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.


In the novel Lila, Robert Pirsig writes:

Quality doesn’t have to be defined. You understand it without definition. Quality is a direct experience independent of and prior to intellectual abstractions.

Pirsig says quality doesn’t have to be defined because you just know it without being told it’s quality. Lila, along with his prior novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, spends hundreds of pages on making sense of quality. There’s no way to scratch the surface of what quality is in this post, but it’s important to connect educational practices with quality–especially concerning technology.

A piece of technology–let’s say a MacBook–can be made well, but the way it’s used in the classroom can be considered poor quality. The way a district implements devices could be a thing of quality, but this has no bearing on blended learning once the devices are deployed.

The problem technology poses is some teachers may believe since they’re using top-of-the-line equipment, top-of-the-line learning will naturally occur. As Dylan Wiliam writes in Embedded Formative Assessment: ‘The quality of teachers is the single most important factor in the education system.’ It doesn’t matter whether the student is using a MacBook, Chromebook, or Surface, none of these tools will bring instant quality to the classroom. But the teacher can.

It’s an important distinction to be made. A quality math, English, science, history teacher doesn’t need technology to teach well. This isn’t an indictment against technology, it just puts technology in its rightful place: as a tool used to help bring about quality. Needle and thread in the hands of a skilled cobbler can make high quality shoes, but someone with no training as a cobbler will make shoes that don’t function properly and fail to look aesthetically pleasing.

It’s important to note that students require very little guidance for learning how to use computers. This morning I had the pleasure of watching Sugata Mitra‘s keynote at the Spring CUE Conference, and he has shown that it’s possible for students to receive high quality educations just by having access to the internet and encouragement from teachers. Does this mean all we need is to supply students with computers and teach teachers that their job is not so much to dispense knowledge as to foster inquiry through use of the internet? I think that’s a large part of the professional development equation.

Bottom line: Teachers need to know how to use educational tools well, and students need to be given access to the internet so that creativity and learning will occur.

The Child Driven Education

This was shown at the AVID Summer Institute in San Diego earlier this month during my Tutorology Strand. Sugata Mitra took computers and put them in places teachers are needed the most.

Unfortunately, good teachers usually don’t want to go where they’re needed the most, namely, New Delhi.

Bottom line, as said by Mitra, teachers who can be replaced by a machine, should be.