The Evolving Role of Teachers as Lifelong Learners: A Deep Dive with Michael B. Horn


Expert teacher Bo Cheli and education disruptor Michael B. Horn take a deep dive into how technology and innovation are forcing the role of the teacher in the classroom, as well as our entire education system, to adapt and transform.

Teachers as Lifelong Learners

Bo: Teachers are no longer the keepers of information. How does that change the students' perspective of teachers? And how do teachers need to evolve as a result?

Michael: As we jump into this era and this question, it's important to say that having knowledge and content mastery as a student is still important because it helps you understand which questions to ask, where to find more information, what are interesting fields of inquiry, and so forth. Content knowledge is also important for critical thinking and to free up space for other aspects that we are increasingly emphasizing in the education system.

What that means from a teacher's perspective is a couple fold. One, it's not only that Google has that knowledge and information, that you are not the only conveyor of that in a classroom. It's also the case that there are a lot of other delivery mechanisms out there. Teachers have made videos of themselves, simulations, and all sorts of things that are out there on the internet. All this software teachers can leverage to bring content to life and deliver it to students.

What that does for you as a teacher is it says I don't have to lesson plan for all 30 students anymore and assume that they are all in the same place in their learning. I can spend a lot of my time adding value on top of the knowledge piece, helping students ask critical questions of the content that they are reading and learning through. Help them analyze in ways that we didn't have time to do before. Facilitate interesting conversations and projects where you quite frankly manipulate the information in interesting ways.

Teacher leading a group discussion

I think what that does for the perspective of the teacher is say the teacher isn't the only central authority figure in the classroom. And a teacher can treat that as a negative, but I think they still must have some content knowledge to drive those interesting questions and so forth. So, you have to have some dexterity but also be able to model what it is to be a lifelong learner, which is to say when a student asks a certain question, you can say ''I don't know, let's go research it and figure it out.''

You're modelling that behavior for students so that they see the teacher as not just an authority figure but much more enriched. We want to model the behavior that we want students to exhibit for the rest of their lives.

Moving Towards Student-Centered Instruction

Bo: That's a great point, and it speaks to our question of how do teachers need to evolve? I would see teachers who were really afraid to evolve and to say they don't know. They were so tied to being the keepers of all information. What is your opinion on why and how that will change? And second, for example in my senior English class, I would say ''Tomorrow we are starting Hamlet, so make sure you come ready.''

Kids would ask what I meant and I would say, ''Well you're all going to dedicate a half hour of your life tonight researching Hamlet. Bring in tomorrow all that you already know about Hamlet from learning on your own.'' Instead of the classic ''into'' activity, I would have them do the research on their own. And I would have one kid research on the author, one kid on the context, etc.

Then we had a conversation about who did the best research and what sites people used and how much time they spent on it, etc. I saw a lot of teachers afraid to let go of that ability to control that information. Do you see that as well?

Michael: I do. I think the biggest challenge is twofold. One, it's giving up control, that's exactly right. And not being afraid of the chaos that will result because that chaos actually produces more learning moments. Secondly, realizing how much that actually empowers you as the teacher to add value. So, you give that prompt to 20 students in your class (you might even now with technology create a basic set of questions for them to do when they first come in). You get immediate results of okay, this student focused on this, five students did this, etc. I'm starting to see the mosaic of what I can bring out.

Based on their answers, you know whether or not they did the work, or maybe they didn't understand the questions. Or they didn't know where to get in. Or they found Hamlet that is not a play but a domicile. Each student needs something very different from you right now.

Teacher researching with students

They need a level of background knowledge that you did not realize they did not have. This approach gives you the ability to personalize, to not only bring in more knowledge and information than you would have covered traditionally, but also being able to personalize for those kids that need a lot more help from you right now.

You can then say instead, ''Okay, I am going to group you 5 kids together to create mini-presentations or question each other about background. I am going to be roaming around but you 2 students over here, I am going to pull you into a quick conversation with me so that I can help scaffold this more for you.''

You might not say it that way, but that is effectively what you are doing. It multiplies the options for what you can do as a teacher and how you choose to add value.

Bo: I like the idea of seeing evaluating the research they did. You can tell which kids are not great at technological research and you can guide them in the right direction.

Michael: Right, and you can start scaffolding them. The next time you have that class you can pull that student aside and give them 3 starting questions to ask when they are getting into the research. The next time they will do better on that task.

Then, the next time you give them a rule of thumb for when they are searching and let them run wild. You can scaffold the experience in different ways based on the information you collect. You can be more personally helpful since you are no longer spending so much time on lesson planning and scripting out x, y, and z.

