The Web As a Platform for Teacher Revitalization

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

In her comment (5.2.11) on John Sener’s “Fighting the High Cost of Low Teacher Respect” (5.2.11), Bonnie Bracey Sutton makes a few points that got my attention.

The first is: “The Internet sort of gets rid of a layer of supervisors.”

Supervision is a problem that teachers rarely if ever broach — and for good reason. Criticize it, and they’re out of a job. Supervision can be both good and bad. When it’s good, it’s empowering. That is, it supports the teacher’s efforts to realize her instructional goals through her preferred approaches. It keeps the teacher in charge of her pedagogy. Yet, along with that freedom comes the responsibility to meet school-wide objectives. The teacher is treated as a professional, highly trained and capable of making her own decisions about how best to achieve goals and objectives.

Supervision, when it’s bad, is overbearing, invasive, counterproductive, and ultimately dehumanizing. The assumption is, to put it bluntly, teachers are stupid and lazy. They need to be told what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. They need constant watching and prodding. The teacher is viewed as a technician or, worse, a machine, a component that needs to be programed, plugged in to a classroom, and periodically serviced and updated. From the supervisor’s perspective, the best teachers are those who are easily programed and maintained.

At the root of bad supervision is the system of top-down professional development. Instead of placing it in the hands of the teachers themselves, it’s handed to supervisors. A supervisor can be an administrator or a teacher who has been promoted. In either case, s/he sees his task as providing leadership — not guidance or facilitation. Thus, he devotes all his energy to forcing his agenda on his underlings. It’s his way or the highway. Those who don’t buy into it are labeled renegades and ignored or, worse, fired.

Thus, to survive, the teacher learns to smother all creativity and flow with the program. Those who can’t bear this subsistence, drop out, and, as Bonnie says, many do. Those who can become efficient robots.

When or where opportunities for professional development are scarce or nonexistent, this top-down model might make sense. Scarce funds for travel to conferences limit the number of people who can attend, and the ones who do are the ones at the top. They then justify their perks by imposing what they’ve learned at the conference on those below them — teachers.

But, as Bonnie implies, the internet has changed the playing field, making it even for the first time. Today, every classroom teacher, regardless of her location, isolation, or resources for attending conferences and workshops, has instant access to the latest pedagogical developments, trends, and issues in her field. She can not only attend but actively participate in local, national, and international online forums devoted to the latest concerns.

However, this access to current information is double-edged. On one side, the teacher is connected to the latest information; on the other, she is made painfully aware of her lack of freedom in using that information. Thus, knowing that there are better alternatives to the program she is locked into can be frustrating.

Bonnie also mentions the need to attend conferences sponsored by national organizations. She says, “Many of the groups want to involve teachers in meaningful ways, but they need the people to be able to attend the conferences.” The second part of her statement is the rub. Most of these conferences are still F2F (face-to-face), and this fundamental choice of medium effectively eliminates the vast number of teachers who simply don’t have the time or resources to attend.

Bonnie also says, “I think Webinars are fine, but it is not the same as face to face in work and learning with the people who have a lot to share.” She is correct. As it stands, F2F conferences are superior to online alternatives such as webinars. But this condition doesn’t have to and isn’t going to remain permanent.

Increasingly, teachers in the trenches who have learned to network online realize that they are only a click away from the world’s largest 24-7 professional conference — the open web, or MOOC, massive open online conference. (I’m taking a slight liberty with Stephen Downes and George Siemens’ MOOC, which stands for massive open online course.) In many respects, they’re not as good as F2F conferences, but in some, which may be just as if not more important, they are better. For example, they allow for instant parallel interactions across different media, both synchronously and asynchronously. And, of course, they allow for participation by anyone and everyone from wherever they happen to be on this planet. The potential range of expert opinions and observations in any given network is thus unlimited.

In the 21st century, our notion of “supervision” has to take into account the individual teacher’s access to the internet and unprecedented opportunities to interact and network with colleagues and experts from around the world on the latest in best practices. The campus landscape has changed. Teachers are no longer isolated and uninformed. Through the internet, they are networked, connected, and informed on a scale that boggles the imagination.

