What is a good teacher today? [part 2]

This is the second part of a 2-part post – read Part 1 here.

What does it mean to be a teacher today? What does it mean to teach?

In an age where learners have access to the same rich information sources as teachers, where the scope for self-directed learning is hugely greater due to the technologies we now have available to us, how does the relationship between teacher and learner change, and what are the implications for what it means ‘to teach’?

The very nature of what it means to be literate, to be educated, is shifting across the world. The deeply social nature of the technologies and digital platforms available today, an ever-expanding set of tools that continue to offer new possibilities for self-expression and for collective expression almost on a daily basis, already puts in question many of the long-held assumptions that have been part and parcel of schooling for so long. The nature of what it means to know, the role of the teacher in the learning process, the relationship between teacher and learner, the diminishing importance of prescribed content within curricula, the inadequacy (some might argue, irrelevance) of the school building as a self-contained place within which learning is supposed to happen, the questionable efficacy of arbitrary ’standards’ to be tested over and over again during a young person’s school career – all of these and many other issues mean that teachers today are faced with a stark choice between an outmoded reality that, if sustained, will render school increasingly irrelevant to most children most of the time, and the new reality, one that recognises the major shifts brought about by the developments in Web technology in recent years.

Of course, in the face of such profound shifts, the attitudes of teachers themselves to change is a critical factor. Teaching is, it has to be said, a conservative profession, and the innate conservatism of most teachers might itself be seen as a significant barrier to change. Teachers will shout, of course, that it is the lack of vision of education leaders and of politicians and policy makers, along with the consequent funding gap, that is to blame, since this is what leads to the current lack of training for teachers in the new kinds of education possible today, as well as, of course, to the inadequacy of the infrastructure and tools required to modernize. They are correct, of course, but I cannot help feeling that the conservatism of teachers and the conservatism of education leaders feed off each other – a cycle of thinking that leads to the fundamental error of: “We just need to do what we already do, but a little better.”

Very many teachers, we know, do not accept such conservative attitudes and lead the way in classrooms, and often beyond the classroom, in every part of the world. But they are as yet few and far between, and too few of them are in positions to influence and inspire more than a handful of colleagues around them.

How do we re-empower the teacher for the 21st century?

The saddest, and in many ways the most galling, trend I have watched in education throughout many countries in the world over the past two or three decades has been the gradual, but unmistakable, neutering of the teacher as an independent spirit in the classroom. In my own country of Scotland teaching has descended to the point where the ideal teacher, in the eyes of the sundry politicians, civil servants, inspectors and administrators who have taken over the asylum, is someone who has forgotten what it means to teach and who is content simply to ‘deliver’ learning.  Different versions of this story have played out in other countries, but the common feature I would hope to see in all of them is that, despite the war of attrition waged for so long on the autonomous teacher, the vast majority of teachers across all these countries would love to be able to shed their ‘automaton’ skins and revert to the humane, creative and passionate teachers they really always wanted to be.

The teacher, it seems, has been relegated from an empowered and self-motivated educator to, for the most part, a mere actor following a long and complicated script. The best teachers, of course, even in this reduced environment, will always be (and have always been) able to find those joyfully subversive little interstices between the scripted elements where they can introduce some spark and variety – some passion – into the teaching and learning happening in their classrooms. But the teacher today, for the most part, has a smaller and smaller space within which to truly inspire learners.

What are the implications of current shifts in our understanding of learning in the modern world for subject-disciplines as we have known them for many generations, and for deep knowledge in the teaching/learning processes?

Many in and beyond the teaching profession fear the demise of the subject expert in the oft-mooted shift towards connective and collaborative learning. However, I would argue that changing demands on categories such as curriculum, pedagogy, subject-discipline do not threaten the requirement for expertise and for deep knowledge in our teachers.

Indeed, I would argue that the opposite is the case. Look, for instance, at the second of Ivan Illich’s three purposes of education: “It should empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them.” Shifting relationships within the classroom do not undermine the need for experts, but it may well require a shift in how those experts interact, both within and beyond the formal educational context, with learners. When pedagogy is recognized as more than mere transmission of knowledge, the industrial model of ‘active’ teacher passing knowedge to ‘passive’ learner is no longer tenable.

How do we bring about large-scale change in teaching practice?

We have to engage with the intractable issue of changing practice on a large scale. It is possible to envisage shifting teachers’ practice at the institutional level – many schools have done so or are doing so successfully. Even at the level of the school district, it is possible to conceive of real change in the nature of schooling and in the way that teachers engage with learners – visionary people such as Greg Whitby, in Parammatta Catholic Schools in Sydney, and so many others, are pursuing such objectives with great vigour and focus.

But how do we plan for, and execute, real change in teaching practice at the regional, national and international levels? Where do we start? Is it with the schools themselves, is it with the teacher-training institutions? Is it with teachers’ professional bodies – is it all three, and more? And what timescales do we need to contemplate for real change to happen within – are we dealing in years, decades, generations? If the timescale is long, will learners wait for the teaching profession to catch up with the economic, technological and societal changes that are driving the required shifts in the nature of teaching?