The Teacherly Voice

Leigh Blackall's excellent post To facilitate or to teach is a great platform to tie together several ideas that I've been pondering. I really admire where Leigh is trying to go in his battle to lose his "teacherly" voice in the running of his online course. He explores the tensions between his perception of facilitation and the differing expectations and frustrations of his students as they grapple with the expectations of self directed networked learning. Because he is willing to open up his practice and expose his own developing thinking, the resultant comments are as informative and insightful as the post and something that can be applied to any classroom situation. Leigh outlined his own personal guiding beliefs in his introduction:

The biggest challenge I am finding is the expectation for a teacher or instructor while everyone talks about a facilitator. I don’t think someone can be both, primarily because a teacher inherits a significant amount of power and traditional roles that counter act the more neutral and passive presence of a facilitator.

His battles are interesting to me because he points out that "almost everyone who is involved has experienced this type of schooled learning". The way things have always been done are a significant factor in Leigh's situation. And the battle between enabling learners rather than instructing them can be applied to any classroom situation, not just the uniqueness of facilitating an online learning community.

But in the comments section, we find that not everyone thinks that teacher/facilitator is a either/or scenario. Derek Wenmoth points out:

"... I think that much of the discussion leading to the idea of a teacher—facilitator continuum stems from perceptions of teaching activity that, for many people (in the areas I deal in at least) are no longer really the case (ie teaching activity that is already quite facilitative and less didactic)."

Konrad Glogowski, a Canadian middle school classroom practitioner posted an excellent comment where I found the following to be particularly meaningful:

"I realized that losing the teacherly voice has nothing to do with losing the voice of an expert. You see, I’d thought that, in order to be a co-participant and a co-learner, I had to learn along with my students. Nonsense. I discovered that they need a figure of authority, someone who knows the topic well, who is an expert and can offer advice, support, and assist them as they engage with the material. The facilitator still needs to be the content expert. That is why people come to us - because they want to learn from us, not with us.

And so, the challenge is that when I try to divest myself of my teacherly voice I need to remember that this process is not about losing the voice of the expert but about losing the voice of the authoritarian.

I admit, this may have very little relevance in your class, with a group whose expectations, career goals, and age are so vastly different from my group of 14-year-olds. I do believe, however, that what everyone looks for in a teacher or an instructor, regardless of the type of educational setting, is that they be an expert and project that air of confidence and expertise. They do want to learn from us.

And that’s why this whole process of building communities of learners and losing the teacherly voice is so hard. It is hard because we tend to think that what we need to create is the impression that we’re all in this together, that no one really is an expert in the classroom. The students won’t respond well to that. They pay their fees because they want access to experts, because they want to be taught, not because they can’t wait to be part of a virtual community of inquiry.

So, what do we do? I believe that it is important to lose the authoritarian voice, the controlling voice, but not the voice of an expert who chose to teach because of his passion for the subject. The students need to see that the instructor is someone who lives and breathes whatever it is that they’re studying, that they have in their midst someone who has a wealth of expertise. They are in that classroom because they want a piece of it."

The other voice I struggle to control when working with my class is the ''Guess what the teacher is thinking" line of conversation. That is so limiting and doesn't give any scope for my students to develop their own thinking or to describe their own processes but it is so easy to slip into this default mode. I like what Konrad describes in his classroom and it is directly applicable for my own situation because my students are similar in age range. Another interesting factor is that my students have to be in my classroom - they don't have the option to walk out if they feel my style and their learning needs don't gel. Leigh's working with adults who (presumably) have chosen to be part of his course and have the option of bailing out if they find the coursework is irrelevant or inaccessible.

I'm wondering if learning as Leigh describes it being "individually responsible and self motivated" can be more successful in his adult learner setting if his clientele had experienced more learning in that vein throughout their primary and secondary schooling. Now, I'm still not sure which side of the fence I sit in regards to the concepts of "deschooling" and "reschooling" (or even maintaining the status quo) but in the hands of progressive teachers there are models that can work in terms of giving students opportunity to be more in charge of their own learning. I like to think that are structures in my own classroom (and many others) that certainly reduce the "authoritarian" and get away from the "one size fits all" model. South Australian state primary schools have composite year levels that force the teacher to cater for individual needs as you just can't follow "grade level" curriculum - it needs to differentiated because of the age and ability range in any group of primary age kids. They start school poles apart anyway in terms of whether there is a culture of reading at home, where they sit in terms of their sibling order, whether English is a secondary language amongst their family or just plain maturity levels. I'm in awe of how our best junior primary teachers handle these little people and work hard to engage them and keep their progress moving in laying the foundations for literacy, numeracy, thinking and social responsibility.

The concept of student-initiated curriculum is an important one in the middle years of schooling but can be very badly implemented at only a lip-service level. Inquiry learning also has much to offer in offering students opportunity to follow their own path through particular concepts or skills – but again, as Artichoke has pointed out in the comments section here on my blog before, is something that requires a lot of work on the teachers’ part and can be easily mismanaged for minimal gain. But both approaches (and sometimes in combination) are a powerful option for the teacher to step out of the instructor role and into the facilitator role. Then the students hit high school and quite often, it’s all thrown out the window in the name of subjects that must be kept pure, lines that must be followed to lead to certain options like university courses. They’re all timetabled into fixed time blocks and the plasticity and ability to explore and discover is severely throttled back.

I’m aware it sounds like I’m blaming high schools, which is not true but their very structure ultimately creates the adults that demand the teacherly voice when they front up for Leigh’s course. Of course, there are plenty of primary school teachers who step up and command their class’s attention from go to whoa, centring themselves as the foundation of all knowledge, making sure that the teacherly voice is the only one their students will hear for the entirety of their formal education. But primary schools here in this part of the world have that flexibility where the teacher can consciously step out of the role of instructor and create exciting learning opportunities for their students, with or without the help of technology.

Maybe, it’s only deschooling that might produce the learners Leigh wants to interact with in his online community. Again, I’m as puzzled by the problems and potential solutions to really know what I think is the best solution – we’ve certainly heard about the concept of “learning to learn” a lot in our sector here – but it still has a way to go before these self motivated learners become commonplace and demand autonomy in their chosen education.

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3 thoughts on “The Teacherly Voice

  1. Leigh

    My first thought was, gee.. I wish I could experience working with a group of Steiner educated people. I wonder if there would be any measurable differences? There seems to be a void of research that compares alternative education models, or measures their pros and cons. Indeed, how could we measure it? Well, we could, but it would be an expensive project. So its just left up to the staff room rumours.. “oh, I taught a homeschooly last year.. they really struggled with the social stuff” type lines..

    Some people observe trends in private school educated kids arriving in university.. I wish I could remember the link, but it was an Australia study that revealed that privates were a high % of university drop outs… but no link, so best disregard that, or see if you can find it. I dunno what it would say for this except to help show that you are right – prior schooling experiences can really make or break your further education experiences.

    All this goes to show how mammoth the task is to try and change the institutionalised education model. The Internet that we know is going to have to be around for at least 100 years before it will effect a change generationally. Perhaps that a good and rigorous time frame?

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  2. Sue Waters

    Definitely still too tired from mlearn2007 conference to make much sense but I think what Professor Angela MacFarlane said on this topic should be considered “the trouble with learner autonomy does not always mean that they will make good choices — as educators we need to make sure our learners stay on path” and “we need to be drawing out the process so that all learners know the strategies for learning.”

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