The Question of Teacher Roles in Blogging-yet-Traditional Classrooms

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I’m trying to move from the whirl of the school year to the serenity of my summer garden to little avail. Today my young traveling daughter headed off to Europe and tomorrow I head to Boston for the Gathering of Digital Storytellers and then it’s on to Maine and then back to prepare for a half dozen other talks, conferences, and gatherings. There’s little time left for thoughtful blogging, and there are a couple of posts I’m really wanting to zero in on. So for now, I’ll take a step into what will probably run into several posts–thinking again about what it means to be a teacher following the model I embrace.

Several recent moments bring me once again to a topic I have blogged about relentlessly over the past couple of years and have thought about since I was a kid wondering if my third-grade teacher actually enjoyed being boring and controlling: attending the wedding of a former student of mine who has graced my life as fellow apprentice, through her example pushing me to grow in my thinking and understanding; seeing my newly graduated students fall into the space after school and before career, and watching them work out new relationships with their former professors, their peers, their families; preparing for the Boston conference where I will be presenting with one of my students, who exemplifies the kind of expert-apprentice I wish all our learners could be; thinking about recent comments I’ve received from three edubloggers I respect a great deal (James Farmer, Lanny Arvan and Terry Freedman), who have pushed me a bit on my position regarding the teacher’s role and issues of teacher presence and authority; and readingWill Richardson’s recent post quoting Donald Murray on learning how not to teach (and the comments following the post, which point out that these ideas are as old as the hills –look at Socrates– but now, because teachers are communicating with one another in the blogosphere and our classrooms are increasingly open to the world, there’s some question as to whether we’re just paying lip service to the idea of the teacher as learner and guide when really in our heart of hearts we’re performance artists and benevolent dictators). It’s a topic we just can never get enough of–and though we seem all to agree that teachers must be learners first–how that sentiment gets translated into the classroom experience is where some of us disagree.

Like many others, I’ve long argued for a learning community of apprentices and experts in which the students teach one another and themselves according to their learning curves, needs and interests; and the teacher within our current educational system serves as guide, consultant and facilitator who sets things in motion at the beginning of the course or year by setting into play at least an initial bit of content, and asks the first questions, perhaps, but does not dominate the classroom and control the experience. Stephen Downes certainly speaks to this point frequently, emphatically and eloquently (just a few days ago, in fact, and in his recent remarks from blog.ac.uk, when he said that the teacher’s role was to model and demonstrate. Period. He said, “Teachers should try to become the people they want their students to be.” Indeed!)

The tension we face right now is how to navigate between the demands of the traditional structures we find ourselves in (i.e. the teacher as local power-holder: designing the syllabus, dispensing knowledge through lectures and assignments, and evaluating through testing and grades–and in turn being evaluated on just how successful the students are according to prescribed standards) and the realities of the fluid, emergent knowledge spaces existing outside this realm in places with Internet access, where everyone is an expert and an apprentice connected within that space, where we might not need “teachers” at all, where learning doesn’t happen according to set schedules and syllabi. If we take the traditional role of designer-director-evaluator in our classrooms, how are we helping young people become active citizens in this world with its inequities, its fragility, its violence, its power relations, its potential, its connectedness, its beauty? How are we helping them learn how to learn and learn how to give and to act? To take responsibility for their learning and their use of that learning? And yet for many of us, the structures in place (disciplines, majors, departments, school calendars) make it incredibly difficult to break away from the lecture-absorb or call-and-response model of education, especially for student from ages 12-22. Who has the time? Who has the energy? Who has the nerve? And who has the skill?

Terry, Lanny and James have all talked or written to me recently about the importance of a strong teacherly presence in the classroom–and about how I give off the impression that I think the teacher should become invisible. In London, in response to my talkTerry Freedman wrote:

Firstly, by choosing to stay on the sidelines she is, in fact, exercising her authority. Certainly, as I understand it, her students cannot make the same choice: they have to participate.

Secondly, and probably more importantly, a good way to encourage mutual respect and non-authoritarian behaviour is to model it, and you can only effectively do that by participating on the same terms as everybody else.

Finally, this approach seems to ignore the fact that students often want to be given guidance by an authority figure, and this for two reasons.

Firstly, children are always testing the boundaries of acceptability, especially in terms of behaviour. To not point out when they have stepped over an invisible boundary does them no service whatsoever, given that the real world doesn’t work like that.

Secondly, and more relevant here, people don’t know what they don’t know, and therefore want and need someone to at least point them in the right direction.

