Thursday, November 5, 2015

Teaching and Learning in a Changing World

It's a Friday afternoon, and I'm sitting under the crisp falling leaves in the CAJ plaza, sorting through the 40 or so tabs that are open and loading in my mental browser.  Among other things, I am now in the process of assembling my topic proposal for my Master's Thesis on the topic of flipped classroom strategies.  A colleague wisely reminded me that the  concept of the flipped classroom can easily be misunderstood, reduced to the use of outside-of-class lecture videos instead of traditional classroom lecture, when in fact that is but one possible characteristic of a flipped classroom.  More important by far is the shift in mentality.  I knew this, but I appreciated the reminder to take a step back to look at the bigger picture.

This is my attempt to look at that bigger picture.


Picture a classroom.
Were the desks in neat and tidy rows?

Picture a teacher.
Was she lecturing in front of a white-board?

Picture a student.
Was he listening carefully and taking painstaking notes?

Even after nearly 7 years of teaching, these are the images that come to my head when I hear these words.

These images are not normative; they are memories--the conditioned response of the thirteen years spent in the classrooms of my childhood and adolescence.

It is only upon deeper thought that scenes from my own classroom replace these images.  Still-deeper thought brings up images of what could be, and what should be.

Images of students debating, discussing, creating, questioning, researching, synthesizing, revising, puzzling and pondering--this is what should be, and I celebrate when such possibilities are fulfilled in my classroom.

What does this mean for me, as the teacher?  What does this mean for my classroom?  How can I create an environment of wonder, the sort of truth-centered classroom that Parker J. Palmer describes, where all members of the class community revel in the journey of learning?

The answer is not to be found by looking back, but by looking ahead.  The world has changed far too much for traditional assumptions about the role of teacher and student, and the nature of the classroom to be kept on life-support.

Nor is the answer to be found, as some would suggest, in technological innovation in and of itself.  In his discussion of motivation in Teaching Redemptively, Donovan Graham characterizes technology as an extrinsic motivator; such reforms lack transformative power without a more fundamental shift in mindset.

If the mindset does not change, no amount of technological innovation or creative pedagogy will unlock the potential of our classrooms.

So where are we, now?

We live in a world where the whole of human knowledge, the good and the evil, lives alongside our phone numbers in our front pockets.  (The parallels to the Garden of Eden become even more unsettling when one considers that the leading brand of smart-phone is named after a fruit.)

Our students do not need us to give them more information.

They need us to teach them how to find information, how to sift the wheat from the chaff, and how to make sense of the information.

We are called to be shepherds, facilitators, modelers, the providers of feedback and challenge, encouragement and love.

Though there is room for sharing information with our students--good stories and the the occasional lecture have their place--we are not called to be one-way transmitters of data.

To pretend that this is our calling is to ignore the true nature of our students, and the true nature of the world we live in.

Any reform that I, or anyone else, would strive to bring about in our classrooms and in our schools must start from the foundation of these understandings.

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