George Lucas Educational Foundation
Education Trends

O Captain! My Captain! Where Has Teaching Gone?

To understand the changing nature of 21st-century teaching, consider how these elements define your school culture: scheduling, budget, programming, and student POV.
January 14, 2015
A photo of a pear on an eraser, on a chalkboard shelf.

The days of Robin Williams standing on top of desks ripping out pages of a textbook in Dead Poets Society have long passed. The notion that the teacher is the "sage on the stage," as Williams' character demonstrated so nobly and inspirationally that film, has shifted as teaching has migrated toward the "guide on the side," a model prompted by the proliferation of technology and the desire and need to differentiate and personalize learning for students.

The 3D Teacher

Williams portrayed master teacher John Keating (personifying Walt Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!"), who inspired, motivated, and reached different students through one-directional teaching. The quiet, introverted Todd Anderson, played by Ethan Hawke, struggled to find his voice in this extrovert-dominated classroom. Yet Keating didn't let this student disappear. Instead, he challenged and pushed Todd to scream his words with pride. And because Keating did teach and reach, Todd transformed and discovered his voice.

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In today's classroom, however, no longer is teaching one-directional or delivered just from teacher to student. Teaching has busted through the walls of the classroom. The profession has evolved and changed in the last several years to the point where teachers now find themselves teaching face-to-face in the classroom, in blended environments outside of the classroom, and conferencing one-on-one with students to further differentiate and personalize the learning experience. And with the explosion in neuroscience and the broadening of our understanding about how we learn, this new knowledge of the learner has placed responsibility on schools and teachers to meet each student's individual needs.

Essentially, teaching has become three-dimensional.

Culture and Strategy

Yet the structure of school remains much the same as we saw it in Dead Poets Society, with set class periods and singular classes bound within a discipline. This puts significant pressure on teachers as they try to squeeze content, skills, and enduring understandings inside of a school day that is more tightly packed, given the 3D nature of teaching today. And teachers are increasingly breaking out of silos and working in teams, sharing a course, or working across a grade-level team to ensure consistency of experience and quality.

The layers of teaching today are deep and complex. How can schools begin making sense of the sea change in education while preserving school culture, supporting the precious resource that is their teaching staff, meeting the needs of students, and staying current and relevant? It's not easy. If schools move too fast, they risk losing the teachers. If schools move too slowly, they risk losing the students. It's a delicate balance.

The illustrious Peter Drucker famously said, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." Because culture in each school is unique, it's difficult to generalize and apply a standard approach to manage the levers of change. However, schools need to acknowledge the changing demands of the profession, educate students and parents on these changes, and set aside time and space for teachers to adapt, grow, and develop.

Grant Lichtman's #EdJourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Education attempts to provide a path for schools. He visited 65 schools across the country in 89 days and captured the stories of their success with the changing matrix of learning in a book that tackles the major themes of rapid change and innovation taking place right now in U.S. schools. Perhaps the most important insight that Grant highlights is time:

And then we need to give our teachers the resources, chiefly time, to retool. Our adult-leaders have grown up in a system of education that rewards a certain type of behavior, and we are now asking them to change. That takes time -- especially time to work together with their colleagues to develop confidence, learn new teaching skills, and overcome a natural fear of change. I found that schools that do these two things -- paint the picture and provide resource support for change -- are able to imagine, design, map, and build a dramatically new and improved learning environment in a remarkably short period of time.

4 Key Questions for Schools

Bill Aulet writes in Tech Crunch:

Company culture, a concept pioneered by Edgar Schein, is the operationalizing of an organization's values. Culture guides employee decisions about both technical business decisions and how they interact with others. Good culture creates an internal coherence in actions taken by a very diverse group of employees.

1. Time

How a school organizes its daily schedule is a statement of its values about teaching and learning. Is there adequate planning time for teachers, especially if collaboration is expected? Are there extended class periods that encourage deep thinking and engagement? Is there time set aside for students' affective development through advisory programs?

2. Budget

How a school allocates its resources through budgeting is also a statement of values. There's a saying: "If it's not in the budget, it doesn't exist." What a school includes in and excludes from a budget reveals its values.

3. Program

Is the school internally or externally focused? Does it review its program to evaluate whether it's keeping pace with the changing world? Does the school take time to consider the famous John Dewey quote: "If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our students of tomorrow"?

The Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford University is a fascinating document to read, as a major institution conducts a comprehensive review of programming, questions its own assumptions, and challenges itself to look into the future and modify programming to allow for flexibility and adaptability.

4. Students

Does the school include students in discussions about direction? Students are wonderfully candid and often share the most insightful comments about their experiences in the classroom and the school community.

Amanda Ripley's The Smartest Kids in the World provides the opportunity for the reader to view school through the lens of different students as they experience an international school setting, which then gives insight into the American educational system.

What does your school look like through the eyes of an international student? And what other questions are you asking about your school, as teaching transforms right before our eyes?

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