Teachers’ Most Powerful Role? Adding Context

| April 7, 2014 | 19 Comments
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Lenny Gonzalez

Part 3 in the series Learning In the New Economy of Information.

By Shawn McCusker

During a recent unit on World War II, Courtney Wilhelm’s U.S. History class conducted a leader’s conference. Students explored broad topics such as economic and political philosophies from the perspective of European leaders from the 1930’s and 1940’s. When that activity was finished, the students were asked to respond to current global issues from the perspective of their leader, and the topic of the Russian annexation of the Crimea came up. Wilhelm was able to draw parallels between Crimea and Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. Each of the students was able to connect their expertise on a past leader to gain insight on today’s world, and Wilhelm was able to use her expertise on both history and current events to take the lesson to a new level.

In classes where students connect ideas from the abstract to real-life events, the role of the teacher — as Wilhelm illustrates — moves from being a distributor of information to one of nurturing students as they collect, evaluate, and process information into unique learning products. The students’ role consequently moves from that of a receiver of the teacher’s knowledge to that of a researcher, curator, and creator. Products of student creation and individual expressions of learning become important parts of the learning process that are shared, evaluated by classmates, and built upon by the teacher.

For some, these changing roles might signal the end of an era where the teacher serves as a content expert. It may seem as though the teacher no longer carries the sole responsibility for content delivery, bringing into question the need for them to master their entire field in order to teach. Why must teachers spend their entire career mastering the information in their chosen field if this responsibility will ultimately fall to the students in class?

It’s here, in these seemingly disjointed moments, that the expertise of the teacher is crucial to uniting the class’s learning.

In reality, however, the converse is true. As students delve into content within any unit, especially where they’re given choices in selecting their topic, natural gaps will occur in their understanding. There will still be a need for context and background knowledge as they work to research and process their sources. It’s unlikely that, even when given guidelines to narrow the possibilities, students working independently will all end up focusing in the same place. When students work in groups, or as individuals, their products will be varied, and often — at first glance — seem disconnected, dissimilar, and separate.

And it’s here, in these seemingly disjointed moments, that the expertise of the teacher is crucial to uniting the class’s learning. Teachers need to create the dynamic that transforms individual moments into a broader experience where the class benefits from the complete range of learning that has taken place. And this can happen in different ways such as discussions, class blogs, back-channels, or any number of sharing activities, as the teacher solidifies the learning mosaic created by the class.

Teacher as Conductor in the Classroom Orchestra

One analogy for the role of the teacher in an abundant economy of information is that of the conductor. The conductor stands before the class and uses the individual performances of the students to produce a broader more powerful work. At various times during the group’s “concert,” the conductor may call attention to the work and talents of different individuals. Throughout the lesson, different sections of class work are highlighted, helping to set the overall tone of the lesson. The smaller contributions of the students are melded into the greater whole. Soloists may have a moment to shine, but the work is constructed from the entire group. The conductor may never play a single note, but his understanding of each small part of the larger work makes a far more powerful product possible.

In real life, an orchestra led by someone with knowledge of only one instrument, or by someone who lacks an understanding of the talents of its members, will not be capable of reaching the same potential as one led by an effective conductor who is an expert in the field of music and who is highly aware of the group’s talents.

This is also true of the classroom teacher in the new economy of information. Group work can be assigned and completed, but the classroom teacher must unite it together into something more. They must recognize the potential of the individual work that the students do and unite it together into a greater and more powerful work. When information is available in abundance, teachers will still be subject matter experts, but their true value will lie in their ability to facilitate and share the expertise of their students.

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  • http://www.wordsandnumbers.com/ Words & Numbers

    Lovely metaphors. This is an interesting take on the role of the teacher now (and in the future).

  • LITeachYourKids

    This of course assumes that the students are willing participants in the lesson.

    • Carolyn

      If lessons are relevant you may find more students participating!

      • LITeachYourKids

        Not a teacher, are you?

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  • David V. Loertscher

    There is probably a person just down the hall from the classroom who is an expert in information. Classroom teachers who co-teach alongside these experts will have a much better chance of implementing the suggestions given here. You guessed it, that person is a professional school librarian…

    • Please respect teachers.

      Unfortunately, school librarians are falling victim to downsizing as schools continue to struggle with funding issues. At least, that is the case in Ohio.

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  • James Kendra

    Teacher knowledge is crucial. I discuss a lot do current events and connect history to their inquiries. It’s the hook to help them want to explore the past. Current issues force them to wonder how things got to be the way they are. Our experience is needed then.
    I tell them they are beginning to acquire the knowledge they need to make decisions about their community in the future. Someone better be paying attention if we want to have strong knowledgeable leaders in the future. That is the reason for social studies.

    • tyab

      Teachers must master the content matter before they can put it in context.
      Many teachers are not proficient and can’t put the concept into context

  • http://teachwithpicturebooks.blogspot.com/ Keith Schoch

    Lovely and true ideas. Unfortunately, most testing provides zero context and may even punish a students who offers thoughts which are not explicitly stated in the text, and many teacher observation tools actually discount, if not deny, the teacher’s role in being the “conductor of the orchestra.”

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  • Lucy

    This article sums up what the school librarian is there for!

  • guest

    There’s nothing especially “new” about this role as teacher. Good pedagogy has been known, as in formally methodized, for at least over 100 years in public schooling. It’s just the “crisis” exposes the need to suggest it is just happening.

  • bob

    Rather than educating students within the social context everyone supposes is good for us. Educate students according to the needs of their social context. Major gaps are caused by this, and it creates a deficit in learning ability. In other words, educate students according to what they need to be successful given their situations. functionalization has led to depersonalization of education, and it hurts the quality of what teachers are trying to teach. which is probably why students cannot wake up in the morning and be excited about their education.

    Teachers reading this should strongly consider implementing practices from Project-Based Learning. It will provide the student with context needed to make his/her education relevant, and will probably provide you (teacher or educator) with lots of context in regard to learning ability and things of the like. This is hard, yes, and will probably have to come from the heart.

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  • Dominic Reigns

    Teachers are now expected to equip their pupils with the disposition and skills for life-long learning. It is vital, therefore, that teachers themselves are learners, not only in developing their practice but also in modeling for pupils the process of continual learning. Its focus is on the approaches that the student teachers take to their own learning.
    For more visit: http://www.researchomatic.com/The-Role-Of-The-Teacher-112635.html

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