Sunday, February 3, 2019

I am a flashlight (with apologies to Christopher Isherwood)

Computers and Internet have changed education. While schoolrooms still use books, paper pen and pencil, the tools of learning are increasingly computers, laptops, pads, cell phones and Google, not to mention Facebook and Instagram. Wikipedia has replaced Encyclopedia Britannica. I, as a teacher of English to engineering students at a college in Israel for over 25 years, have experienced this transition first hand, admittedly with mixed feelings and some resistance.

This revolution brings into question what exactly the role of a modern teacher is. Specifically, children have direct, unlimited and easy access to far better sources of information than any single teacher can produce. Students can find countless problems and solutions, including explanations, for any technical exercise in any field online, including English grammar, mathematical problems and chemical reactions. These online services are available around the clock, whenever students have the time and inclination to learn, as compared to the artificial hours of 8:00 am to 3:00 pm.  Moreover, the students can make errors, work at their own pace and express confusion without fear of ridicule from others, unless they choose otherwise. In other words, they can choose their ideal conditions.

Notwithstanding all these advantages, while today’s students may know more facts, they are far from better achievers from their antiquated parents or even grandparents. A look at achievement test scores, matriculation tests and even Facebook conversations worldwide paints a sad picture of current thinking and understanding skills. It is as if the plethora of information is at the expense of the ability to understand it. As a way of analogy, ancient Greek and Roman doctors, lacking imaging equipment and often the right to even do an autopsy, extrapolated incredible amounts of information from their limited data.

Several years ago, my department head, for some reason, asked the staff what we thought our main role was. My answer did not mention grammar, reading comprehension or vocabulary. I wrote at the time that it was to open the world to our students. What I meant and still mean is that my role as a teacher is show how information is related, the connection between past, present and future and the manner in which this world was and is being created.  I am not there mainly to provide facts or techniques but to shine a light on the whole picture, much of which students are completely ignorant and unaware, and give them tools to understand and interpret it.

As an example from my youth, in High School, we were studying the American Civil War (1860-1865), specifically its background. The teacher has us recreate the Dred Scott Supreme Court case (1857) in which it was ruled that a black man that escaped from the South was still considered property even though he lived in the North, where slavery was illegal. We spent at least two weeks researching and playing our roles.  During these two weeks, that teacher could have covered much more material, i.e., information.  However, we students gained an understanding of the social, legal and political situation in the United States before the Civil War, which could be extrapolated to after the war and even today and how to understand decisions from other cultures and eras that don’t make sense today. Thus, the teacher did not feed us facts but instead illuminated a historical and learning process.

As I am fortunate to teach a subject that is a tool, not a body of knowledge, I have the privilege of discussing, exposing and educating. Teachers can and must communicate the how and why, not only that the what. Learning should not only create pride over good grades but also a feeling of “wow” as a result of a moment of illumination as suddenly, for a moment, the world becomes clearer and more connected, even four dimensional. Teachers are, at their best, the flashlights of understanding, then and now.

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