Searching for the Source of Expertise in Modern Education
For centuries, the central approach to education was clear. Find someone with expertise in a given subject and charge him or her with the responsibility of imparting what he or she knew into the minds of the students.
The roles under this traditional approach to learning were well defined. The teacher was a person who had special skill or knowledge in some particular field. The student was a novice with little or no experience in the field. Put the two together in a formal setting, and the transfer of learning from the mind of the expert to the mind of the learner takes place.
The most common transfer method was the lecture, with the teacher telling what they knew, and the students taking notes, trying to keep up with the teacher. Note-taking served a dual purpose. It helped the students recall what the teacher said and it kept them from falling asleep.
While it was hard to argue against the pure efficiency of the lecture method from the teacher, throughout history, many have questioned how much learning was taking place. The argument at times took on aspects of the philosophical dilemma of whether or not sound is produced if a tree falls in the woods and there is no one there to hear it.
Today we have the advantage of scientific research aimed at understanding how the brain learns. Much of what researchers have discovered corroborates long-held assumptions. For one thing, we now know with certainty the brain has a short attention span and needs time to rest between bursts of learning activity.
The traditional 50-minute lecture no longer passes the test of sound learning, if this research is to be believed. We now have a range of alternative approaches to the traditional model, but they all have the same core dilemma – what do you do with the expertise?
If student-centered learning approaches allow students to discover things for themselves, what happens if they lack the expertise to do so? In short, to promote active learning, where do we turn for the source of expertise? Is there no longer a role for the expert, the person who has special skill or knowledge?
Some see the role of the modern teacher as more a coach or a learning facilitator than as a knowledge expert. In athletic coaching, however, no coach allows players to discover how to play the game on their own.
The dictionary defines a facilitator as one who brings about a result by providing indirect assistance. Note that even with this definition, the learning facilitator is more than a passive onlooker.
The dilemma is how to provide the needed assistance while maintaining the active involvement of the learner. Does active learning require a passive role for the teacher? To some, that is the central question swirling around contemporary education.
A voice from the past expressed great concern over the abdication of responsibility of teachers in some approaches to the student-centered learning of the day. The voice was that of John Dewey, father of progressive education, who urged teachers to never forget their responsibility for providing structure and control in the classroom.