Conversation with Pre-Service Teachers – Teacher as Learner

First of all, thanks to those of you from Brigham Young University who added your thoughts to my first post on the set curriculum. I enjoyed reading your comments and learning more about your concerns and questions regarding teaching 21st century learners. As you can see, this is a conversation that can continue for a long time, and I hope that it will continue this week and even after our Second Life meet-up on Monday.

Today, I want to respond to your questions about student-teacher relationship and technology. I’ve selected the following questions from the list you sent me:

You mentioned that sometimes you end up talking about things not within the curriculum while you are establishing relationships with the students. What would you consider the balance to produce such effective bonds, but also obtain the goals of vigorous curricula?

To what extent do you think you can expose yourself as a mere human being, and not a teacher in your blogs and classroom settings?

Through your blogs, you make yourself seem more “human” to your students and they get to know you on a personal basis. Does that affect the way they treat you as a teacher?

What difficulties do you anticipate as the students start to perceive you in your other role as someone who can learn from them? Do you think that you will come upon classroom management problems? What feedback have you received from the community about your use of technology in the classroom?

How do you censor how much you should tell or show your students about yourself?

Do you ever loose the respect of the students when you actively show them you don’t know everything about your given subject?

These questions reveal the same apprehensions that I experienced when I first decided to redefine my teacherly voice and modify my classroom presence. They betray fear of losing control and the reputation of the content expert. I think it’s understandable – we are taught, after all, that in order to become successful and effective teachers, we need to become experts in our chosen fields and project an aura of expertise. Parents and students expect the teacher to be knowledgeable. Consequently, the decision to “learn with the students,” to use one’s own personal blog in the class blogosphere, to engage as a participant and a co-learner, often leads us to think that we will lose the respect of our students and that we will no longer really teach. The question immediately arises – how will my students benefit from being in my class if I don’t actively teach them?

At the same time, it would be silly to try to use blogs or wikis, for example, and try to preserve the traditional type of teacherly presence. These new tools demand that we assume the role of a facilitator and a co-learner. They really don’t work very well when the teacher insists on being in complete control and dictating how students engage as learners. They demand a more democratic and participatory approach.

So, how do we reconcile the new technology with the traditional expectations of most parents and students that we enter the classroom as subject experts? How do we encourage personal inquiry in our students and also maintain the traditional teacherly voice?

Needless to say, as the new technologies open up new vistas for exploration and personal engagement, educators struggle with how they can best meet these traditional expectations and adapt their practice to suit the new reality of a more conversational and participatory approach to learning brought about by the new tools of web 2.0. Leigh Blackall echoed many of my thoughts on this topic when he expressed this dilemma and the resulting frustrations in one of his recent posts. His ideas prompted me to comment on the process of losing the teacherly voice. I’d like to reiterate here the thoughts that I shared in response to his entry.

Losing the Authoritarian Voice

First of all, I’ve come to the conclusion that losing the teacherly voice is not the equivalent of losing the voice of an expert. When I first started blogging with my students and using my blog to learn and not just dispense knowledge or post evaluative comments about my students’ progress, I was under the impression that, in order to lose my teacherly voice, I would have to stop being an expert. I thought that, in order to be a participant and a co-learner, I had to learn along with my students. It took me a while to realize that I was wrong. How can I possibly say to my students that we will be learning together about Elizabethan drama, for example? I already know a lot about that topic. I cannot pretend that I don’t. In fact, I probably shouldn’t because they are in my class to learn from me, and they expect me to be their guide and introduce them to the topic.

And so, the challenge is that when I try to divest myself of my teacherly voice I need to remember that this process is not about losing the voice of the expert but about losing the voice of the traditional authoritarian teacher who enters the classroom as an official persona armed with a pre-defined set of goals and very specific lesson plans for his students to follow. It is about giving the students the freedom to engage with ideas that they find relevant and interesting, not about dictating every step of their learning process.

