Teacher as co-learner and other arguments about knowledge

“There are times in life when the question of knowing if one can think differently than one thinks and perceive differently than one sees is absolutely necessary if one is to go on looking and reflecting at all” M Foucault

In my line of work (my day job) i am involved with education and it’s relationship with technology. This work sees me in schools, universities and other places of institutionalised learning operating as a consultant, assisting them to come to grips with the challenges technology is posing to existing structures and it’s potential to change the way we teach and learn. The core of my work is centred in epistemology – the study of knowledge – and its relationship with the internet. When I present I often speak of what knowledge is, where it resides, and what are the implications for teacher practice.  I often get some very strong reactions from teachers. My opening statement generally goes along the lines of, “knowledge never reside in the individual, it resides in the network.”

By this I mean that knowledge is not a tangible thing that can be transfered from one individual to another, in fact knowledge resides in the relationships, it is built up within the  discourse (language or practice). While objects might physically exists outside of these discourses any attempt to make sense of them is through discourse which is socially developed. Yet our education system with its practices related to curriculum and assessment of the individual, amongst other things, so often reflects a lack of understanding of this thinking. Many of you are familiar with the phrase ‘teacher as facilitator rather than teacher as expert’. When we talk of ‘teachers as facilitators’ (or even co-learners) not as experts we are talking in this area, we are demonstrating an understanding and belief of learning that is framed within a participatory culture. By enabling that we are acknowledging that it is only through participation in the networks that any connection with knowledge is able to happen. While the term and concept of “teacher as facilitator rather than expert”  is a concept that is familiar to many of us, it is still something extremely difficult to do and I see very little evidence of it being enacted  within many of classrooms. I often think that it is to hard to make this change because of the predetermined sense of identity built up by the discourse of the institutions that govern the concept of a “teacher/student” Below is a very typical argument a teacher will throw at me at conferences, or online, or during PD sessions when I start to talk about such matters. I am making no judgement of the argument because it took me a long time to understand this fairly abstract concept, and argument is a form of active participation in the discourse. This discussion took place on a friend of mines Google + account and I have added the screen shots.

A teachers response to a bog post I had written
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My reply

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His reply to meScreen Shot 2014-07-28 at 9.10.02 am My replyScreen Shot 2014-07-28 at 9.10.17 am Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 9.10.30 amUnfortunately he never responded. As educators I think It is paramount that we talk about these ideas, isn’t the concept of knowledge development central to our role? Furthermore the conclusions we collectively reach will have huge implications for how we do this thing called “teaching”.

What do you think?

Is technology becoming an impediment to your lessons?

My role as Head of PD at New Era has given me the opportunity to visit many schools around Australia and work with many of the key stakeholders in schools including students, teachers, leadership/administrators to parents. I have also had the opportunity to work across all the sectors.

While each school is unique, having there own particular needs and cultural beliefs that drive their community, there are still some common similarities that can be found in all of them. Interestingly enough this is becoming more and more so considering the rapid globalisation of our world leading to obvious gentrification.

My observations of almost all schools have identified some key issues when it comes to technology and the problems it creates as well as the changes it demands within classrooms.

The first and most obvious issue is the reluctance of many educators to take it up in almost any form. In fact this is so prevalent that there are still significant amount of teachers who not only struggle but also refuse to participate in conversation via email.

When facing this issue I show them a photo I recently took of my son. I have included it here with his permission.

KalaniThis was a photo taken in our lounge room and when properly deconstructed actually says a lot about the generation of students we are teaching and why so many of them might be disengaging from the type of learning that they are required to participate in during school hours and as part of homework assignments.

If we look at the photo the first thing we notice is that he is on multiple devices – at the same time, but more than that he is on a variety of different devices with different operating systems. And he is using them with a sense of personal control – he is not using the TV to watch TV but rather it is merely a screen connecting to where he wants to connect. He is not particularly concerned about the type of device but is comfortable in switching, or even using them at the same time. In my opinion teaching the device is a wasted teaching session.

Secondly it needs to be noticed what he is actually doing with each device. The most interesting thing for me is that each device is connected to the Internet and each device is “pushing out”. He is looking to make connections with other humans. So often I hear teachers rebut the rapid encroachment of technology with the argument that it is taking away the human element. This would appear to be contradictory to the reality that in fact it is increasing the human element, it is just how we are connecting that is changing.

My son is pushing out to “the network” with each device. One is via a Google Doc, one is via a game, his IPhone constantly connects to large networks through the browser or applications such as Kick, he has a pair of headphones on talking to multiple users, he might be connecting to networks via YouTube to learn more about things he is interested in. Not only does he have these devices pushing out to passively connect he is actually looking to become part of the conversation, share his own learning, find diversity of opinion. He creates his own Youtube channels around subject areas he is interested in, he writes blogs around things he is interested in, he uploads films and animations he has made to networks of kids also making films and animations in similar genres. Each of those connections is looking to connect with people to communicate, collaborate, ask questions, investigate and learn. He is in a constant state of learning in the new environments, which is made available to him via the Internet.

If this isn’t represented in the schooling environments that our students attend then you can naturally see a confusion arising in the students leading to frustration, leading to a disconnection.

If our students are merely required to read slabs of text on subjects such as Genghis Khan with no personal application and connection to the students actual life and then asked to answer the questions on their reading from the back of the book , how does that at all reflect the learning styles and environments that they are accustomed to working in in their “real” lives?

