Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Thoughts on History and the "Important Questions"

Following EduCon, readers on Will Richardson's blog voted on several questions that we might deem the "important questions" regarding education today. The top ten being:
  1. How do we support the changing role of teacher?
  2. What is the role of the teacher?
  3. How do we help students discover their passions?
  4. What is the essential learning that schools impart to students?
  5. What is the purpose of school?
  6. How do we adapt our curriculum to the technologies that kids are already using?
  7. What does and educated person look like today?
  8. How do we change policy to support more flexible time and place learning?
  9. What are the essential practices of teachers in a system where students are learning outside of school?
  10. How do we ensure those without privilege have equal access to quality education and opportunity?
This is an interesting list and it  especially interests me in terms of a common thread through the questions, namely: the intersection of identity and purpose.

The first two questions clearly have to do with the identity of a teacher. What is it that a teacher "does"? And how has what a teacher "does" changed/is-changing? Historically, we might say that teachers generally "do" three things. They impart wisdom and offer systems of understanding -- I'm thinking Plato and Aristotle as well as the Classical Raga gurus. They also serve society by preparing citizens for the demands that work and service will put on them -- here we have the teacher of "skills" whether we talk about the Medieval Guild system or elements of contemporary public education. Third, we have teachers as the generational constituents of the transmission of ideas, arguments, and concepts -- and here I see the Rabbinical tradition as a rich example.

As for the question of how to support the change that teachers are going through, I'd first suggest we define the change itself. More often then not, education finds itself in the position of responding to rather than initiating cultural change. This makes sense, given that so much of what we do in education is in using historical precedent to help students develop ways of knowing. All the more important then that in this era of rapid change, we should not forget that our educational predecessors have long grappled with societal paradigm shifts.

In fact, I would make the argument that a rather good way to consider the questions raised by the Weblogg-ed readers is through the lens of historical analysis. For these are important questions; they are questions dealing with the fundamentals of identity within an era of dramatic shift. And for that reason, we should look back into dramatic shifts in history and examine how -- or whether -- education itself rode out those storms.

Over the next few months, I will be examining the historical nature of shift and the way in which education has responded to it (or how it has occasionally shaped it). I started generating a list of ideas this morning, and have already found some interesting parallels. For instance, at the same time that the experiment in democracy is occurring in 5th century Athens, the leading ethical philosophers of the age are making arguments against what had become a tradition of hawking educational ideas and rhetorical constructs for cash in the Stoa. Later during the Roman Empire, education becomes a commodity somewhat reflecting imperial values as well as turning certain locales into what we might call the first "college towns". In the wake of the decentralization of Roman governmental authority in the early Middle Ages, education becomes (literally) cloistered in the abbeys; five hundred or so years later, the universities arise with Latin as the lingua franca and a new class of intellectual elites that even later, with the rise of dialectical theory, will begin the movement towards educational celebrity as professors become seemingly as important as their disciplines and education again becomes peripatetic. In the Renaissance, we will see the further societal split in the intellectual tradition with the Guilds taking the arts and the private tutors of rich aristocrats taking the humanities. All this leads into the greatest pre-Industrial shift since the Agricultural Revolution -- the development of the printing press and the rise of the literate masses.

In short, the history of education is a history of responses to cultural shift.

Which means that the history of teachers is a history of responses to shifting demands upon identity.

How did the identity of teachers change through each of these shifts? Is it too much to think that our own era of digital shift is not something new, but rather the next phase in an ongoing process of historical dialectic? Is it even worth it to think in these terms? Or should we be focusing on the day-to-day work of "changing" schools?

Well, in my thinking, the questions raised by the readers hit on big themes: identity, passion, essentiality, purpose, adaptation, environment, and exclusivity. If I can play one small role in this conversation, I'd like to be the historian. I'd like to help give context to each of those big issues from an historical perspective, not in that the history itself will necessarily change what's going on in the day-to-day, but in that closer examination of the history might help us think about how we are answering the questions.

