What makes a good teacher, and can they ever be replaced?

Did you see the report about MIT BLOSSOMS: “Ed Tech that requires nothing but a TV and VCR?” (It’s from mid last year, so not exactly current, but it was recycled in the MindShift news feed recently.)  The BLOSSOMS approach offers videos on certain topics recorded by an ‘expert’ in the field. The key difference between this and something like Khan Academy is that the teacher pauses the video at certain points to conduct activities with her students – not computer based, but in real life – before she starts the video again.

I have quite a few mixed feelings about this report.

Firstly, what’s new? This approach seems to be quite similar to what I experienced at primary school and sometimes in secondary school. Every now and then a CRT television (the big old heavy ones) with a video player plugged in underneath, was rolled out on a trolley for the class to watch a video. It didn’t happen very often because there was probably one TV in the whole school and the teachers had to book their time to use it. In fact this BLOSSOMS approach was said to have arisen in “a rundown school in rural central China” which had a video and a VCR but not much else. Not so different to my primary school. The videos were used to illustrate certain points or introduce you to certain ideas, but not as the sole teaching method. I don’t think any teacher would have showed a video about long multiplication, for example, and said that they had covered that part of the syllabus with us, with no further work required.

Does it really challenge current orthodoxy? The author says the BLOSSOMS approach is “not student-centred”, “not BYOD” and “does not encourage each student to work at his or her own pace.” She suggests this is ” blasphemy in view of the hardening orthodoxy of the ed tech establishment.” I suspect there is not yet any orthodoxy in this area.

But with the current trend to use a computer program for every part of the syllabus, what does student-centred really mean when you are using a computer to do your teaching? Does it mean that the student chooses what activity to do, and what level to do it at, while still completing little tests online or watching the videos that someone else has written or created for them? That’s not really student-centred. Even if the program has some clever AI built in so that it increases the difficulty to keep the student challenged, it’s still not student-centred.

Also, there are key benefits to children working in a group, but working in a group does not have to exclude each child working at their own pace, and certainly doesn’t exclude student-centred learning. (Someone find me a good example of this. I’m sure there are many on the internet but I’m writing this late at night and I want to get a bit of sleep.)

Anyone who has been following news around education and learning in the past few years will know about MOOCS, blended learning, upside-down classrooms and the maker movement. But what I feel has been largely missing from the discussion is talking about what makes a good teacher, and the difference that a good teacher can make to the whole learning experience.

Yes, if all you are going to do is deliver a lecture to your students, then that might as well be done by getting them to watch a video, and if all they are going to do is watch a video, why do that at school or college, and why have the teacher there at all?

From the article: “Champions of educational technology often predict (with barely disguised glee) that computers will soon replace teachers, and some school districts are already looking to ed tech as a way to reduce teaching costs. The message to teachers from the advocates of technology is often heard as: Move aside, or get left behind.”

The thing is, that computers cannot replace teachers. Computers and/or videos can replace teachers as sources of information, but that’s absolutely not what I consider my function is when I am teaching. (Computers can also replace teachers in marking certain very narrowly constrained assessments, but then the problem is, what happens to the outcomes we cannot measure so easily, and are they devalued by being less quantifiable?)

Maybe my experience is skewed by having worked for the Open University, widely acknowledged as having been one of the first education providers to use the ‘flipped classroom‘ model. In the Open University, students receive the course material in some form (book, video, CD-Rom, online courses) and work through it in their own time. They don’t have to come to tutorials at all, but if they do, they will not be repeating the same material. They will not be listening to a lecture. They will be interacting with the teacher and the other students, working through activities in an attempt to gain a deep understanding of the material and how to apply it. Education is not just a way of passing information from one receptacle to another.

I suspect the essential key to the success of BLOSSOMS is to have a good teacher in the first place. What the lessons require, for them to work, is interaction between the teacher and the student. A good teacher, in my book, will know what to expect from each student in their class. They will be able to differentiate the work for the students who need stretching, just as they do for the ones who need more help and explanation of what is going on. This adjustment can happen ‘on the hoof’ during a lesson, and will lead to differences between each student’s experience of the lesson, even if everyone is working together towards the same ultimate goal.

The author of the piece suggests that the BLOSSOMS approach works because many teachers lack confidence in their own subject knowledge. If I had a teacher whose own understanding of science or maths was dodgy, I would prefer to be shown these videos and to be working on activities that someone better qualified has suggested, than to be working through a textbook, with nowhere to go when I had questions. But I think that’s not the main point of the program. I think that the main point is the interaction between students and each other, and between students and the teacher. And, to go back to the start, I don’t think that’s anything new.

After drafting this post, I saw that one of my favourite teacher bloggers, Pernille Ripp, was writing about personalized learning. That’s exactly what I’m getting at. I feel that if a teacher cannot provide true personalized learning, then our classes might as well be all computer based. Conversely, even with computer-based curriculum, a teacher who adds that personalized touch can make all the difference.

Was I extremely lucky with my primary teachers? Have I missed something in this current race to promote computer-based activities and downplay the value of human teachers? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Living World Class 5 from Karen b

Learning in waves

I love this blog post about a new model of intellectual development, from Robert Siegler at Carnegie Mellon University.

When my eldest son was a baby, I frequented popular parenting websites. I read about what he should be doing at each stage of his little life. I could congratulate myself if he was ‘advanced’ compared to the majority of children his age, and worry if, conversely, he was not meeting certain targets when the website said he should.

These ‘ages and stages’ influence healthcare professionals and educational professionals alike. Once your child goes to school, their syllabus and teaching is largely determined by what someone has said that most children should be doing by a certain age. (This someone may not even be an expert in child development or education.) Parents who find their children are not meeting these targets, at either end, have to fight to get more attention for their child, either to bring them in line with the majority of children, or to make sure they are stimulated and not bored silly by the school classes.

But I have long been reassured by what people working with gifted children call ‘asynchronous development’. It is possible (and in fact fairly common) to have a child who is far ahead at maths, but whose handwriting is atrocious. Or who will talk with great interest, using technical vocabulary, about their speciality, but appears not to know the first thing about how to make and keep friends. I have worked with colleagues, in the field of museum education no less, who were as intelligent or more than their peers, but did not learn to read until they were 10 years old or above. That certainly challenged my own preconceptions about learning, education and intelligence. I am glad that I had this experience before I had my own children.

The more that I work with my own children and others, I have suspected that what is called asynchronous development is the case for most if not all children. It is just more extreme in children who are ‘gifted’ because you can’t avoid noticing the areas that they are advanced in. I believe all children focus on one area at a time, to the exclusion of others, whether it is learning to crawl, learning to talk, or learning to create 3D digital animations. As a parent, you may despair that they will ever remember to drink when they are thirsty or use a knife and fork correctly. Then suddenly your ten year old is making breakfast for his siblings and cooking the family dinner. I rarely notice simple stepwise progressions that are implied by the ages and stages information on the parenting websites or in the government syllabuses. I love the image of advancing and receding waves that Robert Siegler uses instead, in his new model.

Thanks to another homeschooling mum for pointing out this blog post. I try to stick to original material on this blog (and save the shares for my Facebook page) but I felt this one was too important to miss.


windy day in Manly (compressed for web viewing)