Metateaching: Teachers as anthropologists and designers.

While reading Gerhard Fischer’s Understanding, Fostering, and Supporting Cultures of Participation, I was transported back in time to my semester abroad in Nepal in 1996 when I was immersed in a foreign culture for the first time and inundated with fifteen units of Anthropology and Cultural Geography classes. In the shadow of Mt Nilgiri, we often debated individualism versus collectivism or the importance of the self versus the importance of the group.

Every discussion reached a similar conclusion, surprisingly quickly considering the effects of altitude on alcohol tolerance: A person both supports and is supported by a community.


In fact, from an anthropologist’s perspective, that is how humans survived and thrived for hundreds of thousands of years. Knowledge was not a commodity, it was a right. Innovation was embraced and shared. The modern education system is not based on such concepts. It is generally authoritarian, bureaucratic, and militaristic. And it is obsolete. In it’s current state, it can only perpetuate problems. That’s why teachers must be anthropologists.

I mean it quite literally. Anthropology and elementary education share every characteristic except one. Anthropologists wish not to influence their ethnographic subjects; educators specifically do want to influence our students. In order to make good decisions about how to guide children’s learning, teachers need to objectively observe and assess society to filter ‘everything’ into comprehensible units for kids. It’s a daunting challenge, and I wonder if students wouldn’t be better off filtering for themselves anyway?!

At least I can say that learning to see your students through an ethnographic lens will certainly make you a better teacher.

Movements like Genius Hour, the Maker Movement, Social Creativity, and Open-Learning, and achievement badges are some of the first bells to toll for our stagnant system of so-called learning. They are wrestling control of learning away from schools to give it back to learners where it belongs, and they provide exactly the kinds of authentic content elementary teachers should curate for students.

In Fischer’s article, he describes metadesign. Metadesigners, in my interpretation, design systems which empower users to create their own designs. MIT Media Lab’s Scratch is a great example, as it visually represents elements of code, allowing the user virtually limitless possibilities for creation, while at the same time learning concepts coding. The same idea can be applied to any system, from YouTube to Wikipedia, provided it meets certain criteria for openness and adaptability. Metadesigners recognize that everyone has brilliance within them and help to unlock it.

Let’s become metateachers. Instead of imparting knowledge, let’s create and develop environments in which children can acquire it through inquiry. Let’s frame inquiries with concepts which can be interconnected and applied universally. Prioritize emotional and social understanding to nurture collaboration and empathy. Find resources and experts who would ignite our students’ passions. Let’s design systems of learning which empower learners to design their own learning.

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Standing at the crossroads of everything

There may not be many issues on which every rational person can agree, but one of those is certainly the importance of children and their learning.

Consequently, everyone seems to have an opinion about elementary education.


Bloggers agree that kids should blog. Nature lovers insist they should spend more time outside. Musicians are convinced every kid should play an instrument. Inquiry advocates want to see them wondering and wandering, while politicians seem to want to see them at rows of desks with their heads buried in a test. ‘Makers’ think children should tinker. Counselors think emotional and social health is paramount. Children should think globally, be involved in their communities, pursue their interests, try new things, etc, ad nauseum. They voice those opinions because they are speaking from their passions.


And they’re all right. Children should do all those things, and more, and great teachers know it.


Elementary educators stand at the crossroads of everything charged with the responsibility to nurture and protect the future’s most important asset.

In order to function as a curator of everything, I think the key is to balance breadth and depth of learning in my classroom.


Breadth

By maintaining rigorous routines and keeping inquiries as well-organized and progressive as possible, I ensure that my students travel many paths, including teacher-, peer-, and self-initiated, and have a wide variety of opportunities to explore and discover. I find the IB Learner Profile to be quite useful as a reference. Utilizing a range of media is important to keep in mind, including technology from the stone age to the information age. It’s very easy for teachers to find “what works” and spend a career sticking to it. That’s bad for students, in my opinion. I challenge myself to expand my approaches to teaching constantly and enjoy it.


Depth

In every school year, at any grade level, my class will have a unit on jazz music. It’s what I know and love and can teach more fluently and passionately than anything else, and that’s what my students deserve. In the legendary photo below, many of New York City’s most revered jazz musicians gathered (with a dozen or so neighborhood kids) for a group photo. If a typical picture is worth a thousand words, this one is worth at least one-hundred thousand. It’s important to empower children to follow their inquiries as deeply as they wish and to provide excellent examples of how it can be done.

A Great Day in Harlem 1958 photo by Art Kane

In his 2013 TED Prize winning talk, Sugata Mitra posits that in the future, knowing will be obsolete. I don’t agree, but that doesn’t matter because it’s not my future he’s predicting, it’s that of the children in my class. It’s not for me to decide what their future should be, but to provide them with opportunities to prepare for and participate in it.