Change Issues in Curriculum and Instruction/The Teacher as Learner and the Learner as Teacher


Lauren Florin and Stephanie Sugioka—May 2007 Edited by Patti Horne



As early as 1916 when John Dewey published his seminal work "Democracy and Education", it was acknowledged that learners should become active participants in the educational process. From this proposition it clearly follows that in learning from their own experience, students become, in a sense, their own teachers. The changed role of the learner has, in turn, implications for that of the teacher. Instead of the source of knowledge, teachers become facilitators of the learning process; that is, their role is to create the set of conditions under which students can best learn from their experiences. Moreover, teachers can fulfill this role only by becoming learners themselves, and a primary source of their learning must be their students. Simply put, teachers who learn become better teachers, and learners who teach become better learners. Although this idea seems straightforward enough, educators have been very slow to put it into practice. However, the rapid technological changes of the last few decades may well provide the catalyst that finally brings about these needed reforms in the field of education.

Teachers as Learners


Side bar 1 “Who dares to teach must never cease to learn.” John Cotton Dana

As recently as the 1970s, college professors were expected to have mastered only one knowledge domain—that of their specialty. The walls of the ivory tower were, theoretically, impermeable, and students were to concern themselves only with their text and the knowledge conveyed to them by their professors. The professor was not expected to bring into the conversation his or her personal concerns, the interests or needs of the students, or even events in the outside world. However, in the last two decades, the academic cocoon has been blown wide open by the forces of globalism, multi-culturalism, and multimodalism (New London Group, 2000). No longer is it sufficient for educators to concern themselves with the narrow parameters of their chosen fields. They are expected to relate the content of their specialties to the lives of their students and to real-world concerns. To practice sound pedagogy, teachers must be learners in the broadest sense. Not only must they considerably extend the content of what they learn and teach, they must also subject the ways they acquire and convey their knowledge to rigorous scrutiny—to analysis, reflection, and evaluation (Wooldridge, 2001). Thus, for educators, the learning curve has grown steeper in almost every conceivable respect: They must learn not only what to teach but also how to teach; they must learn not only from written texts and from other experts in their fields but also from their colleagues, their students, and their observation of events in the world outside the academy. With knowledge doubling every year or so, 'expertise' now has a shelf life measured in days; everyone must be both learner and teacher; and the sheer challenge of learning can be managed only through a globe-gridling network that links all minds and all knowledge (Perlman, 1992).

Learning to Teach


How, then, in this new global, multicultural environment should teachers learn to teach? Unlike the previous static mode of instruction delivery, the current model calls for a dynamic process in which teachers should constantly learn from their practice in a "dialectical union of reflection and action" (Hoffman-Lipp, Artiles, & Lopez-Torres, 2003, p. 249). Moreover, even reflective praxis is insufficient for teachers to learn to teach effectively. Teachers must be open to the larger world of politics, culture, and society; they must be able to contextualize both what they learn and what they teach within a larger conceptual framework, "to conceive of their work in broader terms that incorporate sociopolitical contexts of teaching in addition to curricular and pedagogical concerns" (p. 250). No longer can educators afford to sequester themselves behind the walls of academe; rather they must subject both their own practices and the social forces around them to rigorous scrutiny if they are to learn to teach effectively. Teachers must become continual learners. In this world, where we have access to anything we need to know, the teacher's role has changed. Formal learning is becoming irrelevant. Informal learning, with student centered inquiry, is much more effective and develops life-long problem solving skills. Society needs citizens who can understand and reflect on ideas, work with others towards a common goal, analyze problems and follow through with solutions. To give students these types of skills we must "engage and empower them as we educate them for insight" (Marzano, 2001).

Learning from and about Students


Neither can teachers afford to distance themselves from the students they teach. In the new, learner-centered environment, they must be prepared to learn both about and from their students. The constructivist approach to education that emphasizes the student him or herself rather than the teacher as the source of knowledge is hardly new (Dewey, 1916). However, the belief that teacher and student should maintain a partnership based on mutual learning dominates thinking about pedagogical praxis to an ever-increasing extent—from the elementary grades to the college years. The term "dialogue education" has been used to characterize this more equitable relationship between teacher and student: "Two way, open dialogue needs to be a part of all learning activities" (Wikipedia, 2007). It has been demonstrated that class discussion in which students actively participate and are encouraged to raise questions and pose problems themselves may greatly increase critical thinking skills in students (Tsui, 2002). Thus teachers must learn how to create an environment in which students feel free to openly express and share their ideas. The perception that learning is a mutual experience in which they participate with the instructor has also been shown to contribute to higher cognitive skills in students (Tsui, 2002). Finally, if teachers are willing to abandon the outdated notion that they must be the sole source of knowledge and profess themselves willing and perhaps even grateful to learn from their students, they can model for their students the very learning process that they would most like their students to adopt: "Teachers should be examples of how learning works" (Kaplan, 1998).

