Teachers: were curators, now filters
by Richard White
I’ve had the good fortune in the last few weeks to run into a number of former students, including Megan, Danny, Eric, and David. These students, since I had the opportunity to teach them as long as ten years ago, have gone on to enjoy many successes in life, in lots of different ways. One was a reporter for the Washington Post, and embedded in Iraq for awhile. One worked at Apple before going on to work at a start-up. One is a few weeks away from finishing a doctorate in Electrical Engineering, and one is doing Ph.D. work on lasers at Caltech.
During a recent visit from Danny, we had a great chance to talk about the changing nature of the profession of teaching. It used to be that the teacher was a curator of sorts. One of the primary jobs of the teacher was to assemble information from a number of sources—textbooks, personal experience, encyclopedias, professionals; sources that the student might not ordinarily have access to—and present that information to the student, for consumption or manipulation. It was a good life, but a bit labor intensive, in many ways. Being a “teacher as curator” required a lot of management and coordination of resources.
Those days, for many teachers, are long gone. All that information from all those sources is, to a great extent, now available via an enormous firehose. Maybe you’ve heard of my friend Mr. Internet? Online textbooks, professional blogs, Wikipedia, corporate websites, educational websites, all contain enormous amounts of information, and provide the opportunity to learn from and converse with people in just about every field. Any teacher, with 15-minutes of googling and fact-checking, can assemble hundreds of links to quality information that can be used by students to guide their learning.
One of the new jobs for the teacher, then, is to manage that firehouse for our students. One of our new jobs is to reduce the number of hits from any given Google search from “thousands”—an overwhelming number that really doesn’t help anyone—down to a dozen or so.
I’ve got to admit, I used to scoff at the idea of a programmed WebQuest, dismissing it as just a way for teachers to repackage some of their old content in a new medium. I’m starting to realize, though, that telling my programming students only that “you need to use Google to find resources that will help you program a game in Python” is a bit vague; it leaves too much to chance and will almost certainly result in a certain amount of time wasted.
Part of my job, then, is assemble resources for them, not by collecting materials they wouldn’t otherwise have, but by pre-sorting the materials that they already have (via the Internet). A smaller subset of websites, etc., delivered in class or made available on the course website, helps to narrow down the places they need to dig through, and allows for a more efficient use of class/study time.