Could you learn in the ‘classroom of the future’?


(image from Atlantic magazine)

Which metaphor best describes the way you learn?

  1. Your mind is an empty vessel. A teacher pours in new knowledge to fill you up.
  2. Your mind is fertile soil. A teacher plants a seed, and the interaction of the seed, nutrients and water — with careful tending — creates new knowledge.

Option #1 — the “empty vessel” theory of teaching and learning — has been thoroughly discredited by brain research (see this NRC report). Still, “empty vessel” assumptions infuse our conversations about education technology. We need to start questioning them.

I was struck by the futurists’ ignorance about how we learn when I recently read David Monk’s 1989 article, “The Education Production Function.” Monk, now dean of the Penn State College of Education, was a Cornell professor when he posed the question:

“Can we substitute technology for the subject matter expertise of the teacher?”

1989 was a long time ago, but the idea that videos can replace teachers has gained traction as technology has developed. If you want to read a current example, check out Michael Godsey’s article, “The Deconstruction of the K-12 teacher,” published in Atlantic magazine in March of this year.

Godsey predicts a future classroom with “techs,” rather than teachers, who merely facilitate students’ learning from “large, fantastic computer screens” playing lessons by “super-teachers.”

His evidence? Well, most professional development today focuses on technology, and lots of people watch TED Talks and Khan Academy videos. He also cites the transition of teachers from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side,” as if guiding students “on the side” required no subject-matter knowledge.

Let’s consider his proposition: We can teach students by showing them Khan Academy videos. They will absorb the information – like vessels – and the teachers will monitor the technology and collect test scores.

Now let’s compare that to Elizabeth Greene’s description of how teaching actually works, in her fascinating book, Building a Better Teacher, published in 2014.

According to Greene, who has researched effective pedagogy rather than daydreaming about technology, teaching does require substantial subject matter knowledge.

Greene describes a gifted teacher, Deborah Ball, who is able to anticipate and analyze student mistakes and artfully guide students to learning. Ball developed something called Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching, which Greene describes this way:

“Mathematicians need to understand a problem only for themselves; math teachers need both to know the math and to know how 30 different minds might understand (or misunderstand) it. Then they need to take each mind from not getting it to mastery. And they need to do this in 45 minutes or less.”

It’s hard to read Greene’s description of Ball’s classroom interactions and imagine her replaced by a video. It’s just as hard to imagine Ball working her own magic through video, as gifted as she is. Her teaching is more a reaction to her specific students than action or prepared lecture.

The bottom line: Godsey and Greene can’t both be right. Knowledge is either imparted – in which case the high-tech classroom of the future is possible — or constructed, in which case we need very skilled teachers who can help individual children develop understanding.

I believe in Greene’s version, that knowledge is constructed during the interaction of student and teacher. Sometimes I wish I could impart knowledge and watch instant mastery, but students often don’t get it when I explain a new concept – even if I show video of a “great” teacher explaining the concept.

I see learning happen when a student starts to wrestle with a concept on their own, when they start to formulate their own questions, make mistakes, and ask more questions. I see learning happen when students try to solve problems and can’t – and they send me emails of frustration at 1 a.m., hoping I will be able to identify the misstep and help them. I don’t know how Godsey’s high-tech classroom or lowly tech could make that happen.

But maybe you are not convinced. Certainly, plenty of people are eager to test out the high-tech classroom idea and save money on training subject experts.

Here is an idea. Watch this Khan Academy video, which does a great job explaining the basic financial math concept of time value of money. Then see if you have learned the material well enough to correctly answer this basic question (which I ask my 9th graders after similar instruction):

Which of the following is the minimum amount you would have to receive 3 years from now for it to be at least equivalent to receiving $1000 today, assuming the interest rate is 4.5%

  1. $1091
  2. $1145
  3. $1135
  4. $2222

Now check your answer at the bottom of this post… Did it work? Did you learn?

Maybe you did — congrats! — but most people don’t get it right at first. They have to work through multiple problems like this and wrestle with the concept before they can correctly, consistently apply it.

In the classroom of the future, who would be there to help them? I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

(Answer: $1145)