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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Redefining the Role of the Teacher: It's a Multifaceted Profession

A closer look at what being an educator really means.
By Judith Taack Lanier

Credit: Mark Ulriksen

Imagine a school where teaching is considered to be a profession rather than a trade. The role of teachers in a child's education -- and in American culture -- has fundamentally changed. Teaching differs from the old "show-and-tell" practices as much as modern medical techniques differ from practices such as applying leeches and bloodletting.

Instruction doesn't consist primarily of lecturing to students who sit in rows at desks, dutifully listening and recording what they hear, but, rather, offers every child a rich, rewarding, and unique learning experience. The educational environment isn't confined to the classroom but, instead, extends into the home and the community and around the world. Information isn't bound primarily in books; it's available everywhere in bits and bytes.

Students aren't consumers of facts. They are active creators of knowledge. Schools aren't just brick-and-mortar structures -- they're centers of lifelong learning. And, most important, teaching is recognized as one of the most challenging and respected career choices, absolutely vital to the social, cultural, and economic health of our nation.

Today, the seeds of such a dramatic transformation in education are being planted. Prompted by massive revolutions in knowledge, information technology, and public demand for better learning, schools nationwide are slowly but surely restructuring themselves.

Leading the way are thousands of teachers who are rethinking every part of their jobs -- their relationship with students, colleagues, and the community; the tools and techniques they employ; their rights and responsibilities; the form and content of curriculum; what standards to set and how to assess whether they are being met; their preparation as teachers and their ongoing professional development; and the very structure of the schools in which they work. In short, teachers are reinventing themselves and their occupation to better serve schools and students.

New Relationships and Practices

Traditionally, teaching was a combination of information-dispensing, custodial child care and sorting out academically inclined students from others. The underlying model for schools was an education factory in which adults, paid hourly or daily wages, kept like-aged youngsters sitting still for standardized lessons and tests.

Teachers were told what, when, and how to teach. They were required to educate every student in exactly the same way and were not held responsible when many failed to learn. They were expected to teach using the same methods as past generations, and any deviation from traditional practices was discouraged by supervisors or prohibited by myriad education laws and regulations. Thus, many teachers simply stood in front of the class and delivered the same lessons year after year, growing gray and weary of not being allowed to change what they were doing.

Many teachers today, however, are encouraged to adapt and adopt new practices that acknowledge both the art and science of learning. They understand that the essence of education is a close relationship between a knowledgeable, caring adult and a secure, motivated child. They grasp that their most important role is to get to know each student as an individual in order to comprehend his or her unique needs, learning style, social and cultural background, interests, and abilities.

This attention to personal qualities is all the more important as America continues to become the most pluralistic nation on Earth. Teachers have to be committed to relating to youngsters of many cultures, including those young people who, with traditional teaching, might have dropped out -- or have been forced out -- of the education system.

Their job is to counsel students as they grow and mature -- helping them integrate their social, emotional, and intellectual growth -- so the union of these sometimes separate dimensions yields the abilities to seek, understand, and use knowledge; to make better decisions in their personal lives; and to value contributing to society.

They must be prepared and permitted to intervene at any time and in any way to make sure learning occurs. Rather than see themselves solely as masters of subject matter such as history, math, or science, teachers increasingly understand that they must also inspire a love of learning.

In practice, this new relationship between teachers and students takes the form of a different concept of instruction. Tuning in to how students really learn prompts many teachers to reject teaching that is primarily lecture based in favor of instruction that challenges students to take an active role in learning.

They no longer see their primary role as being the king or queen of the classroom, a benevolent dictator deciding what's best for the powerless underlings in their care. They've found they accomplish more if they adopt the role of educational guides, facilitators, and co-learners.

The most respected teachers have discovered how to make students passionate participants in the instructional process by providing project-based, participatory, educational adventures. They know that in order to get students to truly take responsibility for their own education, the curriculum must relate to their lives, learning activities must engage their natural curiosity, and assessments must measure real accomplishments and be an integral part of learning.

