Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Deep expertise, scalability, guides on the side, and the classrooms of tomorrow.

Inspired, in part by this Audrey Watters talk and by a couple of articles that showed up in my twitter feed earlier in the month, I've been ruminating on what it means to be a "guide on the side" instead of a "sage on the stage" and in particular how that model is supposed to provide scalability.

First a little background.   By the early 1990s, constructivists were already using the term guide on the side and it was beginning a climb in popularity (see the google n-grams below for it's increase in usage in books).

Most early usages, like this one by Alison King (behind JSTOR paywall, sorry) focused on moving college professors from lecture models to more constructivist forms of learning.  In fact, this is a pretty old model of teaching. 

As "guide on the side" terminology gained currency, it also expanded it's range of influence to K-12 education.  Again, this wasn't particularly new.  Guide on the side, individuated instruction was around in the 1970s.  Anybody else here remember not only SRA reading cards (ick), but those awful laminated folders from IMS math that you had to write on with grease pencil (double ick and bonus brownie points to anyone who can post a picture of this in comments)?  Both of these initiatives have (as Watters points out) been picked continuities with the latest wave of ed-tech technofuturism which proclaim that computers will do the individuated instruction while "guide on the side" "teacher-coaches" collect data and work with individual students.  Thus, we will de-skill teachers while achieving cost savings.  It's the ultimate 19th century industrialist fantasy of the workplace.  (And, as I never tire of pointing out, the notion that today's schools are "a 19th century factory model" is only ever uttered by people who have absolutely no idea how 19th century factories worked.) 

The problem with this is that the guide on the side model assumes the teacher needs less content knowledge and expertise than a sage on the stage.  In fact, the opposite is true.  My junior and senior years at Swarthmore College in the eighties were spent in small intense seminars where students did most of the talking.  These courses, started at Swarthmore in the 1920s,  were based on even older British models.     Instructors, in this model, are resources for the students.  A typical seminar at Swarthmore required me to read several books and articles on a major topic and present the authors viewpoints, along with my own analysis of how the literature fit together.  (This is a skill called historiography.)  My peers would then question me and the other presenters as we moved together towards a wider discussion of a larger topic  The professor's expertise was evident more in how the class was put together, the assigned readings for the week, the larger narrative arc of the class, the specific types of histories we read as well as sometimes reining in the discussion or redirecting it.  But it was teaching with a lightly visible hand and it's arguably very successful.  And it required deep expertise on the part of the professors to be able to teach the seminars, especially when it came to constructing the syllabi for the courses.

My own students are able to do fairly open-ended research projects in history class.  This is only possible because of my deep understanding of both history content and historiography.  For example, to an untrained observer, two articles on women's suffrage in the West, one from Utah Historical Quarterly and one from Montana: The Magazine of Western History, might seem equally solid.  A little more knowledge suggests that the former is probably more reliable.  After all, it's an academic journal, not a magazine, and it sounds harder to read.  But, in fact, it's a heck of lot harder and more prestigious to get published in Montana than it is in UHQ.  Just because all knowledge is on the internet somewhere (not really) doesn't mean it's all the same or equally valid (forgetting about stuff that's just wrong).  Only deep expertise allows teachers to help students develop the background knowledge and skills to start sensing what better or worse secondary sources look like, read like, and get a feel for the ways they use evidence.  Further, only experienced scholar-teachers can get evidence to speak in ways that students can mimic in their own research projects.  For guide on the side to work, you need more subject matter expertise, not less; more practice at doing the types of work your field requires, not less. It is, in fact the exact opposite of what the technofuturists envision. 

You can't scale my classroom by having me lecture at kids over a video screen, and you can't scale my conversations with kids about sources (despite what SHEG is now trying to do*).  And you sure can't scale my contacts with other academics that allow me to quickly find leads when I'm stuck.  The average HS teachers Facebook and twitter feeds simply aren't going to contain the same range of contacts.    At the heart of it, my teaching practice is deeply centered around my students humanity, my own, and our shared connections.  For all the talk of technofuturists about trying to personalize instruction, their relentless focus on technological instruction is deeply, deeply depersonalizing.

*My ongoing critique of SHEG's primary source projects is centered around the fact that, in de-skilling the process of reading documents, they don't take historiography seriously and end up privileging certain viewpoints and types of evidence at the expense of others in ways that they don't seem entirely conscious of.