(Thanks to my friend Bryant Russ, Bible teacher at Lansing (MI) Christian School, for sharing this blog post.)
What do I teach that a YouTube video can’t?
This question has been on my mind since last week when I learned more about the universe in three days of watching educational Internet videos than I had in four years of high school science classes. No joke. I made a list of all the things I wanted to know about science—everything from what is a molecule? to Is time really relative?—and hit the web. Sites such as Coursera.com, TedEd, ITunes U, and Minute Physics on YouTube provided engaging, comprehensive, and understandable lessons that led me through each one of my questions and offered new ones to continue my online education. Oh yeah, and did I mention that all this was free?
So back to the question: What do I teach that a YouTube video can’t? This question is important to me because I’d like to know that I couldn’t be replaced by a computer. Unfortunately, after close inspection I’ve found that much of what I’m doing, and much of what most teachers are doing, can be done—and often better—by the Internet. If this is the case, why shouldn’t I be replaced by a screen?
Twenty years ago it was the job of a teacher to relay information to the students. Teach them charts, methods, dates, important people and events. But has the role of a teacher changed now that students could pass just about every quiz and test we give them if allowed to use their phones? Has the Internet altered the game? If the world has changed, and significantly, since this educational structure was conceived, shouldn’t we start considering what we teach that a Youtube video can’t before we’re all swapped out for iPads?
I’m not suggesting teachers abandon relaying information and giving instruction, but perhaps it’s time to shift the focus of education. Let me propose two things a teacher can do—and must do—to become irreplaceable.
1. Teachers can inspire interest, ignite curiosity, and kindle a love of learning in students. I would go so far as to suggest this is the primary role of a twenty-first century teacher. If your students read what they’re supposed to read, answer what they’re supposed to answer, and memorize what they’re supposed to memorize, but do not continue to learn your subject when the year is over then you have failed them—regardless of their report card grades. Your job is to get them interested. Why? Think about it. If they have an interest in your subject, whether you’re teaching literature or biology, they will continue to learn about it outside the classroom (i.e. more learning will happen) and at a significantly higher level of engagement (i.e. better learning will happen). You might not be as necessary for the relaying of information as were teachers twenty years ago, but you are just as important for sparking interest in the students so that they will seek multiple available resources for attaining the information. How can you do this?
- Demonstrate interest, curiosity, and a love of learning. If you’re not interested, curious, or in love with learning, please stop teaching. As a wise mentor teacher once told me, “You teach who you are more than you teach your subject.”
- Ask big, important questions. So often I find myself giving answers to questions that students couldn’t care less about. If they don’t care about the question, why would they care about the answer? We must be giving students questions—and big ones! Let your natural curiosity (see bullet 1) help guide what you do in class to the point that your students feel invited into a search for the answers to their important questions.
- Avoid using grades as motivation or a threat (“If you do this you’ll get an ‘A’” and “If you don’t do this your grade will suffer”). This is like putting the wrong kind of gas into a car. I get so annoyed when a student asks, “Is this going to be on the test?” or “Do I have to know this?” or “How many points is this worth?” and yet, I have to admit it’s our fault. We create these grade-obsessed creatures and almost always destroy natural interest in a subject when we use assessment for something it was never intended to be. (I can say with confidence that I am more eager and excited to learn than I have ever been in my life. I told my wife this; she said, “Too bad this didn’t happen about 15 years ago.” I replied, “15 years ago I was much too busy with school to be excited about learning.”)
2. Teachers can initiate and facilitate creativity in students. Put simply, our students shouldn’t just be learning stuff; they should be making stuff. I have never been more proud as a teacher than when my students make something (or make something happen) that they are excited about and invested in. In fact, I recently challenged my students with a project that demanded interest, investment, and hard work…then I let them go. To my surprise, not only did just about every single student get a ‘A’, but they worked so much harder (and learned so much more) than if they had simply been asked to regurgitate what they had memorized on a test. Our students are itching to do something; to make something. Unfortunately, it’s much easier to give a test than to offer and assist an opportunity to be creative. The irony is that when given the opportunity to do something significant it is often the unengaged, ADD kid who surprises you with something great. So many of our students are itching to just do something! Not only does this promote a higher level of learning (what is the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy again?) but it allows young men and women to have a purpose for coming to school. The creative person is the most valuable asset in today’s changing world, so shouldn’t we be focused on making creators?
While I am completely aware of the challenges of actually being this kind of teacher in a classroom filled with 25 rambunctious teenagers, I am totally committed to moving in this direction in order to distinguish myself from a machine that could otherwise do my job.