Where learning happens, there shall ye find teachers

It’s hard to imagine anyone arguing that the digital age, social networking, animation, other event timing software (from Adobe Captivate to Mozilla’s Popcorn & Butter) and 24/7 access won’t change—haven’t already changed—the way teaching, learning, and schooling are done in the 21st century. But I’m becoming increasingly vexed by those suggesting technology will replace teachers, that for-profit social networking platforms will replace professional development—or that either of those propositions is a good idea.Wordle including 21st Century Skills and other current terminology

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 1:9

I’ll dispense with the obvious semantic argument right away: even in self-guided learning there is a teacher—we say “I taught myself!” If informal learning is truly “a spontaneous process of helping people to learn” and it really “…works through conversation, and the exploration and enlargement of experience…” if its “…purpose is to cultivate communities, associations and relationships that make for human flourishing…” then not only do I hope we all find and fill that role almost every day—I shake my head in bemusement at the eagerness with which many, perhaps even TVO’s perspicacious and typically uber-informed Steve Paikin, seem to be anticipating teaching’s impending doom.

Screenshot of Hypercard from a 1980s era Macintosh Performa

Screen shot of 1980s era Macintosh Performa and Hypercard, technology that “changed the way we learn” over 30 years ago. Source: Stanislav (2011)

Fortunately, I don’t believe the host, nor any of the panel members in this thought provoking series actually believe this rhetoric; in places like Canada where the commitment to public education is for the time being less precarious than many other places, this can still be said with tongue-in-cheek. Overall, throughout the musings of this panel the vital role played by teachers, mentors, coaches, and guides was implicit. The skills, creativity and imagination professional educators bring to the situations they design and create for the purpose of conveying the knowledge they need to share, was celebrated openly. Overall there was full recognition of the approach most strongly suggested by the literature and research—and who can be seen to have been doing the “thickest” (à la Clifford Geertz1) research for decades. [Update: yours truly on Geertz.] I was schooled in the public school system of Bethlehem, PA, USA in the 1960s. My teachers sat us in circles, let students lead reading groups while they circulated giving individualized instruction, we split into groups and did jigsaw investigations, returned and taught our classmates how to put the pieces together. Tropes and talking points, pompous assertions around “industrial” or even “agrarian” paradigms notwithstanding, throughout history educators, including teachers in the trenches, have always led the search for ways to improve and enhance the process of helping people to learn.

The Cognitive Apprenticeship framework of the 80s identified elements of the mentor/apprentice relationship (e.g., “scaffolding“) that have been essential to teaching and learning for centuries, and educators ever since have been mapping these to specific strategies and the software that supports them.

A tool such as Twitter can be a useful tool, even a powerful one in the right hands. But it’s absurd to think a platform limited to messages 140 characters, blocked by governments and firewalls, adopted thus far by a trivial percentage of teachers would be a good pick to “replace professional development,” as one person on the #Learning2030 hashtag asked Wednesday night. Leave alone the fact Twitter’s priority is making money for its shareholders, and that we don’t know what this corporation may do, or not, to protect privacy. About 80% of messaging on Twitter is self-promotion—researchers coined a new term for such Tweople, “Meformers,” in contrast to “informers” (Naaman,Boase,& Lai, 2010). While I agree teachers should try Twitter, I see Twitter being used as a hub, the water cooler in the staff room around which informal learning happens, contacts, connections and preliminary plans to make plans. Just like pencil and paper, Twitter’s the right technology for many jobs. Use it for what it does well.

Several panels have noted how kids “intuitively” adapt to new technology, but I heard none remark that human-computer interface designers have been striving to design “intuitive” interfaces since there have been computers to design interfaces for. A book written on the topic in 1987 was still in use in 2010.

It’s wonderful to be in Ontario having important and fruitful conversations with genuine reformers, so sincerely devoted to student engagement, deep learning and the new possibilities awaiting discovery by all of us. There’s no need to believe we are the first to have these conversations, nor will we be the last.


  1. For many decades, forward-thinking, innovative educators have been engrossed with the exploration of applications technology. See, among many examples, posts in my own Cognitive Apprenticeship category and the various works in their reference sections. For evidence of the extensive range technology-enhanced-learning-focused 20th century collaborations across disciplines, look no further than R. G. Segall (1989), Thick descriptions: a tool for designing ethnographic interactive videodiscs, ACM SIGCHI Bulletin, Volume 21 Issue 2, Oct. 1989 pp. 118 – 122. While doing so please remember, there’s nothing new under the sun.

Further reading

Ghefaili, Aziz (2003) Cognitive Apprenticeship, Technology, and the Contextualization of Learning Environments, Journal of Educational Computing, Design & Online learning Volume 4, Fall, 2003.

Harkinson, Josh, (September 24, 2013), Here’s How Twitter Can Track You on All of Your Devices, Mother Jones, retrieved 2013-10-03

Junco, Reynol; Elavsky, C. Michael and Heiberger, Greg (2012), Putting twitter to the test: Assessing outcomes for student collaboration, engagement and success, British Journal of Educational Technology (2012) 1-15. (Wiley Online Library)

Lave, Jean and Wenger, Etienne (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lave, Jean (1996). Teaching, as Learning, in Practice, Mind, Culture, and Activity (3:3) pp149-164.

