Teachers – who needs them?

encouragementI just came home from the movies.  In the film I saw (The Kids Are Alright), one character when asked why he dropped out of school says, “I just thought it was a big waste of money for something I could learn myself, from a book.”

This was something I had realized early, sitting in the town library one “PD” or professional development day, years ago in grade 8. I was flipping through a National Geographic and chanced upon an article about Jane Goodall. I was stoked, we had been talking about chimpanzees in class!  I started reading and wondered why we’d learnt none of this in class! OMG! And then it dawned on me – I could learn from a book. School was for sports and girls but really ineffective when it came to learning.

As the years went on, I realized more. That actually I had been wrong. Not that school wasn’t a more effective way “to learn”. No. I understood that a book really wasn’t as perfect a tool of learning. For the cerebral and imaginative – a book was great. But for show and tell, for constructive learning, participation, modeling – it was a dud. You couldn’t learn how to build anything from Popular Mechanics, you’d only learn how to talk about it, write about it and comment on it. Books weren’t a replacement for teachers or schooling. There was still a need for teachers and people in the learning equation.

Now, (and isn’t it ironic, me a 20 year in, teacher), I’m not so sure. I think we don’t need teachers. Nor schools. Now before you go further, take a deep breath and allow me to explain, explain how I’ve become such a heretic. I’ll keep it short, I promise.

After hearing the line the film, it dawned on me that it should be updated to, “I just thought it was a big waste of money for something I could learn online”.  The internet has allowed us, the amateur, to prosper. We can teach each other but more importantly we can show, demonstrate and learn not only in a “reading” way but also in a “real” way. Teachers are everywhere online – they are the mailmen, the musicians, on video, on screencasts. They are you and me.

Even more important is the notion of authority. School has survived because of authority. In a way, it is kind of like a prison sentence. You have little say over it, you MUST and there is so little opportunity for rehabilitation or reform. It is a process that you have to undertake in order to be part of society. You are punished if you don’t. It is mass social programming, dollar driven, even more so today. So school and education continues with only polite postering about reform and change. It is self perpetuating. No wonder that the calls for radical reform of education of the 60’s are still so relevant, loud and true.

I’m a student of the enlightenment and believe that learning is liberating and beneficial to all humanity. Illuminating, labitur lux, it lets the light in. It benefits us all and all the splendors around us come from ideas and education. However, everything has its time and place. Schools too, designed as mass market assembly lines,  disseminating discrete, memorizable bits of public knowledge are long useless and defunct. If mankind is to develop, we must go from the public realm and into the private – from the liberation of the mass to the liberation of the self.

Mark Twain said, “don’t let your schooling get in the way of your education.”  So true. But if you think about his words, you also can gather the notion that we shouldn’t throw away schooling. He doesn’t say that, nor I think believed it. School is great and necessary. I wouldn’t have given my best years to a classroom, if I hadn’t believed so. But we should take the teacher out of the school and make school a place of learning not teaching or being taught. Teachers should become mentors, motivators, encouragers, friends, councillors, anything but what they are at present. Students should get help,  not be told what nor how to learn. They can figure it out, evolution tells us so.

In the weeks to follow, I hope to elaborate on these few late night thoughts I’ve laid out. Lots about “Superman” and the snake oil salesmen in the education business. Lots more about self-learning and the possibilities of technology as a liberating force. Stay tuned.

I also highly recommend Andrew Finch’s “Teachers, Who Needs Them”. It’s a good read from a good man.

A couple quotes on the tip of my brain to end.

Learning is not a spectator sport.  ( why do we make it so with our schools?)

A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary.
— Thomas Carruthers

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Teacher trainer, technology specialist, educational thinker...creator of EFL Classroom 2.0, a social networking site for thousands of EFL / ESL teachers and students around the world.

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4 Responses

  1. Sabridv says:

    Hi Dave! This is just a quick thought after having read your post. Surely, I must give it a thought and elaborate on it too. I agree with you and I was thinking that we shouldn’t do away with schools, we should just change the focus. We, teachers, are not transmitters of knowleadge (encyclopeadic information). Today, information is everywhere, we can acces it quite quickly (and more complete and thorough that what we get at school). Maybe, we should start teaching/guiding our students on how to access that information, what to do with all the information we have in our hands, how to be critical with what we read, how to create their own content online, how to learn collaboratelly, and so on and so forth. To sum up, we should show them how to use internet to its full potential. What do you think?

  2. ddeubel says:


    I totally agree and there is lots of “talk” about this notion but little “walk”.

    As a teacher trainer I’ve always been aware of the powerful “gravity” that effects teacher’s development. We teachers, no matter how / what our training – seem to slip into the role of the teacher that taught us. It is very hard with this psychosocial force, to get change occurring, fundamental change. We tend to teach like we’ve been taught.

    I also think that we should just be there to enjoy and encourage our students. There is far far too much planning, admin, and accountability should be geared towards our work ethic, communication skills and less towards bricks and mortars A+B=C. I’m really discouraged how accountability is not geared to real learning outcomes (which are social/cultural and not numeric).

    Have you ever heard of the Sudbury School model? It is a worthy forerunner of how a school, a very community integrated school might function. Schools now are so divorced (for the most part) from the community that they might as well be “institutions”, places where there is no reality. We need to reintegrate and open up schools, everywhere.

    I’m curious about more radical approaches because reform has been such a failure. Also, I hope to open my own school in the 3rd world some day soon, as a make some career changes….

    Your voice, my voice – they do count. You can do a lot if you do it slowly 🙂


  3. Sabridv says:

    Hi David! It’s me again! Thanks for sharing the information about Sudbury school. I have heard just a little about it. I agree with you a paradigm shift should take place in education. Here in Argentina it is said that “we have achools from the 19th c (we have very old buildings), teachers from the 20 th c and students from the 21st c” This should change soon. I have written a post in answer to your post and some other post I read this week. You can read about it here: http://sabridv.wordpress.com/2010/10/27/the-importance-of-reflection/
    I would love to have your opinion about it.

  4. Alison Leisawitz says:

    Hi David and Sabridv,
    Thank you for your posts. They are very interesting. I agree with most everything you say and it would be ideal for teachers to be there to ‘enjoy and encourage our students.’ And of course we do do that sometimes, but with the strict standards and high-stakes testing, it’s often hard to find time to do so. I agree that ‘accountability’ does not account for these things… However I’m not sure if it’s because the government and school administrations think it’s not important OR just because enjoying and motivating your students is very hard to measure quantitatively and on a large scale. I am curious if you have any ideas about this… How schools can change the focus from teaching to the test to motivating students and making them curious learners, while still being able to measure how well students and therefore teachers are performing. It’s a tough question and if/when the answer is found, perhaps issues like merit pay will be easier to figure out as well. I look forward to hearing from you. Thanks!

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