The Most Important Question For Teachers in 2014

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It’s Economics 101: If people want something, it’s value is predicated on its scarcity. Before the web, because information was scarce, it had value.  If you wanted access to the facts contained in the pages of Encyclopaedia Britannica you had to pony-up $2200. If you wanted to know what was on TV tonight you had to buy a TV-Week, and if students wanted to acquire knowledge, they had to listen to their teacher and copy notes from the board. Teachers who “knew their subject” were valuable.

In 2014 Wikipedia is free (even Britannica costs only $15), there’s a free Electronic Program Guide built into your TV, and if a teacher is valuable to her students – it’s not because she know’s her subject.

So that’s the big question I have for teachers in 2014. In a world with Google; in a world with Wikipedia; in a world where knowledge has lost all it’s scarcity, what do you bring to the classroom that IS scarce?

It’s not a rhetorical question. I think teachers should be able to articulate what their value is.

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18 thoughts on “The Most Important Question For Teachers in 2014

  1. I certainly agree that many types of information are freely available now, Andrew. Here are some things that I think are still scarce, both online and in the physical world.

    1. An experienced guide
    A teacher should use their subject-matter expertise to steer learners towards quality information and learning experiences. Yes, there is a massive amount information on the internet, but much of it is “bitsy”, and much of it is simply misguided or wrong. There is rarely consensus about complex ideas and even simply facts – how old was John Lennon when he died? – are reported inconsistently. We can assess the quality of internet resources using some easy methods, such as the source and quality of the presentation, but we also assess much of what we know against our, and our students, growing body of subject-area knowledge.

    2. Momentum
    Choice brings some motivation, but how often have been stood in a video store (for those who remember those) with so much choice and dwindling motivation to watch anything. I still feel the same looking at the movies on Google Play. An effective teacher is enthusiastic about good quality information and experiences, and uses this enthusiasm to bring energy into the room. The school week is more than 30 hours long, and it is a rare individual learner who can still fully charged and learning without help with momentum. Likewise, good teachers get momentum from the learning and discover of their students. It’s a happily productive feedback loop.

    3. Feedback
    There are mechanisms for feedback on the internet, of course: comments and counter-posts being notable examples. But often these responses are insubstantial. A good educator plays close attention to what students are demonstrating and gives them feedback about how to get to the next level. I think that there are technologies that are heading in this direction – the much-maligned spell check and grammar check and two examples – but for other complex tasks you also need something more detailed than a “like” or a retweet, and that isn’t often the case.

    Just my 2c.

  2. Thanks Mark. I love your second point – about ‘momentum’. I’ve never really thought of it in those terms but I like the way you put that.

    I also agree very much with your first point. I think there is an argument to be made that teachers are more necessary now than ever – not so much for their knowledge but more for their wisdom. Before the web, the (limited amount of) information students encountered in a text book or the library was likely to be accurate, or at the very least – responsible. I think one function of a teacher that is becoming increasingly important now, is teaching kids to be critical thinkers, teaching them to open minded toward diverse ideas, certainly, but also teaching them to entertain those ideas with skepticism and to question the veracity of information.

    Quality feedback has of course always been valuable. I recall at a conference, John Hattie showing his statistics that of all the things good teachers do to promote student achievement, *high quality* feedback is perhaps the single most important. I doubt the web has changed anything in that department. As you mentioned, the feedback one gets on the internet is often ill-considered, whimsical and shot from the hip. Your comment on this blog post, Mark, is an obvious exception – thank you for your carefully composed thoughts 🙂

    • I was aware as wrote my comment that I am carefully making myself quite wrong in regard to feedback. But I think that quality discussion and feedback is still the exception, and I agree with your general assessment of it.

  3. You’re right, there is an absolute minefield of information available to teachers and students. That’s why we need to focus on skills for learning, and helping students to make sense of information. Skills for data analysis, problem-solving, critical thinking. An ability to provide themselves and others with feedback, to reflect, metacognition and so forth. These skills can’t simply be googled on students’ iPhone: they require careful and considered development.

    • Thanks Madeline – I agree it’s the skills for learning that are paramount now – and many of those require real discipline and focus – things that are (arguably) increasingly scarce in a modern world where kids’ senses are assaulted by stimuli from every direction.

