Unlearning the Definition of Teacher

I’m participating in a new MOOC on the Future of Higher Education and one of the “assignments” was to describe something that I had to unlearn, the challenges I faced, and the successes I experienced. As usual, I am sharing my work with the public as well. 

Teachers are essential to learning, but for the longest time my narrow definition of teacher prevented me from discovering the power of self-directed learning. Growing up, I thought of a teacher as the person who leads, directs, lectures, and sets the rules for a formal class. The teacher chose what I would learn. The teacher chose how I would learn it. The teacher determined how my learning would be measured and documented, and the teacher assessed my work, determining what was acceptable and what was not. My job, as the learner, was to follow the rules and meet the expectations of the teacher. I was to learn compliance, preparing for life as a good consumer and obedient citizen.

Somewhere along the way, I discovered that this traditional role of teacher was not essential to substantive and high-impact learning experiences. It started in college. I did not read much before college, but the library soon become my favorite classroom. I browsed the shelves for hours, often sitting in a lonely corner, paging through an old, dusty book; the older and dustier, the better. Over time, I decided to start assigning myself research papers and books reports based on personal interests. Soon I had such a collection that I rarely had to write papers from scratch for a college class. I just pulled one out of my personal, unpublished, unshared essays, revised them and submitted them. Mentioning this to some people today, they claim that I was self-plagiarizing because I did not write the paper at the demand of the teacher, but instead started writing it before the assignment was even announced. In other words, since it was not first initiated by a teacher (in the traditional sense of the word), some claim that it was unacceptable or even unethical work.

Many years ago I started to study alternative learning organizations, reading about Montessori schools, Sudbury Schools, Sumerhill schools, project-based learning schools, self-directed learning academies, the unschooling and deschooling movements. Reading about and observing these learners and communities helped me see learning and learning organizations in a new way. Teachers existed in some of these schools, but they were not the center of the organizations. In fact, as I saw these places where young people grew into self-directed, creative, collaborative, critical thinkers; I realized that it was possible, in part, because the traditional role of teacher did not dominate the culture of these places.

There were teachers in these organizations..  However, “teacher” in these communities was not as much about a formal role held by a single person who directed the activities of the learners. A teacher was anyone or anything that aided a given learner in growth and development. Students had more say in what they learned, how they learned it, how they would document their learning and how they would get authentic feedback on it.  Realistically, there were often still teachers as authority figures an guides for the students, but these places seemed to be built around the students and not around the teachers.

The more I observed, the more I realized that mainstream learning organizations maintained too narrow of a definition for teacher. By letting go of that definition or at least letting it expand a bit, I now live in a world with more teachers than ever, amazing teachers who inspire me daily. My children are my teachers. My spouse is my teacher. I am sometimes my own teacher. Each person that I meet physically or online is a teacher. The authors of the books, blogs, Tweets, and articles that I read are my teachers. The communities online and in-person serve as teachers for me. Co-learners and co-teachers surround me. It is often up to me to determine the what, how, and why of learning. It is up to me to decide how I will get the necessary feedback to learn. Amid such self-direction, I have the help of a thousand teachers that I now call my personal learning network.