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thoughts on the changing role of the teacher

There’s a different way to teach, one that involves mentoring and guiding and not lecturing, a way that’s both harder and easier than the ways it’s often done now.

This is a concept that has been recurring in my research over the past few years, getting a little clearer each time but still not quite in focus for me. The role of the teacher, in some places, is changing. A whole set of factors are contributing to the change, including ready access to experts and source material through the great communications medium of the Internet; open content; electronic, searchable, taggable resources that make it easier to draw (and keep track of) connections between things; and a growing recognition of the fact that not only is it often better for students to participate in constructing their own understanding, it’s actually possible to facilitate that process on a classroom-sized scale.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by Bossanostra

I keep returning to this theme while working on NMC projects, and I have been realizing that the projects that include some reflection on it are the ones that resonate with me the most. Last year, we did a project with Apple to investigate how challenge-based learning would work in high schools (we wrote a paper about what we found out). The approach places the responsibility for developing and carrying out a learning plan into the hands of the students, with the teacher there to guide and assist but not to simply deliver instruction. It’s so much closer to what I always imagined teaching would be, or could be, and I find it very exciting.

The 2010 Horizon Report returns to this theme, too, both in the topics (open content and electronic books in particular) and in the trends and challenges noted by the Advisory Board. Classrooms are changing. Students are changing. The role of the academy is changing. It’s very easy to say that different equals bad, and that the anecdotal inability of today’s students to sit still and receive instruction is a symptom of the moral decay of our great society, but I don’t believe that’s true. I think, instead, that we stand at the edge of an opportunity to transform education into something that truly addresses the interests and the strengths of each student, rather than measuring each against an abstract ideal. I don’t know what it looks like. I know it’s more challenging to work individually with 25 or 30 different kids, or 60 or 120 different undergrads, to help them figure out interesting ways to learn what you want them to know instead of presenting material to them as a group and expecting them to master it. But I also feel so strongly that it’s the right way to go, because learning should be more than something that’s fed to you in school. It’s part of what makes us human and it goes on all throughout our lives, and it’s not right that so many students just can’t wait for it to be over so they can get on with other things.

I think we’re poised on the brink of figuring this out — how to really do it well, I mean. I think technology has a lot to do with it, not for its own sake but because of what it enables students to do. We’re still working out how to provide access, manage workflow, protect students’ privacy while opening opportunities to reach out to peers and experts around the world; we don’t yet understand how to assign, supervise, and evaluate the unusual kinds of work that contribute to individual learning; and there are many other obstacles, or puzzles, to get around or solve. Still, I think we’re on the way there, and it’s inspiring and exciting.

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