I believe that it is important to lose the authoritarian voice, the controlling voice, but not the voice of an expert who chose to teach because of his passion for the subject. The students need to see that the instructor is someone who lives and breathes whatever it is that they’re studying, that they have in their midst someone who has a wealth of expertise.

I think that the best way of losing that voice is to say the following:

“I’ve been teaching Elizabethan drama for a long time, but there are still many things that I don’t know very well. So, this term, while you research Elizabethan drama and related topics that you find interesting, I will research one specific aspect of Elizabethan drama that always interested me but that I never really had a chance to explore.”

Saying this to my class suggests that I still see myself as an expert. It also shows that I am a learner, someone who wants to use his blog to research things he’s passionate about. The voice of an expert is still there in that comment, but the traditional teacher persona has disappeared.

Modeling Personal Investment

In one of my recent posts, I suggested that I had decided to use my own blog as a more personal space. I decided to give it a meaningful title and blog about things that I am interested in: film, music, architecture, human rights. Clearly, most of these entries have nothing to do with the work we do in class. But the point here is to lead by example, to show the students that I am more than a subject expert, that I am a multi-dimensional being whose life is not limited to Elizabethan drama, or essay writing, or grammar, or reading Victorian novels. It shows that blogging is about reflection and thoughtful engagement with ideas that are important to us. How can I expect the students to take blogging seriously, if I use my own blog in the class blogosphere only to post assignments and evaluations? They need to see that blogging is about personal investment.

This strategy can have a very positive effect on building a solid relationship with my students. They get to know me as a person, not just a teacher. They see the richness that is in every human being who engages with ideas and shares his or her thoughts. When they see how much you care about different things in your life and how much time you take to reflect on them, their respect for you as a human being and a teacher can only increase.

Does all that writing about things that are important to me personally detract from the curriculum? I don’t think it does. I do think, however, that it redefines what we mean by curriculum. It redefines the curriculum because it shows the students that any topic is of value if it studied in reflective manner, if it is approached as a field to be explored. Northrop Frye once said that “it takes a good deal of maturity to see that every field of knowledge is the centre of all knowledge, and that it doesn’t matter so much what you learn when you learn it in a structure that can expand into other structures.” In other words, knowledge is not a series of fragmented and carefully compartmentalized units (although school does a great job of presenting it that way). Young people who see that their teacher blogs about things he finds meaningful are more likely to see blogs as personal spaces where they can be themselves and explore ideas that are personally relevant. They begin to see their blogs as a powerful medium for research, communication, expression, and reflection. (For a very insightful glimpse into a classroom where personal engagement works very well, check out Graham Wegner’s Starting Next Round Of Personal Research Projects.

Once they engage as individuals, once they find something that they want to explore as independent researchers, they become hooked and committed. This presents a perfect opportunity to work with them individually on specific skills that can help them improve their work and learn how to more effectively communicate their ideas. In other words, I don’t need the whole class to study the same thing in order to help them become better writers, readers, researchers, or critical thinkers. In fact, my chances of helping them develop in all those areas are much greater when I can interact with them in the context of their own research. Instructional conversations work well only when the students’ sense of ownership is already present.

In other words, I think it’s important for me to redefine my teacherly voice so that the students see me as a learner and not only as an educator. I think it’s important to show them that learning happens when we engage with ideas that we find personally meaningful. Of course, in order to do that we must first be prepared to grant them the freedom and provide the forum where they can become independent researchers. That, let’s face it, is not always easy.

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22 Responses to Conversation with Pre-Service Teachers – Teacher as Learner

  1. John Rodgers November 18, 2007 at 10:50 am #

    Interestingly, the question go to the heart of the issue of the issue of being a teacher of content, as opposed to being a teacher.

    If you perceive and present yourself as a subject matter expert in the field of —your content area here—, students quickly associate you with this role. You will rapidly lose their respect if you are perceived as simultaneously learning then teaching the content.

