Saturday, February 05, 2005

Teachers or facilitators (or just teachers)?

Nice discussion over at Stephen Powell's blog on the alignment of software, teaching approach and student expectations. The ecology/farming metaphor:

The rainforest being the rich learning ecosystem where social constructivist philosophies of the software, teachers, and expectations of the learners are aligned. This is opposed the didactic software and teaching philosophy that acts to ‘dessertify’ any student expectation that is anything other than to be the passive receiver of information. Clearly, it is more likely that a mixed set of philosophies and expectations will be found and this manifests itself as either a free range farm with diversity of crops intermixed with weeds and bugs, to the monoculture of a apparently healthy crop but devoid of variety and kept ‘orderly’ by a tightly controlled regime of pesticides and herbicides.
The vertical axis reminds me of the teaching vs. faciliating discussion and Susan Mirandi's question as to whether, really, "teaching" is bad, and her observation that in her experience as a student many of her best teachers would today be considered pedagogic dinosaurs: authoritarian and on stage.

There are two points, and a question, that come to mind:

First there is a semantic issue: personally I'd like to reclaim the title "teacher", but with the clear understanding that "didactic" (as in preachy or instructing excessively) is left out. Stephen Powell's label in his schema is the correct one. What I'd like to be able to do as a teacher is take the appropriate role at the appropriate time for my learners (as a group, or individually). That may mean that at times I stand in the front of the room and lecture a bit. Along with Susan, many of the best teachers I've had were in-charge lecturers...they were engaging, electrifying, and were able to personalize the topic so that, well, I got it. These "lecturers" were perhaps better seen as practicing the art form of storytelling. Of course these were special teachers, and not everyone has this talent (but quality facilitating isn't easy either!). The point is that ideally we can do both.

The second point has to do with the synchronous e-learning technology we've been using in our EVO2005 Weblogging course. It's pretty amazing: voice and chat dialogue, private messages among participants, whiteboarding, application sharing so that the group can move throught the web with the instructor, community building tools...very cool stuff. And the instructors have been extraordinary as well. I think I speak for most everyone when I say that these sessions have been rewarding.

And you know what? The sessions are classic examples of "antiquated" pedagogy: teacher-centered, authority on the stage, learners as passive vessels listening attentively to the expert. And you know what else? That's OK. I learned a lot. Lectures can be good. Social constructivist facilitating is good too: let's figure out how to do it in an online environment, maybe with mini-groups breaking off mid-presentation for an IM-powered mini-project, then coming back to present to the group and instructor for discussion, or similar. Note: Nathan Lowell gets my post-of-the-week award for the original insight, although I think our conclusions may ultimately differ.

Last point (the question) and I don't even know exactly how to ask it, so help me out: in the context of teacher/facilitator roles and constructivism social or otherwise, how does the knowledge domain affect the implementation of these methods/philosophies? In other words, are the prescriptive results of our analyses and experience equally valid for Domain A (say, history) and Domain B (say, ESL)? Maybe it's simpler to ask: what (if anything) is special about language learning? Anyone with any insights or resources to share?


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