Many of us in education -- myself included -- tend to be pragmatists; we work with what we've got, and for the most part theory and history are often a diversion rather than a primary function within our practice. We talk about practice and policy in the story of "now" and we work scrappily to make things happen in the "now". And that's fine. But it leaves me personally feeling that the work of education all too often is forced to exist within the confines of politics and finances rather than in the sphere of the re-enchantment of the spirit where it belongs.

And for that reason, I'm very excited to be one small part of this broader conversation on the "important" questions -- as well as the importance of having questions -- that the sphere of educators revolving around the new digital paradigm brings to the debate. And I'm happy to put on my historian hat and I invite anyone interested in looking at the historical currents arisen by these themes to get in touch; let's think together and write together. Do our small part to help create a substantial context for the discussion.


  1. Love history. Interested to see where this leads. Looking forward to this series

  2. I think it's interesting that the top two questions are expressions of an identity crisis. I definitely see where this is coming from, but I'm not sure it's so much that educators don't know (or think they know) what their role is - I think they do have an idea of what they should be doing and just don't know how to reconcile the difference between that and what they, in practice, really do.

    As an educator, I'd like to think my primary purpose is to facilitate learning. And I do that as best I can, but only when it doesn't get in the way of what I'm really getting paid to do - *document* learning. While I'd like all my students to succeed, I'm in fact, really expected to produce failures as well. The whole purpose of grades is to rate students, so the best can be given the greatest opportunities and the worst, the menial jobs that someone has to do. In fact, introducing grades as an extrinsic reward/punishment system kills our students' intrinsic motivation to learn. If we really wanted to give them meaningful feedback, we'd just tell them what they need to improve and point them to resources to start. Instead, students are often assumed to already have this knowledge. Grades only tell students how they compare to others and reminds them that they're all in competition, while we're trying to preach collaboration.

    I think the question we should really be asking isn't, "What's our role in the system?" It should be, "Does the current system have a role to play in our teaching? Or do we need a new system?" I appreciate the greater historical perspective you provide here because I think most educators have it in their minds that the system really can't drastically change. History shows that not only is change possible, but that it's a constant, as all systems eventually die after the times they were created for.

    Many educators have had visions of what education should and could be, from Montessori a century ago to Halverson and Collins today. The future demands we give learners what we have taken from them. They need the freedom to direct their own learning, to use us simply as guides. There are plenty of great ideas for how we can move forward from here and build a system around what we truly value. We're just waiting for a critical mass to step up and say, "I'm ready for the future. I know it'll be hard, but we need a radical change, so how can I help?"

  3. Great questions. Some of these are ones I've been asking myself in about these words, and others are also worthy entries that hadn't quite occurred to me yet. I look forward to your series and I'll try to mull over some contributions of my own.

    Thanks for your work.

  4. Thank you for being willing to pose the tough questions and get people thinking. And I agree with Chris Fritz as well. I see the education system and wonder why in the world I ever thought it was useful in its current form. (Current as in the past few decades...*sigh*) I watch my son learn and realize that the school he's in is not doing a single thing to help him truly learn. But it is a lovely free babysitting service. o.O

  5. Looking forward to following along and participating in this discussion. I've been thinking along the same lines, but have focused more on the history of the development of our current system of schooling. Recently was directed to a work by Robert McClintock that raised some interesting questions on this subject. http://www.ilt.columbia.edu/publicAtions/mcclintock.html

  6. I'm a philosopher of education who teachers in a teacher ed program. I'm glad to see that so many of these questions are "social foundations" sorts of questions -- they deal with identity, philosophy, nature, and purpose. To me, the list shows that teachers (at least some of them) are concerned about these issues. That's refreshing for someone in a field that's often considered marginal: ("How does knowing history or philosophy help me to teach science to 4th graders?"). That being said, I'm happy to help out with the project. I'm a philosopher, but I teach the social foundatiosn courses, which include a good bit of history as well.

  7. I think this "What is the role of the teacher?" question is going to be one truly sticky wicket. Are we looking for consensus? Well, all of us believe it's our job to facilitate learning. But that may be where the agreement ends. I hope we can untangle all of the threads that this big yarnball of a question presents. I am looking forward to trying!


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