K-12 education is riding the leading edge of a wave of existential transition, the kind that comes once or a few times in several generations. It is not a “flavor of the month” shift in how we teach math or develop a new curriculum. It is much larger than that, on the order of the rise of universally accessible public education in the 19th century or desegregation of education in the 20th century. We are in the process of re-imagining and re-defining the transmission of knowledge.
Since humankind first gathered around campfires hundreds of thousands of years ago, education has largely been defined as the transfer of knowledge from a teacher to a student. The teacher may have been a parent, master builder, village elder, mentor, the best hunter, preacher, or coach, but the relationship for millennia has been the same: a largely unidirectional transfer from teacher-as-repository to student-as-recipient. This transfer mechanism was radically scaled up in the 19th and 20th centuries to solve the problems of a workforce inadequately prepared to meet the demands of industrial economies and to help a diverse population contribute to evolving democratic societies.
The system did not fail to meet its objectives. On the contrary: the industrial age model of education was an unqualified success, generating more (though not equitable) access to upward economic and social mobility for more people in more parts of the globe than at any time in human history. The existential change occurring now is required because the world for which we are designing has changed, and if the system does not change to meet new design objectives, it will become irrelevant.
The two key elements of a radically different world that impact education are 1) access to information, and 2) the rate of change. Knowledge is no longer transferred from a teacher to a student; the sum of human knowledge (though not wisdom) is rapidly becoming universally accessible through mobile computing devices. Within the next 5-10 years, 4-6 billion people on the planet will have such a device. Children today already look to these devices, not a human teacher, as their primary link to the rapidly evolving global neural network of knowledge creation and sharing that I have coined the cognitosphere (http://wp.me/p4Rk8w-3o). The rate of change in the world has similarly disrupted the foundational relationship of education. Until the last half century, the next 30-60 years, the lifetime of a student, was vastly more predictable than it is today. The future has never been less predictable and more ambiguous in a more quickly changing time frame than it is today, and those curves are accelerating. Simply, much of what any teacher can transmit to a student today may well be wrong or irrelevant in the near future.
These arguments resonate with an increasingly large and diverse cohort of educators, parents, and students. We share terms like “21st century skills” to describe a new set of design objectives. As I have had the privilege to visit 100+ schools and interact with several thousand educators in the last two years, I have distilled key elements of this transition, and the deeper I look, the more I am convinced that THE key element of a successful redefinition of learning requires a reboot of the fundamental relationship between teacher, student, and knowledge. We have tried to redefine that role in recent years…and are missing the target. As Matt Levinson, in a recent Edutopia post (http://www.edutopia.org/blog/captain-where-has-teaching-gone-matt-levinson) argues, “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. Essentially, teaching has become three-dimensional.”
Many educational communities have tried to shift their model from teacher as “sage on the stage” to teacher as “guide on the side”. I heartily and respectfully disagree. I think it is a weak choice of words and a bad metaphor; words and imagery matter. Teachers are not on “the side” of anything; they are smack in the middle of effective learning, which is why a MOOC may radically increase the volume of knowledge transfer but will never replace face-to-face interaction with equal value for the individual student.
Having watched many teachers in many settings, I think the key role that teachers must play is “teacher as farmer”. This simple image first grabbed my attention when I read Thomas and Seeley-Brown’s A New Culture of Learning and best captures what is common amongst great teachers in the post-industrial age model of education. I think it is a more accurate image than teacher as sage, preacher, supplier, guide, coach, or mentor. It will be completely familiar to progressive educators and students; it is the essence of what John Dewey taught us more than 100 years ago.
What does a good farmer do? He creates the conditions of optimal growth. She sets out a fence line, the boundary within which nurtured growth can best take place. She breaks some of the most intractable hard pan to allow seeds the space to take root. He digs a few really big rocks out of the field. And then the job of the farmer is twofold: to provide nutrients to the growing plants, and to do some judicious pruning and weeding. The plants do the rest. I think if educators will collaboratively explore this simple metaphor, we will find deep meaning in it. I think if we pursue that deep meaning each day in the classroom our students will "grow" stronger, happier, more productively, and better prepared for their futures.
How do we reconcile “teacher as farmer” with the environment of standards-based teaching? Are they compatible at all? I think they are if standards and standards-based testing are viewed as resources, not goals. Our goal is to prepare students for the dynamic, ambiguous, exciting future that lies ahead; growth is the goal. The teacher-farmer should be free to use standards to help in this growth, just as the farmer understands when and how to apply water or fertilizer for healthier plants. But no good farmer, and no sustainable best practice, values the volume of crop yield or the size of a seed over the long-term health of her plants and fields. That is what the flag carriers of high stakes testing just don’t get.
The real transition for teachers, the roadmap that colleges of education and the multi-billion dollar education professional development market are largely failing to draw, is developing the foundational element of student agency and ownership of the learning process that lies at the heart of a transformed learning experience. This is hard for our current generation of teachers; we place our value in our role as the source of knowledge. We have to let go that image; knowledge exists irrespective of the teacher, and the more we empower, allow, permit, even “force” students to take ownership and responsibility for their learning, the better prepared they will be for the future that awaits them. When teachers ask the questions, we fail our students. When teachers define the problem, write the worksheet, set the agenda, decide the themes, and select the readings without student collaboration…we fail our students. We are not being good farmers; we are leaving those tall wooden support stakes on the sapling for too long. This is an uncomfortable transition for all of us who grew up in classrooms with hero-teachers who led us to find strength and wonder in knowledge. But we have to stop leading our students to knowledge and start teaching them how to find it within a fertile field. The world has changed.
Some guiding questions: How might we develop a professional growth pathway for teacher-as-farmer? What skills must we hone? What habits will be broken? What discomfort and risk is involved? Who are the farmers in your school that already teach this way and how might you adopt some of their best practices? What do you need to make this transition and where will you find those resources?
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.