Just as the teacher’s relationship to the student is evolving from leading to guiding, the supervisor’s relationship to teachers has to evolve from dictating to facilitating. Having said this, I realize that many if not most teachers aren’t going to change. They have learned to accept conditions as they are. However, new and future teachers are open to change and will, I’m positive, welcome greater freedom and responsibility to grow into their profession.

2 Responses

  1. I know how lucky I am. Chris Dede was a mentor, Seymour Papert, and I had the experience of being on the original board of the George Lucas Educational Foundation. I would sit around the table with the people who were known by their reputations in education and we had face to face discussions.

    There was also a This was a group of researchers, professors of education , teachers and some industry people. I cannot tell you how powerful it was to be able to have the conversations in reality and to talk to , say James Comer, and others without an audience. I called them thinking sessions. Some of them are reflected in the work of the Edutopia web page .. some of them not.

    I live in Washington DC and can attend the National Academy of Science workshops and objective research initiatives. This is a priceless, wonderful way to learn from experts who have spent their life thinking about one or more special areas.

    Then there is the education part of the Supercomputing Conference. It is like being Alice in Wonderland. Wondering how to share the vision of the researchers and broaden participation to those who are not interested at all in much more than the social media.

    I am not a good business person, I just want to share the resources so that people don’t fall away from education thinking that we cannot solve the problems. But we as Americans have a lot of layers and a lot of ways to think about education . We find
    lots of ways to make learning interesting.

    Conferences are expensive. I wish however that the community of knowledge workers and those who are in classrooms could meet in ways that are
    more personable. Thinking out loud in a journal like this is one way of changing the conversation.

    Claude and I met sometime ago. It is important to have the sociocultural perspective. In a flat world, some topics are really interesting, cyber bullying, gaming, sex education, and cursive writing are hot topics.

    I wish that those who are across the digital divide had a larger part in the conversation.

    Google , with Larry Page , is dedicating itself to knowledge. Hopefully, the convocation on the gathering storm, which was a beginning discussion of this topic will come to pass with the revocation and change of NCLB. We have to make sure that fewer teachers are left behind;

    In this group, the PhD’s are reaching out to the whole education community. What a wonderful place to be. We learn from each other.,

  2. re “I wish those who are across the digital had a larger part in the conversation”: that’s a very important point, Bonnie.
    As you recall in your comment, we met F2F a few times: in 2002 at I am what I eat Kidscreen seminar on media and food in Desenzano del Garda, and then in Geneva for WSIS 1 and more interestingly (at least to me), just before that, at the seminar about The Role of Science in Information Society (RSIS) organized by International Council for Science, the Third World Academy of Sciences, UNESCO, and CERN.

    That’s how, I started following what was happening in Pakistan in the field of tech for education and research, but also for civic rights. Back then Pakistan was very much on the wrong side of the digital divide, and perhaps still is, with huge civic rights issues (still very much there in spite of the “democratic election” of the present president).

    And these Pakistani activists are extremely wise and ingenious in exploring tech solutions adapted to that divide. This obtains for other countries too: see the role of Facebook and Twitter in activism for civic rights in Maghreb and other countries. But Pakistani activists seem particularly aware and wars of the risks inherent to the use of proprietary non-paying social web platforms described by Cory Doctorow in his recent Techno-Optimism column on Locus. They do use them for publicizing their actions, but not for organizing them.

    Take Bin Laden’s apparent recent killing, if the US government is to be trusted on its sole word as it is withholding evidence “for security reasons”. Whether Bin Laden was actually killed or not is immaterial to the severe risks the operation is creating for people in Pakistan: risks of both retaliation by fundos, and of the Pakistani govt using that risk as a pretext for a clamp-down on its people. The online silence of Pakistani civic rights activists for the following days was very eloquent: a history of dictatorial measures teach people caution.

    So we should indeed learn about using digital communication and action from people who are on the wrong side of the digital divide.

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