As social needs change, so do educational methods and the desired “role” of the educator. At present, there appear to be two roles for educators in western societies, each reflecting society’s conceptions of teachers. The Lecturer is the font of all knowledge, and relays information through didactic methods, telling the students what they should know and thus writing on their Lockean tabula rasa. The other role is Facilitator, mediation using Socratic techniques to help students discover the same knowledge, but through a different discussion-based method. The recent popularity of (and fears about) this latter method has led to a societal demand for a further role for teachers, Accountant. Teachers are held responsible for demonstrating that particular outcomes are achieved through assessments. This role was created by authorities, legislators responding to social critics calling for “accountability”, as if education were a measurable social investment instead of a public good.
Since the roles are viewed as oppositional, they are usually presented as the only two methods. At the college level, where the Accountant role is only just slipping in, the lesson in recent years is that we must be less a Lecturer and more a Facilitator. The instructors using more “active learning” methods are seen as the classroom innovators. The division between Lecturer and Facilitator may be an introduction to the problem, but it misses the larger issue of creating learning environments. As George Siemens’ writes, “I’m rather sick of ‘sage on stage’ and ‘guide on the side’ comparisons. The clear dichotomy chafes” (2007). Active learning and facilitation creates a more participatory learning environment, but its basis is still in the learning of the individual via the method controlled by the instructor. It is “learner-centered” but not “learner-directed”. What if instructor control were substantially less, and the learner far more independent than even the facilitation model allows?
Connectivist learning theory presents the possibility that the neural networks of the brain, and the natural tendencies of social networks, could be used as models for formal learning. The emphasis is on the instructor creating an appropriate learning environment and providing access to resources rather than controlling learning through either lecturing or facilitation. Connectivist roles thus look different, although each deals with the balance between control and freedom.
The Curator role, presented By George Siemens on his Connectivism Blog, is part museum curator and part Clarence Fisher‘s “network administrator”. This viewpoint provides enough control to allow the continued role of educator as facilitator and guide:
An expert (the curator) exists in the artifacts displayed, resources reviewed in class, concepts being discussed. But she’s behind the scenes providing interpretation, direction, provocation, and yes, even guiding. A curatorial teacher acknowledges the autonomy of learners, yet understands the frustration of exploring unknown territories without a map.
Curators, however, control not only which items are on display, but what the tags say. Freedom is built in because the “path” through material need not be indicated, allowing for greater exploration and individual interpretation.
The Master Artist role emphasizes modeling for students. I currently use a Master Craftsman model myself, which emphasizes constructionism more than just observing the artist at work. These models use metacognition about the learning process as a tool, as in Phelps’ ideas about making learning more explicit in non-linear complexity-based learning. The Craftsman also emphasizes the development of skills that can be used and adapted to many fields. In my discipline, History, I teach that the pattern of facts -> interpretation -> analysis can be used not only to construct arguments in history, but to understand any discipline. Elements of patterning, wayfinding, and sensemaking (as Siemen’s Instructional Design and Connectivism week 7 introduction indicated), can be taught through any discipline.
A more open role would be that of Organic Gardener, where learners are like plants. Gardeners allow a great deal of freedom, but encourage desirable patterns (Kurtz and Snowden 466). They are prepared for chaos and are aware that the uncoordinated actions of the lower orders can result in higher levels of action, as in Bullock’s emergent learning in chaotic systems. The edges of the garden metaphor emerged in this course in Carlos González Casares discussion of Node Gardens, and more specifically in Eyal Silvan’s comment in the chat room during the October 21 Elluminate session: “metaphor alert: it sounds less like building a house, more like growing a garden… all you can do is steer the students, but you can’t really “plan” anything…“. Inez Whipples’ blog post used this to remark that the process of learning “looks less like building a house and more like planting a garden”, and Stephen Downes’ referred to instructional design as “seeding” the environment in the session on October 24, 2008. An organic gardener creates only the conditions in which plants can thrive, and while control is evident in the choice of what to plant, unexpected life is taken as a boon so long as it does not destroy what was planted.
The impediments to implementing such connective classroom learning are many. The accounting super-environment of schools encourages the reduction of natural complexity in learning, as population and financial pressure creates groups of students too small to be diverse, too large to be taught individually, and too trapped into an annual ‘course’ system to encourage free opportunities for learning. These can be seen as the “initial conditions” (Siemens 2008) in the ecology of classroom instruction as it exists. While the ideal may be overthrowing the old system, bureaucracies do not change this way.
What we face is a lack of magic. Aware of increasing access to information and resources via the web, we envision a world of self-motivated learners, unhampered by bureaucratic straight-jackets and obedience training. We want to use new technologies to bring them the world, controlling their learning only so they don’t hurt themselves or others. We want them to learn like we learn, through connections and discovery. We want assessment of learning to be based on personal empowerment of knowledge rather than passing tests and earning degrees. Ultimately, then, we want the role of Wizard. The ultimate power, not to control people, but to change the system.
The solution is subversive application of connectivist and other useful learning ideas within the current structure, an insurgence for the purpose of fostering emergence. In addition to being an appropriate response to the hyper-controlling accounting being demanded by authorities, this sneakier approach is necessary because of another impediment: the difficulty students have becoming self-directed learners, having been trained all their lives to be reliant on the instructor. As noted in the session with Alec Couros, the main problem with too much openness is people’s inability to handle it in an appropriate manner. This problem is the same whether we’re talking about politeness in Moodle forums, the stupidity of crowds, or the difficulty of requiring students to “think for themselves”. As Ruth Duggan noted in the Moodle forum of October 30, “Rather than the teacher having the ‘power’ it is about empowering students to learn.” Having not been given this power, it’s necessary to take it. Our new role is Insurgent, creating a better way by undermining the system.