The most important influence on student learning…

is an effective teacher in the classroom. There’s no interactive whiteboard, laptop, tablet, doc camera, web-based program, intervention strategy, curriculum, assembly, or after school program that can top what a teacher can do to help students learn and produce. Books back up this observation, and we all have at least one teacher from our past who lit a fire within us for a subject, so there’s probably not too many people who would argue with what I’ve just claimed.

That’s why it’s so alarming that even though most people say teachers are the most important factor in classrooms, the education pendulum never lands on professional development for teachers being a number one priority. Surgeons receive ongoing training. So do nurses, engineers, police officers, firefighters, soldiers. PD for teachers shouldn’t be relegated to only the beginning and end of the school year. Their expertise is just as important as the other listed professions. New educational studies, theories, and strategies are produced at least every month.

The onus for training doesn’t just land on the country, state, or school district. Yes, society should elect officials who make wise decisions regarding budgeting for PD, but teachers must also understand the importance of continual learning (not just for students, but for themselves) and strive to become better at their craft every day of the school year.

Enter Sugata Mitra.

If you haven’t watched Mitra’s TED talk, please be my guest:

If you didn’t watch the video, here’s the gist of his message: Students who are given access to the internet and encouraged by adults to explore interesting things learned at an amazingly fast rate. So fast, in fact, that Mitra’s findings could quite possibly revolutionize how we think about teaching. For some people, it already has.

If you’re familiar with Mitra, you know he views effective teachers as cheerleaders for student learning. In his opinion, teachers should not stand and deliver; instead, they should pose perplexing questions–such as Mitra’s example from the recent CUE Conference: Why do people’s teeth fall out?

I agree with Mitra. Does this conflict with my thoughts at the beginning of this post? I don’t think so, as long as I conflate the two. A teacher with expertise, experience, and skill at formatively assessing whether or not a student learned something is worth a lot. (Dylan Wiliam states that the value of a great teacher to society is around $300,000.) This is the ‘cheerleader’ needed for the type of classroom Mitra supports. This ‘Mitra teacher’ knows when to let students explore, when to encourage, when to guide… when to do almost everything.

This means (and I seriously wish what you’re about to read could be a disclaimer everyone hears whenever I talk about that importance of 1:1 devices in the classroom) technology is only a tool to be used–sometimes by teachers but mostly by students–to promote learning. I’m not a proponent of plopping children in front of screens and expecting them to learn. This will lead only to a scary, Wall-E like future. Good teachers know when to use good tools to reap good results. This is why PD is so important, because it’s only brave and knowledgeable teachers–teachers who see themselves more as senseis than lecturers, who will close the achievement gap and help all children learn.