Teachers Are Mentors, Not Astrologers

Bo: After teaching about 8-9 years, I would essentially stop doing the traditional lesson plan because I wanted room for discovery. I would let the classroom and individuals guide where we go because that chaos produces more organic learning. It was always a struggle, though, regarding the perception from administration or other traditional teachers. They'd be concerned that I didn't have a lesson plan, that I didn't have every 5 or 15 minutes broken down. It seems looked down upon when your class is not completely structured and every minute broken down. What's your take on that?

Michael: I think this is the real tension with policy right now. The education system was effectively modelled on the premise that we are the world's greatest astrologers. You were born in the year of the lamb? Great. On January 16, 2017, every single one of you is going to be doing x.

That's crazy. Every single student brings in different background knowledge. Every student has a different working memory capacity. They have different goals at a certain level, and a range of social emotional learning habits that impact what they should and could be doing at any given time. That assumption of I have to deliver this lesson to get this same result for every single student…That assumption needs to go away if we want to shift the focus of each school on learning for each child.

It's not that we can't be focused on mastery of a certain set of standards for every single student. It's just the time-based element that needs to go away. We need to be focusing on mastery for every single student. From a teacher's perspective that's tough because you are caught in between the modern age making this imminently doable and a system that from a policy perspective is not wanting you to do that.

For me this is where teachers need to come together and get their voices heard about what's possible and what can be possible today in the classroom. What I would say is don't do it from the angle of ''therefore accountability is bad therefore data is bad or therefore standards are bad.'' Because that just alienates a whole constituency that needs to hear teachers but will say, ''Oh that's just teachers getting out of hard work.''

Those things are important, and we can do them far better in a system that allows us to tailor and personalize for each learner, a system that is based on the needs of that individual and group. So, it's actually a higher standard because we want to make sure very single student masters this set of concepts when they leave my classroom at the end of the year.

The Skills Technology Can't Teach

Bo: That's a great point. It's got to be structured in a way where it doesn't look like you don't want to lesson plan or put in the work.

Pivoting a bit, what skills can teachers help students develop that technology cannot?

Michael: I think technology will be really good at teaching knowledge, and I think humans will be really good at answering higher order Bloom's taxonomy questions that computers by their very nature are going to struggle to know how to create an answer. While technology can aid a teacher, having a human evaluator to actually assess and push students will continue to be important.

Teacher guiding students through technology

The other skill sets that teachers will still be necessary for are the social emotional ones. No question can technology help with grit, perseverance, agency, and curiosity, but in the sense that you don't move on until you show mastery on a certain concept. Curiosity can open all various levels of inquiry for you on a computer that you could ever ask for.

By the same token, having a teacher that makes sure you are using technology the right way and putting in the effort and certain things like showing up on time and developing expectations around being fair and representing your work correctly… I think teachers are going to remain uniquely situated for all of that and the emotional connection to learning.

Bo: How big of a role do you feel that who a teacher is as a person and how they are using technology affects their value as a role model?

Michael: If teachers are modelling a lifelong learning capacity, that should be exciting to any student as well. This year, students, I am trying out a new arrangement that I learned from an online course, or I just did a deep dive excursion in Greece and got a ton of insights on x, so we are going to bring this stuff into our lessons so that you can experience what I did….

Basically, you're letting them in behind the black curtain. Seeing your teachers as learners who are continually honing their craft I think is both exciting and puts students on level with professionals, as both groups are always learning and improving. That inspiration and modelling role of how to be both a teacher and a learner is exciting.

Bo: That brings up a lot of memories of when I went to high school. My favorite and best teachers were the ones I viewed as inspirational learners themselves. They wanted to learn more, so I wanted to learn more.

Michael: Computers may be able to intuit the limits of one's ability and adjust accordingly, but teachers can be really effective at finding that button for each student that turns them on. Imagine a teacher saying, ''Wow, you just brought up a good point, that's so cool. Let's set up a research project for you.'' There's so much value in having a teacher invest in you as a co-learner. I think that's pretty cool.

Staying Agile in the Classroom

Bo: Sure, and one reason I didn't like to teach to a strict lesson plan is because I wanted that freedom in the classroom to follow an interesting idea from a student and then have that analytical conversation that brought it back to the topic at hand. Would you say that the ability to teach impromptu in a sense where you can pivot according to students' interest and level of understanding is essential?

Michael: You need a certain level of content knowledge, fluency, and comfort to be able to pivot that way. LeBron James can't create magic on the court without having the fundamentals. There is a progression, so having that fundamental content knowledge, even if you don't know every answer… You still must be enough of an expert for those times when a student starts spouting off ideas. Your alarm bells need to go off as you're thinking about if this is a productive line of inquiry. You may not know the best study to explain the answer, but you know the next question to ask or to explore to be a good guide for that student. So yes, the ability to freelance is really important.

