Good Teachers Become Less Important

I often joke that my education took off when I discovered the unimportance of teachers. I am a teacher, so I must not take that statement too literally.  Oddly enough, I really do take the statement literally (while continuing to believe that teachers play a very important role in education).  I continue to believe that teachers have a valuable role in guiding and mentoring learners at different stages of their life and learning journeys.  These people sometimes hold an official title of teacher or professor, or they might be a neighbor, friend, family member…even a stranger.  In one sense, a teacher is anyone or anything that contributes to our learning. With that definition, even your dog or pet rock can be a teacher.

However, when I think about the role of what we traditionally call a teacher, one of the most important goals of good teachers is to work hard at making themselves as unimportant as possible, not unimportant in the sense of lacking value, but unimportant in the sense that they are eventually no longer needed.  In other words, the goal of the teacher is to aid the learners in becoming self-directed learners.  Few disagree with this.  Where some of us differ is with regard to how soon we think the teacher should begin to step back and let the learner take control.  Whatever the case, as I continue to reflect upon the critical need to help students of all ages grow as self-determined and self-directed learners, I’m reminded of what Jon Taylor Gatto wrote as ten important “outcomes” for students today.  It is an interesting list to compare with the many other lists of skills for learners in the 21st century (Tony Wagner’s survival skills, Gardner’s minds for the future, etc.).

In Jon Taylor Gatto’s Weapons of Mass Instruction, he suggests ten abilities that are important for students to develop.

People today need to be able to…

  1. define problems without a guide,
  2. ask hard questions which challenge prevailing assumptions,
  3. work in teams without guidance,
  4. work absolutely alone,
  5. persuade others that your course is the right one,
  6. discuss issues and techniques in public with an eye to reaching decisions about policy,
  7. conceptualize and reorganize information into new patterns,
  8. pull what you need quickly from masses of irrelevant data,
  9. think inductively, deductively, and dialectically, and
  10. attack problems heuristically.

16 comments

  1. David says:

    I believe and would defend that teachers are valuable at every level of education, even in higher education. However, I believe the role of the involvement of the teacher in society should be inversely proportional to the development of each student, gauged by the individual, not the class level per se – such that in early education (i.e. kindergarten) the teacher has the most involved and significant role in teaching, supervision, safety, affirmation, instruction, and that every year, or at every milestone in the life of a youth, the amount of direct instruction by a teacher decreases successfully, again, case-by-case, student by student – so that the student is independent as soon as possible and capable, acquiring his or her own knowledge in a creative, free and self-directed environment, hopefully even well before and during middle and high school.

    For instance, if we worked towards the complete elimination of teachers from my daughter’s first grade class, even at one of the best public elementary schools in the nation (Chesterbrook ES in McLean), students could not be self-directed, independent, self-assured and self-taught for a greatly sustained period without direct, daily instruction and assignments, with grading, in languages, communications, technology, or in the arts and sciences. Granted, I don’t think this was his point, but the role of teachers is certainly not a clear black and white issue, and our society would suffer quickly if the goal is their elimination, or “eventually no longer needed” as his described. My two cents worth. Every child has different needs, and they change so fast. We would very quickly mimic the movie, “Idiocracy” – which I thought was hilarious.

    Then we get into the question of the role parents should play in supplementing their education at home, which is not too dissimilar in philosophy. That’s another BIGGIE!

    • Bernard Bull says:

      Thanks for the comment, David. We are largely in agreement. I suspect that most of us are in agreement on this topic, but the differences show up in matters of degree, timing, etc. As I note in the article and the follow up one by the same title, teachers are certainly important, but it is their job to help students become increasingly independent as days, months, and years pass. In terms of methods, there are many different ways that this happens. My parents helped me learn to ride a bike, but eventually I didn’t need them at all. As I grew and time passed, I was able to ride my bike around the town. They handed over more and more responsibility to me so that now, as an adult, I can ride my bike without even needing to consult my mom about the matter. My own research takes me to many schools that do not have daily instruction and assignments (in the traditional sense) and little to no grading (in the traditional sense). This research reminds me of the many different ways in which students are able to learn and progress toward independence.

      I agree that your closing question is an important one. I sometimes like to flip the question when discussing children. What role should schools play in supplementing the education of what young people get at home (and in other contexts outside of school). There seems to be plenty of research to support the idea that student performance in schools is heavily influenced by the life and experiences outside of school.

      You mentioned technology education in your comment. That is one area where access plus self-directed tinkering, exploring, and experimenting become quite powerful in helping one cultivate impressive knowledge and skills. Add a community of practice, some good informal guidance and/or some peer or adult mentoring to the mix (think maker spaces), and there can be some amazing results.

      What my post does represent is an underlying conviction that helping students learn how to learn is one of our most important and fundamental tasks (focus of a forthcoming article). As an educator, I measure much of my success by asking this question. Do my students need me less now than when they started the lesson/unit/course/program?

  2. learningclubpune says:

    Yes. What this article says is true. But this has to be complemented with the description of a good leaner. A good learner knows how, how long and how much to learn from a teacher!!

  3. [...] I often joke that my education took off when I discovered the unimportance of teachers. I am a teacher, so I must not take that statement too literally. Oddly enough, I really do take the statemen…  [...]

  4. [...] Richard (@kenrichard) asked a great question in response to an article that I wrote about self-directed learning.  He asked, “Any advice on the balance between standards / certifications and self directed [...]

  5. Bernard Bull says:

    This is a great question. I’ve been thinking about it off and on through the day, and I’ll try to put together a reply in the form of another post/short article.

  6. Good Article. Any advice on the balance between standards / certifications and self directed learning?

  7. [...] of the most read posts on my blog is a recent article entitled, “Good Teachers Become Less Important.”  I’m delighted to see the rich conversation surrounding the article on LinkedIn groups, [...]

  8. vince434 says:

    The best classes are where the students do more than the teachers.

  9. Ian Koxvold says:

    I was intrigued by some initiatives in parts of the developing world, where trained (arguably “adequate”) teachers are in very short supply.The Omega Schools, or Bridge International Academies provide a relatively untrained teacher (c.3 weeks initial training) who works to a prepared script, and who emphasises group work.

  10. Geo Meek says:

    Indeed a good teacher is hard to find and that is a true shame. If you’re a teacher of any kind find a way to give some time, Be the first to say yes I can look at it your way.

  11. Again the difference between learning and training is given stark contrast. The relatively recent technique of allowing competition to determine those most suitable rather than valuing, nuturing and encouraging all learner s. Reflection, review and practice were once regular aspects of a course of study, the push to perform has made the opportunity to demonstrate proficiency reduced to a few moments in a test or high stakes examination.

  12. [...] I often joke that my education took off when I discovered the unimportance of teachers. I am a teacher, so I must not take that statement too literally. Oddly enough, I really do take the statemen…  [...]

  13. Lindelwe says:

    I have also realised the unimportance of teachers which is why I m teaching my son at home

  14. [...] I often joke that my education took off when I discovered the unimportance of teachers. I am a teacher, so I must not take that statement too literally. Oddly enough, I really do take the statemen…  [...]

  15. [...] Good Teachers Become Less Important by Bernard Bull – Etale – Life in the Digital World. [...]