I recently heard that a conference speaker told his audience, “We need fewer teachers and more facilitators.” My first reaction was, “1986 called and would like its keynote back.” My second thought was that the speaker is dead wrong!

The use of terms like “facilitator” always makes me queasy. The desire to rebrand teaching as facilitation results more from the low self-esteem of educators than either public opinion or a serious commitment to pedagogical progress. Regardless of the speaker’s intent, “teacher as facilitator” is a cliché that makes teaching sound more mechanistic and impersonal, not more. Modern medicine evolves and changes constantly, yet we still call its practitioners doctors. The invention of Viagra didn’t cause the public to make erector appointments. They call their doctor.

If one truly wants to improve the educational experience of children, then we need more teachers and fewer facilitators.

A popular parlor game among educators is debating the precise moment when “education went bad.” (Whether or not you believe there is a crisis in education.) A Nation at Risk, No Child Left Behind, Race-to-the-Top are often cited as the tipping point in the decline of K-12 education. I don’t blame a specific piece of legislation or blue-ribbon report entirely for the challenges faced by educators on a daily basis.

In my humble opinion, classrooms became less productive contexts for learning when teacher education became more concerned with training facilitators than creating teachers. The die was cast when professional educators accepted such dystopian rebranding as “facilitator.”

While earning my BA in teacher education during the early to mid-1980s, I was in the last class required to learn to play the piano a little bit, teach physical education, make puppets out of pop-tart boxes, create math manipulatives, design science experiments and setup a convivial classroom environment. When teaching was viewed as equal parts art and science, teacher education reflected that balance.

Around 1985, legislatures across the nation concluded that “teaching ain’t nuthin’” and changed credentialing requirements to ensure that teachers studied something “real” instead of education courses. Today, Teach-for-America spends five weeks preparing college grads to be teachers – less than half the time required for Marine Corps basic training and exponentially less time than I spent becoming an elementary school teacher. Educators know well that when elementary teacher preparation is less child-centered, secondary education gets even worse.

Today, new teachers truly are facilitators. They are “trained” to manage classrooms and deliver the curriculum handed to them. That’s about it.

This is great news for policy-makers and ideologues. Teachers are more compliant and less questioning than ever before. Flip the classroom? Sure! Tie teacher pay to standardized testing? Why not? Abandon labor protections secured by unionization? You betcha!

I remember being taught explicitly how to justify playing Scrabble for days or putting on a puppet show as educationally efficacious. This wasn’t just a “cover-your-ass in the plan book strategy,” but a way of understanding and articulating what your students were learning. The deafening calls for “accountability” are partially the result of teachers incapable of making learning visible. The less teachers have to think about their students’ thinking, the less thinking they do generally. Teaching needs to be thoughtful.

I have been stunned to observe the complete and utter return to whole class instruction in nearly every school I visit (public, private, rich, poor, urban, suburban and rural) everywhere in the world. New teachers have little or no experience with classroom centers, independent work, student projects and the sorts of agency that allow children to enjoy the “flow” experiences that build upon their obsessions and lead to understanding. Even when teachers are not lecturing from bell-to-bell, the classroom agenda is top-down and leaves little chance for serendipity or student initiative.

The most generous rationale for the Common Core Content Standards is that teachers lack a personal compass for what students should know and do. Teachers expert in inspiring long-term, personally meaningful and interdisciplinary projects or thematic instruction regularly exceed the standards, but that realization is lost on facilitators.

Great teachers know their students in deeper ways than any data can provide. They ask kids about their weekends. They chat about what kids are reading and console them when their hamster dies. Teachers spend thirty minutes per month in Toys R Us on the lookout for cool stuff to use in the classroom and as a means to learning about the culture of the children they serve. They learn continuously for themselves and their students. Teachers share their love of reading and are patrons of the arts. They are active citizens and engage students in current events. Outstanding teachers are not afraid to appear silly or create a whimsical classroom environment. They play in the snow with kindergarteners like Maria Knee.

The best thing we can do for children is to have them spend as much time with possible with interesting adults. So, great teachers need to be passionate, competent and interesting humans beyond the scope and sequence of the curriculum.

If we truly wish to make the world a better place for children, then we need many more teachers and a lot fewer facilitators!

‎”The school must open its doors. It must reach out and spread itself, and come into direct contact with all its people. Each day the power of the school must be felt in some corner of the school district. It must work so that everybody sees its work and daily appraises that work…

We must change the notion that the school is a cloistered institution, by breaking down its walls and having it come into direct contact with people… It must use the factory, the stores, the neighboring parks, the museums, not incidentally, but fully and with deliberation…

We must change our attitude toward the child… I feel that the attitude toward the school and the child is the ultimate attitude by which America is to be judged. Indeed, the distinctive contribution America is to make to the world’s progress is not political, economical, religious, but educational – the child (is) our national strength, the school as the medium through which the adult is to be remade.”

Angelo Patri – 1917
A Schoolmaster of the Great City: A Progressive Educator’s Pioneering Vision for Urban Schools

He was right then. He is right today! Read and learn!

Every problem in public education (and society in general) is identified and solved by Patri in this book published nearly a century ago.

While waiting for the 5th grade class to settle  down between recess and their holiday party, I wrote this project starter for creating arithmetic flashcard software in MicroWorlds. While the “math” isn’t particularly interesting or open-ended, there are plenty of opportunities for the students to improve and augment the software.

Bad drill and practice doesn’t become good because it is programmed in Logo, or by kids. However, the person who learns the most from “educational” software is the person who made it.

I thought of doing this because “practice multiplication facts” has been written on the classroom board for months. If the kids “write the software, perhaps they’ll think about multiplication a bit.

This is also an opportunity for introducing concepts, like percent, in order to create a cumulative score.

Download the PDF project starter by clicking the link below:

 A “Math” Game Only A Mother Could Love (PDF)