Monday, July 16, 2012

Time-traveling teachers

Seymour Papert begins his book The Children's Machine with this thought experiment:
Imagine a party of time travellers from an earlier century, among them one group of surgeons and another of school teachers, each group eager to see how much things have changed in their profession a hundred or more years into the future. Imagine the bewilderment of the surgeons find themselves in the operating room of a modern hospital. Although they would know that an operation of some sort was being performed, and might even be to guess at the target organ, they would in almost all cases be unable to figure out what the surgeon was trying to accomplish or what was the purpose of the many strange devices he and the surgical staff were employing. The rituals of antisepsis and anesthesia, the beeping electronics, and even the bright lights, all so familiar to television audiences, would be utterly unfamiliar to them.  
The time-traveling teachers would respond very differently to a modern elementary school classroom. They might be puzzled by a few strange objects. They might notice that some standard techniques had changed -- and would likely disagree among themselves about whether the changes they saw were for the better or the worse -- but they would fully see the point of most of what was being attempted and could quite easily take over the class. I use this parable to provide a rough-and-ready measure of unevenness of progress across the board front of historical change. In the wake of the startling growth of science and technology in our recent past, some areas of human activity have undergone megachange. Telecommunications, entertainment, and transportation, as well as medicine, are among them. School is a notable example of an area that has not. One cannot say that there has been no change at all in the way we dish out education to our students. Of course there has; the parable gives me a way of pointing out what most of us know about our system of schooling: Yes, it has changed, but not in ways that have substantially altered its nature. The parable sets up the question: Why through a period when so much human activity has been revolutionized, have we not seen comparable change in the way we help our children learn?


  1. Excellent comparison that hopefully causes most educators to think. It's thoughts like this that have caused me to embrace the Flipped Classroom idea. Not the issuing of videos for homework as the main difference but the flipping of Blooms and the inquiry approach. Now my classroom is a noisy place of discovery and differentiation. Students are on Google, taking virtual field trips, Skyping collaboration partners from Foreign lands and utilizing online games to reinforce and extend learning. They would notice that the "teacher" is as much a learner as the kids and rarely stands at the front to lecture. My mark book has been replaced with portfolios and anecdotal comments that encourage students to explore further.
    Hopefully these and other changes would cause a little head shaking among our time travellers. However, after 26 years of teaching I only realize I have so much more to learn in personalizing education.
    Rick McCleary

  2. Changes in technology that make access to information available to all is a more compelling argument for constructivist education but we must not forget that John Dewey wrote his ideas a hundred years ago , and the educational approach encouraging kids to ask questions and learning in pairs talking , rather than passively listening to a teacher is a Jewish tradition of thousands of years. Good pedagogy is good irrespective of time , bad pedagogy seems to get worse over time


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