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Is it appropriate for teachers to determine how students learn best?

October 25, 2012

If you listen hard enough to discussions about online learning or digital technology in the classroom, you’ll find significant philosophical differences underlying the different positions. In my recent interview on BAM radio about digital devices in the classroom, one of the women offering counter points to my argument was Lisa Nielsen, a popular blogger at “The Innovative Blogger” who wrote the book Teaching Generation Text.  In the interview, Lisa made three statements that seem small, but really bring to light major differences in our teaching philosophies. I’m going to write three separate blog posts responding to each of these statements. Here’s the first:

Lisa: “The student owns the learning, and I don’t really think it’s appropriate for the teacher to determine how they learn best.”

I understand the sentiment behind this statement. Like Lisa, I want to give my students as much agency as possible. In one of my favorite books about teaching writing (The 9 Rights of Every Writer), Vicki Spandel promotes giving students the right to choose their own topics, to go “off topic,” to write badly, and to find their own voice. I agree with Vicki – that’s the way I teach – so it might seem that I’m aligned with Lisa’s statement above. But nothing could be further from the truth.

In granting students these rights, I am the one determining the best path for their learning. I am not leaving them to their own devices (nice pun). I am the expert on what it takes for my students to flourish as writers. Every teacher believes this or she wouldn’t be teaching, but some are compelled to tortured posturing about what it means to be a teacher because they stumble over the idea of authority based on knowledge.

I understand and respect the inclination to deconstruct the old broken-down hierarchical paradigms, but in the end I believe in the authority of the teacher. When I was in high school, history books offered “benevolent dictatorship” as a type of government. I don’t know if they still teach that (or if there is such a government), but that’s a pretty good description of what I am in my classroom: a benevolent dictator. And I think every teacher operates as the head honcho in his or her classroom (benevolent or not); it’s just that some are more comfortable with it than others. I’ll admit that some are TOO comfortable with it; they keep students under their thumbs, ruling them with fear. My pedagogy is much closer to Lisa’s than to those tyrants, but my difference with the tyrants is more about attitude toward students than belief about authority.

I don’t want to get overly bogged down wrestling with the drastic sociopolitical shifts regarding the concepts of authority or leadership (thus exposing my limited knowledge on the subject), but these shifts are huge in education discourse. Whittling it down to a simple question, I ask: have we decided that students know better what they need than teachers? If so, I obviously wasn’t in on the decision. Neither were most of the teachers or parents I know. So when someone says we need to let students go through class with their beloved digital companions in their hands because the students think they can learn better that way, I say BS. For one thing, that’s not what students tell me – it’s certainly debatable that students feel that way. But even if they did say that, there is the distinct possibility that they’re wrong.

If this makes me sound like a Neanderthal, then so be it. I am comfortable with my role in my students’ learning as leader/ coach/ authority. As a matter of fact, I think people everywhere yearn for effective, inspirational leadership. That’s a huge part of why folks pay huge sums of money to go to college, why they join places of worship, why they vote, play team sports, watch Oprah, and go on “The Biggest Loser.” I know I’m not a perfect teacher, or a perfect dad for that matter, but I’m not going to minimize or abandon my responsibility to make decisions for those under my charge. They desire and deserve better than that.


Here are the other two statements by Lisa I’ll be responding to in future blog posts:

“We really need to educate and empower those who are in instructing our 21st century students, so that they are engaging with the tools and resources that exist today and that we’re not leaving them as prisoners to our teachers’ pasts.”

“I’m someone who is really engaged when I use my mobile device to take notes, to take pictures, to engage with the world and bring experts from around the world into the discussions I’m having in the classroom.”


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  1. Doc permalink

    I agree that students need to take as much responsibility as possible for their own learning, which I assume is the point of the criticism you received. But it’s also true that the teacher needs to bring some value to the teacher-student interaction, and part of that value must be the sum of the teacher’s experiences in helping students learn how to determine how best they learn. The fact that students like to have constant connection to the internet or to texting friends is not totally irrelevant, but it certainly is not (or should not be) the major determinant in assessing how best they actually learn (as opposed to how they like to be entertained).

  2. I think I agree with you. I interact with Lisa on Twitter occasionally. She seems to want what’s best for students and she wants them to have control over their learning which is fantastic. However, what kids know and what kids think aren’t always the same thing.

    Students should have some input and control over what they learn. They should reflect and try to discover what works for them and what does not. However, they’re still kids. They need a teacher to help them navigate through their learning…to show them what they need to know vs what they think they need to know.

  3. If this makes you sound like a Neanderthal, then I will join you in sounding like a Neanderthal. If teachers do not have authority and know something more and better than their students know it, andn if students cannot trust in that authentic authority, then we might as well do away with the very words and concepts of teacher and student.

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