Short answer: Absolutely not. We need teachers. We also need autonomous learning.
I have observed ambivalence in my successive enthusiasms and in my seemingly self-contradictory declarations in this blog and elsewhere. On the one hand, as a teacher, I am totally enthusiastic about teaching, pedagogy, learning theories, imagining new and better ways of promoting learning. I talk about what teachers need to do or think about to improve their work with learners. But then I also talk about how learners deserve autonomy and freedom to direct their own learning. I critique the ways in which many, if not most, educational systems and processes fail to align with how learners’ brains work, how many curricula fail to help learners thrive, and how teachers often fail to discern or provide the support and the opportunities that learners most need. My fluctuating attitudes seem to embrace incompatible sets of ideas and values. It makes me wonder about the intellectual soundness and good judgment of the person who continually flips between those broad points of view.
Clearly, as a teacher, I value my work with learners. I believe that my skill and my labor doing so is of value to my institution of higher education and to learners enrolled there. Then I switch hats and find that as a learner, I value learner autonomy and believe that schools and curricula and teachers actually discourage or impede learning in many cases or, at best, fall short of optimally supporting good, durable, resonant, meaningful learning. So… which one is it? Do I think that we need teachers, or not? Do I think that learners ought to have absolute freedom without undue interference from teachers and regulations, or not?
I am pretty sure that I’m not an intellectual hypocrite or the victim of cognitive dysfunction when I flip between these positions. What I mean is that my ideas about teaching and my ideas about learning are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They are more like positions along a continuum, with some distance between them, without being fully separated from each other. To put it another way… not only do I think that it is possible to have autonomous learning AND teachers, but I think that it is necessary. Indeed, I would say that it is unthinkable not to have teachers. So, just to be clear, even as I advocate for more autonomy for learners and for a full and proper place for self-directed learning across educational systems, I am not talking about “firing the teachers.”
I am talking about a radical change. In my emerging vision of education, many teachers will need to learn a very different way of proceeding. Institutions will be forced to rethink the ways in which they manage education, curricular rules, teachers and learners. And to be quite frank, I worry about whether or not it is possible to make a majority of these changes fully, in one fell swoop, on a large scale. I have my doubts about the feasibility of doing it across a single institution, much less across an entire citywide, region-wide or nationwide system. However, my very real concerns and doubts do not convince me that we ought to abandon the idea. Indeed, I think that it is worthwhile to try. In this, I am not alone.
There is, to borrow a theme from a recent conference at which I spoke, a certain urgency behind this questioning and this desire to rethink and to change how we approach teaching, learning and education. It has become increasingly clear to many that the metaphors and paradigms of majority-view Western European and American education are inefficient for learning in general and horrendously dysfunctional for many learners. Most of all, they are ill-adapted to the task of enacting the cultural and intellectual shifts that are needed in this time of crisis and transition, the Anthropocene.
Of course, if we think that everything is just great and that we ought to continue doing things exactly as we are — overexploiting natural resources, creating social and environmental catastrophes on a huge scale, blithely ignoring poverty, illiteracy, malnourishment, plastic-filled oceans and other extreme kinds of pollution, mass habitat destruction, mass extinction, deforestation, uncontrolled addiction in some communities, global warming, antibiotic-resistant microbes; or acknowledging but spectacularly failing to solve most problems in any sustainable way, continually building systems and social environments that leave the vast majority of human beings feeling dissatisfied, unfulfilled, sick, exploited or victimized (or all of the above) — then, by all means, we ought to stick with the educational systems and the modalities of thinking and doing that undergird Western industrial societies’ ways of doing things.
On the other hand, if we are going to address the underlying problems of the Anthropocene and create a society more in line with the possibility of sustainable thriving for the human race as a whole, we must change how we educate, how we learn and how we solve problems. Radically.
Teachers have an important role to play…
Even if it means that they must operate outside their comfort zone.