Students work harder when teachers give them a role in determining the form and content of their schooling -- helping them create their own learning plans and deciding the ways in which they will demonstrate that they have, in fact, learned what they agreed to learn.

The day-to-day job of a teacher, rather than broadcasting content, is becoming one of designing and guiding students through engaging learning opportunities. An educator's most important responsibility is to search out and construct meaningful educational experiences that allow students to solve real-world problems and show they have learned the big ideas, powerful skills, and habits of mind and heart that meet agreed-on educational standards. The result is that the abstract, inert knowledge that students used to memorize from dusty textbooks comes alive as they participate in the creation and extension of new knowledge.

New Tools and Environments

One of the most powerful forces changing teachers' and students' roles in education is new technology. The old model of instruction was predicated on information scarcity. Teachers and their books were information oracles, spreading knowledge to a population with few other ways to get it.

But today's world is awash in information from a multitude of print and electronic sources. The fundamental job of teaching is no longer to distribute facts but to help children learn how to use them by developing their abilities to think critically, solve problems, make informed judgments, and create knowledge that benefits both the students and society. Freed from the responsibility of being primary information providers, teachers have more time to spend working one-on-one or with small groups of students.

Recasting the relationship between students and teachers demands that the structure of school changes as well. Though it is still the norm in many places to isolate teachers in cinderblock rooms with age-graded pupils who rotate through classes every hour throughout a semester -- or every year, in the case of elementary school -- this paradigm is being abandoned in more and more schools that want to give teachers the time, space, and support to do their jobs.

Extended instructional periods and school days, as well as reorganized yearly schedules, are all being tried as ways to avoid chopping learning into often arbitrary chunks based on limited time. Also, rather than inflexibly group students in grades by age, many schools feature mixed-aged classes in which students spend two or more years with the same teachers.

In addition, ability groups, from which those judged less talented can rarely break free, are being challenged by a recognition that current standardized tests do not measure many abilities or take into account the different ways people learn best.

One of the most important innovations in instructional organization is team teaching, in which two or more educators share responsibility for a group of students. This means that an individual teacher no longer has to be all things to all students. This approach allows teachers to apply their strengths, interests, skills, and abilities to the greatest effect, knowing that children won't suffer from their weaknesses, because there's someone with a different set of abilities to back them up.

To truly professionalize teaching, in fact, we need to further differentiate the roles a teacher might fill. Just as a good law firm has a mix of associates, junior partners, and senior partners, schools should have a greater mix of teachers who have appropriate levels of responsibility based on their abilities and experience levels. Also, just as much of a lawyer's work occurs outside the courtroom, so, too, should we recognize that much of a teacher's work is done outside the classroom.

New Professional Responsibilities

Aside from rethinking their primary responsibility as directors of student learning, teachers are also taking on other roles in schools and in their profession. They are working with colleagues, family members, politicians, academics, community members, employers, and others to set clear and obtainable standards for the knowledge, skills, and values we should expect America's children to acquire. They are participating in day-to-day decision making in schools, working side-by-side to set priorities, and dealing with organizational problems that affect their students' learning.

Many teachers also spend time researching various questions of educational effectiveness that expand the understanding of the dynamics of learning. And more teachers are spending time mentoring new members of their profession, making sure that education school graduates are truly ready for the complex challenges of today's classrooms.

Reinventing the role of teachers inside and outside the classroom can result in significantly better schools and better-educated students. But though the roots of such improvement are taking hold in today's schools, they need continued nurturing to grow and truly transform America's learning landscape. The rest of us -- politicians and parents, superintendents and school board members, employers and education school faculty -- must also be willing to rethink our roles in education to give teachers the support, freedom, and trust they need to do the essential job of educating our children.

Judith Taack Lanier is a distinguished professor of education at Michigan State University.

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