Is there a dead teacher on the summit ?

There was much to learn from the richly diverse presentations and the roundtable discussions at the Global Summit on Technology Connected Futures in Sydney. It was a workable format for a largish conference (+200 delegates) in a big ballroom – about 20 tables with laptop power and good free wireless. I wanted to blog live from the venue but found it difficult to process thoughts quickly enough after a session of listening to a speaker and then discussing in a somewhat random group round a table. So I waited until I got back to Auckland – but there’s still heaps to process!

In a sense the summit connected with and continued the ongoing debate I’m participating in about the future of learning (and learning institutions). For a large cluster of speakers it was mainly business as usual with a lot of web (1.0) tacked on – seeing our learning institutions and systems as incorporating and assimilating ICT / e-learning but not being essentially changed or threatened by their potential transformative energy. A rough guide to the different positions is below:

Reformist ………………… Radical transformation
James Bosco
Robert Cailliau
Charles Jennings
Judyth Sachs
Doug Brown
Geetha Narayanan
George Siemens
Seymour Papert
Jean Johnson
Leigh Blackall

I’m not going to go into all the details and there are podcasts available of all the presentations. It is a crude continuum and possibly needs another column for ‘reactionary’ (dunno if there were any real ‘reactionaries’ there but Leigh might have something to say about that :)). Some random thoughts and impressions:

Robert Cailliau – well, he co-invented the web and raised some important questions about how best to use the awesome connectivity it generates, for solving the major global problems of global warming, poverty, etc. I was astounded though that he advocated the scientific method as the sole basis for any solution – dismissing religion as superstition and not mentioning art. Guess that’s the perspective from CERN but surely – as another nuclear physicist argued – the classic scientific method is what’s gotten us into this mess and what we really need is a more ecological way of thinking that includes the other ‘cultures’ of art and spirituality … ? Maybe it’s classic science integrated with the other modes – kinda like Leonardo da Vinci ….

Judyth Sachs mentioned that the University of Sydney spent about $4 million ! on e-learning last year – mostly ‘putting courses on to Web CT’. This is about the total allocation of the eCDF for one year across all NZ institutions… She does have Peter Goodyear on her faculty though so I hope that some of the money went on more innovative forms of using web technologies ….

I was looking forward to hearing George Siemens as I find his regular elearnspace digest very informative. As I’m still pondering the value of connectivism as a theory of learning I was hoping that I’d get a chance to meet him f2f and dialogue a bit. Unfortunately we didn’t connect – but I did get a better idea of his (very neatly packaged) theory. One thing I do wonder about is how connectivism relates to existing learning theories such as enactivism and emerging approaches in complexity science – and how connectivism is connected to debates about the future and structure of learning institutions. I will be engaging with this more as I unpack my ecological ideas here at Flexilearn over the next couple of months.

Geetha Naranayan was very scholarly and drew on many different sources for her vision of how ICT might change education. The one new concept for me in her presentation was the ‘slow knowledge’ movement – like slow food as an antidote to Macdonalds etc, a slow knowledge movement is emerging in reaction to the sheer pace and oversaturation of information fuelled by mass media. This went down well with many at the conference – if you’re in a traditional transmission mode of teaching then the idea of ‘slow school’ is quite appealing, given how many teachers and education managers must feel overwhelmed at the sheer pace of multimedia information streaming through multiple connected devices. While I’m all for the ‘slowness’ of letting ideas brew, grow, and mature – I’m thinking about speed as a relative concept – ie. for a contemporary learner immersed in a media stream of 100s of bits of info per second, perhaps this is a now a ‘normal’ speed? Many species simply perceive faster than others – eg. a hawk ‘slows down’ the speed of its prey through its evolved visual perception system as so it can strike more easily and accurately (John Bleibtreu- The Parable of the Beast). And what about ‘twitch speed‘ and Everything Bad is Good for You ? Slow schools may be a great retreat for the elite but somehow I don’t see them happening. School and learning will get Faster and perhaps we should look for ways to speed up teaching so that it can sync with what the learners are doing ?

Which brings me on to the radical transformation set and the subject of this post. I was a bit gutted that the conference organisers couldn’t get Seymour Papert on iChatAV to work properly. I encountered LOGO as a newbie schoolteacher in 1984 and the constructionist perspective has been a major influence on my own educational development – so was really looking forward to seeing and hearing Papert. There was enough audio though to confirm that the thrust of Papert’s thinking is still sharp as ever, and that the ‘children’s machine’ – now powerfully networked and multimedia enhanced – will enable Dewey’s vision of schools moving “away from authoritarian classrooms with abstract notions to environments in which learning is achieved through experimentation, practice and exposure to the real world” (Computers in the Classroom). But in Papert’s vision the classroom is still there, and the role of the teacher in a constructionist perspective is to provide and design learning environments where students can learn by doing, by becoming ‘bricoleurs’, “in such a way as to produce the most learning for the least teaching” (The Children’s Machine). So the teacher is not dead, but the instructionist model of teaching is gone, obsolete.