I agree about choosing to stay to the side is something my students cannot do, and so in effect, I am exercising my authority. I talk about that contradiction with my students on the first day. And I also think he’s right about how a teacher can model and demonstrate and participate on the blog alongside the students–at least once the learning community as collective intelligence really takes shape. I talk to my students about why I want to stay off the blog as much as possible to begin with–they have been well trained to expect me as teacher to tell them what to do and how, and so as an ingrained reflex they immediately turn to my post as the important one. I’ve seen this happen. Until a group has the time to settle into what for my students is a new model of reciprocal apprenticeships, they will attend to my posts more than to their own. It’s not their fault. So I stay off to the side, but I still blog along on my sidebolog and on my own blog. It isn’t perfect. Some day, I would like to participate on the blog with them side by side from Day One, and I may well try it again this fall to see if Terry is correct, but until students are as much teachers as students, I doubt it will work. As far as his point about children looking for boundaries, I want my students to work together to sort those boundaries out–I ask questions, show examples, ask more questions, do a lot of shrugging. I have found that rules rising out of the group itself work a whole lot better than anything I impose. For one thing, the students have to think about what boundaries serve and why. They gain experience thinking about ethics and responsibility and integrity, on parameters and group dynamics. And when they make mistakes, we treat those as learning moments.

Then on my blogpostabout the London conference, in a thought-provoking comment that unfortunately in my jet-lag daze I deleted, Lanny Arvan also pushed me about the position of the teacher, and how in some situations and in some disciplines it was desirable for the teacher to stand at the front of the room and lecture and direct–as a form of apprenticeship as well as a way to convey essential material effectively. And James Farmer during the Masterclass with The Technology School of the Future, in discussing the diagram on Community of Inquiry from Garrison and Andersonjamesfarmer.jpg stressed the importance of the teaching presence–and as presented by Garrison and Anderson, I would agree with that kind of presence because it doesn’t have to be played by a single , specified individual.

Sometimes a great talk can stir debate and inquiry, and foster learning. Yes, I agree. But the problem is that too many teachers rely on this method as the primary method. We also focus on the impossible timeframes for our courses and measured amounts of material to be covered rather than thinking about ways we can assist our students to learn about how to learn within our field. We err on the side of the accumulation of what we call the basic materials of our disciplines–often through reading and lecture instead of providing ample time for messy learning curves or the relationship between hands-on authentic learning activities and deep learning. We do not have enough time for our students to go find examples of processes we study in the classroom out there in the world and to play around, to be imaginative, to see what would happen if they mixed A with B. We ask them to gather information and soak in knowledge rather than play around with it. And our students are stressed out. We are stressed out. As we know, with the Web, information and knowledge are easily accessible. But how do students learn how to play around with that information if we don’t give them opportunities to do so– collaboratively–discussing, conversing, arguing, doing, inventing, failing. This is the beauty of a school, it seems to me–that we have the potential to grow rich, diverse learning communities that reach out beyond their own scope to the complex world beyond.

So, yes, a teaching presence is essential, I think, as Garrison and Anderson point out–helping to select content and to set climate (and to model inquiry, I would add) but NOT having the exclusive rights over those roles. I think all the members of the learning community need to have a strong presence. If I had my druthers, even inthis system, I would only design the first part of the syllabus, which would be open-ended and exploratory in nature and creative in output, (much the way I opened my creative writing class this spring –and I think any kind of class can open with such a unit with subject-based themes laced through) and then with the students, design the rest, having them negotiate the topics and strategies and skills we should cover. I would also hand the evaluating task over to them as indiividuals and in conversation with me, to have them reflect upon and evaluate their own learning. In conference, we would discuss the the successes and glorious failures of the experience. I would never use grades. If I had my druthers…

Ron Burnett has written a thought-provoking article on his blog: The Radical Impossibility of Teaching, which I think is an important read for anyone talking about new classrooms and shifts in teacher-learner relationships. He makes many important points about the nature of learning and teaching, giving examples from his own classroom experience. And as a learner who is trying to understand my own learning journey, I circle back around to some earlier posts of mine which still convey my perspective on teaching (and I have many others I could point to–about the beauty of the Harkness table and about how my students influence me):

From July 2004:

And will the teachers end up unintentionally dominating the projects? I see this happen again and again–teachers think they are making their classrooms student-centered and project-based, when in reality they are still the pivot, the focus, the main attraction, and what they say goes. Will the teachers in this collaborative dare pull themselves to the periphery and let the students be experts as well as apprentices? Do they really know how to do this? Again, I have seen my children’s teachers think they are handing the reins to their students by saying, here, do some peer editing. But without modeling, without a sens of how this helps the writers and editors (i.e. without a reflective practice alongside the workshopping), it’s a useless waste of time and frustrating experience for the kids.

And here in August 2004, I wrote:

I want that for my students, too. I want them to feel their own, personal singular voice as writer and budding scholar and then explore how it interacts, intersects, connects with an outer world–the classroom community and the world beyond. This is how in 12 weeks our students can take ownership of their learning, and see how they have a meaningful impact on their environment–this is how they can learn far more than any combination of classroom discussions and lectures and traditional writing assignments. I’m convinced of that.

