How Much Freedom Should Teachers Have in the Classroom?

- - posted in bigpicture

One of the smartest people I read on the web is Fraser Speirs. He’s best known for implementing the first ever true 1:1 deployment of iPads in a school. On his blog and in his podcast he shares big ideas about the future of technology and K-12 education as well as his take on the “little” stuff that really matters. He’s currently on Part 15 of a sequence of podcasts dedicated to helping schools build their own 1:1 iPad program and the attention to detail is frightening.

The other day, Fraser wrote about the parallels between urban planning and running a school. He suggested readers listen to Episode 58 (“Against the Smart Classroom”) of his podcast, and in it he spends the hour walking through Adam Greenfield’s book (Against the Smart City) and using Greenfield’s arguments to make a case against a fairly common vision of the smart classroom exemplified by the Amplify tablet.

The whole episode is well worth listening to, but I want to address just one piece: Fraser believes many new smart classroom technologies are simply tools that help school administrators increase their control over what happens in the classroom without actually improving learning.

What I found interesting was that I see the opposite problem in my corner of the higher education system–We could use a little more centralization. Faculty at my institution are given an incredible amount of freedom in their teaching mixed with very little oversight.

Many of our faculty use this freedom to do a great job–they take time to prepare their lectures, design assigments that encourage deep learning, and make themselves available to students outside class. Many of these same faculty could be doing even better with more mentoring/support/attention. The administration needs information about the class to know what kind of support is useful.

Some of our faculty don’t do a great job–they are not natural teachers and spend as little time as possible on it. Higher standards and more teaching-focused resources would help, but we can do better here too. When you offer services like classroom observation or help with interpreting student evaluations at the end of the semester, which faculty do you think take advantage of them? I’ve seen this in action, and it’s not the teachers that need the most help. Among other things, these services need to be mandated, especially for the weaker teachers.

I am definitely not saying I want a system that tells me how long students are looking at particular pages in the textbook. And I don’t want faculty or students locked into a brittle set of technologies that tries to take over too much and kills creativity in the classroom. But I do think we live in a time where technology and new ideas have the potential to significantly improve the quality of education across the board. Many professors just need to be pushed (and incentivized) to take advantage of them.