An Important Message For Michigan Educators

Michigan teachers are among the finest in the nation, but the media attention given to public education recently has been far from flattering. The public does not view our teachers in a positive light. From Proposal 2 last fall to failing school districts and emergency managers, it is easy for people to believe that teachers are not living up to public expectations.

The classical view of the classroom teacher, where a teacher is merely an orator who gives knowledge of facts, is widely persistent in public opinion. Ask the average person on the street to impersonate a teacher, and they’ll probably do something that is reminiscent of Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Whether accurate or not based on their own experience as a student, so many teachers have evolved their classroom practice that a modern classroom resembles nothing like the one Matthew Broderick was trying to avoid in 1986.

The persistent misconception that “all teachers do is lecture” has misled some individuals to suggest that teaching can be done by technological means without educators. Online schools, like K12, Inc., are popping up one after another and they are touting the ability to offer education any time, any place, anywhere, any pace. While it is true that technology is an essential and important aspect of education, if we are not careful about using technology in learning, the cart could easily get put before the horse. A popular term flying around classrooms and schools is ‘educational technology’ or “edtech” for short. This all-encompassing phrase resonates with the many and calls to mind innovative education. More and more technology is becoming increasingly available to educators, and companies are taking note. Web startups are heavily targeting education and the market for education apps has been very active.

Educators love the potential that technology offers to classroom instruction and student learning. But at what cost does it come? Are we putting the focus on the technology and not the education? Are we minimizing the role of the teacher as a facilitator of learning? Are we ignoring the importance for facetime contact and interaction between learners in the classroom? If we aren’t careful, educational technology is going to quickly morph into technological education and teachers will be the collateral damage.

This amounts to an image problem with education in Michigan and it must change. While the same situation is brewing in other states, Michigan has a very active educational technology crowd. They promote tablets and mobile devices in classrooms, hybrid/online/blended learning, and most recently flipped classroom instruction. While all of these things can greatly augment classroom instruction, they should not be mistaken for something that is capable of replacing teachers. The image problem here is, in part, leading some to the conclusion that it is all about the technology and teachers aren’t needed. They falsely believe that learning=remembering information and that teaching=telling. With these two premises, along with the latest developments in technology, the argument can be made that teachers are replaceable. Why would we need teachers and classrooms and schools if we can get a $600 iPad to connect kids to the Internet and learn from free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) or Khan Academy?

This could not be a more serious issue. It’s time we refocus, dial up the instructional quality even further, and put the emphasis on the “ed” in edtech. It’s time that we as educators reflect on our practice and make sure it isn’t such that it could be replaced by a computer, tablet, or mobile device connected to the Internet.

Even within the teaching profession itself, some educators have misinterpreted the potential for technology and have bought into the same approach that could potentially replace teachers: the off-loading students to online content delivery methods of instruction. The more we rely on technology to teach students, the more students will come to rely on it. When this happens, the perpetuation of the image that education is about transferring knowledge and is nothing more continues. Eventually, hybrid courses run by a teacher are replaced with online courses. Instead of needing several separate, in-person sections of an algebra class with 30 kids and several teachers in each, we end up with one massive online course run by one person (who may or may not even be a teacher.) Eventually, teachers could be come replaced altogether by online courses and technology.

Whether or not this scenario seems far-fetched, it is possible, and some are working to make that happen right now. This doesn’t mean that teachers need to stop using flipped classroom instruction, or throw out all the iPads they just got for their school. Instead, it means we as educators need to be more aware. We need to be aware of what the public perception is and aware of what we do to feed into it. If we are not getting the message out to the public that teaching is more than telling, then the public will continue to think of teaching and learning as a bank teller’s transaction. And we all know that ATMs have been put in place to supplant tellers.

It is true that technology can provide knowledge to anyone with Internet access, like an ATM shells out money. Using commonplace tools like Google, Wikipedia, or Khan Academy, to name a few, individuals can gain a basic understanding of many things. To the untrained eye, this can look as if those tools are accomplishing teaching; however, this is not what teaching is.

Teaching has evolved well past simple dissemination of facts. Michigan teachers have their students creating, communicating, collaborating, and solving problems in authentic ways that cannot be supplanted with video lectures or wikis. In many classrooms across Michigan, teaching & learning is vastly different than it was years ago. Information access has helped motivate education to be more than just the transfer of knowledge from expert to novice. The public, again, is unaware of this. We must be better ambassadors of education and inform state citizens.

