Many in the school reform camp and their supporters in the Silicon Valley and Foundation crowds are crying out for education “disruption”, a word being tossed around very casually these days. Because it works in business, they understandably believe that new technology will be the vehicle and keystroke data will map the way. First off their lips as an example of what it might look like is the Bill Gates championed and very commendable Khan Academy.
The vision is to have 30 students at 30 computers or iPads each watching Khan videos, moving at their own pace and motivated by game mechanics. And the teacher in the classroom? The teacher is ostensibly walking around helping one here one there and analyzing data — essentially assisting Sal teach her students.
This seems to make sense, especially if the teacher in the room–now a teaching assistant or facilitator–isn’t really that good at teaching and especially if our goal is to transmit basic facts and knowledge. Every student moves at his or her own pace. Data is collected, analyzed and acted upon. Students help each other. And the facilitator keeps the electricity on and adds a few volts as needed, takes attendance.
I think there should be some schools/classes like this for it will suit certain kinds of courses and students–students who learn best the way Sal teaches or those who need to race ahead—and be a good fit for neighborhoods that have a hard time attracting teachers that are really good at teaching or that have budget shortfalls which make this better than the alternative. In fact, there already are schools like this and they call them blended or hybrid schools, something every school will be to one degree or another very soon. This is a necessary choice.
But my choice is for something even better than this. You see, the above scenario runs the risk of DEVALUING teachers even more. Our best and brightest, the ones we hope to enter the teaching profession, are naturally proud people. They will only enter proud professions, well-paid empowering professions where they can meet their full potential.
Let’s say you are one of these, but the schools in your area want Sal to be the teacher. Would you agree to be a teacher assistant and facilitator rather than the teacher? No, you would not; you want to be Sal, you want to be the teacher. You want to teach because you know your stuff and you know how to teach it, and you will get better every year. You know how to assess kids and help those who are falling behind, and you get better at it every year. You know how to keep the gifted students in your classroom engaged and continuously learning and you get better at it every year, like Sal.
This is the school I’d want to send my son to, a school with incredibly high quality teachers–all Sals–who are able to make the wise (ie. human) choice of when and where to use technology and technology-delivered content (it was always thus with filmstrips, remember?) because they are the authorities in the room, they are the teachers. We need 3.5 million Sals and the good news is that they exist, many are in fact in place already. All we need to do is find a way to attract more of them to the field and to keep them there. Now that would be disruptive.
So Silicon Valley, I challenge you to help make teaching an even prouder and more empowering profession. Find innovative ways to pay teachers extravagantly, give them autonomy within a set of objectives (also called standards) and let them choose which technology to tap and when to tap it. Support and train continuously. This is where your innovative power should be directed! Help us to create and unleash 3,500,000 Sal Khans.
Paul Edelman is a former NYC public school teacher and the founder of TeachersPayTeachers, an open marketplace where teachers buy/sell/share original teaching materials. Teachers have earned over $2,000,000 to date on the site.
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