I believe that education is at the heart of our civilization, and in those places where it has been most highly regarded the people have flourished. It provides us with tools that allow us to make sense of the world, to communicate with others, and work within our community to effect change. But not all education is equal, nor is it all beneficial, for just as we can be taught to raise our neighbor up, we can also be taught to bring them down. An educational system must be held outside the sway of the ever-changing political and corporate landscape if it is to be successful in the long run. This means fostering the skills needed for a student to be successful as they move from being under the care of their parents and the school towards being an independent citizen. For the longest time this has meant a concerted effort between the school, the teacher and of course the student, but today technology has been making headway in changing, or even replacing, much of what we’ve come to know as the cornerstones of education.
School, in essence, is where students train for dealing with the world outside, or more specifically, being a productive adult. Productive means that they are equipped to not just deal with aspects of life involving rudimentary math and language skills, but also that they are capable of contributing to the political and social landscape. As such, school should be a place where students are free to make mistakes as they explore different aspects of our world and what it means to be a part of it. The internet, and the tools it provides students and teachers, has transformed what we mean by the word school. It has given students the ability to explore not only other parts of the physical world, but also how we interact with its inhabitants. In some places the internet has replaced the classroom and school entirely, with students logging in from the comfort of their home. The school has become something that is no longer defined by a physical place, but by a collection of learners. Because of this it’s also transforming the role of the teacher from an instructor to a facilitator who guides students towards the right resources and avenues of study (Taber, 2011). Despite concerns from many in the traditional school setting that this sort of learning will impact students in a negative sense, studies suggest that there is little difference in academic achievement between the two groups (Whattananarong, 2001).
Of course, academics are not the only indicator of a successful educational system. While in school, students should be encouraged to develop the necessary social skills and moral compass needed to interact with others both within and outside their culture and country. Schools should also work towards creating a safe atmosphere, free from racial, ethnic, religious, handicap and gender divides, while simultaneously making students aware of them. In this regard, social networks and massively open online courses (MOOCs) allow students to interact with people from all walks of life and in all corners of the world, and to do so in a relatively safe environment. For some the internet has become a social equalizer, as it allows them to interact with people without the preconceptions that may come with physical appearance or environmental conditions (Tyler, 2002, pg. 200). It has also created new avenues for students to cooperate, whether jointly working on a science simulation, collaborating on a paper, or developing a resource base such as a website.
Most importantly, schools, whether online or not, should provide ample opportunity for experiential learning with plenty of reflection. It should push beyond feeding students information and instead allow them to feed themselves. This is because, while students often display the ability to do something after being taught how, their understanding of why can lag behind (Glasersfeld, 1995). For example, a student can use a mathematical formula, but doesn’t understand its connection beyond the subject area. Only through application can they gain a deeper and more meaningful understanding. This sort of understanding can be more easily achieved when ample resources are provided. I have seen this in my own class when comparing the achievement of groups from year to year. As my computer science curriculum has developed, and my resources and teaching methodologies have broadened, I have been able to create lessons and units which give students more autonomy. By recording my lectures and uploading them I am able to assist ELL students that need to watch the presentation again, or even more slowly. I can also provide a path for those that want to explore ahead, or by tapping into the vast resources online allow them to discover areas which are not part of the curriculum.
Still, no matter the materials, technology or educational techniques one uses, much of what an educator does comes down to who they are. A school can be founded on the loftiest of goals, but without great teachers to put it into effect, it’s unlikely much will be accomplished. But what sets great teachers apart from others? I would argue that with regard to the commonly held perception of the word teach, wherein a teacher imparts knowledge, great teachers rarely teach at all. So what is meant by teaching, and what work should be expected of a teacher? As Plato writes in the Apology of Socrates, “I was never anyone’s teacher, if only I teach them to think” (Stokes, 1997, 33a-33b). This is more often attributed to Socrates and written as, “I cannot teach anyone anything, I can only teach them to think,” which I believe strikes at the heart of what it means to be a teacher, and at the goal of education itself. Teachers should not be conveyors of just knowledge, but of questions, and they should not simply teach methods and rules, but inspire their discovery.
Stokes, P. (1997). Apology of Socrates. Warminster: Aris & Phillips.
Glasersfeld, E. V. (1995). Radical constructivism: A way of knowing and learning. London: Falmer Press.
Taber, K. (2011). https://camtools.cam.ac.uk/access/content/group/cbe67867-b999-4f62-8eb7-58696f3cedf7/Educational%20Theory/Constructivism%20as%20Educational%20Theory.pdf Educational Theory, 39-61. Retrieved February 12, 2016, from https://camtools.cam.ac.uk/access/content/group/cbe67867-b999-4f62-8eb7-58696f3cedf7/Educational%20Theory/Constructivism%20as%20Educational%20Theory.pdf
Tyler, T. R. (2002). Is the Internet Changing Social Life? It Seems the More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same. Journal of Social Issues J Social Isssues, 58(1), 195-205. doi:10.1111/1540-4560.00256
Whattananarong,, K. (2001). The Effects of Internet-Based Teaching and Learning Systems on Learners. doi:http://www.seameo.org/vl/internet04/internet.pdf