Knowledge, Education, and the Role of Teachers.

Half an Hour

Responses to questions in advance of my presentation in Warsaw later this month.

1. From your perspective, how do you see changes the modern society undergoes, especially in the field of education?

I come from the interesting perspective of having been born and raised in a completely paper-based world and being able to watch it transform within a generation to an almost completely electronic world. The difficulty with such a perspective lies in understanding what events were the result of the normal flow of history and what have resulted from digital technology and the internet.

From this distinction I focus on the locus of change as the individual, as this is where we see the most profound impact of information and communications technology. And this change is largely an increase in the empowerment of the individual, despite the potential of technology to enable increased surveillance and control. Individuals have access to a greater wealth of knowledge than at any time in history, and equally important, have a greater capacity to add to that knowledge, creating a range of perspectives that can include those of the poorest and least powerful in society.

In a fundamental way, this changes how we should view education. In the pre-digital era, the dominant metaphor for education was transmission. You see this even in prevalent pre-digital distance education theory. It is the model of the educator, or of the education system, as authority, and of students or learners as passive recipients of content. In the digital era the dominant metaphor is immersion, with the objective to create a (digital) learning environment in which students or learners could create, construct, or discover knowledge and wisdom for themselves.

2. What is knowledge that we gain as we learn? What is it's relation of having knowledge to being educated? What Kind of knowledge (or education) is the best baggage for ones lifelong journey into future

Following from the discussion above, we observe a corresponding change in the concepts of ‘knowledge’, ‘education’, and of ‘being educated’. This change is probably best characterized as a change from having something to being something.

The ‘having’ of knowledge is a concept we understand from our common-sense psychology. It is to be in possession of facts, data or information. We think of knowledge as having memory of a certain set of content, as though it were stored in our mind, where it can be retrieved as required. The concept of knowledge as ‘being’ is perhaps less well-understood as it based on the idea of we ourselves changing (or growing, or developing) as a result immersion in authentic environments.

The difference in the two senses of knowledge corresponds to a difference in two senses of ‘being educated’. In the first, more traditional, sense, ‘being educated’ as, say, a physicist means knowing the same things as a physicist, that is, remembering or having recall of the same set of facts as a physicist. However in the newer sense, ‘being educated’ as a physicist is more like developing the same kinds of habits and properties as a physicist, as evidenced for example by seeing the world in the same way as other physicists, perceiving the same things as relevant, and accepting the same phenomena as evidence.

This latter sense of ‘being educated’ has always existed; it is not unique to the digital era. It is akin, for example, to the idea of being immersed in a paradigm, as described by Thomas Kuhn in the 1970s. But it is only with digital technology that this sort of education can be made available to everybody, and be acquired prior to becoming an actual physicist working in the scientific community. Prior to the digital era, we depended on expensive and not always authentic environments (such as college labs), apprenticeships and internships.

3. What is a role of a teacher in the process of learning? Should the role be passive or active? Maybe teachers could be entirely eliminated (by technology?) in the process of gaining knowledge or being educated?

The traditional explanation of the change of the role of the teacher is that he or she transitions from being a ‘sage on the stage’ to a ‘guide by the side’. However, I do not agree with this characterization, as they both depict the teacher as being something other than a practitioner of the discipline, and thus, in either guise, a conduit for the transmission of content or information. In the new model the teacher remains centrally important, but plays significantly different roles.

One role that has attracted a lot of attention is as a ‘designer of learning environments’. The teacher-as-author model has its roots in distance education, where instructional designers and subject matter experts worked with technology to replicate the learning experience of a classroom. Today, thanks to the affordances of simulations, communications technology, and multi-modal interfaces, we can design environments that approximate real-world conditions. A student can often learn using the same technology as a practitioner, in either simulated or actual conditions. The teacher, in other words, models the domain.

A second and equally important role is a ‘practitioner of the discipline’. This is akin to the idea of professors acting as researchers and developers in the discipline, and at the same time, leading the instruction of students in the discipline. Or, indeed, or the master tradesman in a craft working alongside apprentices in the craft. This is more than merely providing ‘worked examples’; it involves exposing students to the thought process, to the physical processes, to both the cognitive and non-cognitive aspects of the discipline. By mirroring the instructor the student becomes like the instructor; it is the result of practice rather than content acquisition. In this way we could say the teacher demonstrates the domain.

The teacher’s role in both senses is active rather than passive. It is far more than merely guiding and coaching. But at the same time, the teacher’s role is non-authoritarian. The teacher models and demonstrates, but does not assume the role of authority (to do so would invalidate the learning environment). If students to not take it upon themselves to practice and reflect on the discipline, they will not learn. It is true that by prescribing rote we can force them to remember. But they will not in this way become like a practitioner, not without significant adjustment and difficulty in the future.

If we eliminate teachers, students will look elsewhere for role models – perhaps to media, perhaps to their peers, perhaps to artificial intelligence. I think the single most important function we – as teachers, and as individuals – can perform in society is to be the model for students of the sort of culture we envision and desire.

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