‘To Facilitate or to Teach’ – A Paradox

Leigh Blackall’s article (Learn Online, 10.12.07) on the facilitate vs. teach issue captures all the complexity and confusion in developing a new model for teaching that’s in sync with the social web, and if our own iFacilitate discussions are an indication, the situation hasn’t changed even after five years. The old model was designed for a pre-digital age when space and time constraints made in-person the most cost-effective approach. Today, the internet beckons with an open, anytime-anywhere learning environment that instantly challenges our traditional ideas about learning and teaching. It has created a generation of students that’s unlike any in history, one that, for the first time, is no longer dependent on a teacher, a classrooom, and a textbook for their learning.

In this sea change, we, teachers, grapple with our changing role, trying to adjust by exploring, adapting, adopting, and inventing practices that will help students get the most out of the latest technology that extends and expands the ways we can learn. We realize that facilitator is the best fit for the times, but we still haven’t figured out what, exactly, it means.

At the heart of the issue is a problem that’s plagued us from the beginning of public schools over 150 years ago. In Blackall’s own words, “The problem [is that we need] self motivated learners to participate in a facilitated learning environment.” In placing our hopes on a “facilitated learning environment,” we realize we need “self motivated learners,” but it seems we skipped an important preliminary question: How do we facilitate self-motivation?

The paradox is that if we take on the responsibility of motivating students to learn, they are no closer to self-motivation than before our intervention. We, in essence, are sentencing them to lifelong dependence on an institutional learning support system. Pull the plug, and their learning stops.

So, how do we teach self-motivation? How do we teach students to become independent learners?

Perhaps one way to answer the question is to revise it and focus on the student instead of the teacher, at the end instead of the means, in a kind of pedagogical reverse engineering, if you will. What does a self-motivated learner do? How does she learn? When we form a clearer vision of this empowered learner, we can then explore ways to best nurture, shape, and facilitate her growth.

One fact is clear. She doesn’t wait around for someone else to motivate her. Here are some other traits that might describe her: She sets her own goals and develops her own learning procedures. An important part of the process is to search for resources and sources of information, including interactions with experts and fellow learners. Through this process, she constructs a personal learning environment (PLE) and a personal learning network (PLN). If we take a step back to view the big picture, we see that she has become a node that’s connected in countless ways to other equally countless nodes, and the entirety is the learning community. Interestingly, brick ‘n’ mortar places can be nodes, too, as long as they’re also connected to the open web.

But trying to answer the question I’m posing isn’t the purpose of this post. Even as I’m trying to close, other thoughts are crowding me: Self-motivated learning will be nonlinear, and projects that fit neatly into class and quarter or semester schedules aren’t going to cut it. Learning will be community- rather than school-based. The ultimate arbiter of success will be the real world, not a grade in a teacher’s roll book. Gotta go …

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