A perfect opportunity for teachers to learn from their students presents itself in the form of technological innovation within the classroom. Although computer literacy is becoming increasingly important for teacher effectiveness (Selber, 2004), many teachers continue to feel threatened by technologies that they have not mastered (and that some have not even tried). As educators sometimes struggle to engage today’s technology savvy students, allowing students to serve as technology trainers would be an excellent way to provide teachers with some high tech strategies that will captivate students and really get them involved in teaching and learning. Generation Youth and Educators Succeeding (Generation YES) is a national nonprofit organization based in Olympia, Washington, that does just that via GenYES, a program wherein students learn complex computer skills, lesson plan design, and instructional strategies so that they can serve as trainers for K-12 educators ( Teachers could learn much from their young students, many of whom possess a great facility for the manipulation of technologies of all kinds. In being thus willing to learn from their students, teachers could not only model the learning process for their students but also validate the students' sense of self-efficacy, the affirmation of which has been shown to enhance student learning in itself (Hoyt & Ames, 1997).

Expanding Teacher Learning


The content of what a teacher must learn to be effective has thus increased exponentially. Not only must teachers learn how to use technology to enrich their teaching, they must also learn how to teach students to use it responsibly and mindfully. Moreover, the teacher must also learn about his or her students—their families, their cultures, their communities (Kaplan, 1998). They need to learn from and about their colleagues. In her book, A life in school: What the teacher learned, Jane Tompkins (1996) writes movingly of the ways in which academic life tends to isolate both faculty and students from themselves, from each other, and from the world around them. Yet disciplines and discourse communities overlap, and the educator should make an effort to participate in and foster the community of learners to which he or she belongs (Shulman & Shulman, 2004).

Sadly, many forces militate against the need for teachers to learn broadly and deeply. The forces of competition, territoriality, and sheer lack of time tend to limit the sources that could enrich teachers' knowledge and improve their teaching. Minimal professional development and lack of adequate school funding further constrict their opportunities to learn about themselves, their students, and larger cultural and political issues. However, the forces of globalism, multiculturalism, and technological change mandate that teachers extend the boundaries of their learning beyond the strictures of their discipline and the walls of their classrooms and institutions to encompass the larger world that they must prepare their students to enter. In this world, where we have the ability to access endless amounts of information with the push of a button, is it not our job as teachers to learn how to filter through this information in order to find the best answers to our questions? Teachers and students can analyze the validity of data and the soundness of information together. This collaboration brings real learning to the process and reinforces the role of collaboration as it occurs in the real world.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires that high quality professional development be provided for educators. This would be in hopes of sustaining and supporting high qualified educators. Borko (2004) identifies that professional development should be begin with these three major components: subject matter knowledge, student thinking, and instructional practices. She proposes a three phase plan to ensure research can be conducted to see that educators are provided with an appropriate program. Essentially professional development should begin with a single site. The program would be evaluated when facilitators then share the program with other schools. The final evaluation phase would then be to compare the program with other similar programs. This focused approach to professional development could work to identify and disperse a high quality program system-wide especially when there may be limited opportunities and funds.

Learners as Teachers


Just as teachers have had to alter their own methods and shift from being their students’ sole source of knowledge to one of the many sources, students also have had to shift from being passive receptacles of knowledge to active participants and even to being teachers themselves. Research in the areas of constructivist teaching practices, cooperative learning, and technology have opened new doors and have altered the roles and responsibilities of students today.

Learners and Constructivism


In the traditional classroom, teachers stand at the front of the classroom and present the information to the students. This process is seen as effective because teachers can present an immense amount of information in only a short period of time. The students are expected to absorb the information that the teacher presents and then recall it later on a test. Constructivist research has continued to show us how ineffective and inefficient this process is. Research results also found that in classes where teachers focus on imparting knowledge students indicate they are more likely to have a superficial interest in learning that subject. Conversely, when teaching focuses on students and challenging their perceptions, students report a deeper involvement with learning the subject (Trigwell, Prosser, & Waterhouse, 2004). Proponents of constructivism believe that if teachers shift their teaching practices, especially in mathematics and science, test scores will increase. The constructivist model promotes students as being active participants in the education process. Instead of sitting back and listening to the information, students must construct their own knowledge through meaningful experiences. In the constructivist classroom, the students drive the curriculum, focusing on specific topics that they want to study. One example of how students can accomplish this is through project-based learning. Students can, individually or in groups, generate questions about a real-world problem, investigate the topic through research, analyze and reflect on their findings, and devise solutions to the problem. They then can teach the rest of the students in the class, the teacher, and even the rest of the community about their specific topic. Essentially, they become experts on the topic. In this style of learning, the students take responsibility for their own learning because they truly are interested in it (Curtis, 2001; Lane, 2007; Marlowe & Page, 2005).

