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Death of the subject specialist? Education in a postmodern world

December 21, 2014

Whenever I talk to my children about life before the Internet, it’s clear to me that they can’t really get their heads round what it was like. Free access to pretty much any information you might want to find is entirely normal to them; if they want to know something, however obscure or trivial, they can go online and find the answer. When I was their age I had an encyclopaedia. If the information I wanted wasn’t there (and it usually wasn’t), I might be able to find the answer in a library, but in most cases the best way of finding information was to ask someone who knew more about the subject than you did. And if they didn’t know, you just didn’t know. This is the thing my kids can’t get their heads round – the idea that sometimes you just had to go get on with your life without knowing the name of that bit between your top lip and your nose, or the number of goals that Charlie Nicholas scored for Celtic, or the capital of Burkina Faso.

Of course, nowadays it’s so easy to find out these facts (philtrum, 48 and Ougadougou, in case you were wondering), and the amount of information that we have easy access to is seemingly infinite. Inevitably this widespread availability of information is having an effect on education, which is what I want to look at in this post.

Back in the olden days, the main role of the teacher was as a subject specialist. They knew stuff about a subject, and their job was to tell it to their students so that they could know that stuff as well. Teachers were the keepers of knowledge, and good teachers were the ones who could impart that knowledge effectively, in a way that it could be remembered. Students were then assessed on their ability to reproduce that information in the context of an exam.

But now, we have the Internet for that. We don’t need to sit in a classroom and listen to a real live person telling us stuff. Pretty much anything we want to know is just a google search away. In which case, it may seem reasonable to start questioning the point of teachers at all – what can they tell us that isn’t already on the Internet?

Of course, this is the kind of question that has been asked by people like Sugata Mitra, who caused considerable controversy and debate with his plenary talk at IATEFL in 2014. Sugata did some research and used it to argue that kids will learn stuff if you give them technology and just let them get on with it. “Teachers are obsolete”, he said. Strangely, this statement went down a lot better than you might expect it to in an auditorium full of teachers, so maybe he’s onto something?

There’s no question that the Internet can be used as a source of both knowledge and information, but this doesn’t make teachers obsolete. It alters their role considerably, but I would argue that it doesn’t diminish their importance in any way.

Recently, one of my colleagues gave a presentation on the value of teaching “essential skills” within the curriculum, irrespective of the subject being taught. His argument was that we don’t teach English or Geography or Engineering. We teach skills, within the context of our subject. He used himself as an example, saying he studied Sports Science at university, a subject that bears no relation to his current job at all, but in his job he still uses a lot of the skills that he developed when he was at university – critical thinking, academic writing, time management etc. The role of the teacher, therefore, is less about imparting knowledge and more about developing the skills that will allow people to gain the knowledge and perform the tasks required in the range of technical or professional contexts that they will find themselves in as adults.

You could argue that this is a very postmodern approach to education, as it suggests that what you study is of little importance, and what counts more is the development of interdisciplinary skills that allow individuals to engage critically with whatever information is being presented to them.

Let me just say at this point that I am not an expert in postmodernism. If you want to know about the origins and concepts of postmodern and poststructuralist thought, you should really read Jean-Francois Lyotard’s seminal work The Postmodern Condition, or try Neil McMillan’s blog here, which investigates the value of exploring ELT and language acquisition from a poststructuralist perspective. Many of the concepts in postmodernist discourse are some distance over my head, and I’m not going to embarrass myself (again) by pretending I know what I’m talking about in this regard.

What I will say though is that a number of concepts that tend to be regarded as “postmodern” have found their way into common educational practice. Education is no longer about the unidirectional dissemination of pre-existent truths. Instead, a strong emphasis is placed on the actual learning process. As teachers, we are encouraged to develop transferable critical thinking and study skills, to allow our students to be flexible enough to pursue careers in a fast-changing, post-industrial global society. Learners are encouraged to be critical of grand narratives, and instead to develop their ability to articulate their own thoughts.

Let’s go back to what I was saying earlier about the Internet and easy access to information. The need for teachers to know a lot of information about an academic subject isn’t as great as it used to be because anyone can find that information on the Internet. But Sugata’s wrong – this doesn’t make teachers obsolete. Students need to know what to do with all this information that is available to them – what exactly to look for, how reliable it is, why multiple answers might exist, what it means to believe one person’s viewpoint and not someone else’s. All of this sifting through information is a skill in itself, and it needs to be taught. So do the other essential skills that my colleague was talking about – generic, transferable skills that need to be used in a wide range of contexts. It is these skills that teachers in the 21st century need to be able to develop.

I’m not saying that teachers shouldn’t be subject specialists. I’m just saying that they need to be a lot more than just this. Knowing a lot about Geography doesn’t automatically make you a good Geography teacher, in the same way that being a native speaker doesn’t automatically qualify you to teach English (it really, really doesn’t!). And anyone who thinks that teaching English is simply a question of explaining and providing practice in the use of a series of linguistic structures is seriously out of touch with the way things are in the 21st century.

