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Upending the Hierarchy of Learning

Teachers and students must partner together on the learning journey.

Via Pixabay
Source: Via Pixabay

Recently, I delivered a keynote at an international education conference hosted by Kazan Federal University in Kazan, Russia, the fourth organized by Professor Roza A. Valeeva. For those of you who know as little about Kazan as I did when I received the invitation: Kazan is one of the oldest cities in Russia, the third largest after Moscow and Saint Petersburg. It is the capital of the oil-rich and highly enterprising Republic of Tartaristan. If you followed the FIFA World Cup, you may recognize that Kazan was one of the enthusiastic host cities of the tournament.

I wanted to write this blog to share some of the implications for teaching and learning that I took from the gathering. As part of the conference, I was invited to participate in a TV panel with other leaders in teacher education from different parts of the world. During the panel discussion, I was reminded of the universality of educational complaints (for example, lack of respect for teachers, low salaries, and low status), although the differences in funding, compensation, and social standing of teachers are quite varied across countries. All of the panelists made great points about the need for teachers to be respected as professionals, receive better preparation and training, and to be supported by policies that balance high standards for students with teachers’ freedom to make independent decisions.

There was one area where we did not all agree, however. One colleague argued that education should be teacher-centered, as opposed to student-centered. I could not agree. I said the starting point should be the learner. The ultimate purpose of school is to benefit the student. For that reason, students have to become partners in the learning process, not just the receivers of information in a hierarchy of learning. I surprised myself by saying during the televised discussion that it is not enough for teachers to receive more societal respect (which I am fighting for!) but respect also has to be earned in every classroom. I realize this is a high bar and might come across as naïve, but I stand by my belief now more than ever.

Why? Because we are in the middle of a worldwide knowledge revolution that will change everything in education. The teacher is no longer the primary source of knowledge, though still the most important one in school. Information is everywhere thanks to its easy distribution through the internet, interactive YouTube videos, and instant search engine results. In-person opportunities for youth are also expanding as out of school organizations like museums, corporations, and community centers are becoming more interconnected with schools. The new flow of information and data is upending hierarchies, giving everyone the power of information choice. But this flow can feel overwhelming, leaving youth with diminishing attention spans and struggling under a deluge of data, visualizations, and information to absorb.

These advances dramatically shift the power dynamic between student and teacher. I am predicting that the teacher will become the curator of information, with a focus on helping youth develop critical thinking skills to make sense of all the information, including so-called “fake news” and biased interpretations. In order to do this more complex work, teachers will need to continue to be content experts; we should never fully rely on technology for content expertise, but every sector of our lives will be changed by advances like artificial intelligence, schools included.

In this brave new world, the teacher needs to become a personalized learning specialist. School will become a place of convening to provide relationships and peer experiences where students are mentored by teachers to work on projects and solve problems as teams. The monopoly of knowledge transmitted through state-defined curricula handed down to students will be coming to an end. But it will take time. Of course, frameworks will be needed to assure that all students have the competencies that their societies agree on. But learning will become more and more decentralized as much as the sources of learning have already become entirely decentralized on the internet.

What is exciting is that this will free teachers up to be their best and to have real authority as caring adults who are on a learning journey with their students. They will be able to be more creative with their students because they will be less stressed, leaving some of the content learning to the new technologies that will be able to better perform these tasks. Teacher respect will greatly increase when we have found a new role for this noble profession. Leaders in the field will understand young people deeply, engage in true dialogue, and build skills at the appropriate level for students’ cognitive and emotional abilities. Progress will not come with a small push (like asking for more teacher autonomy to reach the goal of passing rigid state tests). In Kazan, I was glad to find like-minded educators who believed that present reform efforts do not go far enough. The reforms have to be more radical and start with a new role for teachers that they help co-create that puts the learner truly at the center. When that happens, everyone will feel liberated.