And so on to Leigh Blackall’s presentation. I think many in the audience didn’t quite get the idea behind ‘teaching is dead – long live learning’ – which Leigh framed in relation to Duchamp’s statement about ‘painting is dead – long live painting’. This drew attention to the process of ‘disruptive technology’ – where in art the invention of photography disrupted painting, or a particular idea of painting as art. I take this as implying that if painting is to survive and evolve as a form or medium, it must develop new styles, techniques, etc and be taken to new dimensions by artists. And so with teaching – teaching and teachers are not dead, but if they are to survive and evolve with the development of a radically new medium for the storage and rapid communication of massive amounts of information, then an equally new idea of teaching and the role of the teacher must now emerge. New forms of institutions as well. Or as McLuhan stated: “the sloughed-off environment becomes a work of art in the new and invisible environment” (see William Irwin Thompson’s document for a school curriculum based on this and other notions of cultural evolution).

There is debate already about the death of teaching on FLNW and TALO groups, and various blogs, and Leigh came in for some flack about his naive understanding of the ‘realpolitik’ required for a de-schooled society. Perhaps if Leigh had phrased it as ‘teaching is dead, long live teaching’ the message might have been clearer? Or is it the inadequacy of English to encapsulate in one word the reciprocal process of learning/teaching – as for example in the Maori concept of ako ? For me, it’s about a new dialogical and ecological conception of the relationship between learners, teachers and the ‘subject’ of knowledge – which is a ‘networked’ way of thinking, except that following Bateson I would say that the unit of the educational process is not the individual learner (or teacher) but the ‘learner-subject-teacher’ relationship:

The internet and connected devices for the storage and communication of information can ‘flatten’ the learner-teacher relationship – but this idea existed long before the internet. What is now possible on a large scale is the extended realisation of this ecological idea of education – but the attainment still seems a way off. Leigh is clearly working within what I have termed the ecological postmodern frame (antecedents Illich etc) and as I suggested in the previous post, it’s not so much ‘realpolitik’ as attention to the capillaries of power – if serious change is going to occur. The question is where to start – can a change in practice lead to the desired epistemology for a new form of teaching/learning, or does the underlying change in thinking have to precede the new practice ? Perhaps the artists and new pedagogues will just do it anyway, and let the theoreticians argue about the niceties …

The next day I went down from the summit to the ‘lowlands’ of practice at NSW Learnscope 06 …

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5 Responses to Is there a dead teacher on the summit ?

  1. Hey Stanley,
    Great summary there. Many thanks for the pointers to things I’ve yet to see. Imagine a paragraph about teaching and learning, but without the word and concept of teacher/ing. I think by calling it “teaching is dead, long live learning” I meant to point out that learning occurs without teaching. Basically reinforce Illich’s and many other’s who say that most if not all of our learning does or can occur outside institutionalised learning (teaching). Many people talk about the need for teachers to become learners again, in readiness for this new age. The day teachers stop being learners, is the day they can no longer be teachers. So what good is the concept of teaching? Is it not enough to simply work with the idea of learning? Or more importantly, what do we loose by ceasing to use the word teacher?

  2. Tony Loughland says:

    As one of the random group at your table, Stanley, I am thankful for your erudite summary here. Leigh, your presentation was scholarly inept in that you failed to support some of your claims with warrants but you definitely packed a punch with your thesis. Illich was a great reference point but you could have then developed ur argument through Bruner, Toffler, Papert, Postman, Holt and all the other learning revolutionaries. As a stirrer, I did like your provocative comments. As a storyteller, I appreciated the weaving of your narrative around iconic images.

  3. Hi Stanley,
    I have spent a number of years chewing over the concept of “teaching” and being labelled as a “teacher”. I have reflected and explored the many aspects associated with learning and teaching. I have even argued for dropping the term ‘teaching’ in my own institution. However, I am now rethinking my own stance on this proposition.

    I am a strong believer in the Maori concept of ako – after all, it is my domain name ( and the vision behind what I am trying to develop in AkoNet. We are all learners and teachers. The relationship is symbiotic. If teachers are dead then so are learners. I believe the process of teaching is being confused with the role of teacher. My learners teach me new things every day. If teachers are dead then what is left?

    Has any learning gone on in relation to this blog posting and the discussion or thoughts it may have generated? If so, then teaching has occured whether intentional or not. Learning doesn’t happen in isolation – amongst other things it is about relationships with those who can guide, share, direct, support, discuss, and so on.

    The challenges facing the process of teaching within instiutions and the adoption of technology within the learning process does not constitute valid evidence to support the premise that teaching, and even worse, that the teacher, is dead.

    I am intending to explore these issues further in my blog Seeking
    I look forward to continuing this discussion.

    Ciao for now,

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