image credit Fudj CC Licence Flickr
Whilst evaluating the Becta Teaching and Learning with DV assets project a few years ago, I needed to 'contact' teachers during school time, as it turned out, a nigh impossible task. (It would have been easier to get an audience with Her Majesty, The Queen). Ever since then I have periodically reflected on the implications of teachers working in isolation, so I was very interested to read this recent post by Wesley Fryer.
"Isolation is a bad thing. That is why some adults make kids go sit in the corner by themselves, and criminals are sometimes punished with solitary confinement. As human beings, we are wired to be social and be connected. Certainly there are important times and places for DISCONNECTING, but in general most people are happier and more productive when they are safely CONNECTED with each other."
So, (why) do teachers work alone? Is it through choice or by design? Perhaps a bit of both, a hangover from a 19th (20th) century transmissive model of learning, that takes place in closed spaces, which dictate the pedagogy; offering, (until very recently), little or no means of communication with; peers, the class next door or the outside world.
Simultaneously, the discrete nature of ‘subjects’ allied with the, (perfectly justifiable), pride in being an acknowledged expert' in a subject or field, may encourage teachers to see themselves as independent and self reliant. Nothing wrong with that of course.
Finally, and most importantly, the expectations of the diverse stakeholders in the education system, that include government, its curriculum and testing, together with parents and employers in turn influenced by media perceptions and representations of education and learning, will exert pressures to maintain the status quo.
In our current culture, a teacher is usually perceived as an individual on whose head the educational well being of our students ultimately rests. We hear a great deal about good teachers and bad teachers, but very little analysis or debate about how they can effectively work together, perhaps helping transform from bad to good. When we do make value judgments about good teachers, as Steven Downes recently pointed out it is unlikely to be about the "content" delivered, (or subject), but their "presence." And one would imagine, and hope, that good teachers will have as much 'presence' in a collaborative working environment.
Whatever the reality, I strongly maintain that teacher isolation is a much greater obstacle to 21st century learning than any perceived digital divide; whether that of access to technology or the digital - immigrants v natives concept, (which is becoming rapidly discredited).
As new tools and applications are brought in to the classroom, some, such as interactive whiteboards, digital content and learning platforms will probably probably do relatively little to change the transmissive model of learning. But other tools which are being used by a growing number of teachers, inevitably extend beyond compartments, these are the social and collaborative tools such as Twitter, blogs and wikis. Teachers are using these to discuss good practice, establish learning networks share ideas and resources, whilst making new professional friends. I would maintain that, any one of the teachers I follow on Twitter is painting a learning landscape that extends way beyond traditional paradigms. And this is not because of the tools themselves, but because of the connections enabled by the tools. It is through these connections teachers can make their presence felt. The potential of this is thoughtfully highlighted by Martin Weller in a recent post.
Perhaps then, the systems, structures and cultures that keep us compartmentalised, physically and pedagogically, may now find it just that bit more difficult to maintain their walls. As teachers start to become less isolated, then it will be possible engage with the difficult part of educational transformation as suggested by Chris Lehmann.
So, whilst there there is plenty of information on digital tools, educational technologies and Web 2.0; much of the discussion is still centered on a class based; one teacher; discrete subject model. My question would be: for how much longer can/should a teacher remain working in isolation?