In classrooms across the globe educators are adopting technology as the new norm. A laptop or device in every child’s hands is commonplace, and publishers are rapidly working to provide digital delivery of their content. While we embrace technology as meeting the needs of 21st century learners, in the midst of it all teachers find themselves at a true crossroads. Their role, the very definition of what a teacher does, is shifting as rapidly as the technology they are asked to incorporate into their classrooms.
Frankly speaking, a student can retrieve far more raw information from their smart phone than their teacher could ever provide. That technology can be used to access real-time information on any subject, anyplace, anytime. It leads one to wonder…
Is your kids iPhone smarter than their teacher?
In this digital age students can use technology in the classroom to not only access an online curriculum, but to have that curriculum personalized and delivered to them as an individualized learning path – custom created to meet their needs (think Amazon style algorithms applied to what algebra skills you’re missing rather than which novel would perfectly complete your collection).
With the rise of these powerful digital content delivery systems it’s no wonder that many teachers are struggling to find their place. In particular, high school teachers are having a hard time divorcing themselves from their role as “keeper of the content.”
Think of it this way; ask an elementary school teacher what they teach. They will happily reply “third graders” “fabulous fifth graders” or with a look of exhausted enthusiasm “kindergartners!” Ask that same question of a high school teacher and you’ll get a very committed proclamation: “Advanced Placement World Studies.” After all, they’ve devoted their entire teaching career to mastering their subject. Now tell that teacher that their students can find all the content being taught in their class online (just try not to crush their teaching soul when you do). That said, every great teacher will tell you that while the content is important, it’s really just an avenue to get to what they love: applying the learning through projects and discussions.
So what does this all mean? Does the information age really mean what it implies: That all the information is already out there? Is it simply the job of education to get that information into the heads of students via digital means? Is it time to simply put the kiddos in their Clockwork Orange style learning pods and leave it to the tech?
Trust me, it won’t work. It was tried in Chicago with online credit recovery students – they had the digital content, their usernames, passwords, and fully functional technology – and they failed… BIG TIME. Pass-rates for the students at Chicago Public Schools in that environment were just over 30%. These were high stakes, at-risk kids who were relying on this online learning environment as their last hope to graduate, but similar results are seen with any implementation of tech based learning minus high quality teacher/facilitators (just google virtual school scandals and prepare to gasp).
In this model, students were failing in mass (including my own at Benito Juarez, a CPS high school on the city’s southwest side). Knowing this was their last chance to graduate I decided to see what could be done to intervene, and in the process forever changed my definition of teaching.
The students had the content, so I didn’t need to worry about standing at the front of the room lecturing or spending my time writing lessons. It was time to say goodbye to my amazing lectures on the true causes of WWI accompanied by some really incredible PowerPoint slides. Much to my initial dismay, the material, along with really great videos, interactives and more were all right there at my students’ fingertips. Yet they were still failing…
All of a sudden I found myself sitting beside my students, talking with them and learning who they were and just as importantly, how they learn. I realized that the students had the content but they would need some key skills to be successful;
Time management, Goal Setting, 21st Century Search and Communication Skills and Autonomous Learning Skills.
I began to teach these skills and spend my time facilitating the learning environment while supporting the learner.
I quickly realized that dispensing content was certainly one form of teaching, but facilitating learning was the true art of an educator. I embraced the role, and my students began to soar. By the end of the year we turned in the highest pass rates in the state of Illinois (over 80%).
I then had the chance to implement this model district wide at Chicago Public. We began to move beyond the content and towards application of learning. Students participated in project based learning, connected with other students across the globe and partnered with community organizations, museums and universities. Teachers were spending more time with learners and learning was more engaging. The end result? We reclaimed thousands of dropouts and at-risk students who were previously disengaged and graduated an additional 5,000 students.
That same model has now been replicated across the US with students in both low and at-level attainment classrooms. The exciting thing is to not only see students succeeding but to also see teachers embracing their new role.
What’s more, the sophistication of digital content and reporting features available in most learning management systems also provides teachers real-time data on student performance that allows for intervention and the personalization of learning. Teachers have the information they need to address individual student needs, and more importantly, they have the time to address those needs. And that’s where the real magic happens. When teachers spend time with individual or small groups of students we see increased student achievement. In short, teachers finally have time to teach!
So sure, in the information age, all the answers are truly just a google search away. But the teacher’s role to inspire, facilitate, and empower the learner while applying that knowledge is more important than ever.
Robin Gonzales is the Founder and President of Zia Learning and Zia Professional Development Services. She has served as a classroom teacher, school-level director and district-level official for Chicago Public Schools. She is the author of The Framework for Teaching in the Digital Classroom and the Chair of the iNACOL standards for teaching in the blended classroom. Her work is featured in Forbes, Ed Reformer, the Chicago Tribune, ISTE and other major publications. Follow Robin on LinkedIn and Zia Learning on Twitter.