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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

What If Your Students Know More Than You Do?

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A Symbiotic Classroom:  A Reversed Dynamic of Knowledge with Technology


Making it Work

What does a teacher do if his students are more technologically savvy than he? The short answer is—learn. The long answer is complex and crucial to an ever-changing learning environment.

After 15 years as an elementary and middle school teacher, Patrick accepted a new position in a digital academy embedded in a suburban high school. The technology used in the program was state-of-the-art and required training. Students in the academy take two complementary courses: one science, one technology. The lessons, learning, and projects are interrelated and project-based. At the crux of this program is production since students are not only consumers of knowledge, but producers as well.

Patrick’s formal education includes a master’s degree in educational technology. He has used a myriad of tools from this field in his pedagogy since the 1990s. He served as a technology leader and innovator in his previous district. He was confident in his ability to begin the new job. And yet, Patrick had no idea what awaited him. He learned more about implementing educational technology from his high school students during that first year than from any formal training. Many of his students were adept at working through or around the inevitable glitches that occurred while using computers. He felt that it was in a teacher’s best interest to foster a relationship where students are encouraged to share their knowledge. As with any new skill acquisition, formal training is important, but the field-testing of technology is critical to successful implementation and functionality. If you want to know how well something works, give it to a group of students for a couple hours.

Conundrum

Patrick rapidly found himself in an uncomfortable position in class. He was not the most knowledgeable person in the room. Many of the students had skills and abilities superior to his. He had to develop a comprehensive plan in order to adapt to the diversity of students’ skills. The first action he employed was to think clearly, creatively, and with the intention, of course, of motivating the students in his classroom to reach ever higher. His overarching plan was to teach and learn simultaneously. He explained to them that the classes would be symbiotic, differentiated, and collaborative. They would draw from each other’s strengths and challenge areas. He encouraged each student to share his or her knowledge by offering one tenth of a point toward a class participation grade for any new and unique skill the student taught him or a classmate.

The Savvy Student

Jim was a sophomore who thrived in an environment where he could interact with—and deviate from—the curriculum at a pace conducive to his unconventional learning preferences. The traditional classroom was a challenge for him—not because of the content, but because of the conventional, didactic methods utilized. Jim excelled in the application of a particular 3D animation program and spent most of his free time using the software to create original artwork, construct animations, and learn new skills. He subscribed to numerous online forums and communities with the sole purpose of building expertise and staying abreast of the latest information. Patrick estimated that it would take nearly one year of intense instruction to match Jim’s competency level. Investing that time was not practical, nor was it necessary. That specific program was only one part of a variety of skill sets the class needed to learn. So the question Patrick asked himself was, “What, if anything, can I teach Jim about that software?”

Patrick’s solution was to modify his classroom approach. He would serve as a mentor for Jim’s and other students’ projects and as a coach for their development as artists and technicians. Even the most talented musicians, athletes, and academicians partner with a coach. It is highly unlikely that tennis professional Venus Williams’s coach can defeat her in a game, but Venus certainly benefits from the advice, insight, and direction he provides. Few highly successful people in any area go it alone. They rely on advisors, experts, and advocates. Patrick’s adaptive roles for this academy are as teacher, manager, coach, and learner. This symbiotic relationship between him and his students may skew one way or another from time to time, but it is still advantageous to all. The learning is reciprocal, webbed, and connected.

Patrick became Jim’s manager and director. While Jim had a clear talent for using 3D software, at 15 years old he was not adept at project management or organization. In his role as mentor, Patrick helps the students to plan and to set realistic benchmarks and goals. He therefore held Jim accountable for deadlines, conferred with him each class, and discussed and designed a learning plan that started with the final project. They reverse-mapped a course of action for a pathway that parallels and intersects the curriculum throughout the year. Jim would create a 3D animation to demonstrate his programming skills and communicate his understanding of a complex science concept. Patrick might not be have taught Jim sophisticated 3D programming, but he certainly was able to teach him how to responsibly plan, create, and submit a multifaceted project. Those are crucial skills for successful post-secondary education and employment.

Putting it together

In all Patrick’s years working with students and technology, he still firmly believes that the greatest tool, if used correctly, is the teacher. The teacher is the vehicle for improving students’ skills as learners, users of technology, and independent contributors to society. The best skill a teacher can cultivate in a student is the ability to think independently, creatively, and uniquely. There will be many students who can master content, but it is the one who can think deeply and differently who will stand out from others. Teachers, among other things, are disseminators of information, tour guides, advisors, supervisors, and content experts. Patrick’s definition of an educator is not finite. It changes with the protean environments of the interrelationships of teachers and students. As the world changes, so should our epistemological and pedagogical views. Progress requires forward motion.

 


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Comments (3) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

This is a great post! I agree that the teacher plays a vital role- that of facilitator, guide, coach, and cheerleader being just as (if not more) important than "primary source of information." When teachers learn to use problem based, inquiry-driven methods, then they can use that pedagogy to craft learning experiences that start with what kids want to know and build to what they need to know and do.

J.P. Ryan's picture
J.P. Ryan
The person first, then everything else

Thanks Laura. Yes, more than a primary source of information. I strongly believe in a balance of students being passive and active learners. The more kids feel like a participant, or a leader, the better.
Best,

-JP

VWolford's picture

This is an interesting take on the idea that a teacher is less of a subject matter expert, and more of a facilitator, coach, and mentor to the students he is responsible for. While I agree that it's important to be knowledgeable in your field of study, the focus should be on facilitating student learning, not transferring information. With the technology field growing so quickly, it is not uncommon for students to be far ahead of the teacher in technology skills. The best avenue of approach for the teacher should be to learn the tech skills from his students while providing support and learning opportunities that facilitate higher-order thinking skills. Today's student may be very good at a particular skill set, but a great teacher can help him put it all together and be a more well-rounded learner.

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