If you want to really challenge your thinking about the roles of teachers in the classroom, take a few minutes to watch Newcastle University (UK) professor Sugata Mitra talk about the research he's doing on providing technology to poverty-stricken kids in India. His "Hole in the Wall" experiment, in which he put a stand-alone, Internet-enabled computer, keyboard and mouse facing inward into a walled-off Delhi slum, shows that even children who know nothing about computers can self-organize to learn quickly and deeply on their own without any adult supervision. In addition, in subsequent research, Mitra has found students will learn even more when they have a caring adult watching them and encouraging them in their self-directed learning.
But there's an added twist. Those encouraging adults don't have to be anyone the students know or even anyone in their local community. In fact, they can be retired grandmothers hundreds of miles away who connect through online video chat to support the kids' learning. Mitra's "Granny Cloud" concept is drawing notice from many as he begins an ambitious project to scale and test his theories.
New Roles for Teachers
What Mitra's research is showing has implications for us all, however, not just those children without access to great or even good schools. First and foremost, it suggests that providing Internet access and a computing device to every student should be of the highest priority. As I've said before in this space, denying access to the amazing wealth of information and knowledge online is akin to abuse these days, regardless of the economic circumstances. But second, Mitra's work speaks to the fundamental challenge that schools will be facing in the coming decades—namely, how to re-envision the interaction between students and teachers in the classroom.
The current role of the teacher in our education system was fashioned at a time when we needed the adults in the rooms to be experts at sifting through, synthesizing and conveying information about their discipline to their students because that information wasn't otherwise easily found or accessed. But that is just not the case any longer. Most of our kids, my kids included, can come home and learn just about anything they want. And more and more, they are expecting to be able to do the same at school.
This doesn't mean that teachers aren't still important or that they are going to go away any time soon. But it does mean that the adults in the classrooms of my children need to take on a different role: not as those who mete out the curriculum in small bites and then assess students to make sure it's been digested, but as guides who are supporting learning at every turn. We know this: Kids will learn on their own given the opportunity. But after years of schooling, most of our children are waiting for the teacher to tell them what to learn, when to learn it, and how they'll be assessed as to whether or not they learned it.
One of Many Teachers
What if, however, we stopped doing that and trusted the kids? What if we as teachers saw ourselves as part of a much bigger "cloud" of adults whose main role was to develop and support the enthusiasm for learning that our children innately bring with them to school but that we all too often temper in our zeal to "deliver" the curriculum? That would represent a huge shift not only in the role of the teacher but also in moving the classroom to a rich, ongoing, passionate learning space that children want to attend.
What Mitra and others suggest represents a huge departure from the traditional definition of what teachers do. But it also recognizes a new reality that, one way or another, schools are going to have to deal with. Our students live in a world where they need us less and less from a content, knowledge and information standpoint. What they most need us for is to support them in becoming deep, fearless learners. DA
Will Richardson is an author and educator who also blogs about teaching and learning at weblogg-ed.com.