Teaching these days is about using the subject as a forum within which to develop a whole range of other skills. It’s about finding ways to connect the subject to a lot of other aspects of society. It’s about using the subject as an opportunity to introduce or develop skills that students need in order to learn more effectively. Teachers are far from obsolete, but our role has changed and, like our students we need to be able to adapt.

  1. The best blogpost discussing the teacher’s role for/in the 21st century that I’ve read in months. You said it all. Welcome back!

    • Thank you very much, Rose – very encouraging words. I hope you had a great Christmas and I wish you all the best for the new year.

  2. Neil McMillan permalink

    Hi Steve,

    Thanks for a great post and also for the link to my blog (even if it’s in hibernation for the winter).

    If I have read you correctly, the key role of the 21st century teacher is to develop skills, not impart knowledge. Yet the development of skills would suggest certain types of knowledge – of the skills themselves, of pedagogical methods for example – as well as the ability to transfer that across to the students – and then perhaps more slipperly attributes, like an openness to the skill-sets of others and the sensitivity required to intervene and shape or direct their transferability. Let’s call it experience, or at least experience plus reflection. So arguably we still have a key teaching role which requires knowledge, skill and experience. What has perhaps changed is the type or types of knowledge, and the status of that knowledge, or at least its place within the set – it is no longer the dominant term. And part of the experience and reflection would be to subject that knowledge to review, to critique, in the same way we want our students to tackle the information they are presented with. This, for me, would be the ideal postmodern educational scenario.

    Yet if one apparent objective is to help students “pursue careers in a fast-changing post-industrial global society”, there’s the postmodern rub – behind the façade of capitalism’s grand narrative, postmodern critique, the fragmentation of old truths, identities in process are all part of the game. For me, it all depends how far teachers are prepared to push the critical thinking paradigm. Teaching the search and evaluation skills necessary to dig up valuable information about a bank prior to a job interview is one thing. Going further to investigate how many evictions that bank is responsible for, how much money it has invested in arms, which southern european countries owe it money, etc. – well the difference is obviously political, or at least ethical. And since, as I think you commented elsewhere, the whole field of education is already carpetted with competing ideologies, I would argue that a political-ethical stance should be an essential component to the teaching role you describe, lest it merely serve the interests of capital (albeit dressed up as if it were only meeting the needs of students).

    A present example for me is the use I’m making of online corpora in my classroom and my decision to start training up my Proficiency students to use them themselves – to find collocations, phrases in context, dependent prepositions etc. etc. I have a keen-eyed group of students, some of whom are social scientists, and they already notice things, for example highly gendered patterns of meaning (e.g. It’s women who giggle, weep, get hysterical) without any guidance from me. I want to start exploiting this interdisciplinary crossroads in the near future as I think it expands critical thinking beyond the parameters of that required by their exam, and yet at the same time it can only boost their exam scores if we can transfer or transform this interest into developing their vocabulary and argumentative skills in speaking and writing.

    Finally I just note that I used “transfer” again, as you did in your post, and since we’re doing the postmodern thing I can’t help thinking of psychoanalysis. There transference takes place when the patient transfers unconscious desires onto the doctor, thus making them manifest in some way. Jacques Lacan said that the doctor in this process is “the subject supposed to know” – in other words, the key thing is that the patient believes that the doctor knows what s/he is doing, can decode the patient’s secret thoughts – when this condition is met, transference can take place. The doctor or analyst doesn’t necessarily know anything. Are we, as teachers, not a bit like that? What would happen if our students stopped supposing we knew anything? Would that be the end of the possibility of transference? Or, I’m tempted to say, the beginning of some kind of transformation?

    To end on a more prosaic note, let me just say that for me, newly qualified teachers in our profession don’t know nearly enough, or rather are not required to know nearly enough about their subject, if we regard our subject as more than simply knowing a few grammar rules and classroom management techniques. I don’t know if this contradicts what I’ve said previously but maybe it’s a point for further discussion.

  3. Hi Neil,
    Great to hear from you again, and thanks for another long and thoughtful post that is so full of interesting points I’m not sure how to respond.
    I agree that the ethical-political role of teachers is unavoidable and therefore needs a lot more scrutiny. You can’t really teach a class without touching on some kind of political or ethical issue, or if you choose to try and avoid such issues then this in itself entails taking some sort of stance. We therefore have to take this role far more seriously if, as you point out, we want to empower our learners and not facilitate the opposite.
    Your point about teachers being a bit like counsellors made me think of an article in English Teaching Professional from a couple of years ago by Adrian Underhill and Alan Maley on what they called the “dark matter” of language teaching. What they were talking about was the stuff that goes on in the classroom that we don’t see, like what the students are thinking, whether they’re actually learning anything, that sort of stuff. We might know what we’re teaching but we have a lot less of a clue about what (if anything) is actually being learnt. Are our students aware that we don’t have this very crucial knowledge? Are they happy to trust our ability to find out by assessing them? This is certainly an interesting issue and worth exploring in a future post. Maybe on your blog though. not mine!
    Very best wishes,

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