Today’s post is brought to you by a tweet sent out by Harvard GSE earlier today brokering the radical suggestion that we might redefine teacher from “imparter of information” to “designer of learning experiences”.
There’s nothing wrong with this idea – in fact it’s a good one. But teachers who think of themselves as “imparters of information” are (mercifully) thin on the ground these days, and the discourse of teacher as designer or architect of learning experiences has been around for some 30 years. It ain’t radical. Many of these ideas can be linked back to the work of people like John Dewey (1859-1952, and at his intellectual peak around the turn of the century – that would be the 19th century) and Jean Piaget (1896-1980, with his most influential work published in the 1920s and 30s – see this lovely piece by his friend and student Seymour Papert for more about this). Constructivist approaches to teaching and learning started to hit classrooms in the late 1960s and while the shift has been a slow one – educational change has always moved at a glacial pace – these ideas are absolutely, positively, NOT NEW.
And that’s the problem.
Acting as though they’re the greatest new shiny educational ideas (especially when you’re one of the most revered and prestigious educational institutions in the world) lends credence to the notion that modern education is beset by a war between “traditional” pedagogy and new-age-hippy-just-let-me-use-your-kid-as-a-guinea-pig approaches. Politicians use this one to great effect – see Pyne’s proclamation last week – as do educational naysayers like Kevin Donnelly and his “Education Standards Institute” with their endless harping on about “progressive educational fads”.
(When does a “fad” that’s been around since 1897 cease to be called a “fad”?)
The pretence that these ideas are new doesn’t do any of us any favours. It supports educators who have done the firm planted squat and refused to move on from their role as the ‘sage on the stage’ (that one’s not new either, FYI) to hide behind the idea that they’re just being a ‘traditional’ teacher, and all is well. It reinforces an unhelpful dichotomy that says that teaching is either ‘traditional’ or ‘progressive’, when anyone who has ever taught (well) knows that good teaching is about using a range of approaches and choosing judiciously which one to use in what circumstance. It relegates those of us who do see ourselves primarily as “designers of learning experiences” or something similar to some kind of ‘experimenters’ category. It invokes fear in parents that tried and true methods are being thrown out in favour of using their children as laboratory rats in order to test some whacked out, half-baked educational ideas that may or may not work.
When the conservative pundits go there, I understand why. What I don’t understand is why educational institutions, and sometimes educators themselves, institutions and people who can and in fact do know better, embrace this kind of educational amnesia. This is 2013. Enough already.