilities, transformations of technology. In these types of environments, learners need to know how to learn. They don’t need more content delivered in the same ways. They need greater adaptability, a stronger instinct to question, more creative independence, and the ability to bootstrap ways of being in the world without help from experts and authorities. At the moment, learners are getting precious little of this from their experiences in the classroom.
But the scenario is not bleak (it never is). I hear from, and work with, many teaches who are building and facilitating new structures for their classrooms and their learners. Here are some of the principles and practices that stake out this new territory.
If my job as a teacher is primarily about being present for learners, helping them find ways through the landscape, I have to be in the landscape myself. This means being online in fundamental ways: more than email, more than one or two accounts spread across the semantic web. I must develop and maintain a place for me to stand amid the turbulence. For me, this foundation is my main website. Other domains and services point back there. It’s where I post events and essays. where I facilitate online interactions, where I post information about my books, and so on. My main website is my office, more or less, in the online universe.
Recently, one of the institutions I work for upgraded a widely-used software suite that was released in 2002. In terms of the logarithmic scale of contemporary cultural change, 2002 is as ancient as cuneiform. And yet, this long-overdue upgrade was met with dismay and discomfort among many. I understand this: the teaching cultures prize old over new, established over novel, fossilized over fresh. And I sympathize: why so much change, so much reinvention, and so often? But this is our universe now. Novelty and change are its essence.
My view is that teachers should embrace new tools before their students do. In the new and social media environment, this means being constantly on the lookout for developments that can be leveraged into the educational experiences — particularly technological developments, which have already changed all the rules and will continue to strip down traditional educational structures until nothing recognizable is left of them. I’m not kidding: school as we know it today will not exist in fifty years. People have been talking for a long time about changing education, and not much has changed. But now the culture itself is moving beyond traditional educational structures, and as that happens, education will adapt. Adapt or die, as the old adage goes. But education cannot die; it is the most fundamental human impulse. Accordingly, it will adapt.
Every once in a while, a new tool or practice comes along and offers to change the rules. Sometimes the rule changes are slight and fleeting — such as the introduction of PowerPoint, which spawned a mini-revolution in education and eventually led to a flocking impulse toward reductionist and ineffective teaching. Sometimes the game-changer promotes a massive shift in practice and possibility (the introduction of social media, for example). It’s tough to know what the game-changers are going to be. Searching for game-changers is a predictive game, one that’s hinged upon uncertainty amid an ever-shifting tableau. This means that forward-minded teachers will choose several tools (as smart market traders made hedged bets), use them all, and find ways to integrate them into their work with learners.
I spent roughly ten years learning how to write, about the same amount of time learning about creativity, and much more time than either of those on learning how to communicate with and help people. All of us commit to what we love. The same is true of teaching, If we understand and embrace its profound purpose, we’ll find ways to learn about it more deeply. In the contemporary educational landscape, this means finding and using new tools and practices that will take years to learn and integrate fully. Those tools might include creative approaches, technological strategies, interpersonal skill development — whatever improves us, and therefore improves the lives of our learners. For me, the professional development imperatives of the teaching craft have led me to explore content management systems, version control software, juggling, Aikido, and many other practices. I try to recognize that the best thing I can do as a teacher is to be a decent learner.
The reinvention of teaching is already well underway, gaining momentum, preparing for the educational transformations that learners and teachers have been seeking for so long. Like all revolutions, it will be both slow and fast, welcomed and resisted. It will take us, guide us, teach us. And, when it’s done, we will hardly recognize ourselves.