Liberating Learners From Their Dependency on Being Taught

This weekend I attended the Teacher’ Overseas Recruiting Fair at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. I find this to be among the superior teacher placement services in operation because, unlike many of the bigger, more commercial recruitment events, TORF is deeply connected with the business of learning, particularly with the education of new teachers and their placement in international school settings. I had the good fortune to be on a panel prior to the fair, speaking to a class of teacher candidates who are hoping to work internationally. There were many pertinent questions about what is important in a good teacher, what schools are looking for, and what students need today. The student teachers were understandably nervous, excited and apprehensive about the unknown of the weekend ahead. Without wishing to be overdramatic, I was struck by the conviction, bravery, fears, and dreams of these young educators. What kind of future are they trained to prepare young people for, I wondered? Have we unwittingly prepared them, in teaching them to “teach”, to enter a profession that, as Will Richardson, has suggested, may not even have people we call teachers in it a couple of decades from now?

Whatever about the challenges that face schools today, the hurdles that newly-trained teachers face as they enter a rapidly-changing world seem even more significant. How is one expected to rise above the buzzword-filled language of edubabble to focus on the truly meaningful? As technology transforms all aspects of our lives and society, how will it impact our schools and what are the implications for teacher training programs? In their book, Invent to Learn, Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager make a compelling case for the Maker Movement, tinkering and engineering as powerful learning approaches, just one example of the newly emerging landscape of our schools. What I find most engaging in their account is less the case they make for these specific approaches, but more on the potential to improve the learning process itself simply by engaging students in meaningful learning activities, by “seeking to liberate them from their dependency on being taught.”

The case for more active or progressive learning environments is sometimes dismissed as new, faddish, or untested, but the notion of providing students with greater opportunity to learn in less traditional, instruction-centred settings was articulated by John Dewey more than a century ago, and by Piaget more than fifty years ago. Today we have at our disposal the technologies to truly engage students in ways that were not possible before. Technology in schools is not new and is certainly not a panacea for improved learning, but still we seem slow to learn some of the important lessons of a compelling technological opportunity that would seem self-evident in the context of the world we are preparing our students for. When I think of students, I am also thinking of those learning to “teach”. As Seymour Papert observed in 1972, “the phrase, ‘technology and education’ usually means inventing new gadgets to teach the same old stuff in a thinly disguised version of the same old way.” And there is a grave danger, I would suggest, that this is exactly how we will train our new teachers.

The notion that knowledge does not result from the receipt of information transmitted by someone else without the learner undergoing an internal process of sense-making is something that I believe every teacher I work with subscribes to. The ways in which we design and activate a learning environment and activities that place this belief at the core of our daily work is a challenge for all educators, regardless of talent, intent or training. “Letting go of the learning” can be a frightening experience for all teachers. This is an equally daunting prospect for experienced teachers and those new to the profession alike. The challenge remains, as David Price has observed, that “the pace of societal change is outstripping the slow evolution of learning, so we need some new ideas in formal learning if we’re to avoid irrelevance.” Teaching is essentially about relationships, about making connections with students. There is an irony in the reality that, now that technology is driving much of the teacher recruitment business – and an increasing amount of the teacher training business – online, the face-to-face interactions, the culture of collaboration and learning that is epitomised by events like TORF will be needed more than ever.

And so I asked myself, as I looked out at the excited, anxious, undergraduate faces … how can we effectively train young people to enter the profession of teaching if our definition of teaching has changed, if we believe we should liberate students from being taught? As I take a break during a busy day of interviewing teacher candidates, I am very encouraged. We have spent the day in the company of highly-intelligent students who have been well-prepared, who understand that learning is constructivist, student-centred, activity-rich and inquiry-based. These are young teachers who will grow enormously with the like-minded, experienced teachers many of us have the good fortune to work with. I remain puzzled, however, and it continues to strike me as especially strange, that so many schools continue to consider teacher inexperience as a “weakness” when making hiring decisions. Nothing should give us greater hope for the future of learning in our schools than the blank canvas of newly-trained teachers, open to continued learning, native to the uses of technology, with few preconceived notions of the ways that things must be done. Coupled with the growth mindset of more experienced, equally open-minded colleagues, these are people who understand that teaching is not something we do to students and that being a teacher is a new experience that requires re-invention every day.