Today, if you have access to the Internet, you will find teachers in every Web portal—to the tune of 2 billion right now to 5 billion by the end of the decade. They encompass every passion and every interest. With the enormous wealth of content online already, we’re near to having the sum of human knowledge at our fingertips. It’s an amazing opportunity if you think about it. Arguably, if you have the skills to do it, you could literally build your own education by creating your own curriculum, your own classroom, and your own assessments. It’s a shift to a highly personalized, do-it-yourself education, a process that will continue to grow as we get better at pulling information and people from the Web to ourselves. Buckle up.
Being able to design your own education, however, isn’t easy by any stretch. In fact, it’s a highly complex intellectual and emotional task. How do we sift through the oceans of information online to find the most relevant, trustworthy content for our studies? How do we find, vet, connect with, and learn from all of these great potential teachers? How do we develop the attention skills for learning in networks online and the reflection skills to assess our own progress? It’s hard work. And our kids aren’t getting much of this how-to instruction in their schools.
First and foremost, schools want our kids to be knowers, not learners. You can see that in nearly every aspect of our system, which remains content-driven both in pedagogy and assessment. It’s a structure that was built for a different era, one that is awfully hard to “reform” to serve our students today. There is now too much for any one person to know, and what we do know is changing at a ridiculous rate. And all the important qualities of learning—self-direction, initiative, creativity, and problem-solving—are just too hard for us to assess in a cheap, timely way. We’re hanging on to a system that is struggling to remain relevant in the face of on-demand learning.
If my kids have access to smarter, more experienced experts and more relevant learning opportunities online than in the classroom, they should be getting connected to those opportunities.
So what does this mean for “teaching” as we know it? Well, it means the days of the adult in the room being the all-knowing expert and arbiter of knowledge are pretty much over—as they should be. If our kids have online access to smarter, more experienced experts and more relevant learning opportunities than in the classroom, they should be getting connected to those opportunities. But it also means that we need to consider the online content our kids are connecting to (now that we have access to so much), and that they should have access to more than one teacher.
This is not to suggest that the content in our classrooms is no longer important, or that the adult in the room isn’t still a critical part of our kids’ learning or their social and emotional development. I want my kids to be in places where they are cared for, where they are supported and encouraged by people whom they look up to, respect, and trust. There is no question that “teachers” still have a lot to offer my children. But those “teachers” now need to be experts at only one thing, and that is learning. They need to know how to help kids become those self-directed, literate learners who can ask meaningful questions, probe difficult problems, separate good information from bad, connect safely to strangers online, and interact with them on an ongoing basis. And, most importantly, our educators need to be able to do this themselves. They need to be able to model their own learning process for their students. Ask just about any student how much her teacher knows, and you’ll get a quick answer. Ask a student how her teacher learns, and you’ll likely get a confused look. This must change.
In the future, although it’s already happening in some classrooms today, the best teachers will be connected to educators and learners from around the globe, and, in turn, they will connect their students to educators and learners. They’ll share their own knowledge and thinking widely—embracing the power of transparency in thought and practice while skillfully mitigating the dangers of their and others’ visibility. Teachers should see themselves as only one node in a global network of educators with their students learning how to build networks for themselves.
Moving the profession to this place is something that can’t be done through a series of full-day workshops focused on tools and “how-tos.” (You can probably get more mileage out of putting up a page of links to great, revisit-able YouTube workshops that teachers can watch themselves.) For educators to really understand what it means to be a connected learner in the classroom, to create an environment in which we are all teachers and learners, they need time and support and patience. For most, reconceptualizing teaching in this way is going to require a community that is local and global, physical and virtual.
To make this happen, to get us to the point where we are fully able to support students in these new literacies of learning, we must see our teachers as learners first, and create a culture of learning within the four walls of our schools. That means giving teachers the time to explore their own passions and interests. We could start, as many schools have, by eliminating “staff meetings” and running online small-team learning discussions instead. We could en¬courage teachers to create online spaces where they can interact across districts, and reflect and share their experiences and knowledge. But this also means we must support and celebrate innovation, problem-solving, and experimentation, and share the best learning practices of the profession with the world.
At Powerful Learning Practice, or PLP, which I started with consultant Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach almost five years ago, we’ve been modeling long-term, job-embedded professional development. Using a combination of online communities, school-based teams, and a rich network of online mentors and classroom practitioners, we’ve watched thousands of teachers go through a seven-month learning journey that has helped them foster a deep understanding of their new roles in the classroom. These educators are rethinking their curriculum, modeling connections and networks for their students, and changing the way learning looks for their students. They are, in many ways, recapturing the learning spirit, and finding new ways to pursue the topics they love with others who love them as well. It’s been exciting to watch the evolution of their practice.
At the end of the day, we’re all teachers now. And as we continue to find ways to expand our learning environments far beyond the physical space of the classroom, the opportunities to both teach and learn will only grow. But that also means that as the professionals in the room, we must be deeply invested in learning first, for ourselves and for our students. Each one of us must begin to rethink our roles right now if we are to truly help our kids ably create their own educational paths without us. And if our schools won’t support us in our efforts, we must reach out to those who will.
A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2011 edition of Education Week as Investing in Teachers as Learners