Make teachers matter

Technology has changed the way we view the role of the contemporary teacher, from transmitter of knowledge to navigator of 21st century skills

Imagine the following job description: Looking for ethical, responsible, intellectual, and inspiring leaders who will be responsible not only for the growth of individual children but also for the development of our future society. Candidates must have deep empathy and compassion for others, infinite patience, a love of learning that is contagious, abundant energy, and a sense of fun and wonder.

The job itself requires a combination of subject expertise, knowledge of 21st century pedagogy and technology, an understanding of child development, excellent interpersonal skills, strong communication skills, time management and organisational skills, and the ability to counsel and support a wide range of students and parents. Interested candidates can apply to be teachers.

Teaching is an extraordinarily complex and important job, and societies that have been able to highlight the importance of teachers have made tremendous progress in the last few decades.

Take Finland and Singapore, for example. In both countries, teaching is a highly competitive and prestigious profession, and as a result, these countries have world-class education systems that consistently fuel economic and social progress.

There is a significant body of research that shows just how much teachers matter. In a 2012 study that tracked 2.5 million children over 20 years, three high profile researchers from Columbia University showed that primary and middle school teachers who helped their students improve in mathematics and reading tests had lasting positive effects on those students’ lives and significantly improved their academic, professional, and personal outcomes.

Similarly, a number of studies on teacher impact conducted by Rand, a U.S.-based think-tank, show that when it comes to student performance on reading and mathematics tests, teachers have two to three times the impact of any other school factor. In other words, the quality of the teacher that a child has is significantly more important than other factors such as school infrastructure, facilities, or even school leadership. To put it simply, teachers matter a lot.

Given how complex teaching is, and how much teachers matter, perhaps we need to spend much more time as a society discussing how we recruit, train, develop, inspire, and support teachers over the course of their careers.

Shifting roles

Perhaps what we need to do is have an open discussion about the role of teachers in the 21stcentury. In an age where students can access infinite amounts of information on their phones and laptops, what is the role of a contemporary teacher? Certainly, the 21stcentury teacher is not just a transmitter of knowledge. Why do our kids need to memorise vast quantities of information when it’s all there — at the tip of their fingers — on Google?

Today’s teacher needs to do much more than mere “delivery.” She or he needs to help students make sense of information by getting them to analyse, question, critique, synthesise, and apply that information in a range of ways.

Perhaps what our teachers need to do now — our entire education system needs to do now — is begin making a shift away from “delivering” information, towards helping students “understand, analyse, and use information.”

And on an even larger scale, we need to make a shift away from conceiving “knowledge” as the core of a curriculum to conceiving “skills” as the core. While knowledge is what we know, skills are what we can do. And what we need today are graduates who can do things — like read critically, write clearly and persuasively, speak and present well, think analytically, ask good questions, work collaboratively, build good relationships with others, and come up with original ideas. Twenty first century teachers need to focus on teaching skills.

In progressive education circles, teachers are urged to be “guides on the side” instead of “sages on the stage.” Their role is moving rapidly from the expert authority who knows everything (we’ll cede that role to Google) to a wise facilitator who can help students make sense of information and use it skillfully.

Instead of merely relying on one prescribed textbook, teachers are becoming curators of information, drawing from all the resources available online, as well as from books and apps to provide students with a rich range of resources to learn from.

If we want to make progress as a society and give our children the skills and knowledge they need to navigate the 21st century, perhaps it’s time for us to follow in the footsteps of countries like Finland and Singapore; we need to encourage our best and brightest to embark on the most important, interesting, complex and satisfying career path there is — we need to inspire them to become teachers.



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