There’s a lot of discussion out there about what 21st Century education should look like, and I’ve been a part of those conversations many times over the past fifteen years. I could rattle off the perils of continuing with education that was designed for the Industrial Age. I could recite the importance of scope and sequence, of differentiated instruction, of instructional strategies infused with technology, and of standards-based curriculum. I would be the first to advocate for student-centered classrooms. I would sing the praises of collaboration and project-based learning and of moving learning outside the four walls. I would talk about the possibilities that technology offers to education to improve student learning. I would explain the importance of students creating. I would talk about the massive amount of information available on the Internet and the need for our students to learn to manage, analyze, synthesize, and organize that information.
Yet, while all these things are important, and all these things must be hashed out and incorporated into a viable model of 21st Century learning, we must be very careful not to lose sight of the importance of the teacher. In my opinion, the teacher is the most important ingredient in the classroom, no questions asked. The teacher develops relationships with both students and their families. The teacher recognizes the needs of the individual students and makes sure those needs—social, instructional, physical, etc.—are being met. The teacher chooses what instructional strategies to use in the classroom based on the makeup of the class and what tools are available. The teacher disciplines with love. The teacher accepts the fact that student achievement rests heavily on the shoulders of the school and knows that the excuse that students and families aren’t meeting us halfway is irrelevant. The teacher puts in the hours necessary to get the job done. The teacher motivates students to work hard and to do their very best.
If teachers weren’t the most important ingredient, all kids who have access to libraries would check out books and learn on their own. All students who have access to the Internet would find the important information and learn on their own. Every informed parent would offer educational tools to their students and sit back and watch the learning take place. Obviously, access to books and the Internet are important. Obviously, dedicated, well-informed parents are important. And, the truth is, many students are learning a great deal on their own, but the question is, "Are our students learning everything they need to know?" And, if our students aren't learning everything they need to know on their own, which I absolutely believe, the teacher becomes the most important variable in the learning equation.
The caution that I offer is this: While we must give our students laptops to make sure they have the tools necessary to access and use information, while we must buy programs that offer credit recovery, while we must offer courses long distance through the Internet, while we must make use of iPods and cell phones in the classroom, . . . we must not expect that these things alone will improve student achievement. It’s the teachers in the classrooms who make the difference. I received my Master’s Degree in Educational Technology in a totally online program from Boise State University. It was an excellent program. It offered current information about education. It was focused entirely on project-based learning. It required thoughtful discussion and collaboration among classmates and instructors. It provided educational tools for our classrooms and schools. What it also offered, though, was a cadre of teachers, who, although long distance, took the time to develop relationship, who monitored student progress, who communicated with students regularly, who stayed current with instructional strategies, and who took charge of knowing what information was out there and regularly led us to excellent sources of information. The importance of this is no different than if I had worked on my degree face-to-face in a classroom.
I worry that with our emphasis on new ways of educating that we will lose sight of the importance of teachers. If just providing the information was enough, we wouldn’t need schools at all in this day and age. What we all know, though, is that we all have books on the shelf we haven’t found time to read, and courses we took that we didn’t put much effort into, and resources we’ve heard about on the Internet that we haven’t researched fully. What we already know is that great teachers help us to read those books, give our best in classes, and find and analyze the information available on the Internet. Good teachers give us the time to experiment, to create, to collaborate, and to find our passion. It isn’t enough to give the tools, offer the course, or talk about student-centered learning. Student-centered does not mean teacher-less.