Changing teachers?

I am a week behind! I’m still thinking about whether the teacher’s role will change in the light of connectivism and increasing use of advanced web 2.0 technologies and if so, what might be the associated difficulties.

I have been a teacher for more than 40 years and have formally taught all ages from children of 4 years old (and informally even younger if I consider my own three children) up to 55 years of age. Length of teaching experience doesn’t of course make for a better teacher, but it does mean that, if you have kept your eyes and ears open as you have been going along, then there is a wealth of experience to draw upon.

The interesting thing is that much of what has been talked about in the last week and previous weeks of this course, has been discussed at various points in the past 40 years. Ideas come and go and then come back again. So I have been thinking hard about what the key changes are that a teacher now needs to take account of, to continue to grow as an effective teacher. And for ‘teacher’, I think of anyone and everyone as being a teacher in a given set of circumstances, just as anyone and everyone is a learner in a given set of circumstances.

Two things stand out for me as being significantly new. One is the word ‘connectivism’ and everything that that implies, and the other is advancing technologies. Neither of these were around for most of my 40 years teaching experience.

In trying to think about what might be significantly different for the role of the teacher, two words have come to the fore in my mind. The first is autonomy.

It seems to me that one of the things that web 2.0 technologies offers is greatly increased opportunities for learner autonomy, as we have seen in the take up of social networking, microblogging, blogging, wikis etc. A teacher doesn’t even need to offer these opportunities. Learners are simply taking them. But accepting learner autonomy as a given of education might mean that teacher needs to make a significant shift in the way in which they think about their role.

What do we mean by learner autonomy? I mean that a learner is free to make decisions about their own learning. What to learn? Where to learn? How to learn? Who to learn from? Free and open access to a vast range of resources on the internet, human and physical, means that learner autonomy can now become much more of a reality. Even with a fixed curriculum, I don’t see this as a huge problem. When I was teaching 4 year old children all those years ago, the children used to plan their own day. Each day they would come into the classroom and mark up on their individual planning sheets how they were going to spend their day – in the sand, in the water tray, painting, reading, writing, physical play and so on. My job as the teacher was to ensure that over time their curriculum was balanced and that they were making progress. I had a similar experience when I asked a class of 6 and 7 year old children to collaboratively plan a whole half term’s work, which they did quite easily. They decided how we would cover the curriculum for those weeks. For my own masters in education degree we chose which modules we wanted study and within those which lectures we wanted to attend and then what assignment we wanted to write. Learner autonomy can be encouraged at any age and it is not a new idea in teaching and learning. It just needs the teacher to be imaginative, creative and ‘let go’! It seems to me that a teaching approach that takes account of connectivism, is one that fosters learner autonomy, so that learners are encouraged to make their own choices and decisions, making use of the extensive resources that are now available to them on the web. If education is to result in people having increased choice and control over their lives, then it must model this from the bottom up.

The second word has to be ‘connect’. The one metaphor that surprisingly has not been put forward this week (unless I missed it) is teacher as connector. In other words, the teacher’s role is one of supporting learners in their ability to make appropriate connections to the subject content and to other learners (where learner means anyone who is learning, at all levels of experience and expertise). The teacher’s own personal philosphy of education will affect how these connections are supported, where, with whom and with what. So a teacher may focus on supporting the students in connecting with the subject, e.g. physics. This might involve lectures in traditional lecture halls, but with connectivism in mind, the lecturere might also point students to the possibilities of connecting with physics networks. Or a teacher may focus on supporting students in connecting with each other in a group, with the purpose of exchanging experiences or collaborative working on a project. Different types of connections will be made according to the purpose of the learning. If as George says, ‘all learning begins with a connection, then the teacher’s role here is to be aware of the range of possible connections that can be made in order to enable the students to make their own choices about which paths to follow.

Many other ideas were discussed last week, and there have been some wonderful blog posts, particularly those that pulled it all together for the rest of us, such as those of Keith, John, Lani, Dave Pollard, Lisa, Carmen, Maru, and I’m sure many more that I just haven’t got to yet. (As I said at the start of this post, I’m still in catch up mode.)

But ultimately, as I have mentioned before, I think the good teachers will not have to make significant changes. They were already doing a lot of the things that have been discussed over the past week or more. They just need to remember and believe that all learning begins with a connection. And then they just need to be aware of how their learners are using advancing technologies for learning and know how to exploit those technologies themselves to enhance their already good teaching.

It doesn’t seem all that difficult to me. Effective change has always been a slow process, especially where people are concerned and we have always had ‘good’ teachers willing to change and keep on learning (no matter what the press might have us believe), so I don’t see that a good teacher is going to have to make massive changes.

I’m wondering if I’ve completely missed the point here.