Bo: And the comfort piece is essential too. It wasn't until years 7 or 8 that I was able to teach that way. I remember a group of new teachers trying to replicate what I was doing in my classroom, and it was coming with disastrous effects. They were very knowledgeable, but the comfort level wasn't there. So there's a whole discussion there of how do teachers evolve over their career. Going back to the LeBron James analogy, after a few years playing, his greatness grows exponentially.

Michael: I think that's right. A lot of people in education make the mistake of assuming novice teachers can model expert teachers easily and quickly. What the research shows is that there are four stages. There's unknowing novice, like you don't know what you don't know, and you don't know a lot. Then there's knowing novice, where you know what you don't know, and you know you don't know a lot.

Then there's knowing expert. You're starting to know a lot, but you're still pretty ''paint by numbers about it.'' You're very tethered to the game plan, but you're becoming an expert. Then there's the fourth level, which is unknowing expert. It's this notion that the biggest experts in the field have automated in their heads 75% of what they do and the basis for it. It's so basic to them now that they can't even explain it. It's so secondhand.

In some ways, what I think this calls for in teaching is to eliminate the classroom model as we've known it and move more into team teaching models where you are pairing those expert teachers with novice teachers in novel ways. That way they can build their skill sets without students getting shortchanged while they are doing so.

Bo: That's spot on. I think the way that classrooms are set up today, they will take the brand new novice teacher and tell them to observe the expert, then replicate in their own classroom. The team teaching model is more about growing and learning together.

Team teaching

Michael: That's a great example you gave. A teacher observing you could try to mimic that, but the moment a student has a different answer to what they researched on Shakespeare, the moment it's going to ping pong in a totally different direction…it's going to go disastrously because they don't have the strategies built up to respond.

Mimicking step by step is not what they need. They need a scaffolded experience where they are teaching with you. You could then say, ''Okay, here is where I would transition to more of a macro level, and I don't know exactly when that will happen, but here are some clues.'' And the novice teacher will say, ''How the heck did you know to do that?'' You explain how you started to feel the energy lack a little bit, and so on and so forth. That's the end of this inquiry… 5 years later that teacher will know that from experience, but being around you and doing it is most helpful.

Teacher as Unknowing Expert

Bo: The idea of the unknowing expert that you brought I think is a really profound point to discuss in teaching. My greatest influence is my father, who taught for over 40 years. He never once taught me how to teach, but he did bring me to his classroom 3-4 times a year all the way from kindergarten to college. So, when I became a teacher, I had witnessed it for 20 years, but I never once had a conversation that was like Dad, how do you do this? When new teachers would ask me how I created or did something, I would say, ''I don't know, come watch!''

Now, I want to pose a scenario where a kid asks an unknowing expert teacher a question. The teacher has a solid content base and would normally know the answer. They've proven that they know a lot of what they need to know to be their teacher. They've earned the student's respect. But the student asks a question and the teacher doesn't know. The teacher then says, ''Let me check.'' They pull out their phone, go to Google, and do their search. They give the kid the answer without saying anything more. What's your take on that? Would you say that's an effective use of technology in today's classroom?

Michael: For me, I would want more of the teacher posing the question back to the student and have them do the work. It does depend on the context. But being able to say ''I don't know'' is important. And then being able to ask, ''How would we find that together?''

Then, maybe the teacher even asks the question back to the student. That way, the student is the one who becomes the agent. They are doing the work of finding out the answer, and then they can teach it back to the teacher after they've found out. Now, the student is put in the position of not only looking it up but internalizing it enough to teach it back to the teacher.

Even further, the teacher can say ''Whoa I don't understand something. How did we go from A to B and B to D?'' That student then can answer the question and prove their mastery, or they think oh boy, I don't think I fully get this yet. Let me go back and do a little more research.

Bo: Any final thoughts on the future role of the teacher in the classroom?

Michael: I would say that you can also imagine as team teaching becomes more and more prevalent, teacher specialize more in different areas. So, you have your data geeks who mine data and figure out what the different gaps are that students have and how to most effectively work with them. You have the teacher who loves student projects and setting up questions and facilitating students working effectively in teams. You have the teacher who loves facilitating small, Socratic discussions and freewheeling. And you have the teacher who loves tutoring students individually.

I think you can imagine a lot more of those specializations in lots of different ways that aren't simply subject-matter oriented becoming more possible in the future. And I think that could become really exciting for teachers who love 60% of their job and would be really really happy if I could get rid of x, y, and z. I think that could open up and be possible in the future.

About Michael B. Horn

Michael B. Horn is an expert on innovation in education. He is the author and coauthor of several books, white papers, and articles focusing on online learning, blended learning, and student-centered education. Horn with works with various organizations and boards to advance the future of education and improve the life of all students.

By Meghan Cooney
January 2017

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