Sunday, January 20, 2013

School Yourself

The biggest obstacle isn't a reality:  it's a dream

Here's the old model, the time-tested, incredibly persistent concept of "school:"
The teacher teaches the student.

It's simple, easy to understand, and has the ring of truth.  We say things like "he taught me so much!" or "I learned so much from her."  The teacher is a vending machine, a talking textbook, a knowledge dispenser. We keep the wisdom and dole it out.

As a teacher, I can tell you:  this model works-- less than half of the time.  The days it works are sublime:  you lecture, digress, and expound. Your students sit in the glow of your brilliance, they eat it up, light bulbs go on, and the music of instruction plays like a street fiddler in the square.  You make the magic.

But when that ain't working for you, when the students are bored, lost, or detached-- these are awful teacher moments.   Your students loll in the harsh light of your artificial sun, they list in their seats, darkness pervades, and the clatter of the lecture plays like a rusty chain on the pavement.

The "Great Teacher" Fantasy
Often, teachers of teachers claim to want to debunk this model.  The better part of professional development that I have seen in the last 10 years as a teacher seems to be grounded in the idea that the teacher should not be the "Sage On the Stage."  I swear, I hear that stuff all the time in staff meetings.  It kills me because I don't think anyone really belives it.  When we talk about a great teacher, we often talk about this brilliant genius around whom the classroom orbits. I loved Dead Poets Society and Stand and Deliver.  To some extent, I dreamed of being those guys when I started my career.

This old model is the problem, of course.  It's those dream days of magic teaching that encumber and bewitch us.  We calculate success in the classroom as a measure of the proximity to this idealistic model.  The perfect becomes the enemy to everything else.

Teachers and schools haven't invented this old blanket, however.  It's deep in our collective thought about learning.  We live in a Guru culture.  We celebrate the "amazing teachers" in movies and in books.  Parents "are the most important teachers" of their children.  Older siblings "teach" their younger siblings.  We've even created our computer models around it.  Data is "downloaded" from an original source.  It's "copied." Knowledge is not created-- it's ctrl C then ctrl V.  Real artificial intelligence remains the provence of science fiction because we don't put a high premium on the efficacy of anyone teaching herself.  Once computers are built to teach themselves, it'll be a whole new movie, baby.  But we don't really know how to do that-- because we don't do much of it with each other.

That awesome teacher moment-- that's what we crave.  But it simply doesn't happen often enough-- even for the great teachers.

There's a more effective model, of course: a model that is, arguably, even more recognizable. It's a model that has founded just about every bit of learning ever done by any one.  It's hidden under the old model, nearly unsung in our public discourse about education despite its ubiquity in "real life" applications.

The Better Model
Student teaches himself knowledge.
Teacher helps when and where necessary.

First time parents have no teachers.  Brain surgeons must hold the scalpels alone on a first surgery.  Nobody could teach Mick Jagger how to sing, Warren Buffet how to invest, Oprah Winfrey how to produce, Michael Phelps how to swim, or you how to do whatever it is YOU are good at.  Of course, people helped Mick and Warren and Oprah and the rest-- but no one taught them-- at least, not in the traditional sense.  They taught themselves.  Their mentors were there when and/or where needed.  As have been all the great teachers in your life.

Heck, you taught yourself language.  How to walk.  Do you ever think about how your brain must work for that to have happened?  For it to happen to everyone, everywhere, in every culture around the world?

This old model needs a real challenge, especially as our cultural and political conversations about good teaching begin to gain more and more traction. It's blotting out the light and our schools-- and our culture-- continues to whither under its shiny promise of the "better teacher."

When on the job, the best teachers are barely there.  They elegantly and efficiently drop in and out of the learning process.  They pay attention, make it about the students, and constantly convince/inspire/trick students into teaching themselves.

In a world of Teaching Specialists, we need teachers need to be Specialists in How Teach Oneself.  We need teachers who teach people to not need teachers.

Complicated, indeed.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure it has to be too complicated. Awesome Teacher Moments happen, but they aren't always divine lightning strikes of enlightenment that have explosive effects on the students, and the parents, and principals, and school board, and the rest of us, as we sit in the audience and watch the film.

    An Awesome Teacher Moment can be really simple. Like, on your last day of student teaching, handing a piece of paper with the words "Kurt Vonnegut - Slaughterhouse Five" scrawled on it to a student.

    It made a difference.

    Thanks Mr. K.