The Teacher as a Guide: Letting Students Navigate Their Own Learning
Alex, a student in the fourth grade at Ashlawn Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia, burst into tears while we were having class. He had been hard at work on the blueprints for the Marsville colony, which was to be located on the fourth planet from the sun. The initiative, which is supported by the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, not only teaches children about Mars, but it also challenges them to consider the challenges that humans would face while attempting to live and work in an environment that is not their natural habitat.
Alex was attempting to figure out how he could make hamburgers, his all-time favourite meal, while they were floating through space. Regarding the issue, he had been discussing it over the internet with a scientist from the United Kingdom. Alex’s eyes started welling up when the man he was talking to revealed that he would soon be going to Washington, D.C. for a meeting with the National Science Foundation. Would it be possible for him and Alex to have lunch together? Alex, who was terrified that he had behaved inappropriately, cried and said, “I didn’t tell him that I’m only in the fourth grade.” “I have no idea what it means to ‘do lunch.'”
When students take responsibility for their own education, they put themselves in position to experience the amazing, yet sometimes challenging, educational adventures described above. Historically, the role of the educator has been that of an all-knowing sage who dispenses information that the students are expected to assimilate. However, after working in the field of education for more than three decades, I’ve come to the conclusion that the function of the teacher should be that of a learning guide, an educational facilitator, and a broker of possibilities for learning.
When I first started working as a teacher in the 1960s and 1970s, the classroom frequently gave me the impression that it was a jail; it appeared that the pupils and I were both captives of the passing of time and the educational environment at the time. As I went over the material with the pupils, I could see the longing on their little faces as they caught fleeting glimpses of the world beyond the classroom window. There was a time when a young lad stood up and declared, “I’ve had enough of all of this yammering on. You simply talk, talk, talk all the time.”
He was completely and utterly disinterested, and, to tell you the truth, so was I. I aspired to be a creative educator who could motivate pupils to continue their education. I wanted my kids to view their time spent in school as valuable. As a result, I made the decision to revamp the way I teach. I realised that rather than trying to take control of my class, I should focus on making it a learning experience for everyone.
I taught children that they did not need to rely on someone else for their education and that they were capable of learning on their own, in the spirit of individuals who were self-directed learners such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington Carver. My role in the class was to watch, offer assistance, make suggestions, and, when everything was running smoothly, to blend into the background as much as possible.
The most significant adjustment I made was to think about my job from the perspective of the pupils I was responsible for and to make an effort to actually get to know them. I started off the new school year by devoting the first month to getting to know my students, who were a combination of fourth and fifth graders. We created graphical representations of their family trees, interests, and thought processes. We also penned our own memoirs and made timelines. I brought the class closer together by organising activities such as camping and visits to museums. Regardless of what their birth certificates or other documentation stated, I gave each child a fresh start, and I trusted and believed in them.
My objective was to tap into the innate sense of wonder and exploratory spirit that is present in all youngsters. When children are given the opportunity to spend free time on playgrounds, they frequently form small groups to engage in activities such as investigating mud puddles or following the trails of ants. They are constantly finding solutions to problems and creating things, such as drawings, model aeroplanes, and tree houses.
As a result, I turned our classroom into a hands-on learning laboratory by stocking it with a variety of interesting objects for the students to investigate. There were rocks and rockets, petrified wood and fossils, pots and pans, maps and atlases, paintings and posters, calculators and incubators, greenhouses and butterfly boxes, masks and artefacts from all over the world, and even a tile from a space shuttle. All of these things were displayed in the museum.
Students did, on occasion, take seats at their desks while I addressed the class, but the vast majority of their time was spent working on projects that required both knowledge and creative problem solving. We did this as part of a project called “What is Water?” that was run by the National Geographic Kids Network. We measured and monitored the water quality in a creek that was located outside of our school.
We went on educational excursions to the Chesapeake Bay and trampled around in the muck looking for plankton and little crabs. In Alexandria, Virginia, we saw the damage that acid rain has caused to some of the city’s ancient buildings. We produced water-themed fiction, poetry, periodicals, and murals through our creative endeavours. Together with youngsters from all across the world, we used computers to create water resource maps and graphs, exchange and compare data, and discuss and compare our findings.
Over the course of my teaching career, I made the most of every chance that presented itself to get information on and funding for high-tech tools for my classroom. In the end, we were equipped with computers, CD-ROM players, and modems, which extended the boundaries of education beyond the four walls of the classroom and into the wider world. My children and I were able to access a digital classroom filled with lecturers, students, and industry professionals thanks to the Internet. Because of this worldwide networking, even the smallest fingertips can investigate the most profound concepts.
I allowed myself to view myself as a co-learner with my children, and I gave myself freedom to acquire as much knowledge as I deemed necessary in order to become an effective educator. While I was studying marine biology, I had to go through creeks and marshes while wearing wading boots. The mosquitoes were enormous. During my time as a fellow at the Challenger Center, I had the opportunity to launch a rocket, stand in a wind tunnel, fly kites, and control a glider.
I stopped teaching a few years ago so that I could concentrate on my work as an education reformer in other capacities. I worked with the National Infrastructure Information Advisory Council to bring electronic networking to schools, libraries, and homes so that every student can have the same type of access to learning that my kids did. I want every student to have the same opportunities. In addition, I was a part of the team that established the Online Internet Institute. This institute is a digital network that is devoted to educators educating other educators. It is a location in cyberspace where educators may study and develop together.
However, the driving motivation for my endeavour is the same as it has always been for me, and that is to provide younger generations with the comprehensive education that I lacked growing up. My view is that one of the most important responsibilities of a teacher is to provide young children with exposure to a wide variety of exciting educational opportunities from an early age. This should encourage the children to reflect on who they can become and what they can achieve throughout the rest of their lives.