Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Internet Can't Replace Great Teaching

"When kids can get their lessons from the Internet, what's left for classroom instructors to do?"  I read that provocative question at the start of a recent Atlantic piece on "The Deconstruction of the K-12 Teacher", and I was, in fact, provoked.

Michael Godsey, the California English teacher who wrote the piece,  is bedazzled by the potential of videotaped lectures and downloaded lesson plans, to the point that he doesn't see how future teaching will require much more than fairly limited (and perhaps quite poorly paid) facilitators and cheerleaders.

I'm provoked because I think he's missed the most exciting current thought about teaching and learning.  Everything I'm hearing in Kentucky education says that live adults, actively engaged with students as individuals and team participants, will always be essential to the kind of learning that matters most.

For example, I've been listening to teachers who are participating in the work of the Mathematics Design Collaborative and using the MDC tools known as "classroom challenges" or  "formative assessment lessons."  Each challenge starts with a rich math task and organizes a learning process that draws students into "a productive struggle with the mathematics essential for college readiness."  There are standard handouts and tools, and the lesson follows a carefully designed set of directions, and yes, all those items are downloaded from a website.  The main steps work like this:

1) Students are given an easily administered initial assessment task. This provides teachers with a qualitative sense of their students’ grasp of the targeted mathematics, and that evening, the teacher uses the student's first responses to decide which activities will be most appropriate for the net day's work.
2) Students are immersed in the mathematics of the initial assessment task through a set of collaborative activities. This part is designed as a guided inquiry. Students work in small groups, engage in discussion, take responsibility for their own learning, and learn from each other, often by examining one another’s work. Teachers circulate as the students work, asking questions or offering small suggestions when needed, deciding minute by minute which help can best move their students’ learning forward.
3) Students are engaged in a whole-class discussion. This is designed to pull the lesson together. Students get to strengthen their understanding while teachers get to deepen their insights into their students’ learning. It provides another opportunity to structure discussion, provide feedback, and allow students to learn from each other.
4) Students return to improve their response to the initial assessment. This gives students a look at what they’ve learned as well as more feedback, while providing teachers perspective on the effectiveness of their teaching.
Here's the important point for thinking about the Atlantic column: teachers say they're working at the top levels of their content knowledge and capacity for rapid decision-making all the way through the process.  For this kind of teaching, deep content knowledge is essential, and deep engagement with each student is essential, and the two have to be combined with great flexibility right in the moment.

Now, to be sure, if we only needed students to do accurate addition, computers probably can drill kids often enough and precisely enough to get us that limited (though important) skill. But we don't just need that.  We need students who can grab a mathematics challenge, try an approach, think through its effectiveness, talk with colleagues, revise their approach, and struggle productively to an answer that works well.  And we need students who will do that, because they have learned that they can in a setting with meaningful support and meaningful challenges.

To learn all of that, students need teachers who know them, engage them, work with them, share deep expertise in the content and practices of their academic field, and help students move one by one and step by step to becoming expert practitioners in their own right.  It's personal, humane work, and it will always be done best by personal human contact.

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