Thursday, July 11, 2013

Yay, I won a t-shirt (or why we need teachers)

We were 45 minutes into our 5 hour car ride when I pulled out my phone to check messages. As I scrolled through Facebook, I noticed that my town had posted a "Sunday trivia contest" question a few minutes before. "Cute," I thought, and I read the question, which asked for the family name and business location of two entrepreneurs who lived in my town in 1857.

Noticing that no one had yet posted an answer (a free t-shirt went to the first correct response), I navigated to my web app, typed four words that were in the question, and immediately found the answer. I switched back to Facebook and posted my response. The entire process - from reading the question to posting the correct answer - took me less than 30 seconds.  The Sunday contest was over in 5 minutes, and I am now own a new t-shirt.

Later a post announced that I had won and congratulated me on my "knowledge" of my town.  But do I deserve that congratulations?

For the last two weeks I have been immersed in an institute that focused on re-imagining teaching and learning for contemporary times.  As the lead-off speaker for that event, Will Richardson (educational author) asked us to consider the purpose of school.  "If the purpose of school is to pass a standardized test that requires recalled facts, why do we need teachers?" he prompted. The room full of teachers grew silent as he explained that "facts" are ubiquitous.  Knowledge can be gained independently through plenty of online sources like Khan Academy - or even an effective use of keywords in a Google search.  I kind of proved his point by ending the town contest in less than 5 minutes.

But do I deserve congratulations for that task? Was it an accomplishment?  I told my husband that the task was too easy.  They should have given the prize to the first person to post a picture of themselves in front of the building.  That task would have required the factual knowledge, persistence, and facility with digital tools.  Had I won under those circumstances (unlikely because I was trapped in a car on the NY Thruway), perhaps, I would deserve the congratulations.

And this is why we need teachers.  We need teachers to help students develop meaningful questions, to learn how to explore those questions, and to create new solutions.  We need them to guide students through multiple failures in order to achieve success.  Another of our institute speakers, Jonathan Rochelle (Product Manager at Google), says failure is the key to innovation.  Traditionally, failing in school has bad connotations.  Traditionally, failing in schools means a student cannot recall facts on tests.  But to innovate, failure is just part of the process.

Teachers are expert learners.  As such, they model how to try, how to fail, and how to learn.  And this is why we need them even when "knowledge" is just a Google search away.

Even though I followed the rules of the contest, I'm not sure I really deserve that t-shirt.  In fact, I feel a little guilty accepting it - because the task was so easy.  Classrooms shouldn't be easy, and they shouldn't be just about "knowledge attainment."  Maybe I will give that t-shirt to a teacher who posts a response in the comments here, telling me how her/his students have failed and learned.  That task would require more than a Google search.