What Is the Value of a Teacher?

Posted by Sydney Myers

March 2nd, 2018

“Your students need you. They need you more than ever because the world is so complicated and so overwhelming. But they may not know they need you.”

Alan November

Alan November

It might seem strange to hear a statement like that from Alan November, a pioneer in the field of education technology. Despite being a leader in the movement to introduce and make use of technology in the classroom, Alan strongly emphasized the value and importance of teachers in a 2016 TEDx talk called “What Is the Value of a Teacher?”.

If technology is as vital as experts like Alan November say, what role do teachers play in this new classroom? What is the value of a teacher? Alan answered that question by describing three situations where a teacher is absolutely vital to the learning process.

1. Teaching critical thinking on the internet

Alan starts by diving into a seemingly simple tool: Google. “You ask students, ‘Do you know how to use Google?’ You might want to try this. Be prepared to have them laugh at you just like you just laughed at me. Those students look at you like you’re weird to ask that question. They’ve been using it their whole life.”

It’s true, many students have grown up using Google. But the question is, how sharp are their skills when using it?

Alan gave an example of a student who had an assignment on the Iranian Hostage Crisis. The student, as most students do, simply Googled “Iranian Hostage Crisis”. The problem?

If you’re in a Western country, Google will only show results from Western publications. In order to get a wider view of the event, Alan taught the student how to find results from Iranian sources.

But then another question came up. Was it even called “the Iranian Hostage Crisis” in Iran? Probably not. So, he helped the student use the internet to discover what it was called in Iran. (There it’s called “Conquest of the American Spy Den”.)

“If you ask a student, ‘Do you know how to use Google?’ and they say ‘Yes’ and they don’t know they don’t know, they’re not asking their teachers for help. They just keep going.”

The point? Though a powerful tool, in the hands of a student who didn’t consider point of view or critical thinking, and didn’t understand the basics of the tool itself, the technology, Google, was not as useful as it could have been.

“If you ask a student, ‘Do you know how to use Google?’ and they say ‘Yes’ and they don’t know they don’t know, they’re not asking their teachers for help. They just keep going.”

Teachers have an amazing ability to connect and engage with students. That is still valuable, no matter what sort of technology is used in the classroom.

2. Creating a safe environment for sharing

Alan describes an all-too-common scenario: He was in a classroom that was reading a portion of Shakespeare. “The teacher asked the students to participate,” explains Alan. The teacher wanted the kids to point out in the text what was difficult to understand and what was the most insightful. The response? “Two kids raised their hand. It was the Ferris Bueller moment.”

The teacher then started using a tool called Prism. Prism is an online tool that allows a group of people to interact with text by highlighting words or phrases based on a pre-set color-code. The results are shown in real-time – the font sizes change depending on what has received the most highlights per color.

As soon as the tool was introduced, everything changed.

“All of a sudden, the text font changes and the teacher sees the pattern of what’s the most difficult and the kids see it. And because the kids see how the whole class is thinking, there was much more willingness to participate.” Why?

See how Prism works:

“When I’m asked a question and I have to raise my hand, I don’t know what the other kids are thinking. Now I do. It’s safer.”

One of the students explained. “When I’m asked a question and I have to raise my hand, I don’t know what the other kids are thinking. Now I do. It’s safer.”

The teacher used the tool to create a safe learning environment. Technology wasn’t only used to make learning more interesting, it was used to make it better.

3. Encouraging and teaching collaboration

A businessman had recently told Alan, “Look, at a lot of business today, you have to work with people all over the world.” Alan says this worried him. “I thought, ‘Uh oh, a lot of school classrooms are not connecting kids to the world to learn how to work with people.'” The technology for connecting is all around us, but what vital role do teachers play?

Alan talked about a teacher he recently worked with. She has a Twitter account for her classroom where she follows seven classrooms from countries all over the world – Vietnam, Italy, Argentina, and more. The kids are assigned the job of looking on the classroom Twitter feed to see what’s going on around the world.

One day, the kids discovered that the kids in a classroom they’re following from Vietnam are building a video camera from craft supplies. “[The] kids get excited,” Alan says, “They go to Kathy and they say, ‘Can we build a video camera?’ Kathy’s never built a video camera out of nothing, and she says, ‘I don’t know,’ and they Skype the kids in Vietnam and the kids in Vietnam teach the kids in Moose Jaw how to build a video camera.” Amazing!

“And she’s not teaching. She’s teaching the kids how to build their own ecology of learning.” Collaboration and global communication are vital skills. The technology is there, but the teacher makes it happen.

“Teachers are more important than ever,” concluded Alan. Yes, children are the future, not just technology. How much value our teachers add to our students’ education! Even the best technology can’t replace them.

This is a summary of Alan November’s talk from TEDxWestVancouverED in 2016. Watch the full 18-minute talk by Alan in the video below.


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