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Dec 21, 2007

Right-brained Teachers

Here is an argument by Daniel H. Pink which I find convincing. You can read a short version on-line, or get his book. Basically, his point is that the linear, logical, sequential thinking is becoming less important, for economic reasons, while right-brain "inventive, empathic, big picture capabilities" come to be the most valuable. His reasoning is quite simple: the computer-like information processing that can be reduced to a number of algorithms, can be handled better by computers, and is easily shipped overseas where it can be made cheaper. We see the evidence of this right here, in our School: instead of paying computer programmers some 30,000 for developing a database, we used a commercially available (although quite sophisticated) software and did it ourselves. Too bad for the company that was hoping to sell the thing to us; great for us. I just got a Christmas card from the company, and feel sorry for these people, but we simply do not need their skills; one does not need to know code to develop databases.

However, my point is this: Teaching seems to be going in the opposite direction. We still are trying to boost very technical skills in teachers. Scripted instructions and standardized assessment seem to call for sequential, linear thinking among teachers. One is supposed to know the curricular standards, and then go through an algorithm to plan instruction, assess, adjust, re-teach, and start over again. Teachers become more and more like knowledge workers and some people link hopes to professionalize teaching with the mastery of knowledge processing. There is nothing wrong with that, except this seems to be too late. We're trying to catch up with a train that is left already; instead of going ahead of the next one. Here is what the new age is calling for, and what we need to teach teachers to do:

High concept involves the capacity to detect patterns and opportunities, to create artistic and emotional beauty, to craft a satisfying narrative, and to combine seemingly unrelated ideas into something new. High touch involves the ability to empathize with others, to understand the subtleties of human interaction, to find joy in one's self and to elicit it in others, and to stretch beyond the quotidian in pursuit of purpose and meaning (Pink).

Somehow news reaches education much later. One of my doctoral students, Jen Davis, just turned in a paper which convincingly shows that schools use an outdated model of literacy; they are trying hard to reach a wrong goal. Similarly, teacher education might be improving fast but in the wrong direction.

The routine parts of teaching should and will be taken over by computers. For example, computer systems, such as the PLATO are much better at delivering the right curriculum at the right pace, and minutely assess the progress. They are also much better at individualizing the pace of instruction. Sometime soon they will also be able to individualize by learning style and learning disability. Therefore, instead of focusing on what machines can do better, we need to train teachers to relate to students and their parents, to figure out motivational and learning problems, to build supportive communities in their classrooms, and to spread joy. Creativity specifically can be cultivated in people; instead, we send them through compliance school. Our students are so used to complying; they get anxious when directions are not too clear, and the situation is ambivalent. But teachers should thrive on ambiguity and be non-conformists.

Paradoxically, to be creative, teachers need to know which parts of their work can be delegated to computers, and how to use the new informational universe. To even make a distinction between a linear information processing and an insight takes some skills. We still teach our students how to use PowerPoint, which is simply a glorified chalkboard. However, we spend very little time teaching them how to use the course management systems, or ways of creative Googling, etc. We spend almost no time on development of people skills; such as empathy, the ability to interpret emotions, how to listen, how to read body language, how to modulate one's voice, how to act, etc.

I taught a class like that in Russia for a couple of years. It was somewhere between an Encounter group, or socio-psychological training group and acting class. I taught them how to look in the eye, and how to walk in class. We trained for ability to withstand aggression, how to use self-suggestion, and to command attention. I taught them how to smile and charm parents, how and when to touch people. We practiced reading facial expressions. Not sure if they still do it, but that would be some right brain training.

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