Many Michigan teachers are connecting through social media to share the great things they do in their classrooms with students and to learn from one another. This has helped so many connected educators to reform their practice and improve their craft. Change is happening for the better in education, but the public is unaware. We need more educators to realize that ,in order to correct public perception, we must ourselves improve what we do and make that known. We cannot hold on to teaching practices of yesteryear; classrooms should not still look the way they did Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. And no longer can we as educators allow divisive public rhetoric about our profession keep us from unifying for the best interests of our students. Connecting with other educators online allows us to unify in learning; it allows us to share what we really do; it allows us to reshape our public image.

Teachers are ambassadors of education and we must lead our own reform. However, education reform is a powerful phrase because it implies that something must change. Certainly, something must change: the public image of teachers in Michigan. As Michigan teachers are in the business of selling learning experiences, and not just knowledge, we must realize that it is well overdue that we teach in a way that cannot be replaced, publicize what we do in our classrooms, and let the public know how great our brand of education is.

[CC graphic by Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com | Flickr]

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  • judyms9

    Perhaps the public is eager to replace teachers with technology because so many parents have already replaced actual parenting with immersing their children in technology. Parenting is made easier if the kids stay in front of their screens all day.
    Technology cannot tell when a kid is confused and defeated or inspired and catching on, but a teacher can, and the teacher knows how to rectify and/or capitalize on those moments. Thank you for insisting that teachers value their roles and more effectively communicate their roles to their communities.

  • kirke

    education and it’s unions are drowning for they put absolutely no effort or money into their promotion. yes, they are in a fight and do not know how to fight back. they need to hire an excellent ad company for all media and sell themselves!

  • TeacherPatti

    First, belated congrats on your award! Second, I am a special ed teacher and I am rather worried about technology. On the one hand, it is great and amazing and allows my students to access the curriculum when they otherwise might not be able to do so. But on the other hand, I’m already seeing some teachers think that they are teaching by giving a student an iPad with an app. Sure, some of the apps are great at helping reinforce things that are taught but in no way substitutes for the actual *teaching* that we do every day.

  • TomM

    Your article lacks data and sounds like a rant by a union leader. I for one do not want bank tellers back. I like going to my local grocery store and getting cash anytime I need it. I also like to learn online. How many teachers actually like sitting in PD sessions? I have taken several PD book studies and courses online – I love them for all of the reasons you suggest are problems – I can do it on my time at my pace. I often have great thinking moments at 2 and 3 AM. No problem, just get up sit down at the computer and login to the course. Your article fails to address the issues in public education – mandates by politicians and bureaucrats, all powerful teacher unions that say they don’t support poor teachers, and a business model that was created with the model T. Like it or not, technology is the future of education and why shouldn’t it be? Which is better, a student learning learning science from a 1st year teacher or an expert in the field? Often these teachers don’t particularly like their subjects but they want a job. Why not learn from experts? Mark my word, you may not like it, but the days of public education as we know it are headed for a fall. Teachers in Oregon recently refused to administer their state exam, and all over teachers are rising up and refusing to teach the same old ways. They are experimenting and finding new ways to teach. And the focus is not on I talk and you listen. There is a ground swell of defiance towards business as usual and yes the public hates the institution of education. It is time for a revolutionary change and the unions are not going to be a part of it at all. You are right about one thing – what happened in Michigan will happen in other states as well. Stop supporting the status quo and come up with some real suggestions.

    • http://eclectablog.com Eclectablog

      What I find fascinating about your comment is that you somehow found a way to bash unions (“all powerful”? please) in an essay that doesn’t reference them or anything related to them even once.

      What school do you teach in, Tom Maxwell? I’m curious what qualifies you to lecture Michigan’s Teacher of the Year on the nuances of education science. And, no, taking an online course as a grownup and hitting the ATM doesn’t count.

  • sean lancaster

    “This amounts to an image problem with education in Michigan and it must change. While the same situation is brewing in other states, Michigan has a very active educational technology crowd. They promote tablets and mobile devices in classrooms, hybrid/online/blended learning, and most recently flipped classroom instruction.”

    As a Michigan public university professor in an education technology program, I can assure you that I do not promote flipped classrooms or tablets or mobile devices carte blanche; rather, I strive to teach research based approaches to using technology in the classroom. I teach a class on how to teach online and we discuss the nuances that can go into approaches to online instruction. I cringe when K12, Inc. or some other online school touts the benefits of hybrid or online instruction as if all online instruction is the same or uses quality research in their approach. I think much k-12 online instruction is junk, for that matter. I encourage my students to read current research on online instruction and to decide whether the examples of k-12 schools that are going virtual or even the credit recovery software and programs being implemented in most public schools is following good practice based on research. I have yet to have a student produce the evidence that we’re implementing online instruction for the right reasons as most evidence seems to suggest that we’re doing it for financial reasons. Sigh. So please don’t lump all “educational technology” folks together. ;~)

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