    On the other hand, if you perceive and present yourself as a meta learner, someone equipping the students the tools to learn the content area, and you are constantly modeling this for them, you will gain their respect.

  2. Marissa Benton November 18, 2007 at 10:10 pm #

    You said that as teachers “we must first be prepared to grant them [the students] the freedom and provide the forum where they can become independent researchers. That, let’s face it, is not always easy.” I agree with this statement whole-heartedly and in pondering how I can best help my future students to connect with the material while giving them space I have drawn a blank. How do you balance structured (classroom) and un-structed learning (such as you mentioned above). It seems that something like that would result in wasted time if you had un-motivated students. How do you handle something like that? Do you have problems like that?

  3. Graham Wegner November 19, 2007 at 6:01 am #

    Marissa, even after 20+ years in the classroom I find it difficult to maintain the balance you refer to. I would add that unmotivated students are more at risk in the structured only environment because there’s not much to attract, motivate and maintain their interest. At least when they have some choices and control, the ownership of their learning has a chance to get going. Even unmotivated students can find a hook for their own personal interest – locking the content down is going to minimise that happening. I work with younger students than Konrad and it can be quite a challenge to keep tabs on their progress. A rule of thumb for inquiry learning is have students build on what they previously know as opposed to totally unknown topics – the other method that I noticed Konrad has used to manage this is to use umbrella topics like Human Rights.
    I did promise my class that in the second round of our Personal Research Project that I would conduct my own research topic and present that back to them. And every time I hint that in my role as teacher I might be too busy to fulfil that promise, they remind me that “You promised.” So, having a teacher go through the same process and become a learner is important to the students you teach – even of not all classes will admit it.

  4. Sarah Shore November 19, 2007 at 12:57 pm #

    In thinking about the teachers whom I most respect, it is often those teachers who know and understand a great deal about the content they are teaching. It fascinates me when they can give specific, detailed content examples about seemingly random topics and explain them in a way that make the examples accessible to my knowledge background. I feel like it encourages me to ask questions because most often, I know I can get an accurate detailed answer.

    Moreover, these teachers are also the ones who show that they are continually learning. For example, I have a professor who will update us at the beginning of every class about science in the news – from things that he has read from major science journals and other sources. In this way, he shows how he has gained his vast knowledge background – by continually seeking out knowledge!

    I think these examples apply to this discussion by demonstrating some positive ways that we can present ourselves as teachers to our students (through blogs or otherwise) – first as individuals who know and care a lot about our content areas, but also as individuals who continue to seek after that knowledge. In this way we can present a pattern of learning for our students to follow that does not diminish their view of us as teachers.

  5. Janine Gallagher Doot November 19, 2007 at 3:07 pm #

    I think the best teachers I have had are the teachers that have told me that they are still learning about the subject they are teaching. I never lost respect for them because they didn’t know every detail about the subject being taught. I recognize it is important to continue learning and I am grateful for the teachers that show some imperfection. It has helped me as a student. Therefore, I think it is important that our students understand that we may know a lot about certain subjects but that doesn’t make us experts on every subject.

  6. Stefani Ward November 19, 2007 at 4:07 pm #

    I agree, Janine. I believe that inquiry is one of the most important aspects of teaching and learning. As teachers we need to model the process of inquiry to our students, and show that it is one of the most useful things that students can learn in school. Inquiry focuses on utilizing the tools and resources we have access to, to discover more of the world around us. I like the idea of learning with the students, as the blog mentions about studying Elizabethan drama.

  7. Kate Vasicek November 19, 2007 at 4:14 pm #

    I think the traditional “I have all the knowledge and shall impart it unto you” role of teachers is dishonest, and that this new technology can be a useful tool to put us back in touch with reality. We all have different experiences, we all have different ideas – I’ve often felt that the only difference between my intellect and my teacher’s was a piece of paper allowing them to teach. Usually, this was my feeling about the underqualified teachers.

