In the age of smartphones and tablets, children have more choice than ever before over what kind of information they can choose to consume, and how.
This can make it difficult for traditional methods of teaching to be sufficiently challenging, engaging and relevant.
Equally, when every answer can be found via Google, teachers can no longer present themselves as the authoritative gatekeepers to knowledge, stood at the front of the class.
Some academics go as far as saying that teachers must stop just transmitting knowledge, and instead become facilitators – supporting students in their own ways of “knowing and thinking”.
Teachers as facilitators
If ever there was a teacher that summed up this role of facilitator, it is 2015 Global Teacher Prize Winner Nancie Atwell.
US-based Nancie teaches English as a writing-reading workshop, where students choose the subjects they write about and the books they read.
She says that her workshops are based on Vygotsky’s principle that children learn through collaboration and cooperation. Her work has resulted in high volumes of work, with each student producing an average of 21 pieces of publishable writing and 40 books from 14 genres every year. This high volume of work boosts both their stamina and skill in reading and writing, and 97% of students at her Center for Teaching and Learning go on to university. Many of Nancie’s students have also become published authors.
The role of teacher as facilitator is well established in many developed education systems, and technology is enabling many to come up with innovative solutions for the challenges faced by their students.
For example, London-based mathematics teacher Colin Hegarty, a Top 10 Finalist last year, saw the opportunities that technology offered to help students engage with maths in new ways, uploading 1,500 tuition videos to YouTube.
These have been viewed more than 5 million times in 24 countries, while his website offering mathematics resources – mathswebsite.com – has been used by at least 65 UK schools and have had a great impact on the grades of his students.
It is not just technology’s effect on their students that is pushing teachers to pursue new ways of teaching; the pressure is also coming from employers.
The US National Education Association (NEA) says workforce skills and demands have changed dramatically in the last 20 years, with a “rapid decline in ‘routine’ work”.
At the same time, there has been a rapid increase in jobs involving non-routine, analytic, and interactive communication skills.
According to the NEA, today’s job market requires competencies such as critical thinking and the ability to interact with people from many linguistic and cultural backgrounds.
In addition to the traditional “three Rs” of reading, writing and arithmetic, the core skills crucial for successful future workers are identified as the four Cs: critical thinking; communication; collaboration and creativity.
Successfully passing on those skills to students requires teachers to employ strategies for “deeper learning”, according to the Education Policy Center at the American Institutes for Research.
These strategies include project-based learning to help students connect what they learn in school with the wider world, collaborative group work to help develop teamwork skills, an internships to have first-hand experience of the world of work.
Real world experience
This need for real world experiences was something US-based Global Teacher Prize 2016 Top 10 Finalist Joe Fatheree instinctively realised when he began teaching over 25 years ago.
Joe soon discovered that his students did not respond to the methods he had learned while training.
Instead Joe, who teaches media production and innovation, combines project-based learning with opportunities to work with industry leaders and local businesses.
Joe’s students now produce music, books and short films to industry standards covering diverse topics such as poverty, bullying and homelessness.
They use 3D printing and drone technology, build educational games using Minecraft, and are encouraged to share their work with large audiences.
Similarly, India-based teacher Kiran Bir Sethi, a 2015 Top 10 Finalist, sought a new way of teaching that would enable her pupils to creatively explore the world. She developed a simplified Design Thinking approach that leads students to understand empathetically rather than just intellectually, and puts academic learning into a real-world context.
For example, ninth grade students learning about the water filtration process visit low-income communities to find out about the quality of drinking water available there. They then use the knowledge learned in the classroom to build prototypes of water filtration machines that can be used by the community members.