Education Opinion

The Best and Worst of Times to Teach

By Justin Reich — December 30, 2012 4 min read
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As I’ve been contemplating 2012, I keep thinking of Dickens’ line, now sullied by cliche, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness... it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness.”

It is, without a doubt in my mind, the greatest time in history to be a teacher. Never before have educators had available such an extraordinary wealth of resources with which to fashion learning experiences. I often tell the story, in my speaking, of my own seventh-grade U.S. History class, where we were given two resources for the year: a textbook and a primary source reader. The reader contained twenty documents, from the Mayflower Compact to the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and they were the only documents that we read all year. Today, a history teacher can choose from the millions of documents archived online by thousands of libraries and archives around the world, including not just texts but images, audio recordings, film clips, and ephemera.

Then, when students have access to these resources, they have an unprecedented ability to create multimedia performances of their understanding. The iPad that I’m typing this on has more capacity to create and publish media than the entire suite of resources available in the media lab of my high school, at a tiny fraction of the cost. Students can share their work with peers and audiences around the world. (My favorite example from this year: a local history of the first C.O. of Dachau.) It is trivially easy to invite experts and outsiders into the classroom or to connect classrooms across the globe. And as the wealth of opportunities for learning outside school expands, students have more to bring into the classroom and more to offer. It’s much easier for teachers to use their classroom as the space to seed interests, letting students explore them deeply in the fullness of time, knowing the Web has the capacity to support almost any learning interest.

It has never been easier for educators to connect with one another, to share best practices, to see best practices from around the country or around the globe, and to connect across schools with teachers who share our subjects, or our interests, or our peculiar circumstances. Never before has the fraternity of teachers been more connected.

But for all this, and in some ways because of all this, it is also an incredibly difficult time to be a teacher. Morale is at a 20 year nadir. Public discourse decries America’s failing schools, laying blame at the foot of teachers while tolerating severe cuts in educational funding. Hollywood studios believe that demonizing teacher’s unions might make for popular entertainment (though Rotten Tomatoes says they were wrong).

The continued combination of narrow content standards and high-stakes testing pushes ever more teachers towards an ever narrower, test-focused curriculum. The arts, physical education, and social studies continue to wither. Scanning the horizon of education reform doesn’t offer much hope for those dismayed by present conditions. Audrey Watters excellent annual review of trends in education technology for 2012 was, in essence, a lament. She wrote in a final comment, “I had a friend email me part way through this series, asking if I was okay as my series seemed to be a little apocalyptic. I do agree that the Maker Movement is the bright spot in all this. Much of the rest seems to reinforce that technology -- like schooling -- is something we do TO kids.” A few powerful voices, like John Seely Brown and Chris Lehmann, herald this as the moment where technology finally allows us to realize the dreams of Dewey and his community of learners. It turns out, however, that it’s far more profitable (and to some policymakers, desirable) to supercharge the testing and delivery of Thorndike.

So, we face a moment where technology dramatically widens the scope of educational feasibility while policy dramatically narrows the scope of classroom possibility. One might hope, in the best and worst of times, that the good would cancel out the bad. Unfortunately, however, what I see is the good exacerbating the bad, the rich possibilities of technology raise as much anxiety and dismay as they do excitement. Teachers feel like they don’t have time to keep up with the changing technologies and emerging pedagogies, “Isn’t there one website we can go to and just learn all this?” I hear asked with faint hope. Our systems don’t invest enough in the professional learning of educators. (Weekly, districts call up EdTechTeacher, saying that they’ve just invested in six figures worth of hardware and are hoping to invest in four figures of professional development.) And for many teachers who do have enormous wellsprings of time and energy to devote to their craft, they still feel like their ability to innovate is profoundly constrained by the need to prepare for the narrow confines of our standardized tests. So many cool projects we could be doing, if we only had the time...

It’s 4:30 pm here near Boston, and the sun has set for the day. It’s a good season for dark thoughts. But the solstice is a few days behind us, the days grow longer, and the hope of warmer days isn’t far away. The challenges that teachers face now are impossible, but that has never bothered me, because teachers do the impossible every day. I look forward to tackling them together in 2013.

A parting thought for the year: there appear to be a few of you, in addition to my wife, who read these bi-weekly missives with some regularity. I’m deeply grateful for your interest, and I look forward to being in dialogue with you in the new year.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my papers, presentations and so forth, visit EdTechResearcher.

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.