Class Discussion and Mutual Learning


Sidebar 2 -- Another very telling cartoon

Another way students become teachers in constructivist classrooms is through discussion. Class discussions are a central component of constructivism since the focus is on the process of learning instead of the product. It is not important whether the students get the right answer, what is important is how their thinking evolves. For example, the math strategy, math talk, is one in which students are given a word problem and asked to solve it. Then, through a class discussion, the students are encouraged to share and explain their solutions to the problem and justify their reasoning. The children are able to “gain greater understanding and ownership of mathematical concepts as they develop and express their own ideas” (Houghton Mifflin, n.d.). Since there are numerous ways to solve any given problem, the students become each other's teachers as they discuss not only their own logic but also the faults of their peers’ logic. This process is so effective because “hearing and analyzing others’ approaches can supply one with new perspectives; and frequent exposure to different approaches engenders flexible thinking” (Houghton Mifflin, n.d.). The age of the child does not matter; even kindergarteners can effectively be their peers' teachers during math talk (Kamii, 2000).

Cooperative Learning Groups


A similar method in the classroom where students become the teachers is the use of cooperative learning groups. Cooperative learning is characterized by small groups of students grouped together based on different skill levels. These heterogeneous groups work so efficiently because each student is held accountable for his or her own participation in the group, as well as the group's being held accountable for their overall performance. Cooperative learning can be used anytime a group needs to work together, whether it be on homework or on completing a class project. Since students are grouped with each other based on differing ability levels, students with certain strengths are able to coach the students with weaker abilities in a given area. This coaching, and subsequent teaching, often enables the students to learn a subject better because they are hearing it from a peer’s perspective. Teachers often approach a topic and attempt to explain it from a level that is much too complex; however, students are often better able to explain a topic because they know where to start. By working together as a team to help each other accomplish an ultimate goal, each individual uses his or her strength to help coach and teach the others so that everyone ends up learning up to his or her potential (Education Broadcasting Corporation, n.d; Surin, 2006).

The Teaching Learning Community


In a world where knowledge and information are abundant and so easily accessible, the roles of teachers and learners are transformed and blended. The walls of the classroom have been extended through new technologies and in this extended classroom roles must adapt. The teacher no longer is the imparter of knowledge and student the passive recipient. Both become part of a collaborative learning community. In this new way of teaching and learning students are empowered. They become self directed and take responsibility for their own learning. Teachers become mentors, guides, coaches and learners themselves. Through powerful web tools such as blogs and wikis, students and teachers have opportunities to create and contribute to knowledge and share ideas. They now can share ideas and communicate with learners world wide. In doing so, both teacher and learner will see the world differently and learn to appreciate the perspectives of others. These new technologies, with which our students are generally quite adept, threaten to widen the divide between teacher and student if teachers are unwilling to become learners and users of technology themselves. As digitally savvy students enter the classroom, teachers have the power to close that gap if they’re willing to extend their learning and teaching for the 21st century.

Learners and Web 2.0


Here's a funny comic strip about modern technology and its interactions with the education system

More recently, technology has drastically changed how students learn in and out of the classroom. Teachers can no longer pretend to have all of the answers because students have an immense amount of knowledge at their fingertips with the internet; more specifically, Web 2.0 enables students to be not only learners but also teachers. Web 2.0 allows all users not only to post comments, articles, and reports on the internet but also to edit and respond to those articles and reports. Teachers can use wikis in their classrooms and have groups of students work together or individually to research and become experts on a topic and then post their reports on the internet for all to read and learn from. This new area of education is allowing all students to become the teachers to not only the students in their classes but to the world. Any student who is interested and wishes to explore and research a particular topic is able to do so and publish his or her work. This not only increases the motivation to do a good job, but since anyone can go in and edit the work, it helps students to be flexible and open to new ideas and procedures. This technology also enables any topic to be approached from multiple perspectives. Students in the past have grown up learning subjects such as history from only one biased perspective. Now, individuals will be able to help contribute to online textbooks and add sections about topics that have never before been taught in the public schools. This technology will revolutionize our education system as it becomes more widely used and accepted (Alexander, 2006; Standen, 2006).



Largely as a result of technological change, the forces of globalism, multiculturalism, and multimodalism have conspired to transform and ultimately enrich the roles of both teacher and learner. As teachers extend their learning, learners can claim full ownership of their knowledge in the process of teaching it to others. This results in more effective teachers as well as a greater depth of understanding in students. This model of mutual learning can reform the educational system from within and help it to realize maximum benefits for both teachers and learners.



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