    That being said, I think that there should be limits to how personal a teacher can be on their class blog. I usually respect teachers who ARE real, who dare to show that they are learners as well as teachers/educators, that they are more than “transmitters of facts”. However, I do not respect teachers who try to be “cool” by adopting the vernacular of their students, or teachers who allow and even foster a classroom (or in this class blog) of disrespect in an effort to be “accepted” or “one of the students”. Although the teacher’s looming presence can be taken away on the blog, I think they should work as hard as they can to promote a culture of respectful open communication.

    Very interesting subject.

  8. Jacob Griffin November 19, 2007 at 4:16 pm #

    In response to Janine’s comment, I agree with what she said about teachers always learning being some of the best. Plus as a teacher, teaching will be much more fun if we are continually learning. Hopefully all teachers go into a subject they love and have passion about, otherwise they shouldn’t be teachers–so why wouldn’t you want to continually learn and improve your knowledge. I will be teaching biology, and there are hundreds of awesome books and journals I look forward to reading after I have graduated and have a bit more “free reading” time. Second to inspiring students to love the living world and learning, my excitement entails going into a profession where you can learn for life.

    So if anyone is reading this out there that may not enjoy their subject that they are teaching or don’t have passion for their area of expertiece, continue learning about it, expand youself, get involved in the topics you teach about, and the love will return.

  9. Jen Robertson November 19, 2007 at 4:35 pm #

    I always liked getting tidbits that made teachers seem like real people. In ninth grade biology I had a student teacher who was a complete mystery to all of us. It made her seem distant, although she was a really nice person. We made it a goal to get her to tell us something about her personal life. Finally, she told us a story about a spider that her husband found in their house, and somehow she became a real person; she was afraid of spiders! I think that it’s important that we not just be flat characters that spout off facts to our students. Because of that, I think that personal blogs are a great forum for our students to get to know us on a different level.

  10. Erika Abbott November 19, 2007 at 4:38 pm #

    I have spent some of my pre-service time at BYU at a liberal arts high school that has a different than traditional approach to learning and teaching. The students and teachers are all on a first-name basis and the philosophy is all about alternative learning and creativity. Many of my fellow students expressed concern while we were there as to the unstructured nature of the school. Students walk around freely and all of the rules and set-up of classrooms are very loose. I really felt like the students were learning a lot and they all expressed their preference for this set-up as opposed to the traditional schools they had attended previously. The worry of my classmates was that while this approach may work for some students, it was not structured enough for the needs of others. Do you agree with this idea that some students need the formal structure of the traditional school setting with clear-cut student and teacher roles?

  11. Dez Harris November 19, 2007 at 4:42 pm #

    I so agree that teachers need to continue to learn. Some would say that history is a dead subject but I think it is very much alive. Advances in scientific areas such as archaeology has changed the views on some historical beliefs. Way to go scientists – keep it up- because of you, history is actually a living subject. It keeps changing and our understanding keeps growing. I have been a subscriber to many magazines (such as Archaeology) for more than 15 years. It has been amazing to see how our perception of history has changed and grown just in that amount of time – just think what we will know in 15 more years. Subscribing to journals and magazines has been one way for me not only to rekindle my interest in the subject that is my passion, but it has also helped me to stay involved with learning.

  12. Ashley Hansen Leonard November 19, 2007 at 5:23 pm #

    I think that teachers always need to learn. Their education does not end just because they graduate. You have to show that you love what you are doing and show that through your teaching to be a successful teacher. You have to keep up with the latest things and the newest technology. i think that blogs are a great way fro students to get to know you but I think that it goes with the content area. i have a hard time thinking that I will use a blog in my content area.

  13. Nichole Clement November 19, 2007 at 5:27 pm #

    What you have said really made me think of the times that my teachers have let me know that they are also learners. I really liked the fact that they were not looking down on me just because I didn’t know something. It makes me want to create a safe learning environment for my students. Then they will be able to really say what they think and I can help guide their thoughts easier because I really know what they think. If we can create a safe environment it also gives those who usually struggle with the subject a real opportunity to ask questions and learn.

