Conversation with Pre-Service Teachers - Teacher as Learner

Cross-posted to blog of proximal development.

First of all, thanks to those of you from Brigham Young University who added your thoughts to my first post on the set curriculum. I enjoyed reading your comments and learning more about your concerns and questions regarding teaching 21st century learners. As you can see, this is a conversation that can continue for a long time, and I hope that it will continue this week and even after our Second Life meet-up on Monday.

Today, I want to respond to your questions about student-teacher relationship and technology. I’ve selected the following questions from the list you sent me:

You mentioned that sometimes you end up talking about things not within the curriculum while you are establishing relationships with the students. What would you consider the balance to produce such effective bonds, but also obtain the goals of vigorous curricula?

To what extent do you think you can expose yourself as a mere human being, and not a teacher in your blogs and classroom settings?

Through your blogs, you make yourself seem more “human” to your students and they get to know you on a personal basis. Does that affect the way they treat you as a teacher?

What difficulties do you anticipate as the students start to perceive you in your other role as someone who can learn from them? Do you think that you will come upon classroom management problems? What feedback have you received from the community about your use of technology in the classroom?

How do you censor how much you should tell or show your students about yourself?

Do you ever loose the respect of the students when you actively show them you don’t know everything about your given subject?

These questions reveal the same apprehensions that I experienced when I first decided to redefine my teacherly voice and modify my classroom presence. They betray fear of losing control and the reputation of the content expert. I think it’s understandable - we are taught, after all, that in order to become successful and effective teachers, we need to become experts in our chosen fields and project an aura of expertise. Parents and students expect the teacher to be knowledgeable. Consequently, the decision to “learn with the students,” to use one’s own personal blog in the class blogosphere, to engage as a participant and a co-learner, often leads us to think that we will lose the respect of our students and that we will no longer really teach. The question immediately arises - how will my students benefit from being in my class if I don’t actively teach them?

At the same time, it would be silly to try to use blogs or wikis, for example, and try to preserve the traditional type of teacherly presence. These new tools demand that we assume the role of a facilitator and a co-learner. They really don’t work very well when the teacher insists on being in complete control and dictating how students engage as learners. They demand a more democratic and participatory approach.

So, how do we reconcile the new technology with the traditional expectations of most parents and students that we enter the classroom as subject experts? How do we encourage personal inquiry in our students and also maintain the traditional teacherly voice?

Needless to say, as the new technologies open up new vistas for exploration and personal engagement, educators struggle with how they can best meet these traditional expectations and adapt their practice to suit the new reality of a more conversational and participatory approach to learning brought about by the new tools of web 2.0. Leigh Blackall echoed many of my thoughts on this topic when he expressed this dilemma and the resulting frustrations in one of his recent posts. His ideas prompted me to comment on the process of losing the teacherly voice. I’d like to reiterate here the thoughts that I shared in response to his entry.

Losing the Authoritarian Voice

First of all, I’ve come to the conclusion that losing the teacherly voice is not the equivalent of losing the voice of an expert. When I first started blogging with my students and using my blog to learn and not just dispense knowledge or post evaluative comments about my students’ progress, I was under the impression that, in order to lose my teacherly voice, I would have to stop being an expert. I thought that, in order to be a participant and a co-learner, I had to learn along with my students. It took me a while to realize that I was wrong. How can I possibly say to my students that we will be learning together about Elizabethan drama, for example? I already know a lot about that topic. I cannot pretend that I don’t. In fact, I probably shouldn’t because they are in my class to learn from me, and they expect me to be their guide and introduce them to the topic.

And so, the challenge is that when I try to divest myself of my teacherly voice I need to remember that this process is not about losing the voice of the expert but about losing the voice of the traditional authoritarian teacher who enters the classroom as an official persona armed with a pre-defined set of goals and very specific lesson plans for his students to follow. It is about giving the students the freedom to engage with ideas that they find relevant and interesting, not about dictating every step of their learning process.

I believe that it is important to lose the authoritarian voice, the controlling voice, but not the voice of an expert who chose to teach because of his passion for the subject. The students need to see that the instructor is someone who lives and breathes whatever it is that they’re studying, that they have in their midst someone who has a wealth of expertise.

I think that the best way of losing that voice is to say the following:

“I’ve been teaching Elizabethan drama for a long time, but there are still many things that I don’t know very well. So, this term, while you research Elizabethan drama and related topics that you find interesting, I will research one specific aspect of Elizabethan drama that always interested me but that I never really had a chance to explore.”

Saying this to my class suggests that I still see myself as an expert. It also shows that I am a learner, someone who wants to use his blog to research things he’s passionate about. The voice of an expert is still there in that comment, but the traditional teacher persona has disappeared.

Modeling Personal Investment

In one of my recent posts, I suggested that I had decided to use my own blog as a more personal space. I decided to give it a meaningful title and blog about things that I am interested in: film, music, architecture, human rights. Clearly, most of these entries have nothing to do with the work we do in class. But the point here is to lead by example, to show the students that I am more than a subject expert, that I am a multi-dimensional being whose life is not limited to Elizabethan drama, or essay writing, or grammar, or reading Victorian novels. It shows that blogging is about reflection and thoughtful engagement with ideas that are important to us. How can I expect the students to take blogging seriously, if I use my own blog in the class blogosphere only to post assignments and evaluations? They need to see that blogging is about personal investment.

This strategy can have a very positive effect on building a solid relationship with my students. They get to know me as a person, not just a teacher. They see the richness that is in every human being who engages with ideas and shares his or her thoughts. When they see how much you care about different things in your life and how much time you take to reflect on them, their respect for you as a human being and a teacher can only increase.

Does all that writing about things that are important to me personally detract from the curriculum? I don’t think it does. I do think, however, that it redefines what we mean by curriculum. It redefines the curriculum because it shows the students that any topic is of value if it studied in reflective manner, if it is approached as a field to be explored. Northrop Frye once said that “it takes a good deal of maturity to see that every field of knowledge is the centre of all knowledge, and that it doesn’t matter so much what you learn when you learn it in a structure that can expand into other structures.” In other words, knowledge is not a series of fragmented and carefully compartmentalized units (although school does a great job of presenting it that way). Young people who see that their teacher blogs about things he finds meaningful are more likely to see blogs as personal spaces where they can be themselves and explore ideas that are personally relevant. They begin to see their blogs as a powerful medium for research, communication, expression, and reflection. (For a very insightful glimpse into a classroom where personal engagement works very well, check out Graham Wegner’s Starting Next Round Of Personal Research Projects.

Once they engage as individuals, once they find something that they want to explore as independent researchers, they become hooked and committed. This presents a perfect opportunity to work with them individually on specific skills that can help them improve their work and learn how to more effectively communicate their ideas. In other words, I don’t need the whole class to study the same thing in order to help them become better writers, readers, researchers, or critical thinkers. In fact, my chances of helping them develop in all those areas are much greater when I can interact with them in the context of their own research. Instructional conversations work well only when the students’ sense of ownership is already present.

In other words, I think it’s important for me to redefine my teacherly voice so that the students see me as a learner and not only as an educator. I think it’s important to show them that learning happens when we engage with ideas that we find personally meaningful. Of course, in order to do that we must first be prepared to grant them the freedom and provide the forum where they can become independent researchers. That, let’s face it, is not always easy.

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