The Teacher’s Task in the 21st century

discipline

 In the 19th century, the good teacher was primarily a disciplinarian charged with the task of re/forming farm children into factory workers through sanctioned access to a limited set of information. She could perform this task confident that the students she was teaching did not know what she knew since books were scarce and expensive and reading a skill not high on the priority list of farming families.

To teach students then was to instil in them a preference for punctuality and performance. It was to ensure that they were aware that some knowledge and information was of more value than other types. The student in a schoolroom in the 19th century learned to stay within the lines, to follow instructions and to not question authority. All these skills were necessary for the good factory worker who was responsible for uniformity of the products of the factory.

factory

But now that manufacturing no longer drives the economic engine of many developed countries and creative problem solving is the skill most sought after by corporations who pay decent salaries, teachers who focus on discipline and control of information stunt their students’ growth and development of the kind of thinking that does not fit neatly within the lines of conformity. We are especially at a disadvantage when it comes to information – who can compete with what Google can deliver into the palms of students’ hands?

Although much can be said about the lack of resources in classrooms and in schools, there is still much that can be done despite the current attack on education budgets. We may be  limited by what we can do to stem the bleeding of our education budgets but we are not limited by what our imaginations can do in response.

If Nelson Mandela could turn his tiny cell on Robben Island into his personal gym when he went through a rigorous set of exercises every morning, and if all the political prisoners with him on the island could turn their jail into a school as the ‘old guard’ and the ‘young lions’ shared knowledge, then surely we can turn our classrooms into places that students will want to be, despite everything.

Let’s practice creative problem solving ourselves as teachers so that we can model it for our students for surely they are going to need all the problem-solving skills they can master to deal with climate change and recurring economic crises in the world they will inherit from us.

impossible

Jugaad Education

This week it became clear which side is winning in the debate about the purpose of public education. As far as our current Minister of Education is concerned, the main purpose of the education system in British Columbia is to provide human capital for corporations. Until and unless that reality changes, what recourse is left for those of us who believe that a well-funded public education system, fundamental to a functioning democracy, should not only support pipefitters but poets too?

I suggest that our response be two-fold. We should continue to support any collective actions that defend and fight for a fair education system but we should also employ in our classrooms the spirit of jugaad, a Hindi colloquial expression that roughly translates into “invention motivated by scarcity”. In this TEDx talk, Gautam Ramdurai explains how it is possible to not only “make do” with what you have in the face of scarcity, but that learning how to “make do” makes other things possible.

 

When I came to Canada over 20 years ago, my teacher qualifications from South Africa were deemed insufficient to teach in schools in B.C. and I had to complete a few education courses in order to be approved for teaching in B.C. I have a vivid memory of my first class at SFU. I was late and had entered the room when there was a full-blown discussion about the Year 2000 project. Teachers were outraged by the demands made of them in the document. I remember wondering what the fuss was about. I had recently come from a place where we had to hold fundraisers in order to buy paper to use in our hand-cranked mimeograph machine and where our entire school library could be stored on a few shelves in a Canadian classroom.

At that point I had seen what was available in schools in Vancouver – rooms filled with unlimited supplies of photocopying paper, libraries filled with new books, laboratories stocked with equipment and classrooms of ‘only’ 28 students. To my eyes, teachers were teaching under circumstances that teachers in South Africa would give anything for.

With the increasing cuts to our education system, my current teaching experience in Canada is slowly becoming as familiar as my past teaching experience in South Africa but that is precisely why I believe it’s important to consider the concept of jugaad.

What can be done with limited resources in our classrooms? Instead of continuing to fund our classrooms out of our own pockets, what can we learn from cultures and practices around the world where scarcity is the norm?

And while we create a new response to scarcity, a message from someone who has been here before.  I can assure you that you will survive.

You will survive bureaucrats, who have no idea what happens in your classroom day by day, telling you what to teach.

You will survive administrators who have no idea who your students are, telling you how to teach.

You will survive people who have only a superficial understanding of who you are, telling you how you can and should and must develop your professional skills.

I know you will get used to this because those of us who have lived under oppressive and repressive political and social systems learned how to survive them.

You too will develop a double consciousness and a way of slipping easily between the face you put on for your ‘reviewers’ and the face you wear for your students. You too will have one way of being when your ‘performance’ is under ‘review’ and another when it is not, when you can just be the teacher you are.

You will learn to be subversive – to seek out ways to weasel between the cracks of a system designed to constrain and contain you and to form your students into  clones. You will learn to be like the root hairs of trees that raise pavements.

You will find allies amongst the administration – principals who do not agree with the way you are being treated and who will try in some ways to support you.

You will learn what words and phrases and activities are considered ‘good’ to use in your ‘performance reviews’ and ‘professional development plans’. You will adopt those as necessary.

