Tuesday, March 1, 2011

What is a Teacher For?

I don't remember a single fact that any teacher taught me. Not one. And I've had a lot of teachers over the years.

But I remember those teachers--many of them--and I remember quite a lot that they taught me. I remember ideas. I remember distinct ways of thinking about the world and unique ways of perceiving the world. Sometimes I learned how a person in a particular field saw the world--a scientiest, a poet (not a mathemetician--I only got a glimpse of that later in life, such was the poverty of my math education). But sometimes I also learned a unique individual saw the world; what I learned from some teachers was a different way of being in the world.

I think it's important, in the midst of the current battles over education reform and union-bashing, to remember what a teacher is needed for. As technology becomes more and more "disruptive" of old educational structures, and as school budgets get slashed right and left to protect the tax cuts of the wealthy (oops, did I say that out loud?), people are advocating all kinds of horrific scenarios: classrooms of 60 or more students; all students learning online all of the time--anything to save a buck or shame a teacher.

But what is a teacher for? If we don't stop and think about what makes the role of the teacher essential, aren't we liable to "reform" ourselves right out of what we need? And aren't we liable to miss opportunities to reform things correctly and helpfully?

I think it's becoming pretty widely accepted now, eleven years into the 21st century, that having a live teacher is not a necessary condition for taking in factual information. Facts can be pulled out of the air by anyone with broadband access, and the reform we need here is better and faster broadband access. The world of facts--the world of pure information--is at our fingertips.

You may or may not need a live teacher to learn skills. That will depend on a lot of things: age, for one; and the kind of skill being learned. My 10-year old son learned how to create stop-motion animated films 100% via YouTube. But I don't think he could have learned how to read that way...though I'm sure someone out there is working hard on a platform that will try to do just that, very soon.

To me, a teacher is a guide--someone who has walked the trail I'm on and knows the way. They can't walk it for me, but they can help me get through the obstacles. They can point out the trail blazings when I lose my way. They can point out when a new skill or a new piece of information (how to read a map; how to find water) might help me move forward. They might challenge me and encourage me to appreciate what I see and hear in new ways. And by their manner in the woods--by the way they live their expertise--they model for me a successful way of being in the world.

Our parents are teachers, but they don't take us all the way through the woods. Coaches, scout masters, rabbis--we have many teachers along the way, each with a different area of expertise, each able to guide us through a different part of the woods. But our schoolteachers are vital here, as well--especially as we move out of that "learning to read" phase and into "reading to learn." Teenagers need as many reliable guides as they can get, to help them navigate their way into adulthood.

And if this is so--If my definition makes sense--then a school reform that places 60 or 70 kids in a classroom so that one teacher can lecture them is a bad school reform. Because it defines the teacher by her least important role, today--that of an information provider--and makes impossible her most important role--that of a guide and mentor. You do not learn how to be a thoughtful and curious adult by watching someone talk at you in a lecture hall. Maybe when you're in college or grad school you can, somewhat. But not when you're 15. You're needier when you're 15. You need someone close--someone who talks to you, and listens to you, and knows you.

Which is the baby, and which is the bathwater? Shouldn't we make sure we know, before we start trashing the whole house?

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