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Teaching in a Disintermediated World

July 26th, 2009 jhagen

In his recent post “Cutting out the Middleman“, Chris Betcher asks, “Who are the educational middlemen?” In other words, who faces the chop if disintermediation affects education as it has other industries? I have a few thoughts on this subject that I’ll share here.

In about 2000 I attended a presentation by Alan November in which he forecast some dramatic changes in education. Teachers found this confronting until Alan clarified that he believed that the information revolution would create a need for more teachers, not less. How do we reconcile this prediction with the disintermediation trend?

As Daniel Pink explains in “A Whole New Mind“, disintermediation is the inevitable consequence when something can be done faster by a computer or cheaper by someone else. Processes, not people, are disintermediated although it wouldn’t feel that way to those who have lost their jobs. So the better question is “what processes in education can be disintermediated?”

In “Redefining Teaching in a Disintermediated World“, David Thornburg answered this question (in 1996!) this way: “From the standpoint of ‘information delivery’ educators are tremendously outpaced by the combined horsepower of television and the Web…schools must quickly yield their role as the primary providers of content.” If that is all that a teacher can do then Thornburg declares, “Any teacher that can be replaced by technology deserves to be.” He goes on to say “Before we toss schools [and by implication, teachers] onto the scrap heap of history as yet another casualty in the disintermediation onslaught, we need to revisit the only safeguard available: value-added.” Thornburg finds the key to redefining the role of educators in a poem on the loss of spirituality called The Rock by T. S. Eliot that begins this way:

Where is the life we’ve lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we’ve lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we’ve lost in information?

Thornburg’s elegant insight is this: “The task of educators (and schools) becomes that of running Eliot’s words backward. It is human beings in the form of passionate teachers who help students find the knowledge we’ve lost in information; who help us find the wisdom we’ve lost in knowledge; and who, most importantly of all, who help us find the life we’ve lost in living.”

Isn’t it interesting that even experts continue to recognise the added-value of a teacher? For example, why does Roger Federer, the greatest tennis player of all time, need a coach? Answer: he could not reach his potential without one. But imagine if his coach was a traditional teacher: “Roger – final Wimbledon marks: 5-7 7-6 7-6 3-6 16-14. Excellent result but must try harder in 5th set in future.” How long would such a coach keep his job?

You don’t have to know much about tennis or coaching to know that Federer’s coach is a partner in his learning and that the program they have developed together would be the epitome of differentiation. If teachers hope to help students fulfil their individual potential in Daniel Pink’s ‘Conceptual Age’, learning will have to be highly differentiated. Perhaps this is why Alan November forecasts a need for more teachers.

A final thought. The value-added role of teachers in the Conceptual Age will be so different from ‘traditional’ teaching that we may even need a new term for what it is that teachers do. As Michael Wesch admits, “I have toyed with the idea of calling what I do ‘anti-teaching’, as I have come to the conclusion that ‘teaching’ can actually be a hindrance to learning”. I can’t see the term ‘anti-teaching’ catching on: do you have a better idea?

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