At a session at Podcamp NYC on Education and the Web, Chris Hambly spoke about teachers becoming “Guides on the Side” rather than simply talking heads in the front of a room. This neatly summed up something I have been thinking about for some time, which is how we integrate concepts like project-based learning into k-12 classrooms in a meaningful way.

I remember tons of times as a student, both in high school and in college, where the sharing of knowledge did not seem to be the main objective in the classroom. Many times, in fact, there seemed to be a goal of hiding or obfuscating the actual knowledge for reasons I cannot fully grasp. I’ve heard stories from colleagues who do training in the public school system of closets full of brand new textbooks that administrators and teachers won’t let students use, for fear that they’ll damage the book. Yet the books do no student any good at all, sitting unused on a shelf, unopened and unexplored.

How can we get teachers away from the concept of being Gatekeepers to Knowledge but instead to be Knowledge Evangelists?

This is a central question when we look at education reform. Are teachers in the classroom facilitating learning, or trying to create filters and obstacle courses to separate students out across the bell-shaped curve? Do we really want all students to succeed, or is the acquisition of knowledge actually some type of competition where some students will win and others must lose? Why must school be a zero-sum game? Why can’t there be a long-tail for education the same was there is a long tail for commerce- where everyone may not be a superstar, but the majority of people do quite well and succeed as their talent and interests allow?

I really want to know why we look at learning and “getting it” as some magic secret formula, requiring an initiation rite before you can qualify to enter the hallowed halls?

Of course, there are many excellent teachers, and I have had my share of truly gifted teachers, who are excited about the topic they teach and infect students with this same enthusiasm. It’s not uncommon for an undergraduate to enter school, thinking they may want a business degree, for example, but the sociology or anthropology course they took by one of these wild-eyed Knowledge Evangelists totally changed the direction of their lives. That one course, that one unexpected subject and gifted teacher turns on the light in the brain of a student and the world can change in an instant- that is the magic of teaching.

Unfortunately, too many teachers seem beaten down by repetition, administration, and the business aspects of teaching, rather than the joy of being on-stage with a captive audience you can excite and bend to your will. I never liked the teacher who approached their course as if to say “I am smarter than you and let me prove it” or those who came in as if to say “I will separate the wheat from the chaffe here, and whether you will succeed or fail in life will be determined by whether or not you are able to please me.” Yes, this is painting with a broad brush to be sure, but haven’t we all had at least one of these teachers over the years, whether in formal education, or even in a job environment?

I don’t think we can make meaningful change in education without convincing teachers that sharing knowledge and making people excited about it is key.  This is also central to preventing teacher burn-out (happening at record rates here in the US).

Where do we start to make this real, however, than just more hot air?  Being an evangelist for educational change is fine, but if we can’t get people to carry the message and transmit it into meaningful change in the classroom, it’s all just more hot air.  So you have any ideas for concrete steps we can make toward this change?  Or is it really all about the talk, since the fundamental issue here is a cultural change, a non-economic cost attitudinal change?  How can we spread the message and help it take root?

Please share your thoughts here!