Overcoming the 'Ferris Bueller' Sterotype of Teaching

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October 20, 2013

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[CC graphic by Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com | Flickr]

Michigan teachers are among the finest in the nation, but the media attention given to public education recently has been far from flattering. The public does not view our teachers in a positive light. From Proposal 2’s Freedom-to-Work last fall to failing school districts and emergency managers, it sure can look to the public like teachers are not living up to public expectations.

The classical view of the classroom teacher, where a teacher is merely an orator who gives knowledge of facts, is widely persistent in public opinion. Ask the average person on the street to impersonate a teacher, and they’ll probably do something that is reminiscent of Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Whether accurate or not to their own experience as a student, so many teachers have evolved their classroom practice that a modern classroom resembles nothing of the sort that Matthew Broderick was trying to avoid in 1986.

The persistent misconception that “all teachers do is lecture” has misled some individuals to suggest that teaching can be done by technological means without educators. Online schools are popping up one after another, like K12, and they are touting the ability to offer education any time, any place, anywhere, any pace. It is true that technology is an essential and important aspect of education, but if we are not careful about using technology in learning, the cart could easily get put before the horse. A popular term flying around classrooms and schools is ‘educational technology’ or “edtech” for short. This all-encompassing phrase resonates with the majority of classrooms and calls to mind innovative education. More and more technology is becoming increasingly available to educators, and companies are taking note. Web startups are heavily targeting education, and the market for education apps has been very active.

Educators love the potential that technology offers to classroom instruction and student learning, but at what cost does it come? Are we putting the focus on the technology and not the education? Are we minimizing the role of the teacher as a facilitator of learning? Are we ignoring the importance for facetime contact and interaction between learners in the classroom? If we aren’t careful, educational technology is going to quickly morph into technological education and teachers will be the collateral damage.

This amounts to an image problem with education in Michigan, and it must change. While the same situation is brewing in other states, Michigan has a very active educational technology crowd. They promote tablets and mobile devices in classrooms, hybrid/online/blended learning, and most recently flipped classroom instruction. While all of these things can greatly augment classroom instruction, they should not be mistaken for capable of replacing teachers. The image problem here is, in part, leading some to the conclusion that it is all about the technology and teachers aren’t needed. They falsely believe that learning=remembering information and that teaching=telling. With these two premises, and add in technology, the argument can be made that teachers are replaceable. Why would we need teachers and classrooms and schools, if we can get a $600 iPad to connect kids to the Internet and learn from free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) or Khan Academy?

This could not be a more serious issue. It’s time we refocus, dial up the instructional quality even further, and put the emphasis on “ed” in edtech. It’s time that we as educators reflect on our practice and make sure it isn’t such that it could be replaced by a computer, tablet, or mobile device connected to the Internet.

Even within the teaching profession itself, some educators have misinterpreted the potential for technology and bought into the same ideas that could potentially replace teachers: off-loading students to online content delivery methods of instruction. The more we rely on technology to teach students, the more students will come to rely on it. Then, the perpetuation of an image that education is about transferring knowledge, and is nothing more, continues. Eventually, hybrid courses run by a teacher are replaced with online courses. Instead of needed several separate in-person sections of an algebra class with 30 kids at a time and several teachers, one massive online course run by one person (who may or may not even be a teacher) results. Eventually, teachers could be come replaced altogether by online courses and technology.

Whether or not this argument seems far-fetched, it is possible, and some are working to make it happen right now. This doesn’t mean that teachers need to stop using flipped classroom instruction, or throw out all the iPads they just got for their school; instead, it means we as educators need to be more aware. We need to be aware of what the public perception is and aware of what we do to feed into it. If we are not getting the message out to the public that teaching is more than telling, then the public will continue to think of teaching and learning as a bank teller’s transaction. And we all know that ATMs have been put in place to supplant tellers.

It is true that technology can provide knowledge to anyone with Internet access, like an ATM shells out money. Using commonplace tools like Google, Wikipedia, or Khan Academy, to name a few, individuals can gain a basic understanding of many things. To the untrained eye, this can look as if those tools are accomplishing teaching; however, this is not what teaching is.

Teaching has evolved well past simple dissemination of facts. Michigan teachers have their students creating, communicating, collaborating, and solving problems in authentic ways that cannot be supplanted with video lectures or wikis. In many classrooms across Michigan, teaching & learning is vastly different than it was years ago. Information access has helped motivate education to be more than just the transfer of knowledge from expert to novice. The public, again, is unaware of this. We must be better ambassadors of education and inform state citizens.

Many Michigan teachers are connecting through social media to share the great things they do in their classrooms with students and to learn from one another. This has helped so many connected educators to reform their practice and improve their craft. Change is happening in education, for the better, but the public is unaware. We need more educators to realize that in order to correct public perception, we must ourselves improve what we do and make that known. We cannot hold on to teaching practices of yesteryear; classrooms should not still look the way they did Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; and no longer can we as educators allow divisive public rhetoric about our profession keep us from unifying for the best interest of students. Connecting with other educators online allows us to unify in learning; it allows us to share what we really do; it allows us to reshape our public image.

Teachers are ambassadors of education, and we must lead our own reform; however, education reform is a powerful phrase, because it suggests something must change. Certainly, something must change—the public image of teachers in Michigan. As Michigan teachers are in the business of selling learning experiences, and not just knowledge, we must realize that it is well overdue that we teach in a way that cannot be replaced, publicize what we do in our classrooms, and let the public know how great our brand of education is.

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