Match. Flame.

Because there is still magic, even as the robots march steadily forward…

robotWhen I was young and foolish and filled with the unfettered exuberance of a first year teacher, I worked in a classroom without exterior windows. I found that utter darkness could be achieved by covering up the one slim rectangle of glass that led out to the hallway, and that even after the time it took to listen to a recording of a long poem by Poe no one’s eyes could adjust enough to see.

I stretched the time once, silencing my class, killing the lights, and playing “The Last Question,” a short story by Isaac Asimov. Familiar with my space, I walked the perimeter of the room, listening. It was so quiet I could hear breathing; nobody talked. As the story reached its end, our eyes still useless in the pitch black, I took a box of wooden matches from my pocket, struck one in a dramatic arc, and held it to a candle quietly placed on the table of a student in the front row. His face and mine, lit only by the orange and yellow glow, looked at each other as the final words of the story filled the air: “Let there be light.”

Robots can’t do that.

Last week, a teacher I respect gave me an article titled “The Deconstruction of the K-12 Teacher” by Michael Godsey, a contributor to The Atlantic and English teacher in California. With wit and a well researched point of view, Godsey discusses the changes in the expectations of teachers, changes he sees rushing at us with the determination of Cylons chasing Starbuck and Apollo in a 1978 episode of Battlestar Galactica.

Godsey recalls describing the future of teaching as “a large, fantastic computer screen at the front, streaming one of the nation’s most engaging, informative lessons available on a particular topic. The “virtual class” will be introduced, guided, and curated by one of the country’s best teachers (a.k.a. a “super-teacher”), and it will include professionally produced footage of current events, relevant excerpts from powerful TedTalks, interactive games students can play against other students nationwide, and a formal assessment that the computer will immediately score and record.”

Cylons.

In all seriousness, what Godsey describes feels more than a little plausible. As he notes later in the piece, “teachers like me are uploading onto the web tens of thousands of lesson plans and videos that are then being consolidated and curated by various organizations. In other words, the intellectual property that once belonged to teachers is now openly available on the Internet.”

As a fellow who started his teaching career during the Clinton administration, I’m equally astounded by these changes. The internet has taken the sharing of resources, including teaching resources, to a level undreamed of in the 1990s or before. The rugged metal filing cabinets of teaching lore, filled with worksheets and mimeographed handouts, are increasingly losing ground to Google Docs and websites. Some call this progress.

The challenge of this increased information, for teachers in the context of lesson planning and humans in the context of …everything, is being able to discern wheat and chaff.

Godsey does a nice job of cataloging resources that purport to do just that, and he strikes the right tone of angst when quoting a principal who told him that “we’re at the point where the Internet pretty much supplies everything we need. We don’t really need teachers in the same way anymore. I mean, sure, my daughter gets some help from her teachers, but basically everything she learns—from math to band—she can get from her computer better than her teachers.”

And it’s here that he began to lose me.

As a principal myself, and teacher of thirteen years, I recognize that the world in which we teach is profoundly different than it was a decade or more ago. I also honestly believe that we need teachers, and not just facilitators, more than ever, and we need them in the “same way.”

Where that way is the same may be where Godsey and I begin to diverge.

Before students had technology that allowed them instant access to information -conveniently located on a device they could use to text their friends- a part of what teachers did was help provide specific information about a particular topic. Gradually, this aspect of education lessened and the ability to evaluate the validity of information students acquire on their own has increased. Acknowledging that, I’d argue that an even more important part of education, from 1990 to 1960 to 1930 has been to connect and inspire.

This is better done in person than any other way, and by people passionate not only about teaching, but also about the particular subject they are teaching to students.

Godsey provides an accurate juxtaposition when he explains: “I measured myself against these websites and Internet companies. It seems clear that they already have a distinct advantage over me as an individual teacher. They have more resources, more money, an entire staff of professionals, and they get to concentrate on producing their specialized content, while the teacher is—almost by default—inherently encouraged to transform into a facilitator.”

Yes, and I’d add: But teachers have the kids.

Students learn online, they learn from peers, they learn from videos and books and articles. Sometimes those resources can inspire them, just as sometimes we as adults draw inspiration from sources that are not teachers. And…

The inspiration that comes from a teacher, and the interaction between a student and a teacher, is unique. It happens in classrooms and art studios and science labs. It happens in the gym and the theater and the auto shop. It happens in those thousand human moments that make up a school.

I certainly don’t want to discount the truth that learning takes place outside of a classroom, with or without a teacher, and I think Godsey is right when he notes that “There is a profound difference between a local expert teacher using the Internet and all its resources to supplement and improve his or her lessons, and a teacher facilitating the educational plans of massive organizations.”

I’d also add that there is a profound difference between a video of a teacher lighting a match after twenty minutes of darkness and a teacher surprising a class in person with that theatrical demonstration.

I don’t worry that technology will transform public education; I accept it, smilingly. I also maintain that while there are certainly times that teachers are freed from the obligation to lecture on facts, and while students are increasingly given opportunities to collaborate and solve problems of complexity and relevance, the magic that is teaching (and by that I mean connecting, provoking, and inspiring) is as strong, and as necessary, now as ever.

robot matchI believe teachers do this best when freed to engage their own creativity, using all the resources available, to light that fire with students.

I loved that Godsey’s article made me think, and that it prompted some fantastic conversations with teachers, parents, and students at my school.

The only folks I didn’t talk with were the robots.

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