Why go to school?

Why would I want to go to school?

That’s a question we, as educators, are going to hear more often. This is a very different question to ‘why would I want an education?’ — in fact, the ‘education industry boom’ taking place around the world suggests there’s more demand than ever for learning, at all ages.

It’s this very expansion of places to learn online — massive open online courses, websites like Khan Academy, learning apps like Duolingo — that will lead to students asking the question: why bother going to school? If I can learn about the great works of literature from a Harvard professor, why would I bother with a high school English class?

It’s a good question, and a scary one for teachers. But it’s the question that leads us to that most urgent of questions for educators now — what would make school worth coming to? What can the ‘live’ experience of schooling offer that online learning can’t?

Hopefully, a few things come to mind here. Most obvious are the affordances of face-to-face interaction — the opportunity to ask questions and be questioned, to construct and test arguments through debate, to generate new ideas through discussion. Yet this raises another question for us: do we currently prioritise this kind of dialogic interaction in our classrooms? Or is our classroom talk largely dominated by teacher monologue?

It’s in the self-interest of every teacher to seriously examine what they’re doing in the classroom, and how much of that could be ‘replaced’ by online learning. MOOCs and flipped learning approaches have taught us that traditional content delivery — chalk and talk — is easily captured, uploaded, and streamed to anyone who’s interested. Of course, this can be a time-saving opportunity for educators, as well as a threat: instead of creating my own lecture on Jane Austen, I can just link to that Harvard professor’s one. Online delivery of content allows for teachers to be more than content producers and deliverers — indeed, it demands that we be more than this.

So what will the role of the teacher be?

Like everyone else in the global economy, we need to reinvent our roles — or someone else will do it for us. Part of this process will be the difficult and necessary soul-searching: why do we teach what we teach? Why is this understanding, this skill, this process valuable for students? How will they apply it in their own lives, in the ‘real world’ beyond school walls?

To answer those questions, we — teachers — need to be out in the world, too. if we don’t know how what we’re teaching can be applied in life outside school or academia, what right do we have to insist it’s valuable? Or to expect that students show up at all?

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