I want to compare two texts. The first is an op-ed by Richard Galant, a senior editor for CNN, entitled What if Students Learn Faster Without Teachers? The second is a 1987 video by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics entitled A Private Universe (you will need to click the VoD button next to the 1 in Individual Program Descriptions). In his op-ed, Galant uses the ideas of 2013 TED Prize winner Sugata Mitra for a School in the Cloud to question the effectiveness of teachers. In the Harvard-Smithsonian video, we see a bright student struggling with understanding how the Earth experiences different seasons, despite being handed the correct information. One text brazenly questions the role of teachers, while the other solidifies their necessity. And guess which one is getting the airtime?
I am not the first person to take issue with TED; both Evgeny Morozov and Audrey Watters pinpoint questions that should be asked about the TED spectacle. One such question is that of rigor. A person stands up at TED, has 15-20 minutes to speak, utilizes Public Speaking 101 tricks and parlance to create an evocative presentation, and is heralded with applause at the conclusion. There is no question and answer session, no challenges to the brilliant ideas, no discussion or debate. Presenters get an idealized environment to share their ideas with a global audience, cultural capital and validity built into the TED mechanism. Viewers get to consume the ideas in rapid succession (either during TED or at the website), without any structure for conscious debate.
an edutainment a speaker colloquium does not provide or promote a space for thoughtful interactive debate, the implicit position is that those at the colloquium are Right and True. When a colloquium has the kind of cache as TED has generated in just a few short years (how’d that happen, btw?), such Truth becomes Gospel. And that is the danger point, a place where a CNN Editor feels compelled to question the necessity of teachers (and if you think the article is tough on teachers, the caption to the accompanying video is the coup d’etat: Want to fix education? Ditch Teachers) based on a 15 minute presentation. From a Google Search on Richard Galant, I can find no background in education upon which he can rigorously second the claims he puts on education. The last paragraph is my favorite, and it’s a doozy:
Traditional education stresses tests and punishments, two things that Mitra said causes the brain to shut down its rational processes and surrender to fear. Adopting a method closer to that of grandparents, who shower children with admiration, is “the opposite of the parent method,” which relies on threats, Mitra said.
Now, Mitra has a good deal of published research on his “Hole in the Wall” schools. And when Mitra says that students learn best from one another, well, there is a lot of truth to that. But it’s not that simple. Having seen some of Mitra’s research, I wonder if he dumbed it down for TED, or if he really believes that we should abandon schooling (Mitra is yet another person who buys into the Industrial Revolution argument about the history of education, an argument that only seems to pop up in educational technology literature, not in the ed theory stuff). But that paragraph Galant applies to the situation, in context with his headline and his caption (and don’t think that Galant, an editor, had nothing to do with the title or caption), is egregious. I taught for a decade, have been involved in education for almost all of my adult life, and have met hundreds of teachers. None of those teachers a) got into teaching to stress tests and punishment, or b) created a scholastic environment that stressed tests and punishment. Teachers usually want to do the opposite; create a positive environment where students can excel, and create interesting curriculum and activities to help in that manner. So to blame teachers, who in the past 30 years have seen their professionalism and autonomy impeded in a great degree by administrations and policymakers, to blame them for tests and punishment, shows a shallowness of argument only superseded by the regurgitation of a TED talk as Gospel truth.
I’m not going to go all-out against Mitra. Again, students learn best from each other. This is nothing new in educational research. Where I will question him is in regards to the need for instruction and framing. The big buzz with education right now talks about how content is irrelevant in a networked world, so competencies and abilities to utilize content are paramount. Again, this isn’t new…this is an argument that started over 20 years ago, yet last year started to get traction (which makes you question motivation for adopting the argument). But the pioneers of the argument saw the role of instructor as vital to the apparatus, and that role had nothing to do with content delivery or sage on the stage. Rather, the job of an instructor was to connect content to context through real-world application, problem-solving, environment, and assisting with knowledge gaps, among other things.
And that’s where A Private Universe is important. In the case study shown, a girl considered exemplary by standards and testing has a great deal of trouble explaining the seasons, and makes up arguments for her belief to work in the context of science. Even after she is presented with the scientifically proven explanation for seasons, she still cannot let go of preconceived notions, notions that were developed through a number of factors: environment, logic gaps, prior teachers. If we let go of teachers and go straight to computers that track progress and utilize Big Data, they will determine if a student is wrong about how the seasons work. And they will provide the information. But what happens when the student is left alone to contextualize, interpret, put into action, etc? According to A Private Universe, that student doesn’t improve. That’s where the teacher steps in. That’s just one place the teacher steps in.