Teaching in a Wikipedia world: A good teacher does more than stick facts in your head

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I recently saw an alarming cartoon that a friend posted to his Facebook page. "Everything I learned in college," it said, "is now available on Wikipedia for free."

This alarmed me not because I regret my college education, but because I'm now a college professor. Are teachers like me becoming obsolete?

I don't think so. I believe that to consider teachers obsolete is to misunderstand the nature of learning.

Information does seem widely available and cheap in the 21st century. So perhaps it is worth asking, when Web sources like Wikipedia are free, what's the point of paying, as students, parents and taxpayers do, for the labor of teachers?

I would argue that while information might seem to float down like manna from Internet heaven, it would be a mistake to assume that students don't need teachers to help them master knowledge and skills.

I don't mean to imply that people can never learn material on their own: Of course they can. Knowledge can be acquired through self-study and independent reading, which is why Andrew Carnegie donated millions to support public libraries. Some exceptional people in history -- Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass come to mind -- were largely self-taught.

For most people seeking advanced knowledge, though, it is very helpful to combine independent study with the input of teachers. Teachers provide the explanation and interpretation of material that fosters effective learning. Even Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass sought teachers and mentors where they could find them.

In addition to acquiring knowledge, learning involves mastering skills. Skills are gained through practice, with teachers providing feedback that can help students hone their abilities. Even Michael Phelps has a coach, after all.

I like to think of education as a series of rehearsals. Students need to try something, get feedback, recognize and accept their strengths and shortcomings, try again, sometimes fall short again and try anew. Through this process, students become competent and self-assured as they recognize their own improvement. They find the areas where they can excel, and the areas where they may never excel. It's hard work. It takes dedication to keep at something, especially when your best efforts sometimes fall short of expectations.

Teachers are the audience for all this practice. As students rehearse their skills, we're the ones who critique them. We give students the space to fail -- sometimes dramatically -- before such failure might cost them an educational opportunity or a job. We know that they're amateurs, and our role is to encourage them and give honest comments that help them develop competence. We're here to simulate the future audiences they will someday face.

I'm reminded of my 11th-grade English teacher, who also directed many of the school plays. As he watched play rehearsals, he laughed at every funny line, every time. Was he amused as he heard these lines for the fifth, 12th, 20th time? I'm sure he was not. But he was committed to giving us the laughs that would hone our timing for a real audience.

His detailed feedback on our papers showed just as much dedication. He carefully numbered each problem he found in our writing. At the end, in neat red print, he wrote out each number next to an explanation or suggestion (I remember receiving 14 notes on one four-page paper).

Why did he go to so much trouble? He was helping us learn to reach the readers we would want to engage in later life. He was helping me become the author who would someday write this article.

This kind of feedback takes a lot of time. Grades are probably the most obvious form of feedback, but grades are a blunt instrument of assessment. If you get a bad grade, you know you did something wrong, but what? The answer to that question is where the rest of a teacher's work comes in.

For instructors of writing like my 11th-grade English teacher and me, this work involves hours of grading papers, writing comments and offering advice in conferences. Teachers in other fields spend hours correcting procedures, noting errors, critiquing presentations, evaluating ideas, modeling techniques and offering suggestions, while also praising success and improvement.

I'm skeptical of descriptions that assume learning involves nothing but the transfer of information from a computer to a student's brain. I'm also concerned about trends to increase class sizes in many schools, thus reducing the amount of time teachers can spend providing quality feedback to each student.

Students need teachers who help them both know and do. With their explanations, encouragement and feedback, teachers provide a responsive approach that cannot be found on Wikipedia.

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Jennifer Riddle Harding is an associate professor of English at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pa. (jharding@washjeff.edu). She teaches American literature, composition and professional writing and coordinates the interdisciplinary Professional Writing Program.


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