And you will do this all the while you continue to grapple with the challenges facing you each day: hungry students, broken technology, lack of resources, and the absence of any support for those students who desperately need it in your filled-to-capacity classroom.

And you will keep doing this while you work to remove from power the people who see education as a business and not as a social good.

Teacher as Philosopher?

Greek philosophers

The difference between schoolteachers and philosophers is that schoolteachers think that they know a lot of stuff that they try to force down our throats. Philosophers try to figure things out together with the pupils. Sophie’s World , by Jostein Gaarder, page 70

I wonder if, 2413 years after Socrates, whether the world is yet ready for the philosopher-teacher, a pedagogue whose task is not so much to lead a pupil to a place of knowledge that has been mapped and visited before but instead to help the pupil to prepare for the journey of inquiry and reflection and questioning of all that is accepted as knowledge, and all that is yet unknown.

With oceans of information and knowledge readily accessible to anyone with an Internet connection in even the remotest parts of the planet, the role of teacher as “content deliverer” has become defunct. It’s now time that role is replaced with a new role of teacher as co-pilot, as navigator, as logistician, one who anticipates what might be needed on the journey, and travels part of the learning journey with the student.

A teacher-philosopher/co-pilot would not participate in what Ken Robinson calls the greatest suppression of creativity in human history that occurs in our schools when teachers do what incenses Sophie so much. Instead, teachers would be as curious as her students, wanting to learn and to discover what is not yet known.

But for this paradigm shift in the role of schools and teachers to occur, there would need to be a huge shift in our  current socio-cultural  “centre of gravity”.

A modern philosopher,  Ken Wilber suggests that each society has a centre of gravity around which its morals, ethics and worldviews coalesce. This COG acts like a magnet: if you rise above, the centre of gravity pulls you down, if you are below the centre of gravity, it will pull you up.

A very simple example of this is the widely accepted practice of recycling beverage containers in our society. If you don’t recycle aluminium cans and plastic bottles, you will be “pulled up” to this practice by being admonished and persuaded to change your habits through personal encounters, public service ads and incentives such as being paid to return cans to recycling depots.   But if you point out that the manufacture of these bottles and cans is a problem in itself, far greater than recycling can solve, you will be “pulled down”, seen as being “intense” or “extreme”.   You  would be on the outside of society’s centre of gravity around the idea of recycling.

Socrates was on the outside of the centre of gravity in Athens in 399 B.C.E.  By questioning the “wisdom” of the city’s elite, he was undermining the status quo. In order for it to retain its power, he needed to be “pulled down” to the Athenian centre of gravity and its views on “education of the young”, a centre of gravity that held the view that the young should not be taught to question authority or to look too deeply into what was considered “truth”.

Education of the young has long been the site of these gravity tensions since it is seen as the most powerful lever for societal change. But the nature of this change is always contested.

As long as education is performing the function of preparing students to take their place within the status quo, and to accept the current wisdom, then all is well. But should a teacher get the notion that education should be about more than that, there is tension and the COG will “pull down” those attempts in ways both personal and political.

This process of “pulling down” can be like my experience of being accused of “breeding rebels” by colleagues in South Africa during the Apartheid era when I taught my students to ask questions about their learning experiences.  Over the past 18 years of teaching in Canada, I have continued to cause “trouble” in my teaching practice when I allow students to nap, when I invite them to dance, when I encourage them to question, to negotiate,  and especially when I suggest that they look at textbooks as not holding the “gospel” truth about any subject.

Another example of this “pulling down” process is the recent experiences of the teachers of Ethnic Studies in Arizona state schools where  legislation was passed in 2010 to stop them from teaching about the historical and literary contributions made by African-American, Native-American and Hispanic-American people. The centre of gravity of the United States public is not yet ready to accept or to acknowledge the injustices of the past and accuses these teachers of inciting racial hatred. Or perhaps they mean,  that those teachers are “corrupting the youth” when they teach them how to reveal the truth.

In the 21st century, teachers who behave like “gadflies” on the horse of the corporate-state may not share the same fate as Socrates if they are lucky enough to live in judicially strong countries and if they are lucky enough to belong to a strong labour union. However, world history of the recent past is woven with numerous stories of teachers risking their lives (and sometimes losing them) in states where there is no access to a functioning justice system. In some respects we have not moved much further than Athens in 399 B.C.

I hope 21st century teachers do not have to be prepared to risk their lives before we see a shift in modern western culture’s centre of gravity with regard to the role of teachers in our age of information, a shift that would provide students like Sophie with philosopher-pilots instead of human  force-feeding tubes.