How we connect, who we can connect to and how that can transform learning is a very interesting issue that needs to be closely iinvestigated by all of us as educators. When I talk about technology I am mainly talking about the internet because I think the internet is the most powerful metaphor we have to demonstrate that learning is social and is collectively done. It is not done in isolation and it is much more than one-way information transferal.

Education has always been evolutionary, as we as humans are evolutionary constantly in a state of change. It is just that right now the evolutionary change is happening at such a fast pace that it is creating a natural sense of fear. Fear often leads to resentment and anger and a lashing out at the change agents. There is great fear in educators about technology.

How can we reduce this and assist in this rapidly changing face of education to provide a more relevant environment for our students but also help current teachers to transform and still maintain a sence of identity and personal confidence.

My answer is always place the technology change back in the place of learning and teaching – stop talking about the technology, stop PDing teachers up in endless software, stop “Skilling” them up and start allowing them to return to what the love – learning and teaching. It is a big statement but its deliberately big and deliberately provocative because the conversation needs to change. This also doesn’t mean that at some stage you wont need to “skill up” in a tool but isn’t that the lowest form of teaching – the part you should spend 5 minutes of your lesson on and then allow for deep inquiry. Do we really believe this?

So lets look at a few simple pedagogical issues, which I believe are relevant to all learning and see where technology is changing the way we can approach them.

Content – information transferral of content in my mind is not how learning occurs on any significant level. It is also the very start of our journey into the benefits of technology but it is at least it is a place to start. How did we deal with content in a time when we did not have the Internet? We found the content in books, or potentially in whatever information the teacher had, or maybe we would ask the other students in the class, potentially we would bring in an subject area expert once a term or we would go for an excursion. The Internet has opened this up in unfathomable ways. If all content resides online what are the advantages and potential pitfalls to deal with. Well, the content is more likely to be up to date, relevant, a greater and more diverse range of ideas and opinions are able to be accessed providing for a truer picture around subject areas. This allows for greater questioning and debate amongst the students themselves about the “trueness” of fact based reductive education. It allows for real time accessibility into content, thus not slowing the learning process – every time a child has a question and is forced to wait because they are solely relying on one teacher the learning is potentially slowing. The experts the child can now access are greater in number. Once again they are not waiting until the expert shows up at school but rather they can find the relevant experts relevant to wherever they are up to in their learning journey. This is hinting at more autonomy for the students themselves, they are self-directing their own learning.

Feedback/Reflection/Visible Learning – Feedback has always been a key concept that assists in the learning process. Timely and relevant feedback is very important. Teachers practicing without technology reflect as best they can but the reflection potentially has limitations.

Lets look at an example – the written essay. If a child presents work in essay form it is likely to be read by the teacher when he or she has time, marked and graded (providing reflection for the child). This takes time in a busy teachers life. Lets suppose the student receives the essay back in two weeks. Is this an example of timely feedback enabling the greatest possible learning? Perhaps not, Generally speaking the student is highly likely to have lost interest and the impact of the feedback will be lessoned.

Further more this feedback is limited to the reflection of only one person – the teacher. Now that teacher might be extremely knowledgeable but they are still not going to be more knowledgeable than the group – or network.

What if we opened up the feedback cycle and allowed for reflection/feedback by the network?


This refers to visible learning provided by technology. Through tools such as WIKIS, Blogs, Nings, Google Apps etc. the students full learning cycle can be made visible to all, it becomes transparent. By doing this many people can now become involved with the students learning and actively participate in it by providing feedback (think back to how my son was attempting to learn through his YouTube channel.) Now the feedback can become instantaneous – upload something and spread the word and I’m sure you will get lots of comments. It can become more powerful because of the diversity of the feedback – the network is now providing it. Remember the power of the network is always greater than the individual. Beyond that it allows for the student to comment back – they are no longer merely passively receiving feedback, they can instantly reply with a question or even reply with a better explanation of what they might have been attempting in the first place. To often I have seen poor feedback provided by a singular teacher merely because of the pressure to provide it with the proper time allowed to fully understand the child motivation.

Now once again the child is given some autonomy and is empowered to become more actively involved in the process of looking for appropriate feedback. This can can further the learning – the journey isn’t over once the essay has been handed in. In fact that child can take the feedback, learn, recreate and re upload in order to continue the learning process.

Visible or transparent learning provided by the internet also allows for students to feedback into each others work – thus allowing them to find identity as a teacher themselves. This is a role that all humans actually participate in. It is only through our reductive labelling of teacher and student that we have deprived students of their natural state to participate in this experience of teaching. Now they will naturally take this back and participate because the tools (the internet) has allowed them a way back. It is empowering for a student to feedback into another students work and should totally be encouraged –it is the natural process of learning and teaching collectively as humans. This is were all the conversation around the changing titles and roles of teachers sits – from experts at the front to facilitators to what I like to call co-learners. The Internet is driving this realignment of roles because as I have said previously it is a great metaphor for “social learning” – how we have always learnt best as humans. It is breaking down the hierarchical structures we have imposed on reality through the labelling of the participants as teachers and students. This top down hierarchy reflects nothing of the true process of learning.

There are many more interesting pedagogical issues to think about when talking about technology that I am convinced will make it far more interesting to educators than merely teaching them another “tool” or another piece of software.

By doing so it enables them to return to the conversation, it removes the fear, it removes the power from the IT guy and it will help us continue to evolve our practice and systems to be one that totally engages students in how they learn, totally empowers them to take ownership of their learning journey and totally frees them to love learning.