Yes, My Face is Turned Toward You

By June 2, 2014Education

I was reminded today of the story of the preschooler who was afraid of the dark. He just couldn’t sleep alone in his room and always ended up wanting to sleep in his parents’ bed at night. As he lay there each night, he would softly whisper to his father, “Daddy, is your face turned toward me?” And his dad would softly tell him, “Yes, my face is turned toward you.” And each night, the boy would fall asleep feeling safe and protected.

My wife and I raised three sons. Each was different and each was the same in so many ways. As a young dad, I was busy trying to figure out how to conquer the world and make the car payment each month. And, as a dad who wanted to make sure my boys knew I loved them, I always tried to make sure they received the attention that growing children need from parents. But, as attentive as I tried to be, sometimes I was so busy even when home. And, when one of them would come in to show me the latest picture he had drawn or tell me the story of his day, I would, as parents often do, give a cursory nod or “yeah, that’s great, buddy”. Now, it’s not that I wasn’t interested. But, we just get busy.

Well, it always worked. Until it didn’t. One of the boys figured it out at a very early age. and, when he would show me that picture, he would stand there with it and watch my face, my eyes. He was waiting. Giving the verbal acknowledgement wasn’t good enough for him. Nodding my head while still attending to whatever task was at hand wasn’t going to work with this one. He would stand there watching me, my face, my eyes. He wanted my attention. Not just my words and nods. He needed to know that I was ENGAGED. He needed to know my attention and encouragement was genuine. Only when I dropped what I was doing, stopped what I was doing, and focused my full attention on the drawing would he be satisfied. Only when I commented on something that proved I was actually paying attention would he be happy and move on to his next adventure.

Can we, should we, will we, replace teachers with technology? This always seems to be where every argument goes. I have opportunities to teach graduate students in education administration and when the subject turns to 21st century innovation, the debate always turns to replacing teachers with technology. That seems to be the great notion. So, can we, should we, will we?

Motivation is a key to learning. If a kid sits in the classroom and has no motivation, extrinsic or intrinsic, it really doesn’t matter what we do. The kid won’t learn.

Engagement is a key to learning. Buy the books, line them up in rows, make them sit up and pay attention. If they don’t engage, they won’t learn.

They may show up and they may even “pass” our class. Doesn’t mean they’ve learned.

We have gone too far in our definition of “teaching” and made it something it isn’t meant to be. We’ve morphed the idea of teaching into something akin to university professorships that start at the top of the heap with Ivy League “old school” lecturers and then scale down to the high school (and even elementary school) levels. This, and only (or mostly) this, is teaching. Subject-matter experts that prepare their presentation and deliver it each day to enraptured students. That’s the pure idea and “teaching” wherever we are tries to get as close to that as possible. If we DO that, we have done our job. That’s the visual we get when “teaching” is mentioned.

Thinking about engagement, one typically arrives at the conclusion that we need to find ways to engage the student with the content or material needing to be learned. Yet, in an Industrial Age system of education, where the JOB of “teaching” can be accomplished by performing the TASKS of “teaching” as defined by that system, engagement means much more than student to content.

I’ve been a subject-matter expert and I’ve taught. I’ve worked in plenty of situations where the job of teaching can be done. And I have found myself on the slippery slope of giving cursory nods with a hearty, “that’s great, buddy” to kids. It’s too easy to care more about my subject than my students (or at least all my students). It’s too easy to get caught up in the administrative and the busyness of the job and never have the time for the kids or the kid.

If it’s defined as the pure idea of lecturer and subject-driven interaction, it’s easy. What’s hard is engagement. True engagement for each student.

No computer ever motivated me to do more and be more. No software program ever inspired me to stretch myself intellectually.

I think we’ve picked on the kid somewhat excessively in the engagement debate. They don’t care, they don’t apply themselves. They don’t engage with the learning process.

We often just have disengaged teachers. Technology cannot replace teachers because empirical evidence shows that an engaged adult passing knowledge and wisdom to younger generations has always been a hallmark of successful learning. But we have to start utilizing technology in ways that get us away from this tired, wrong and crippling idea that “teaching” is primarily delivering content, lecturing and verbally offering our volumes of information to students.

Technology can personally diagnose, prescribe, deliver content to groups of individuals better than humans. Technology should be used to replace the Industrial Age elements of education. Why? Because we need those who have committed their lives to changing the world through their work in the classroom to be free to engage with every single student in the classroom.

Can we, should we, will we, replace teachers? Yes. If they don’t belong in a classroom, if they don’t care about kids, if they won’t care enough to engage with learners to make sure they LEARN. Replace them with one that will.

It’s not a matter of replacing teachers with technology. It’s a matter of leveraging technology to do what it does best. So, a teacher can do what they should do best…….engaging with a kid. To motivate, to encourage and to be the change and growth agent for that child. That’s legacy living. We have the opportunity to do it now more than ever.

Whereas, it was a piecemeal effort before. We’ve known that for every adult that did receive that in their school years, there were more that didn’t. A teacher, when faced with the burdens of too many students, just can’t get to it all. Now, they can. And we should create the systems where they have that opportunity. We shouldn’t replace them…..we should free them up. Only then can every kid know that “yes, my face is turned toward you.”