about better teachers or better learners

Earlier this week George Siemens tweeted:

Naturally, this spawned all sorts of conversation by scholars across various disciplines. This led a colleague to ask my thoughts about this, with the following 4-question framing:

  • Is a question like this helpful in education?
  • What does it mean to be a better teacher?
  • How does one help students become better learners?
  • Would this question get answered differently depending on where it is asked?

So, I’ve been thinking…

Is a question like this helpful in education?

I think the question can be helpful if it is a jumping off point to recognize and acknowledge that some of the things we have been doing in schooling may not be helping either teachers or learners. Teachers struggle to engage learners with course content, materials, and with their fellow learners. Further, many school environments are poorly equipped to meet the changing demands of learners or the needs for ongoing professional development for many teachers. So teachers need to become better teachers, but to do that their environments need to first be better.

This question can also be helpful in probing learners responsibility to their learning. So much of adult learning theory emphasizes the importance of self-drive and how important it is to motivation for learners to be invested in their learning. I think that in earlier developmental learning stages we- school/society/parents/communities- can help learners better appreciate the importance of they investing in and caring about their own learning. Schooling and learning continue to be experienced by early learners as something they “have” to do. This positioning as a “have to,” and the ways that schooling presents the learning opportunities, sometimes strips learning of factors that make the experiences motivating to learners.

What does it mean to be a better teacher?

Teachers have an impossible job. They not only need to know about subject matter, teaching, and everything they learned in their preparation, they also need to keep current and even ahead of changes in teaching thought and the contexts of their learners. All of this is just so they can be a good teacher, in order for them to be better…What would that even be?

One way I do think it means to be a better teacher is to really think about your teaching practice beyond and separate from your learning experience. Many teachers teach how they were taught, and many didn’t always have great models. In higher education, we know that prior to their first faculty appointment many instructors have not had much teaching experience. So what it means to be a good teacher and then become better, in higher ed, is an even bigger ask. I think that the current contexts of learning with the integration of various technologies, and emerging thought about learning in technology rich environments means that teachers have to share in the learning experience with students and open themselves up to learning about being teachers and how to do their work in these new contexts. I think this would help make for better teachers.

How does one help students become better learners?

Under-girding this entire conversation is the idea that learning environments become better. I think that in order to help students become become better learners, schooling needs to be better at listening to learners, recognizing their interests, and become better at making connections between course content and learner contexts. This is only a first step. To help students become better learners, we- society- need to encourage the idea that so much learning happens beyond school environments and formal contexts. Students have access to so many tools and so much information- all the time- that to relegate when learning happens to the limited contexts of school and formal spaces really does a disservice to learners ability get more and make more out of learning opportunities.

When I got my first smart phone, the idea of internet on my phone seemed like an entertainment extravagance. Getting a phone with internet changed how I watched television and made me a more informed viewer. Now as I watched my favorite shows, I could fact check historical events and persons referenced. Learning became a part of my entertainment experience because I had the tools and also the self-drive to learn and become more informed within my context. As an educator and an adult, one might argue that I am predisposed to learning outside of formal environments. I would also argue that my previous learning environments have encouraged me to learn whenever I am, and whatever I am doing. Becoming a better learner, in my opinion, is recognizing that learning needs to happen everywhere and everywhere is a learning environment.

Would this question get answered differently depending on where it is asked?

To this I want to say no, and yes. I believe all of these things hold true across contexts and my responses hold up where ever. The thing I would add is about the latter part of Siemens’ query- which would I prioritize. In certain contexts, helping students become better learners when their learning environments and teachers are not prepared or equipped to manage and support these learners would be counterproductive. For example, in many African societies, helping students become better learners- to take ownership over their learning, be self-driven, and extend learning beyond formal settings- would be ill-fitting to their environments that are steeped in traditions of direct instruction and rote demonstration of information retention. In these environments I think it would be most beneficial to teach teachers to be better teachers. Teachers in these environments need to learn to extend their influence by releasing some of their control. Teaching is not or cannot continue to be about making students memorize and reproduce. Rather, teachers need to be able think about their learners and the contexts in which the learners live. Teachers need to think about the world their learners live in and prepare them for coming changes. Teaching in the ways they were taught will not be a great help to learners.

If we are successful at teaching teachers to become better teachers, they can create learning experiences that can help students become better learners.

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