Lowe, Tony & Lowe, Rachael (2012) Twitter in learning and teaching – literature review (webducate.net)

Stanislav (2011), Why Hypercard Had to Die, blog post, http://www.loper-os.org/?p=568

Naaman, M., Boase, J. & Lai, C. (2010) Is it really about me? Message Content in Social Awareness Streams. Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, February 6-10, 2010 in Savannah GA (PDF).

Webducate [‘webducate.net’ website/blog] (2012), Twitter in learning and teaching – literature review http://webducate.net/2012/08/twitter-in-learning-and-teaching-literature-review/, retrieved 2012-12-03

Wenger, E. (2006) Communities of practice, a brief introduction, http://www.ewenger.com/theory/, HTML retrieved 2011-11-03 or http://wenger-trayner.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/06-Brief-introduction-to-communities-of-practice.pdf, PDF retrieved 2011-10-03.

Richard studied music as a teenager with Trevor Payne at John Abbott College and attended Berklee College of Music in Boston. He has performed across Canada with full-time rock bands since the early 80s. He’s been a teacher of rock, jazz & classical guitar, first as a sub for his own private teacher, formally at the now defunct Toronto Percussion Centre, and taught at The Arts Music Store in Newmarket, Ontario, for 6 years. He holds the degrees of Bachelor of Fine Arts Music (Special Honours), Bachelor of Education, and Master of Education from York University, plays guitar and trombone, and taught grade 6-8 band, math and computers (HTML and yes, Hypercard!) at the Toronto District School Board and North York School Board.

2 thoughts on “Where learning happens, there shall ye find teachers

  1. Hi Richard, thank you for this thoughtful consideration of the recent #learning2030 conversations. I agree that education in Ontario seems far more stable than it does south of the border. It is the unknown in education that thrills some and terrifies others. Human nature dictates there will be risk takers and others whose greatest risks are many miles behind them in the rearview mirror.
    I am so thankful to work in a progressive learning environment with encouraging admin and colleagues.
    As teachers interested in seeing education go forward to better serve the needs of modern learners. As we debate implementing Ed 2.0 we need to be planning Ed 3.0 to be ready for the next wave of student needs.
    This blog by Jackie Gerstein hits the mark; http://bit.ly/14to4yk

    I hope to read more from your thought stream in the future. Will

    • Thanks for the link, Will, that’s a good read with many parallels to my own understanding and experience. Where I may begin to part ways, if I understand correctly, is around the idea displayed in the table “Education 1.0-3.0 spectrum” at “teachers are… everybody, everywhere.” As with some other things I wrote about, and granted taking it quite literally, I’m not sure it’s really new, and – much more importantly – that it’s desirable. To me the critical thinking part of 21st Century competencies probably begins with knowing how to discern the best sources of information. On YouTube one can learn JavaScript from Douglas Crocker or Joe Schmoe, and I think it helps the learner and everyone in society they’ll ever write a program for if we help them recognize the difference early and make the best choices at every stage.

      “Everybody, everywhere” is just “Informal Learning 2.0,” that which is going on always, has gone on for centuries, enhanced by technology. I’m not saying what we get from technology isn’t huge, but it boils down to better, more expedient access to larger quantities of the same kinds of information humans always use. But we veer even further. The stakeholders list—teachers, parents, industry—is far too short. I believe education must be both Equitable and Inclusive. “Everybody, everywhere” includes millions who wouldn’t be seen as either “worker” or “entrepreneur.”

      To illustrate: as a person who for over 20 years paid all the rent and bills by performing music, I know how valuable it would have been to be more “entrepreneurial,” to have learned some facts and skills pertaining to the business side, and business in general. I know equally well that I was decidedly *not* entrepreneurial, and furthermore, in order to be myself, i.e. *musical,* I had to collaborate with others who *were* entrepreneurial, or likely fail at both.

      I agree with (among many others) Dalton McGuinty, that we should teach entrepreneurship to our youth—right alongside musicianship, sportsmanship—seamanship, if that’s what the self-directed individual learner wants—all of which the human family has counted on to produce well-rounded communities of practice for centuries, across continents. Classic “citizenship education” too has its flaws, but if I may chance a business metaphor, society should always re-invest in itself and diversify its portfolio, with purpose and foresight.

      So I think it’s dangerous to just say “everybody, everywhere” and I try to be careful not to confuse those who sincerely apply critical assessment with those who are indeed terrified, or mistakenly dismiss prudence and critical discernment as “resistance to change.” I think some of the instability to the south is because people in the media learned they can make money wherever they can find controversy, so they’ve elevated *any* opposing argument, stopped asking critical questions, to the point now uncritical consumers assume “everybody, everywhere” may actually be credible. And all this, as it so happens we see spotlighted to the south this week, truly is to the detriment of “everyone, everywhere.”

      I believe everyone benefits when everyone participates in and contributes to an education system that first and foremost prepares students to participate in democratic self governance. *Public Education* 3.0 should encourage our youth to join with our friends, elders, and neighbours in collaborations between artists, homemakers, caregivers, housekeepers, gatekeepers, philanthropists, and we mustn’t forget the entrepreneurs, to “cultivate communities, associations and relationships that make for human flourishing.”

      Thanks again for the thought provoking comment. As for reading more of my thought stream I guess I can now say… careful what you wish for! -Richard

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