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Who is teaching whom?

I apologise for the long absence. Life, work, and other projects have got in the way. Finding time to write has become an all too precious commodity – especially as it is not part of my paid day job. I have decided to not beat myself up about this but do what I can as I can.

When I’m so time poor why have I created another pressure for myself? I often wonder how other people manage to find the time to research, read, think, and write on top of everything else demanded of them. There is something that drives us all. I believe this is a quest for more – more understanding, more questions to which we seek answers, more possibilities. Then there is also the desire to keep up – to keep current so that you know what you’re talking about because everything is changing so fast it is easy to get left behind. However, ultimately my online world centres on people whom I either communicate with directly or indirectly, and from whom I learn huge amounts. This is what excites me and keeps me going.

Something interesting is happening as we all try to juggle daily demands and yet still find time to participate online in whatever form we choose. In our own way we are contributing to our changing world without realising it. Our cultures across the globe are being impacted by the connections we make on a daily basis. We are the modern day equivalent of pioneers venturing out into a new, and relatively unknown, land. Our exploration is uncovering countless new ways to communicate, work, share, and play. All of this is helping us to make sense of life and living today. It is no wonder Time magazine named us all Person of the Year for 2006!

Time magazine

But look at 2006 through a different lens and you’ll see another story, one that isn’t about conflict or great men. It’s a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It’s about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people’s network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.

One of the questions that keeps grinding away at me is where does teaching fit into the picture? I struggle to accept the claims that teaching is dead because I believe there are aspects of teaching which are an inherent component of all forms of lifelong learning that begin from the moment we are born. We are not all self-taught and even if we were someone had to have taken the time to create and share the resources used in the self-teaching process. Could this person be classified as a teacher? Someone will give you feedback on what you have done as part of your experiential learning. Isn’t this person also a teacher? Nothing happens in a vacuum or in isolation. What does teaching look like and feel like now in a connected world. What is a teacher? Is teaching really dead and does it matter? I have to admit I don’t like describing myself as a teacher because I associate it with a practice that is no longer relevant. Yet there is something within me that believes this role, but in a different form, is still necessary in our society. However, opinion is divided on this point.

Michael Wesch has written about his move away from referring to himself as a ‘teacher’ and instead he refers to his ‘anti-teaching’ philosophy.

Teaching is about providing good information. Anti-teaching is about inspiring good questions. Since all good thinking begins with a good question, it struck me that if we are ultimately trying to create “active lifelong learners” with “critical thinking skills” and an ability to “think outside the box” it might be best to start by getting students to ask better questions. Teaching is about providing good information. Anti-teaching is about inspiring good questions. Since all good thinking begins with a good question, it struck me that if we are ultimately trying to create “active lifelong learners” with “critical thinking skills” and an ability to “think outside the box” it might be best to start by getting students to ask better questions. Unfortunately, I didn’t know where to start. I have read and heard a great deal of advice on how to ask good questions of students – non-rhetorical, open-ended, etc. – but nobody has ever told me anything about how to get students to ask good questions.

When I talk about “good questions,” I mean the kind of questions that force students to challenge their taken-for-granted assumptions and see their own underlying biases. Oftentimes the answer to a good question is irrelevant – the question is an insight in itself. The only answer to the best questions is another good question. And so the best questions send students on rich and meaningful lifelong quests, question after question after question.

Unfortunately such great questions are rarely asked by students, especially in large mandatory introductory courses. Much more common are administrative questions such as, “What do we need to know for this test?” This may be the worst question of all. It reflects the fact that for many (students and teachers alike), education is a relatively meaningless game of grades rather than an important and meaningful exploration of the world in which we live and co-create. I don’t think it is the student’s fault for asking this question. As teachers we have created and continue to maintain an education system that inevitably produces this question. If we accept Dewey’s notion that people learn what they do, the lecture format which is the mainstay of teaching (especially in large introductory courses) teaches students to sit in neat rows and to respect, believe, and defer to authority (the teacher). Tests often measure little more than how well they can recite what they have been told. Hoping to memorize only just as much as necessary to succeed on the test, they ask that question I never want to hear – the one exception to the rule that “there is no such thing as a bad question.” Frustrated with this question, and hoping to get my students to ask better questions, I decided to get to work creating a learning environment more conducive to producing the types of questions that create lifelong learners rather than savvy test-takers.

Since I dedicated myself to this task, I have found myself slowly transforming from a teacher to an anti-teacher, developing methods that subvert the traditional lecture format and trying to create a learning environment more conducive to asking good questions. I eventually came to the conclusion that “teaching” is a hindrance to learning. The word, “teacher” in itself suggests that learning requires teaching. In fact, the best learning almost always occurs in the absence of a teacher, for it is then that students are free to pursue with great passion the questions that are meaningful and relevant to their own lives.

Maybe we need to find a new word that encompasses aspects of the teaching role which are still relevant and important, but also incorporate the idea of the learner being in control of their own learning.

Then I am reminded of Kevin Kelly’s comments back in 2005 in an article entitled We Are the Web

This planet-sized computer is comparable in complexity to a human brain. Both the brain and the Web have hundreds of billions of neurons (or Web pages). Each biological neuron sprouts synaptic links to thousands of other neurons, while each Web page branches into dozens of hyperlinks. That adds up to a trillion “synapses” between the static pages on the Web. The human brain has about 100 times that number – but brains are not doubling in size every few years. The Machine is …

And who will write the software that makes this contraption useful and productive? We will. In fact, we’re already doing it, each of us, every day. When we post and then tag pictures on the community photo album Flickr, we are teaching the Machine to give names to images. The thickening links between caption and picture form a neural net that can learn. Think of the 100 billion times per day humans click on a Web page as a way of teaching the Machine what we think is important. Each time we forge a link between words, we teach it an idea.

So we no longer teach people but we can teach machines?

These are interesting times. The ubiquity of the Web means we need to rethink many things, not just teaching, as Michael Wesch points out so creatively in this wonderful video entitled Web 2.0 … The Machine is Us/ing Us.

Aren’t we merely teaching each other now? What has disappeared is the person who makes decisions on your behalf and who has control over how you learn and even what you learn. We still need someone to guide us, to challenge our thinking, to show us new doors to consider walking through. The new ‘teacher’ presents options as well as asking questions. This person is a lifelong learner to and role reversal is an integral part of the learning relationship.

Mmm, there is lots of food for thought here. I’d love to hear your comments.

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