The Teaching Profession in 2020


National Hockey League Great, Gordy Howe attributes his success to anticipating “where the puck is going to be.”   In this spirit, let’s reflect together on where the teaching profession is headed.   What are the new talents and how do they relate to the old ones?


In the era of Plato and Aristotle, education was one-on-one dialogue between scholar and student.   Many of us picture this educational model as a professor sitting in a bucolic setting on a log discussing philosophy with his student.   Education was highly customized, individualized.   Manuscripts were rare and expensive.  Textbooks didn’t exist.  Learning opportunities, outside the time when teacher and student were together, were limited. 


As the demand for education grew, the apprenticeship model emerged.  In both the trades and professions, aspirants were immersed as junior members of a team of practitioners headed by the Master Teacher.  Although study materials were still scarce, colleague learners shared insights.   Collaboration enhanced efficient learning.


Population explosion, education-for-all, and Henry Ford’s mass production movement then forced us to the lecture hall.  Textbooks and videotapes provided opportunity to study between classes.  The richness of customization was necessarily sacrificed in order to accommodate massive numbers of new students.


Enter technology-the-enabler.   By vastly expanding the capacity of a teacher to stay in touch with students, and greatly increasing the different types of learning materials that may be individually chosen and accessed, Internet-based technology is reintroducing our profession to the possibility of individualized, customized instruction.   Email groups, learning teams, electronic office hours, hyper-linked assignments and many, many other new possibilities add up to a return to individualization.  


The emerging teaching environment is one based upon customization, collaboration, and interaction.   Learning teams are common.  Students aid each other.  Feedback is timely.  Assignments are focused.   The emerging world for “the new teacher” most closely matches the Master-Apprentice Model.


But it’s to be a different Master-Apprentice Model.   From the Henry Ford innovations we have inherited specialization.   We can anticipate fewer “general practitioners” of teaching.   Learning components, with their high up-front costs, will be produced (not unlike textbooks) by a few teachers, and they will be replicated for many to use.   The best components (or at least the most elaborate) will be coupled with component-related web sites and tutorial services.  (Note, for example, the partnership between SMARTTHINKING and Houghton Mifflin.)


The New Teachers will guide individual students to the appropriate materials, manage interaction among the learners, nurture trust in the materials and colleague learners, and monitor/certify learning progress.   Not unlike doctors and dentists, teachers will utilize teams of specialists. 


With so many different people involved in a single student’s learning, the “classroom” will become a much more public place.   Special interest constituencies, be they liberal or conservative, will threaten academic freedom.   Evaluation will increase.   To protect individual teachers and students, practices and procedures will be developed to limit the identity of ideas-still-under-development.


Aware of more learning styles and learning materials, teachers will no longer act as if  one-size-fits-all.   Learning assignments will become much more complex, much more creative.  Likewise, the one-size-fits-all textbook will be replaced by “learning components,” chosen to meet specific needs of specific students by professors with specific educational approaches.


The transition will be rocky, exhausting.  New materials will be tested even while simultaneously time-tested materials will be used as fail-safe.  The time pressures upon teachers will change in character but increase in intensity.


In these initial stages of our transition to the “new teacher” in the “new environment” it may be useful to focus one’s early efforts.  In my mind that focus should include---

  1. Capitalize on Internet-based opportunities for more interaction and collaboration.
  2. Present the most important material in several modes (audio, visual, text).
  3. Emphasize first the communication-enhancing aspects of the Internet.
  4. Delay extensive multimedia productions
  5. Differentiate materials that will endure from those that will quickly become outdated
  6. Offload some course management tasks to students.
  7. Recognize that the current infatuation with Internet-based technology will fade as this medium too becomes ordinary and familiar.


This topic, the future shape of the profession, is crucial to each of us as we prepare ourselves for that future.   Please feel free to share your own thoughts with me and I will, in a future month, consider your ideas in a follow-up column.