Learning to Fly

cedar waxwing

When I’m not pondering how much knowledge and what kind of knowledge I should have as a teacher in a 21st-century classroom, I’m thinking about what ‘good’ teaching is. Reams have been written over centuries about what makes a teacher ‘good’ but I confess that I find the whole debate utterly exhausting. What is ‘good’? For whom? When?  What does it even mean to ‘teach’?

A few summers ago, my friend Skylark and I were on one of our regular  walks through a nearby fragment of forest when we noticed a baby bird on the pathway.  The bird still had downy feathers and seemed quite content to be just sitting there.  But sitting where it was would put it in the direct path of any one of the many dogs that also love to walk the trail. And so we had a dilemma on our hands.

I immediately announced that I did not know how to look after a baby bird but Skylark’s childhood had included experiences with her father rescuing birds and butterflies.  She began talking softly to the bird while she thought about what to do. After a few minutes, she gently picked up the bird the way her father had taught her, and placed her/him in her purse.  We walked on. When we came to a stream, she dipped her finger into the water and fed the bird droplets of water, all the while patiently talking to the bird.  Then she decided we had to find some worms so that we could feed the bird.  So there we were, scratching around the dirt looking for worms to feed the baby bird all the while mosquitoes were having quite a midday meal on us. We didn’t find any worms and so continued our walk, wondering all the way if the bird would be okay.

When we got home and Skylark went on the Internet to find out what to do about the bird, she quickly realized that we had done all the wrong things.  A bird-rescue website had helped her to identify the bird (a cedar waxwing), corrected her on what the bird actually needed to eat (berries, not worms) and advised that the bird should be returned to the place it was found so that its mother could find it and show it how to get back to the nest.

And so we followed the advice which included setting the bird back in the same area but not the same spot and waiting from a distance for the mother so show up.  We did as suggested and after waiting about 20 minutes, we realized that the bird had been safely rescued by its mother.

For me there are so many dimensions of learning and teaching revealed in this incident. There is the learning and teaching between the baby bird and its mother.  Apparently baby cedar waxwings learn to fly by first dropping to the ground which is why it was not scared to be where it was. It had not, of course, realized that its forest home also accommodated lots of humans and dogs. Although it had been born with the instinct to fly, it still  needed guidance from its mother. The ‘teaching’ by the mother bird and the ‘learning’ by the baby bird were processes that had evolved over millennia so that there are specific skills learned and taught for a specific environment.  Baby birds need to learn to  fly in order to feed themselves so that they can go on to do more bird-like things: sing, procreate, participate in an ecosystem.

To gather data about the bird as an entity separate from its environment (temperate rain forests) would provide a poor and incomplete picture of the bird, its bird behaviour (eating berries) and bird skills ( flying, nest building).  In addition, to gather data about how the bird learns and is taught without looking at the environment would be a ridiculous notion. And yet proponents of standardized teaching and testing use just such a lens when they look at students in classrooms.

What the bird needs to learn is directly connected to specific needs in a specific environment.

And when that environment changes, as it is currently for many Arctic birds, there is a level of change in that learning in order to adapt to the new environment. Many birds have adapted to living and thriving in urban environments. How did they learn how to do this? How long did the learning last?  Who/what  were the teachers of that learning? How did they realize that their environment was changing and that they would need to adapt?

Ecologists tell us that we humans too are inextricably part of an ecosystem, that without our environments, we would die; spiritual mystics tell us that there is no boundary between what we see as our separate selves and what we call our environment.  And yet we persist in seeing teaching/learning as a separate issue, extricated from the multiple places and spaces to which we belong.

Each morning we all awake to different selves (biologically, chronologically, psychologically) in a different world (seasonally, technologically, historically, politically) both outside and inside the classroom.  And yet we continue to rely on textbooks that captured what was true in an environment long-changed by new discoveries, and new ways of seeing the world.  We continue to focus on the past to prepare students for the future. If birds did this, they’d never survive!

The Information Age has exponentially generated not only vast oceans of information but also a multitude of possible places of belonging and ways of being. What determines what is ‘good’ to learn and teach in an ever-changing world?  Is it enough to know how to navigate oceans of information?  Should we learn how to live in a world of imminent nuclear devastation?  How to live in a world of dramatic weather events and climate change?  Should we teach our children how to live in a world of perpetual war? How to make a living during economic recessions and depressions? Should they know how to thrive in whatever economic system is going to replace capitalism?

What do we prepare the next generation for when we are not even certain what the future looks like?  Whose agenda do we choose and what are the implications of that for the child, for society,  for our collective future?

Next September schools will begin to educate 6 year olds for the world of 2028… who knows what they’ll need to know for the world they will face when they enter adulthood?Will we have prepared them enough so that they know how to fly in the forests of the future?