Blogging has a role to play in this new classroom: it invites the staccato dynamism of improv under the exacting, even skeptical, eye of the audience much as performance dance does. It invites interaction and community-building. It allows individual voice, and on a group blog, it demands collaboration. I see the group blog as one of those group improv pieces performed that evening, and the individual blog as Nora’s piece. The more the blogger listens to the other bloggers dancing on their keyboards, and the new media explorers, and the thinkers in their fields and then play with a snese of the spatial and thematic relationships the more interesting and useful the blogs will get.

There are differences, of course, too–important differences: whereas dance vanishes, leaving no outer trace after the step is done, blogging stays there, archived, to be returned to and connected to again and again. And we blogging teachers are lucky in this, for we can point to blog moments and say, here! Here, you’ve pulled us all in; here you have hit a chord–what is it and how might you hit another one? How will you keep that freshness and thoughtfulness?

And from my Blogtalk paper:

The weblog creates a classroom that is, at least in theory if not always in actuality, available everywhere and always, in essence following us about as we move through time and space. Such omnipresence also implies that if the teacher possesses sole managerial responsibility for the weblog, it could well smack of Orwell’s Big Brotherism to the students, with an authority figure free to enter their lives at will, dictating actions and responses, or it could smack of hypocrisy with the teacher intentionally creating a schism between descriptions of the class as community and the actual practice of a benign tyrant holding the reins, as is the case with course management systems such as Blackboard and WebCT, which are teacher driven and constructed with a traditional hierarchy. For the weblog to work as a facilitator of efficacious learning, it is essential that everyone has an authentic voice and an authentic role on it, that everyone has a hand in creating the medium as well as the message in an environment in which the reader becomes the writer, the student the teacher, the teacher the learner as we traverse boundaries of classroom and real world, our communities forming, shifting and reforming. The teacher has to do precisely what is most difficult and most essential: create a system of shared control, of checks and balances between teacher, student and technology. In a sense, technology mediates the teacher-advocate student exchange, fulfilling the promise of a Socratic education so important a hallmark of a liberal arts education. (Vila, 2004b). The teacher must have faith in the process of collaborative learning and in the students to assume their roles in reciprocal apprenticeships (Levy, 1997, 10).

Because emergent behaviors, like games, are all about living within the boundaries defined by roles, but also using that space to create something greater than the sum of its parts� (Johnson, 2001, 181), sharing responsibility with the students for the course weblog requires careful planning and preparation of those boundaries. Poorly designed collaborative work is doomed to follow the failed model that so many of our students remember with distaste from their high school days: one student shouldering the burden for all (Kammerer, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/stories/storyReader$1133). For cooperative management of the weblog to work, the students must share a strong sense of belonging to a dynamic learning collaborative, following the apprenticeship model of learning, in which everyone is expert and apprentice to one another (Levy, 1997, 10). Then, as Halavais has shown, “weblogs allow for learners to engage a larger social network, and to participate actively within that network, and to become localized experts” (Halavais, 2004, 1), a condition expressed in one student’s final course reflection: “During the first class BG talked about how we were both experts and apprentices, and I think that analogy is prevalent through everything we’ve done in the class. Dixie was an apprentice when BG taught her the formula for writing, but then became an expert . When I was reading Marisa’s final project for the feedback group, and started asking “so what,” that’s when it hit me that my analytical skills had improved so much. For that instance I went from Dixie’s apprentice to Marisa’s expert, and vice-versa when she helped me with my ideas” (Connolly, 2003, wl.middlebury.edu/irishF03/stories/storyReader$1151). Using the weblog as simple course management system as well as arena for assigned and spontaneous discussions, free-wheeling posting and collaborative explorations of the subject provides an effective framework for the course. Letting the weblog’s essential characteristics of the restless homepage and the “unruliness of the complex webs of links we produce” (Bernstein, 1999, 1) prompt us into synthesizing, reflecting and commenting pushes us towards excellence and innovation. Preparing the community itself for their reciprocal roles produces conditions ripe for students to grow intellectually.

And so yes, let’s dare do what we say we do–even within the confines of our current system–set the mood and the tone, model and demonstrate, converse, reflect, give some feedback, and then let’s get out of the way and give them time and space to explore. Let’s stay off the center of the blog and away from the front of the classroom. Or better yet, let’s join them in the exploration as fellow apprentices. Thursday I will do just that as I co-present with Remy, who may have a semester yet to go in college, but has a world of ideas, skills and approaches to share with the world. Check out his blog if you want to see a student weave magic with images and text, think deeply about blogging, and wonder openly about his place in the world. By taking his place next to me in the learning community, he will surely learn far more than sitting back waiting for me to tell him what to do.

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2 Responses

  1. Barbara – I took the bait. This post is largely a response to yours.

  2. I agree about choosing to stay to the side is something students cannot do, and so in effect, I understand you are exercising your authority. And I also think he’s right about how a teacher can model and demonstrate and participate on the blog alongside the students.

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