What is the role of the teacher within the 21st century classroom?

This paper was presented in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the online Certificate in Teaching offered by the Institute for the Advancement of Teaching in Higher Education (IATHE -- January - April, 2007).

The exact nature of the teacher’s role in the 21st century clasroom will depens upon many factors. These include, amongst others:

(1) the amount of teaching experience which the instructor has;

(2) the level at which the teacher teaches;

(3) the role of teaching within the university;

(4) the level and size of the class;

(5) the type of instruction which the teacher wishes to employ; for example, the transfer of professional and material content versus the transformational development of the individual learner;

(6) the relationship which the teacher wishes to establish between teacher and taught;

(7) the availability, reliability, and quality of IT equipment and the teacher’s familiarity and expertise with said equipment;

(8) the amount of freedom allowed to the teacher in the choice of in class teaching methods and materials.

The above are just some basic considerations. In addition, it is essential to consider the differences between a formal lecture course, a participatory course, a laboratory course, a hands-on interactive course, a one on one or small group teaching course, a content driven course, a course driven by group work and communication, a course centered on problem based learning, and any other type of innovative teaching theory which follows the pendulum as it swings between strict structure on the one hand and chaos theory on the other. Other aspects of teaching to consider include the availability of technology, WebCT courses, online courses, distance courses, courses with a text, courses without a text, self-designed courses, and student designed courses. Each one of the above considerations clearly demands that the teacher be flexible and play a different role according to the varying circumstances.

It should be immediately obvious that there is an enormous difference between the teacher’s role in an online WebCT course and the same teacher’s role in a communicative grammar course (beginners -- intermediate -- or advanced) or yet again in a specialized honours research seminar or a graduate course in a master’s or doctoral program. Clearly, for both teacher and taught, one size can no longer fit all, for our university classrooms are no longer filled with a select elite representing perhaps 2% of the high school graduating class, but rather with a figure much closer to the 30% or 40% level. This accounts for the multitude of possible answers to the initial question. In fact, this also suggests that teachers need a great deal of awareness about the various ways in which material can be delivered for, as reception theory teaches, there are as many learning styles as there are teaching styles and the reduction of education to a single process is no longer the best way to set about the problem of delivering a subject to a group of multi-talented and multi-tasking learners.

The question, however, clearly delineates a time, space, and place for teaching: in the classroom. That said, the nature of teaching and learning is changing enormously. Thanks to the computer and to the widespread and explosive distribution of factual knowledge, it is necessary to ask whether knowledge and teaching should be limited to the classroom. Rephrased, where do learners acquire their knowledge and, by extension, what knowledge do they acquire? When asked “What do you teach?” I often reply that I do not know. Antonio Machado, perhaps Spain’s greatest twentieth century poet, wrote that “the eye you see is not an eye because you see it, it is an eye because it sees you.” When students sit in class and listen, we can no longer be certain that what we say is what they hear; we do not know how they interpret what they hear; nor how and why what we teach changes them, if in fact it does. Does what they learn stay in the classroom, only to be brought out at examination time? Or does it move outside the classroom and operate in the real world outside the classroom walls? Do we, as teachers, transfer only material knowledge? Or do we transfer thought processes, analytical and critical systems, ways of speaking and looking, of reading and writing that reach out to our students, embracing them, and extending their interests beyond the classroom and out into the real world beyond academia?

Personally, I am a great believer in involving students at all levels not only with the design of the course, but also with the assessment procedures to be used in the course. In my opinion, students must know what they are being taught and why this particular set of lessons is both important and relevant to them at this stage of their learning process. I think of each of my classes as a lived experience shared by teacher and taught; I hope one of my classes will never be just another 3 or 6 points in the accumulation of the 120 points needed to graduate. Each course taken from me should reach beyond the classroom walls and contribute to the individual’s development.

I also believe that teachers can sometimes get in the way of this deeper learning process and must therefore be capable of playing a leadership role when necessary and of standing back when the students are obviously doing well on their own without a teacher. At the undergraduate level, I start this style of teaching in first year and by fourth year students are used to it and welcome it. I therefore make the assumption that after the students and I agree upon what should be taught and how it should both be taught and assessed, we are ready for 3 months of self-development and integration of knowledge with maximum student participation.

At this stage, from day one, my role as teacher is assigned to me in cooperation with the particular group of students that I am teaching. No two courses are ever the same, even when I teach the same course number twice in separate timeslots. This means that I no longer teach a set selection of material; rather, I teach a specific group of people in a way that is specific to them as a group. Now: if the students wish me to change my role, I can do so. I can do so at the beginning of the course, or I can do so at one of the in course scheduled SGIDS or course progress discussion sessions. This means that if I have not read the group correctly or if they have over- or under- estimated themselves, we can stop, have a rethink, and move forward again. It also means that if they want a lecture class I can give one; if they want a role playing session, or group discussions, or a full class debate, I can organize these options. Flexibility and knowledge: these are the key elements in this style of teaching. Know yourself; know your students; know your own limitations; and, above all, know your subject as well as you can and preferably inside out.

In the multiple model I have outlined above, the students must, and do, take responsibility for their own learning. The teacher’s role is to observe and to assist when necessary or when asked to do so. In this model, too, the role of the teacher is to be able to interact one on one with each student. This demands small group teaching, even within a larger class. It demands individual contact. It demands assessment that is formative and allows the student to develop rather than assessment which is normative and reduces the student to a point on a fixed, numbered scale.

So, in my opinion, the teacher of the 21st century must be a chameleon, an actor, an invisible man or woman, a shape changer who can react to each situation and respond to each moment and to each individual student. With teaching like this, there is never a dull moment, in class or out of it.

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