Do Our Learning Natives Still Need Teachers?

holeinthewall

[This post was first published on the GETideas.org Thought Leaders Blog]

The closing keynote at the Scottish Learning Festival in September 2010 was given by Professor Sugata Mitra, famous for his series of “Hole-in-the-Wallexperiments. Professor Mitra was a fitting choice for an event designed to challenge conventional thinking in education and inspire teachers to extend their classroom repertoire.

Over the last decade, Professor Mitra has tested the hypothesis that children from a wide range of backgrounds can learn to use computers and master complex content without the support and guidance of teachers. The evidence he has collected from very different contexts is compelling. But why are we surprised that children can learn on their own or with peers given our own experience of watching with amazement as our children learn much more than we could ever plan for them (as well as some things we wish they could unlearn)?

Learning Natives not Digital Natives

I have never liked the “digital native” label of current popular educational discourse, preferring to see young people more broadly as “learning natives.” Any hard wiring in the brains of our children is not limited to digital technology or social networking, as some would appear to suggest, but is more likely to be found in their predisposition to learn new things—an anthropologically deep-seated capacity rather than a phenomenon triggered by the invention of computers and the Internet. What should be surprising to us is how our formal education systems too often fail to take advantage of this fabulous ability, leaving many young people switched off from learning.

So if children can learn on their own, as Professor Mitra’s research suggests, do we need teachers anymore? Perhaps all we need to provide is open access to computers connected to the Internet, and then the best of human knowledge is only a Google away. If our young people want to learn a new skill, finding the right video online to fulfill that learning need, or finding someone knowledgeable in their social network, will be easy.

Teacher Mediated Learning and Self-Organized Learning

The idea that all learning has to be in school and mediated by teachers is not one that has ever made any sense. Most of our learning still takes place beyond school—it just happens to be given less value than most of the formal stuff. Self-organized learning should be encouraged and opportunities created for people of all ages to follow their interests independently. And it is much better if this learning complements teaching, where it is available as an option, rather than supplants it.

Teaching can help accelerate learning, make connections that might not be so easily found by a search engine, contextualize and sequence learning to local and individual needs,  and much more. Is there a video or an online friend that can improve performance in playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on the piano or executing a perfect lay-up at basketball that can achieve better results than a tutor or a coach working directly with a young person? I don’t think so. Great, if that is all that is available, but still no substitute for the better option. There is no doubt in my mind that learning can be improved by having access to the advice, support, guidance, and wisdom of a great teacher.

Teachers – A Scarce Resource

We also have to be very careful about the assumptions we are making with respect to teacher availability. For many young people in the world—perhaps even for the majority—access to a teacher is either non-existent or very limited due to very large class sizes, distances to the nearest school, lack of resources etc. In this case, when there is no option, self-organized learning may be the only feasible solution, and Professor Mitra’s research gives us hope about what can be achieved given very limited funds. Professor Mitra also reminds us never to underestimate the capacity of people, and in particular children, to learn.

Where access to a teacher is still an option, then Professor Mitra’s research suggests to me that the role of teachers should change. Teachers need to be more skilled than ever to add value to the learning that young people can acquire independently. Teachers need to go beyond subject content knowledge (still important) to become experts on both the learning process and the specific learning needs of each of their students. Teachers should embrace subject matter expertise that is external to the school and the classroom and use this to meet their students learning needs even more closely.

The Enhanced and Vital Role of Teachers in the 21st Century

In conclusion, perhaps Professor Mitra’s research provides us with an opportunity to improve our thinking and practice in education in at least three ways:
•    First, to reconsider the relationship between in-school and out-of-school learning, and rebalance how these are valued.
•    Second, to give more credit to what our children can learn on their own; their capacity to learn is innate and far too often stifled by our current formal education systems.
•    Third, to rethink the role of teacher where having a teacher still is an option. As Vigotsky once argued, teaching ”must be oriented not towards the yesterday of development but towards its tomorrow.” In a world where data, information, and knowledge are abundant but wisdom appears to be in short supply, it seems to me that our learning natives really do need teachers more than ever, but these teachers need to play a much enhanced role.

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