One 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, Twitter, and through a number of private messages with readers. Toward that end, I thought that I would briefly expand on that first article, explaining more of what I mean by the statement, “Good Teachers Become Less Important.” There is no question that I created the title to provoke thought and discussion. What I enjoy about the title is that it can be read in different ways, even though the article itself clarifies the way that I was using it. If people read the title and did not go on to read the entire article, they might think I was claiming that teachers are somehow becoming less important or valuable. The title could be read as a sort of news headline, claiming that something has changed today, and good teachers suddenly became less important. While it is true that the Internet and a variety of tools and resources are making it increasingly possible for us to learn apart from the traditional teacher and classroom environment, that was not my intended meaning in the title.
The title can be read in a very different sense, as a sort of philosophy statement about something that I consider important in education. From that perspective, the title is drawing our attention to a fact that is largely intuitive, but is sometimes forgotten to the detriment of learners. As I see it, teachers have the role and responsibility of helping students move toward independence with regard to a variety of tasks. Good teachers learn to become increasingly less necessary as their students progress toward mastery of certain tasks. Imagine a math teacher whose students are no more capable of solving math problems on their own at the end of the year than they were at the beginning of the year. The math teacher might feel good about being needed by the students to solve the math problems, but that is not her job. Her job is to help students in such a way that they will be able to use math for the rest of their lives, to use it in situations where a math teacher is not present to help them. In other words, their job is to become less important, less necessary in the mathematical lives of the students. We can disagree about the best way to help students achieve such independence, but not as much about the goal of helping students become increasingly independent. This is too central and critical to a philosophy of education in a democratic society.
I noticed that one response to my first article described the teacher-student relationship as similar to that of a conductor and an orchestra. That can be a helpful comparison for describing the present interactions in some classrooms, but I don’t think that it necessarily helps us think about the goals (future tense) of a good teacher, and this is part of my concern with too much of a teacher-centered approach to education. A teacher-centered approach risks focusing largely on the present behaviors and actions of the teacher in orchestrating a harmonious class session or a well-behaved student in the present. Ultimately, the goal of education is not to provide a present and harmonious learning environment. It has one foot in the present and one in the future, thinking about how students are progressing toward independence, self-regulation, and self-direction in a wide array of subjects and tasks. When students learns to drive, they usually have a guardian, guide or driver’s education instructor with them; but not forever. That guide becomes increasingly less important as the students learn to drive alone. If this doesn’t happen, then little learning (and therefore little good teaching) took place. As a result, I contend that learning environments should help people develop at least a small measure of self-direction and self-regulation.
Some might argue that not all students are capable of independence and self-direction. Even if this were true, there is little question that almost all people can learn to be a bit more independent and self-directed than where they started. Part of good teaching involves helping to foster the types of spaces, experiences and environments where students are able to develop this independence. Some learning environments are shaped more by the desire to keep students under control, ensure that they are coloring between the lines, and get students to follow the teacher’s instructions. There are times to color between the lines and it is important to learn how to follow instructions, but it is also important to learn how to carry out tasks without instructions, to take the road less traveled, to learn through experimentation and exploration, and to take personal initiative. Part of good learning involves engaging in activities and experiences that help us to progress toward self-direction and independence, learning more about how to leverage one’s personal strengths, setting goals and establishing a plan to meet those goals. If teachers always set the goals and establish the plans, how are students supposed to learn these important skills? If teachers always establish the priorities, how do students learn to prioritize? This is why it is critical (for the sake of the students and their learning) that good teachers learn to gradually (or sometimes rapidly, depending upon the learner and context) become less important, less directive, and less essential to the learning experience.
“But my students would do nothing if I didn’t tell them what to do.” That may be true, and I’m not arguing that teachers should never give instructions or direction. In many learning contexts, simply abandoning such actions would be negligence. However, here is the important question that good…even great teachers use to inform their actions. How I can help this student progress toward independence…toward functioning on a given task without my help, direction, or re-direction? Persistently asking and seeking answers to this question is an important step in helping to cultivating creative, courageous citizens and not simply producing what John Taylor Gatto might call complacent, compliant consumers.