Every now and then I encounter an article that changes everything for me–a perspective that makes me rethink my entire understanding of the work I do and the direction in which our schools are headed. This is one of those articles.
There is an undeniable struggle right now for teachers to re-establish themselves as the experts in education; as knowledgable, competent professionals who are worthy of respect because we contribute something of great value to the community even in these times of rapid change. Discussions of our value center primarily on students’ academic achievement. And most of the time, we buy in. After all, helping students master grade level expectations and standards is a concrete, quantifiable, and worthwhile outcome.
Here’s the problem: defining our value and success in relation to measurable learning outcomes will eventually render us obsolete.
Will Richardson points out the painful truth: if all we care about is student achievement, then computers will soon be able to do the job better than us. Computers can differentiate learning better than we can, tracking progress in real time and automatically adjusting the level and type of practice accordingly. Pretty much everything that standardized tests measure are things that technology will soon be able to teach and assess better than an individual human being can.
So why are teachers necessary in the 21st century? This is the question WE need to answer in a very obvious way through our daily practice. We need to articulate and demonstrate the things that teachers can do for kids that technology alone cannot:
- Teach students to be open-minded as they collaborate and negotiate
- Foster empathy, compassion, and an urgent sense of social justice
- Model and show the value of hope, optimism, and risk-taking
- Instill a strong work ethic so children learn to take initiative and show perseverance and diligence
- Provide opportunities for creativity and ingenuity
- Guide students to use their imagination, invent, and find new solutions to real problems
- Help kids discover and follow their interests and passions
These are just a few of the practices that make teachers invaluable and indispensable. So the question becomes: are we doing them well? Are these “21st century skills” something we’re fostering every day in our kids? Do our teaching methods take students beyond rote learning into higher-level thinking and deep, critical reflection on real issues? And just as importantly…are we conveying the value of these practices to parents and the community, or are we allowing them to think the skills measured by standardized tests are more significant?
I don’t think we’re ever going to get overwhelming support for these “uniquely human dispositions” (as Will puts it) from those who make the big decisions in education. There are too many arguments against the human connection. The naysayers will insist that the traits are not quantifiable and testable, or not important. They’ll argue that these areas are the sole responsibility of parents. They might even contend that technology WILL be able to do these things better than people. We have to anticipate this push back from leaders who want to cut funds and replace teachers with technology. Anyone who sees dollar signs as the bottom line will find a reason to frame the discussion as if students are themselves machines which can be programmed by other machines for uniform success.
The media and public backlash against teachers comes from a sense that teachers are not worth the money that taxpayers are kicking out for our salaries. We need to show the world what we’re really capable of doing for kids. We need to redefine our role so that it’s obvious how much we are needed, and demonstrate how teachers (not technology, not tests) are the essential force in a school’s ability to inspire children and help them connect to their world.
Will states that the need for this shift is urgent. We can’t wait until technology has already forced us out of jobs and left our students to fend for themselves with their machines. We have to make our teaching about more than facts and rote learning and connect to something bigger than standardized tests. There’s no time to wait for someone to mandate and regulate and fund this change…the transformation has to begin with each of us, and it has to start now.
Founder and Writer
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