  4. What’s scarce are the answers to or solutions for the complex questions we all face in today’s world. With abundant knowledge at their fingertips and connections in their growing, online networks, teachers need to facilitate exploration of the unanswerable questions students may have about their uncertain futures. Climate change, space exploration, nano particles, food shortages, mining, nuclear explosions, reproductive technologies, ethics etc…hope I’m making sense 🙂

    • You are certainly making sense. While it is true that the world’s knowledge – i.e. established facts – are now freely available to everyone, there is certainly much about the world that is unknown to anyone (otherwise we would have no incurable diseases, environmental issues, etc). So much is still a mystery and so many issues can’t be resolved into simple “knowledge” – because they require an understanding of culture, tradition, opinion, etc. Inspiring students to take the factual knowledge that IS now easily accessible and use it together with wisdom, problem-solving and communication skills to explore those issues … that is scarce.

      I think a great example of what you are talking about is Taylor Wilson – the 15 year-old, boy whose uncle had died of pancreatic cancer, and who while learning about antibodies in his year 9 science class and googling about single-walled carbon nanotubes at home out of curiosity etc… was able to make some crucial connections in his mind and propose a new test for pancreatic cancer that (to cut a long story short) turns out to be cheaper, faster and more reliable than any current test available. That would have been impossible a generation ago. But now students have access to the same pool of information as anyone else… encouraging them to use that access to solve real problems – what could be more valuable?

  5. I agree that what learners need is the skills to solve complex problem. I guess your questions remains, Andrew. What is the value of teachers is achieving this?

  6. Hi Andrew,
    Another thing that teachers often bring to the table is a positive relationship with their students. This at a time when increasing numbers of students lack positive relationships in their home and community, a good educational relationship (perhaps more in the nature of a mentor) can motivate some students to try their best. Some of the most rewarding students I have had in VCE, have not been the 40+ mark students, but the 22 – 30 mark students who I looked at in February and thought ‘Gee, we’re going to have to struggle to get you through’ and yet, against all the odds – extreme poverty, lack of family support, supporting themselves financially, severe depression, crippling lack of confidence or pregnancy, have managed to get themselves through to completion of VCE – and with quite satisfactory marks. Often, that sort of result will need a good relationship with the teacher – for motivation, guidance and a shoulder to lean (or cry) on. Sometimes, students will achieve – not for themselves, not for their parents – but for their teacher.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Barry – and that is scarce in so many kids’ lives. I think most of us – even people who had positive relationships with their family – could point to a few teachers at school who really made a difference to our lives. I’d also bet that in most cases the reason they made the difference they did was not because they had a comprehensive knowledge of their subject (though they likely did) – but because of the way they took an interest in us, saw potential that we didn’t even see in ourselves, encouraged us to strive to be the person they believed we could be, and in doing so, changed the course of our lives.

  7. I left teaching 10 years into my career this year – I was burntout from endless weekends of marking and preparation and had an almost-2-year-old who deserved more of my time. Until my students knew I was leaving, I had no idea of what they saw as the thing I brought into the classroom that was scarce in their lives: laughter. Many of them told me that they didn’t think that their new teacher was going to be as fun to be around in their otherwise fairly serious high-school-existence. As I sit in my new quiet office job this year, I think about those comments every day…

    • It sounds as though the education system is poorer for having lost you. Thanks for the comment though Cam – I think you are absolutely right about that.

  8. I like your question, Andrew – it IS the kind of question that we should be able to answer and one that most likely will change over time. Also, it requires reflection, a behavior that does not fit easily into the timetable. Much of my recent teaching experience has been with students who find academic study challenging. Not all complete the courses in which they enroll. In the time I interact with them, I treat them respectfully, honoring wherever they are in their lives, knowing they are doing the best they can, even though it may be seen as ‘not much at all’ if we were to evaluate them on current standards. I hope that if things don’t work out this time, that because of the experience they have had, they will consider continuing with their education, formally or informally at some later time.
    I really appreciate this conversation, especially the thoughtful way in which it has been continued here with such interesting contributions. It has certainly got me reflecting. Ruth W 🙂

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  11. I believe teachers have always known what their value is even if, at times, they lose sight of it. Put a different way, the old adage “If a teacher can be replaced by a machine they should be!” which when articulated most reactive comments are “WHAT! you want to get rid of teachers?!” But think carefully, what it really is saying is add the value where you REALLY can add value. The system of education is the problem not the teachers/educators/tutors etc. Just think, we still have to be at school at a certain time, run classes in a certain way, stream students by age groups, not abilities, measure learning according to the system’s metrics, etc.
    Have a read of “Outliers by Malcom Gladwell” to get a sense of how skewed our systems are.

    • I agree the system has a lot to answer for – but I think there is a lot of change individual teachers can make (and many of us *are* making) even within the limitations imposed by “the system”. Thanks for your comment mixmaxmin 🙂

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