How Will People Teach in the Future?

Student debt. Rising cost of tuition. Non-profit versus for-profit. Lecture versus online learning. Amidst all the blame for these educational woes lies one really important question. How will people teach in the future?

It was not until I recently heard a speech by a professor at University of Virginia, a man named Karl Hagstrom Miller, that I found a possible answer, and it bodes well not only for college students, but those in K-12.

First, a bit about Dr. Miller and his method of teaching. He’s one of those people you meet and his energy infects you. He’s not particularly large, but his personality is giant. Soul patch, chewing gum, blue jeans and blazer, he looks more jazz musician than fuzzy-headed academic.

I came to his presentation because of its subtitle, “Why I don’t tell my students what to read.” After 15 years in the classroom, I could not imagine how a teacher could abdicate the responsibility for organizing the reading list for his students.

An historian, Miller designed a new type of course while teaching at University of Texas. He decided to teach the content of the course through the process of research. He based the class on one question: why is the music business dying?

After reading one common text, the students organized themselves into groups based on research topics such as copyright or business strategy or technology. Then, each student generated a question about the topic and set out to answer that question by Monday of the following week. The student then posted his or her answer, 300–500 words, to a blog. This blog then became the “textbook” for the course. In class, students discussed the blog posts, asked new questions, and planned research for the following week.

What, then, is the role of the teacher? First, this formless format creates ambiguity, and people don’t like ambiguity. Whether undergraduates or employees, people want to know what they need to do. But ambiguity also fertilizes learning when students have to fight through uncertainty to arrive at truth. So, once the ambiguity of the course creates a panic, Miller steps in to assure his students he has been there before (as a researcher of history), and they can persevere. At that point, he can guide them to resources or ask questions to send them in the right direction. Second, because so much information is available online, Miller becomes the wise leader, patiently probing so students can learn for themselves. He no longer teaches information. He teaches something bigger: the skills of asking the right questions and finding the right answers.

The result? Students write more. They evaluate sources. (According to Miller, they quickly find that Wikipedia cannot satisfy their research needs.) They learn to question relentlessly. They learn about what interests them.

Most schools from kindergarten to college value answers more than questions. Grades measure how many answers a student gets right in a given semester. But, business, medicine, and art do not value answers more than questions. What business staring at global competition, emerging markets, and increasing costs can afford to keep answering the same questions the same way? What doctor can cure lethal diseases with old treatments?

So, with Internet content ubiquitous, the teacher of the future will not decide the scope of the class, the reading list, or even the answers to be found. Instead, the teacher will place difficult questions to the students, and let them navigate their own path.

And maybe then will our colleges and high schools send their graduates into the world ready to solve old problems with new answers. These teachers of the future give us all hope.

Please offer your thoughts in the comment section, and thank you for reading.

photo: author’s own

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