Friday, December 03, 2010

Stop Teaching

A reader comments:
I'm of the opinion that technology is hurting education more than enabling it. Yes, access to the collected knowledge of mankind is a good resource, but students still need a guide and interpretor of that knowledge, a guide, a teacher! I am trying to envision my students asking me about how an fission occurs, and I say go look it up. What I am there for then? Could I be replaced by a sign that says, "Turn on computer and don't bother anyone."? 
Thank you for writing. Your comment really got me thinking.

After all: yes, what are you/we there for?

I tend to think that yes, if you or I could be replaced by a computer, we should be. After all, if all you are doing as a teacher is explaining 'how-to', I am sure that there are videos on You Tube that do a much better job. But I suspect that you are actually doing a lot more than that.

You are a teacher. Which means that you spend a little time each day teaching someone how to do something. But you probably spend a lot more time discussing why things happen. Because you are a discusser. And you probably spend a lot of time discussing what it all means. Because you are a philosopher. And you probably spend a lot of time helping frustrated students. Because you are a saint.

Students don't need guides. Kids need folks who can facilitate their being able to explore. Kids are natural explorers. And if you really want to ruin an explorers day, put 'em in a tour group led by a professional guide. Where's the adventure in that? Where's the sense of personal accomplishment? Teachers shouldn't be guides; they should be travel agents. Teachers should set up the trip, but ultimately each student has to take the trip on his or her own.

Kids don't need an interpretor. They don't need someone to interpret knowledge for them. What kids need is an interlocutor. They need some one to argue with. They need someone who can help them figure out how to interpret life's problems on their own. They don't need a translation; they need a conversation.

I've stopped teaching. That is, if teaching implies the hierarchical management and distribution of content for the purpose of assessing whether the content was understood. Instead, I've become a travel agent. I assess success by whether or not a student learned something about the world and about themselves out there on their trip. When they come back from their journey, I'm an interlocutor. I listen to what they have to say. I let them talk to me and I hit them up with some questions and I let them talk some more because I want them to understand what (and how) they think.

I respectfully submit that technology is not hurting education. More often than not, 'teaching' is hurting education.


  1. Very insightful post, thanks for sharing. I would agree that the traditional definition of "teacher" is outdated and not relevant anymore. I spend more of my time doing things that would not be considered teaching in a traditional paradigm.

  2. GReat post. People mistake "Technology Integration" to be search engines and what they understand about technology. They think communication and searching, but technology is connecting others to a world larger than themselves, and to opinions and cultures from outside their normal everyday.

    You're right to say that tech does not need a guide. It is not a piece of factory machinery that needs someone to turn it on and make sure it's oiled. It is essentially teaching a bird to fly, or handing a child the keys to the car, or sending them off into the world. There is a great responsibility they they will be undertaking. There are hazards and trials, but there is opportunity for great success. Technology is an open door, and kids need to know what is waiting for them on the other side, not told that the door is dangerous, so only go through it on your own free time.

    Thank you for your post!

  3. WOW! I bet if you stopped to listen you would hear a big AMEN BROTHER coming from OHIO!

  4. I subscribe to your work through my Google reader and appreciate what you have to say (and generally do not comment on the web), but you said, "Students don't need guides." Wow. You and I truly are from different worlds. I cannot think of anything you could have said that was more wrong. Despite your rosy-glasses generalization of what kids are, most children do indeed need guides as they struggle mightily with their choices and decision making, and they lack the context of experience to help them wade through the massive amounts of material technology makes available to them. Children are people, and people do in fact need people as guides and interpreters and to fill many other holes in their understandings and abilities. Time to take a step back towards the real world.

  5. Good post. Our students deserve better than to be trained to depend on a guide to show them anything new.

  6. There must be something in the air. I had the same thing to say about my classroom experience. . The idea of "teaching" is a distractor from the real purpose of school - learning. We need to begin by changing the language of our schools and thus change our perspective. Ban the words "teacher" and "teaching" and watch how things change.

  7. I suspect that there is a positive correlation between the teacher who has heavily invested in the status quo and the role of teacher as 'interpreter'. We are many things to our students, not the least of which might be a positive influence if we don't take our privileged position for granted. It's great to read you again Paperless. Don't stop the conversation please.

  8. Sounds like the rebellion has happened. Power to the Learners!

  9. Great post Shelly. You have really put into words what many of us think and are trying to preach. Thank you.

  10. Loved this line: "if teaching implies the hierarchical management and distribution of content for the purpose of assessing whether the content was understood..."

    It seems so hard to get away from this mind set, so many schools are still mired in this model. I guess that is what so many of us are still trying to get away from.

    "Technology is not hurting education. More often than not, 'teaching' is hurting education."

    Well said.

    Very insightful and well written post. Thanks.

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  12. An interesting post. As always you're very thought provoking, and I'm partially in sympathy with what you say. I also wondered about the "students don't need guides" line. I don't take the same line as the anonymous poster; while I agree that students can make bad decisions, I think they're more likely to learn something from them (as long as it's not too destructive) than from merely being told what to do. But at the same time, I do think guides are useful. To extend the metaphor: I love to walk in the woods. But if I took a walk in the woods with a guide who really knew the local flora and fauna, who could tell me all the fascinating details and stories about the plants and animals around me, so that the woods went from being a generally beautiful place, to a place filled with individual stories and real, vivid diversity--well, that kind of guide would be a good thing. Now, I might then respond by being inspired to go home and learn more on my own, and that would be ideal. So it seems like the best might be to have a guide, but one who facilitates student exploration--one who sketches out a path, but encourages students to explore more on their own.

    And a guide can also be useful for finding destinations you didn't even know existed. Again, I love to walk in cities--but my walks though Philadelphia are improved because I have such a wonderful guidebook (a book of walks which is now, alas, out of print), that points out things to me that I might never have noticed, and directs me to destinations I never even knew existed.

