Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What Teachers do, the role of teachers in the 21st century.

I recently happened upon this meme on Facebook. The forlorn (yet handsome) man laments that everything he learned in college can be found on wikipedia. I glanced at it smiled and moved on only to double back and think. How is it different from previous generations? While it is true that wikipedia provides an ease of access and somewhat vetted information, it is not inherently different from the world in the last century. We had (and still have) books and journals in libraries some even available (gasp) for purchase. This made reflect on an ongoing question that we are grappling with as we rewrite our book on the Universal Learning Model (first edition here). The question is the role of the teacher in the learning process. We know that we are not the first nor the last to tackle this problem. Our angle though is cognitive, that is why do individuals  need a teacher for learning when the learning process itself is a set of brain activities? Why don't we just go to the library and read (or go online)? It is easy to understand the role of the teacher in the primary years. Early on they provide the skills that will allow you to access information effectively. The question is why continue into high-school and beyond?

Some might argue that schools are part of the power structure and seek to replicate themselves. While not without any merit, the universality of education in complex societies proves otherwise.

Here are my efforts to place the role of the teacher:
- Motivator- Teachers motivate their students to learn. We need motivation because learning is effortful. We seem to be much more motivated through human feedback than through any other means. For example Krashen described what he calls the affective filter.
- Model- Since thinking and learning is a temporal task largely absent from reading activities teachers can model the "how to" or procedural knowledge top their students in a way that is easier to follow than that of a text.
- Connector and organizer  This is true today more than any other time. We have access to a lot of information but we need models of how and when toi make connections. Even more so to have an organized view of  domain it's development boundaries and connections. These are hard to discern without a guiding hand.
-Mediator- Teachers adjust their action to the reader to make sure they are "getting it" and provides incremental steps to make sure a student experiences success.


I remember my first semester of undergraduate studies in History. My brain was on fire, fully engaged for the first time in my life. I read a lot but without classroom interaction, feedback, discussion, and lecture (yes lecture) it would not be as engaging and I would have probably stopped. So I would argue that the one piece of teaching that cannot be effectively emulated by machines or strict curricula is the affective/ motivational aspect of teaching- that is why machine based instruction (google, wikipedia, online video lessons or wolfram alpha) will never work. We need human interaction to motivate us to put this effort forward.

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