  14. Nicole Andersen November 19, 2007 at 5:40 pm #

    I’m curious, do you find that your students are especially responsive to assignments if they are on your blog rather than handed out in class. I would imagine that students who are not particularly interested in your subject wouldn’t be any easier to reach or any more interested simply because the information is coming to them in a new, technological format. Is this the case, or do you find that the new format is compelling enough to captivate their attention?

  15. Allison Koerner November 19, 2007 at 5:44 pm #

    I love how the new tools in teaching are moving towards a more democratic learning environment. We as teachers should hope that our students will be involved in their communities and in the world. What better way to teach them to be active citizens than to familiarize them with democratic principles in the classroom? I look forward to using these new tools in order to better prepare our students for their futures.

  16. Adam Burch November 19, 2007 at 6:20 pm #

    In your article you said that: “At the same time, it would be silly to try to use blogs or wikis, for example, and try to preserve the traditional type of teacherly presence. These new tools demand that we assume the role of a facilitator and a co-learner. They really don’t work very well when the teacher insists on being in complete control and dictating how students engage as learners. They demand a more democratic and participatory approach.”

    I agree that the ‘democratic’ approach in ideal, but what do you do when students are uninterested in the use of technology? Under the democratic approach how do you exercise control? Would you simply liken this to any other use of technology in the classroom?

  17. Keri Hemming November 19, 2007 at 6:53 pm #

    What would you say to parents who are concerned about second life in terms of internet safety? How long did it take to create this virtual world? How long would it take to teach students how to utilize this technology?

  18. Konrad Glogowski November 25, 2007 at 10:09 pm #

    Marissa,

    I think Graham already answered your question … and very well, too! Thanks, Graham!

    I’d like to add that when students are working in an inquiry model they are researching ideas that they find interesting and relevant. Consequently, you don’t have students who are unmotivated. If some of them happen to lose focus or are no longer interested in their topic, or perhaps overwhelmed by it, I always step in and talk with them about the next step. We talk about their ideas and, gradually, a new potential idea emerges.

    I think that one of the greatest advantages of this approach is that it allows me to talk to the students individually and get to know them as individual human beings. Once that relationship is in place, it is much easier to have instructional conversations and assist them in learning.

    – Konrad

  19. Konrad Glogowski November 25, 2007 at 11:01 pm #

    Sarah,

    I love the two examples that you gave in your comment! I think these small things that teachers do can have a very strong impact on the students and also suggest to them that our subject areas extend beyond the textbook and the test, into the real world around us. These attempts to present what you call “a pattern of learning” can be very powerful and, as you pointed out, do not require technology.

    Thanks for your comment!

  20. Kimberly McCollum November 27, 2007 at 4:42 pm #

    I also liked Sarah’s examples. When I taught high school biology, I found that when I brought up what I saw on Discovery Health or read in a book, just for fun, that my students were more likely to bring their own outside knowledge into the classroom. When we as a class reached the limits of our collective knowledge, it was fun to hypothesize and talk about what data we would need to collect to answer our questions.

  21. Judi Buenaflor June 6, 2010 at 3:22 pm #

    Personalizing teaching is another way of engaging students. I currently am an Assistant Professor of Education but prior to this I was a principal. My students have told me more than once that they enjoy my stories and anecdotes I tell them about that experience. This make me seem more that just their teacher of their course and more of a “real” teacher who has experience and background that can enlighten their way. I have no problem letting them see me as more human because I believe it makes me more effective as a teacher. The opposite is true, also. Seeing the students as more than just bodies in a classroom when they become “real” people through dialogue blogs and other personal means, it becomes easier for me to teach and for them to learn. I do not see this process as making either the teacher or student more vulnerable, but more engaged in the process of growth.

    Judi Buenaflor

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