Everywhere I turn I see people telling teachers to “get out of the way.” Even this week’s TED prize winner, Sugata Mitra, is envisioning a future of learning that involves grannies more than teachers. So how do I justify myself as an educator at an expensive bricks-and-mortar independent school?
Because I believe that the progressive independent school experience is greater than the sum of its parts. We aim to graduate students who are more than skilled and knowledgeable. We think that our educational experience offers something else. How do we put our finger on that x factor? What do we offer that no digital experience can? I want to throw in a few ideas, stir the pot, and try to figure out how to do the math that proves that 2 + 2 = 5.
I have heard a few basic considerations when trying to identify what makes independent schools worth their tuition. From the institutional perspective, things like:
- safety (physical & emotional),
- socialization (with peer groups & with experienced, caring adults), and
- emphasis on nurturing moral development (sometimes spiritual development)
seem to top the list. All of these things are important, and for many people they justify the cost of tuition. But all of that is about the institution, not the teacher. I need more to know why I am burning the midnight oil for my job.
Sugata Mitra’s TED talk will leave many people thinking that teachers will soon be obsolete. But what is going to linger with me the longest was the way he dismissed one of his biggest points as a side note, saying that we need “a curriculum of Big Questions.” I love this idea, and I see the opportunity here to reach into the places where MOOC’s and disruptive technology cannot.
I think that the future of machine learning will have a tremendous effect on human learning. The thought of having a digital personal trainer to help you achieve proficiency in all sorts of skills is a riveting idea. But if this opportunity ends up monopolizing learning — that everyone becomes “educated” by following the path that has been algorithmically personalized just for them — I see a dystopian future. Because who defines “proficiency?” What really is the destination of the perfectly adjusted paths on which our students will progress? Teachers bemoan the barely-human bureaucratic bodies that set standards for learning and proficiency. So what happens if machines are allowed to take the reins of our education and suggest the “best path forward” for all of our students? I have visions of:
Instead I believe that bricks-and-mortar teachers have a unique opportunity to help students make mistakes. To a computer, a mistake is a mistake; the next digital lesson or problem set will account for that mistake and help guide the student back on track. But to a teacher, a mistake is an opportunity. The brilliance of the elementary school art teacher is to see every slip of the brush stroke not as a mistake but as a chance for something new. When teachers at every level and every discipline approach teaching in this way, we will have something that an online education can never touch.
The world does not just need students who are proficient in a handful of subjects. The world also needs us to develop students who are capable of empathizing with others. Senator Obama started talking about the need to address the “empathy deficit” in 2006:
When all teachers engage this call, bricks-and-mortar schools have a chance to claim one more piece of the puzzle that e-learning will never reach. And why can e-learning never reach this critical piece of education? Haven’t MOOC’s moved into courses in the humanities and arts?* Doesn’t that mean that some day the world of digital education will find a way to teach empathy too?
No, they won’t. And that’s because…
Empathy cannot be taught. But it can be learned.
Empathy is not imposed. It is uncovered.
Empathy is impossible without diversity. Diversity and inclusiveness pave the way to empathy.
Those are the words of my junior year Latin students from a conversation about empathy in November. And I believe that only a personal — and in-person — education can uncover that very kind of empathy which the world so badly needs.
Being in the same place at the same time is a powerful thing. Even the tech world understands this: the coworking movement, which I find intriguing, has been growing for a number of years and this past week Yahoo! made a policy change to ban telecommuting from home. The idea is not just that working together increases productivity and decreases loneliness; it’s that working together provides room for serendipity. The connections we make — connections between people, projects, ideas, passions — is what sparks inspiration and innovation. I love the idea that the role of the teacher is to create this space for their students.
I think this is part of why I am so enthusiastically a disciple of the pedagogical vision of Prima Lingua: it molds students into language learners by structuring opportunities for serendipity. Through activities that can only happen in person, students discover connections for themselves. The vision of Prima Lingua is one of joyful linguistic exploration. The result is that students do not just acquire proficiency in one particular language but become language learners who are inspired and capable of learning any language. Teach a student to fish, and he will speak one language. Teach a student how languages work, and his ability to communicate in his native language and all others will blossom. (That’s how the saying goes, right?)
Structuring opportunities for serendipity in the context of middle schoolers learning languages looks different from high schoolers in a S.T.E.A.M. program. But one thing remains the same: they are joyful pursuits that cannot be replicated online.
But Quakers knew this all along
I like the three things I’ve been able to identify so far: mistakes, empathy, and serendipity. I look forward to hearing from friends and colleagues what makes their list.
But I can’t write this and make the claim that any of it is original thought. So much of this — so much of what I understand to be the movement of progressive education — is just good old Quaker pedagogy. How? The idea of uncovering empathy should be ringing true with the Quaker belief of continuing revelation. Read more about the values of coworking and look for the Quaker testimony of Community to jump off of the page.
I am ready for Quaker educators to make an assertive move to reclaim what has been ours all along: that inquiry-driven education is innovative, yes, but was ours first; that the teacher being the lead learner and not the sage on the stage has been ours longer than it has been a catchphrase.
We still have a lot of work to do in order to identify exactly what makes our educational experience worthwhile. But once we do, I hope we can let everyone know that its nothing new at all.