Are teachers still needed in our digital age classrooms?

How does learning happen? Are teachers still necessary in today’s learning environments?

Two questions crucial to learning and teaching are addressed in an article by Kirschner and van Merriënboer. The authors engage with current but established thinking about the learning journey, and implicitly, about the role of teachers on that journey. [Urban Legends in Education Educational Psychologist: Vol. 48, No. 3, pp. 169-183 (2013)]

As its title suggests the authors scrutinise a number of ‘urban legends’ that pervade current pedagogical practice:

  1. young learners as ‘digital natives’
  2. the effectiveness of learning styles
  3. learners as self-educators

The authors challenge the notion that young learners are ‘digital natives’ simply because they are surrounded by technology from an early age. They challenge the notion of homo zappiens and the implicit assumption that young people are able to multitask better than previous generations.

The concept of learners and learning styles, is, according to the authors, form of pigeon holing students that often learn using a multitude of styles.  They bring to the fore the inherent problems of measuring learning styles, particularly if we rely on self assessment strategies. Kirschner and van Merriënboer demonstrate that the idea that learners with different learning styles should be taught using a different instructional method has very little scientific research evidence to support it. In my view, what might actually be happening in this situation is that learners are acquiring information in a distracted way, characterised as the ‘butterfly defect’, and not actually processing it, reflecting on it or applying it to practice. So what we are left with is a superficial method of acquiring information, which may eventually lead to knowledge but certainly does not support the development of creativity or the nurturing of creative ideas.

This concept has a direct bearing on the way that we might choose to embed technology in our teaching. In order for technology to be effective, it needs to be used creatively, not merely as a prop for delivery or assessment. If students merely use technology in a passive manner, then we are simply using technology for its own sake rather than marshalling its potential for educational uses.

Furthermore, learning preferences do not accurately reflect the most effective learning outcomes. In other words, simply because a learner has a preference for a particular learning style does not mean that the preferred style is the most efficient. The authors suggest that a more fruitful approach would be one where we seek to identify what learners have in common, i.e. ‘cognitive architecture’ (Sweller, van Merriënboer and Pass, 1998). According to the authors, “the field of learning styles has failed to make significant progress and so far it does not yield any valid educational implications” (176)

The last urban legend Kirschner and van Merriënboer discuss is the concept of the self-seeking learner. In this situation it may be the case that teaching is perceived as being substituted by the process of information seeking. Searching and evaluating information easily obtained on the internet is a ‘complex cognitive process’ for which students are unprepared. As the authors note, despite their facility and comfort with digital media, ‘learner are not astute internet users.’ (176) Within this context then, the importance of prior knowledge cannot be underestimated in the process of evaluating information. They may be ‘digital natives’ but this does not make them smart processors of information.

This connects really strongly with the idea of teacher as facilitator. It is both dangerous and complacent to think that the facilitator simply sits on the sidelines helping students make sense of the information that they have gathered on the internet. It is still the teacher’s task to select a number of pedagogical approaches to handle a given learning situation and to prepare a selection of learning tasks and methods for the students to choose from.

The authors notes that “self-direction, self-determination, and choice are key concepts” (177)  in education and indeed  “on some accounts, student-directed education is to replace teacher-directed education”. (Gibbons, 2002 cited in Kirschner and van Merriënboer, 2013)

In conclusion, in the authors’ view, leaving an uninformed ‘learner in control’ of his learning journey leads to three problems:

1) ‘learners often misregulate their learning’

2) ‘learners often choose what they prefer, but what they prefer is not always what is best for them’

3) ‘paradox of choice’ where frustration results from learners having too many options and lacking the skills to know which choices are best for them

These three issues demonstrate the importance of the teacher’s role, not just as a facilitator or meddler-in-the-middle, but as an active agent in the learning process.

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