Perceptive readers of this blog (er, maybe using the plural there is presumptuous) will notice that the tagline has changed. Though I will still have a bent towards technology and gifted education here, because both of those are passions of mine, I decided the change was in order for two reasons.
First, from the start my posts have often ranged beyond those two topics into other areas of education, and I always felt awkward writing outside of my declared focus area. The new tag more accurately reflects what I write about and why.
Second, I have begun to realize that teachers can no longer afford to be just teachers.
Any teacher today who believes that learning ended after graduate school needs to take another look at the profession and the world. The pace of change is accelerating. The students who sit in our classes are needier and more diverse than ever. Information and knowledge are growing exponentially, far faster than anyone can possibly keep up.
As a teacher, I was asked daily to teach things to my students that I knew little or nothing about before I had to teach it. As an administrator, I’m asked to run programs about which I know far less than I need to. New ideas about how to teach appear in journals and blogs every day. Scientists have learned an enormous amount in just the last ten years about how the brain learns.
If I am not before anything else a learner, if I do not dedicate myself to always getting better at what I do and how I do it, I have already lost before I even start. I can’t afford to rest on “it was perfectly fine last year.”
Consider this: the primary thing we want students to get better at is not multiplication or grammar. It is learning. If we’re not learning experts ourselves, how can we possibly expect to teach someone else how to do it well?
We can’t leap from being a learner to being a teacher, though. That’s like leaping from “I want to build a house” to buying lumber and a hammer and starting to nail things together. We might get a workable structure out of it in the end, but it’s going to take far too long and cost far too much.
In the middle is of course a design process. For years, teachers have left the design to others. We use curricula designed by curriculum experts, textbooks designed by publishing companies, classrooms designed by architects, and procedures designed by administrators (or perhaps worse, committees).
I don’t believe this is practical any longer. All of those designers know their particular fields. But few of them really focus on students, and none of them know our particular students. Teachers have to have the understanding—and the guts—to take charge of the design process.
So much of what we do with kids is available for us to mold to meet their needs. I’m not suggesting we throw out everything and begin completely from scratch. Although that might be reasonable if you are starting a new school, for example, it isn’t practical for most of us. Instead, I look at everything I have been given as a work-in-progress rather than a finished product. The curriculum is a framework, the textbook is a resource, the classroom is an open space. Before any teaching can take place, the environment, the materials, the lessons, the content must be thoughtfully and deliberately designed with a particular group of students in mind.
Students stand outside our classrooms, waiting to enter a place where their unique qualities are celebrated and where the teacher has taken the time to create something that fits them, that works well, and that leads to better understanding. Only The Teacher, with her new alter egos, The Learner and The Designer, has the power to make that all happen.
You are so right in what you say. We can no longer be teachers. We need to learn alongside our students as our whole focus of teaching changes. Thank you for reminding me 🙂
Nice post. I posted an extract on my own here http://unpopular.typepad.com/transformation/2010/02/no-longer-just-a-teacher.html
I really like that idea about teachers engaging with the design process. I did a research project about ten years with the British Film Institute in which I started to explore the creative process. I found it really exciting, and it led into work in my school about unpacking the learning process. My argument was (and still is) that the learning process and the creative process (which you might want to call the design process) are essentially the same thing.
If teachers can unpack that process and understand how they can develop the learning opportunities they offer students such that those opportunities deliver on each of the stages of that process, then i think we produce more effective teachers and learners.
The BFI project page is here http://www.bfi.org.uk/education/research/teachlearn/digied/
My full paper is here http://www.bfi.org.uk/education/research/teachlearn/pdf/07_fitchett_alistair.pdf
I love your idea of teacher as designer. We must design everything from seating to lessons to behavior management around our unique group of students.
Far too many people who consider themselves teachers have a really limited conception of what that means. It’s a job and a paycheck, nothing more. To be really good at it you need to see it as so much more.
I appreciate the comments and the responses to my thoughts about teachers being designers, but I don’t want to lose sight of what I really feel comes first: being a learner. We can’t do either the design or the teaching well if we are not continuously on a path of learning and growing. Without that attitude, any design we come up with will, I believe, be superficial and hollow.
@Thomas, I do understand your perspective, but I think there are more caring, thoughtful teachers than that. I don’t think there are many people who could tolerate the realities of teaching today if it were truly just a job and a paycheck. I think people like that tend to weed themselves out fairly early in the process.
Teachers have to be designers. I so agree. With a diverse student body and classrooms, a one size fits all curriculum is not going to work. If teachers can’t design solutions to reach the various learners in the classroom there is a problem. Design requires creativity, innovation, and a solid grasp of the concepts being taught and the needs of the learner. It is a big job but one that we must be ready to tackle.
I like your new definition of our profession. Actually, I have avoided graduate school, because I find my personal learning has exploded past the offerings at a graduate level. By the time any new idea is explored to a publishable point, it is nearly redundant. Thank you for the clarity of thought in this blog.
@Todd, I understand what you’re trying to say, but I strongly disagree. While the personal learning is important and cutting edge, there is still tremendous value in time-tested, thoroughly explored understanding that has made its way through the publication process. I would hardly call it redundant. That’s not to say that every graduate program is equally relevant, of course.
There’s also the structure and rigor that’s built into those programs. In your life, you are free to choose to learn (or not learn) whatever you like. In a graduate program, you are both constrained and stretched. In most of the graduate courses I took, I found that I was exposed to ideas and books that I would never have chosen on my own, and I thought about them more deeply because of the requirement to respond and discuss the ideas.
Formal education is by no means dead. It may need some updating in some cases, and it needs to take other ways of learning into account, but I think there will always be a place for it in our professional development.
I am reading this blog as a part of an online course I am taking where they have used your blog to help us learn about Wiki’s in the classroom. I totally agree that teachers must be learners first and yes designers also. I have a Master’s and have taught for 20 years but I am still taking courses (mostly online now) as that is the most efficient use of my time. I value my graduate programs that I have taken and plan on continuing in that area. Thank you for zeroing in on how we need to change to facilitate our students’ learning in the future. I am learning how to navigate Wiki’s to use with my students in order to allow collaboration and research that they will be comfortable using as they are using technology daily.
I very much appreciate your addition of designer in the redefinition of teacher- today heard someone speak to idea that teachers need learning studios where they work collaboratively to co-create learning opportunities. Is the next logical step is to redefine students as learners and designers?