    I'm thinking this partly because of the history teachers conference I attended yesterday. The final speaker was Joanne Freeman, a professor at Yale, who gave a fascinating, lively, and engaging talk about the politics of the early American republic, full of entertaining stories and quotes from primary sources, so that you really got a vivid sense of what politics was like during that time. It made me wonder if lecture is always such a bad thing. Perhaps it depends on the quality of the lecture.

    I admit to being torn on this. On the one hand, I do want students to take the initiative in their learning, and I tear my hair out when they fall back into "tell me the answer mode." On the other hand, teachers are (hopefully) subject matter experts. They know the field better than students, and know possible interesting destinations; they may also have a better sense of what might be useful to know in the long run.

    I guess the fundamental issue is, does it matter what, specifically, the students learn? Do I, as teacher, want to lay down guidelines and objectives for learning? Because once you do that, aren't you "teaching"? And doesn't that necessarily impose some structure, even some limitations, on students' learning and exploration? As I said, I'm still wrestling with my answer to the question.

  13. This is great! This year I have guess I have tried to more stop teaching and have my students grab ahold of the information in new and different ways and technology allows me to do this. Even looking at the new AP Biology curriculum the lab portion is gearing more toward student directed labs then cookie-cutter labs. Thanks for a great blog!

  14. I like the metaphor of a teacher as a travel agent, I've always thought of a teacher as a tour guide, you're there with them, pointing out important, interesting things and providing an experienced resource for what the students are learning. If there is a question/interest that takes the group off the charted course that will still be a useful experience/discussion then go for it!

  15. Would you mind if I just read this verbatim at our next faculty meeting?

  16. I'll join the chorus in saying this is a well-written and thought-provoking piece. Thanks for sharing.

    @DrK I can understand your point about the value of guides, but in both of the examples that you cited, you have chosen to have a guide and which guide you will use. Imagine going on your walk through the woods and being told that you must be accompanied by a particular person whose interests or sphere of knowledge do not overlap with yours? Or imagine walking through the streets of Philly and only being allowed a Thomas Bros. guide. Those may be a more apt metaphors for what students go through.

  17. Clint H,

    Very true about being able to choose your guide, your tour, etc. But the logic of your point (though this may be pushing it too far) seems to imply giving students freedom to choose whatever they want to study, however they want to study it. This is a potential way of organizing schools--sort of like the unConference model, but applied to schools--but it really would be a very radical revision of schooling. And one that's not likely to happen in my school anytime soon (though perhaps I might be able to organize a class that way, or even a unit.) Still there is that fundamental question: what, if anything, do we want to require our students to learn. And, what guidelines, if any, do we want to lay down. Do we want to require them to walk in the woods (metaphorically speaking)? Because though I enjoy walks, someone else might not. And certainly no one likes being forced to do something they're not into (although, with a skilled guide, I might end up loving something I thought I would hate). But can we declare something is "good for you"? As I said, I'm torn. A good guide can make you realize something you thought was boring is really interesting; but guides can also hinder the exploratory impulse. And then there's the question of whether adults might have a longer perspective on what's in students' interests.

  18. Well said and amen! Technology doesn't hurt, it is how we use it that does. Applying traditional teaching methods while integrating technology isn't the answer. Using technology to facilitate our own ability to develop relationships with students, add our own flavor to the room, and supplement what they are discovering for themselves is the way to go. Technology isn't eliminating the need for us, it is giving us an opportunity to do different things.

  19. I liked this post.

    Schools are really a form of social control, which is a major cause of the dynamic you describe. I think the blame lies more with the system, especially the emphasis on testing, accountability and social control, than on the teachers, for encouraging passivity of students.

    Also, I agree that technology is not a problem, in of itself. Technology can make learning and teaching more interactive, exciting and engaging. However, it can also be abused like other teaching crutches (e.g., videos, worksheets) by lazy or inexperienced teachers.

  20. I thought DrK's analogy of a teacher as a travel guide is fantastic! Although I do agree that technology is beneficial to education, I have a few questions for you based on experiences I have had in the classroom.

    Going back to the travel guide analogy, I wonder what a good travel guide would do if a customer happened to get lost, decide to take a detour, or is slowing down the rest of the group? In these situations, what is the role of the travel guide? In other words, what is the role of a teacher when dealing with an unmotivated student? Technology is a wonderful way to guide students who are willing to learn. What about the students are are unwilling to work on their own?

    I am a high school mathematics teacher. I love to use technology based projects to teach different topics. In my school, however, I am not able to use technology to test for student knowledge because all teachers are required to use the same tests and testing methods. Although I would love to use technology more in the classroom, I am wondering if it would be a difficult transition for students to learn through technology and then be tested on the material using traditional methods. What I have yet to find is the right balance between using technology to learn and the ‘traditional’ testing methods that I am restricted to using.

    There was an interesting article in the New York Times regarding the use of iPads in schools. Larry Cuban, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University is quoted: “IPads are marvelous tools to engage kids, but then the novelty wears off and you get into hard-core issues of teaching and learning.” Cuban also believes that rather than spending money on new technology it should be used to train, keep, and find the best teachers available (Hu, 2011). Would you agree with Cuban’s statement that the novelty of technology will wear out sooner or later?

    I realize I have asked a lot of questions, but the idea of teaching paperless is a new and yet intriguing topic for me. It makes sense to teach student’s through technology for many reasons. One of those reasons being that becoming independent learners using technology is a necessary skill in any occupation today. By the way, awesome post! Not only was it enjoyable to read, but inspiring as well.


    Hu, W. (January 4, 2011). The New York Times. Retrieved from:


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