Today I heard something on the radio and I had a very brief conversation in the teachers’ room that got me thinking. They were quite different things, but somehow I think they’re related. The first thing I heard was a reporter who’s in South Africa for the World Cup. He was talking about the country, places to go, and opening of the event, and then he mentioned GPS’s. He stated that GPS’s were making people lazy. He argued that before such gadgets had become popular, people actually tried harder to understand the way cities were organised so they wouldn’t get lost. We had to try to remember the names or numbers of streets and try to remember where we were going through if we didn’t want to get lost. He mentioned that a co-worker was going to meet him for lunch, but when asked about where he was, he was at a loss for an answer. I heard this on the radio on my way home to have lunch.
In the afternoon, I had the chance to briefly have a chat with a couple of teachers about distance learning. Both had had experience working with it, and one of them wasn’t exactly thrilled about it. The other one was a wee bit more in favour of it. We then moved on to the reasons why distance learning is still slow to a crawl in Brazil despite some efforts made by certain universities to provide students with more options of online courses. Needless to say, lots of reasons were mentioned: lack of infrastructure in Brazil to allow for people to have stable Internet connection, lack of interest on the part of distance learners, and the fact that neither the teacher nor the learner really believed in learning something online. These are all valid reasons, but I think they do not address the most important thing.
The weird connection I made between the two stories is… the person behind the tool. When given a GPS, you can think of it as a device that will make your life easier and allow you to focus on other more important things – such as taking advantage of not having to remember petty details of the streets you’re walking about and really enjoy the sights knowing you won’t have to bother about finding your way back. An online students or a teacher can also look at it as a much more comfortable (to say the least) way to learn and teach something instead of another chance for lazy students to easily get a diploma. The problem, though, is that none have been prepared for the tools they’ve been given.
When I read about rethinking schools and education, empowering the learner, making learners responsible for their learning, I find it really great. Yet, when I talk to more people about it, I realise there’s something serious that must be taken care of: we can’t rethink schools and promote a revolution in education unless we prepare teachers for such an endeavour. We’re expecting teachers to teach with tools they haven’t been taught with when they were students, and we expect them to do that without proper training. What will result of that? Well, we end up with teachers simply trying to transfer what they have been doing for decades to a new environment that does not work well with such practices. So, how can we deal with that? This is what I’ve been thinking…
What should the current teacher know?
1. Teachers are no longer responsible for providing information – It’s been a while now that information is available at a fingertip. And even though some still argue that there are many who still can’t afford to have a computer connected to the Internet at home, I’ve been reading more and more about the money the government has been investing in buying computers and bringing the Internet to schools. This means students actually have got access to a lot more than teachers can possibly transmit (I’m purposefully refraining from using “teach” here) to learners.
2. Teachers do have to be knowledgeable – The fact that students can access all sort of information in the world also means they’ve got access to all sorts of wrong information that is published online as well. If on the one hand the teacher is no longer responsible for providing the information, he or she is now responsible for helping learners to filter what’s good from what isn’t. If in the past teachers had to be knowledgeable because they were the information bearers, now they have to be knowledgeable because they are to teach students to separate the wheat from the chaff.
3. Teachers should set standards – Students need to understand that it’s not all that they do that’s acceptable. Even though we’ve got to make sure we’re catering for an diverse audience, there are some standards to be met. This doesn’t equate with standardised testing. This means that teachers should set the goals and help students achieve such goals. Simply letting students to their own devices is not the same thing as making the learner responsible for their learning.
4. Teachers have to be resourceful – The fact that there’s a wide array of tools out there doesn’t mean that teachers should know how to use each and every one of them. Being resourceful means being willing to find the right tools for what’s going on in the classroom. Technology, no matter how much it advances, has to be seen as yet another tool, and not as a magic solution. If students don’t want to give a go to blogging, that’s OK. Teachers are supposed to find solutions, not to be whining about the fact that their students don’t like what they think to be the best tool in the world.
5. The roles of the student and of the teachers must be clear – Regardless of what or where you teach, the most important thing in a classroom is, and will always be, the relationship between the teacher and the learner. It doesn’t matter whether or not you’ve got the best or the worst kind of support in the classroom if you simply forget about the most important part of education – the teacher and the learner.
In the age of information it makes more and more sense that we pay heed to and think hard about the importance of empowering our learners. They’re the ultimate result of education. Are you ready to deliver a masterpiece to society, or are you more inclined to deliver a robot that’s just capable of reproducing what others say? Are you going to help other educators change, or are you going to take the back seat and sulk because people don’t feel the need to change what they’ve been doing for ages? Learning, these days, has got the chance to be more learner-centred than ever. Are you ready for that?