Thursday, June 30, 2011

Reflecting on ISTE Keynote

I've always been something of a contrarian. I can't simply go to any gathering and agree with everything that is being said. Rather, I'm always finding some fundamental difference with the conventional wisdom. At ISTE, this is also the case.

While Chris Lehman is a great and accomplished principal who does many things worth emulating, I don't completely buy into his worldview. I'm all in favor of meaningful projects where students construct their own meaning and trusting, caring student teaching relationships that allow learning to flourish. However, he is much more radical than me when it comes to the teacher role.

Lehman likes to say that students don't want to be told anything. No more sage on the stage. His students back him up. His young poet/slammers had a lot of swagger when they pronounced basically that no one can tell them anything. Quite simply I'm not in favor of the teacher abandoning the role as subject expert. Here's why.

In these difficult economic times, the people that manage to thrive are people with expert knowledge in a specific area. How does one become an expert? Generally by learning from the experts in the field, either by working with them, reading their writings or listening to lectures. I believe it is essential for every young scholar to appreciate intellectual mastery as a worthy end, and that means respecting their teacher as the expert in their subject. A student that is never humble before someone of greater knowledge really doesn't have much of a chance of acquiring subject mastery. I believe very deeply as an orthodox Jew that one must revere the scholar and that the highest form of learning is 'lishma' which loosely translates to 'for its own sake.' The love for the scholar and the love of learning much go hand in hand.

Maybe I was the weird one, but in High School I had no respect for teachers that did not know their subject. Typically these teachers would show a lot of videos instead of teaching anything themselves. On top of that they never assigned any meaningful work. From my experience, the best teachers were the most knowledgeable and gave students assignments that required thinking and creativity. As a student I needed both things to do well. In college and graduate school I had some professors that were more facilitators of learning, rather than scholars. I didn't feel like I learned as much than I would have if they were teaching me from a position of expertise. Sometimes I would actually feel cheated if the professor was not teaching in a subject matter in which they were an expert. In contrast, I remember being absolutely enthralled by a lecture at the University of Minnesota by a special man who was a scholar in death and dying issues. I could have tried to grasp death and dying in a constructivist type project, but I felt that having a sage on the stage was far better. His lecture left me with a strong desire to learn more about the subject.

I'm not an advocate of lecture-only classes. Students need to work with the material in a meaningful way. Sometimes this means reading in depth in isolation, but it could also mean working with partners or groups or listening to a teacher and asking questions. Time on task has long been the biggest factor in student learning. So, yes I believe teachers need to adjust to today's students, who are more difficult to engage in truly academic, rigorous work, but that does not mean teachers should back off completely from their role as an authority on the subject they teach. Furthermore, I believe the highest outcome for our students is for them to become real scholars, those that love to learn. That means they need role-models that are experts and scholars.

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