In the late 90s, when I was in high school, the catchphrase of the time in education was “instead of the sage on the stage, be the guide on the side.” This became influential in my own thinking around education, and was what inspired me to go into the field of education when I started college in 1999.
In the early 2000s, though, a series of shifts in state educational policy happened; paradoxically those working for educational equity teamed up with those who distrust public education (corporate leaders, right-wing thinkers) and created a movement of standards, and later testing, in order to enforce a certain minimal level of content mastery. With this focus on standards and testing, the focus moved away from the teacher as a guide to the teacher as the deliverer of content – scripted curricula started to be rolled out, and strict regulations were passed that required the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in a subject to teach that subject (the so-called highly qualified teacher – HQT- regulations).
I spent three years in my first Master’s degree studying the political history and policy climate in education; looking at how movements like LGBT rights interacted with movements like teacher unionism, looking at the witchhunts and political fights around gay and lesbian teachers, and looking at the implications of these political theories for the practical pedagogy that I was using in my practice as a teacher. I presented my results and findings at the American Educational Research Association conference, and networked with others interested in similar ideas. At the same time, I was being called upon more and more as a teacher to work with students with disabilities, and chose to enter a second Master’s program to study the issues of students with disabilities.
From the moment I entered the second Master’s program, I realized something wasn’t quite right. They talked a lot about mathematics and students with learning differences and their struggles with mathematics, but the theories and techniques they were teaching us were about thirty years out of date. I joined a small cohort of experienced math teachers in their two year set of four seminars in order to learn about current pedagogical thinking and how it played out in classroom practice. And I began to present at conferences about my unique approach to mathematics education, shaped by the political framework and foundations I had previously laid but informed by my interactions with students with learning differences and adults that had various disabilities. (I have somewhat serious disabilities of my own, which inspired and motivated me in this process).
What I found in this process is that math education as a discipline drew heavily on the “not the sage on the stage, but the guide on the side” but still insisted that teachers drive the curriculum even as students were encouraged to have “intellectual authority” and become creators of mathematical knowledge through discussion. I taught a 6-week class on inverse functions, operations, and concepts (at an Algebra 2 level) to a group of working class high school students of color, and found that coming in with a pre-set curriculum, which was required of me, denied students opportunities for meaningful participation and to set their own goals. At the same time, though, when I did ask students about the topics they wanted to learn about, most cited the things they thought would impress me or their teachers the next year. They had no understanding of what it meant to set their self-chosen educational goals and to seek out and learn about topics of genuine interest.
So, what I want to propose here is to reconceptualize the teacher as a facilitator. And to take a step further and conceptualize the student as a facilitator of their own process. I noticed in my teaching the class on inverses that I did a beautiful job drawing things out of students and facilitating their exploration of background knowledge and summarizing what we’d covered so far. But it still was the teacher doing the process work, not the students. Vygotsky says that the goal of learning is to take inter-mental processes (group cognition – where people think about things together in a social context) and help them to become intra-mental processes, where we are able to use what we learned in social context in order to carry out that dialogue and process in our own head– to internalize and be able to facilitate independent and interdependent lifelong learning, but on their own volition and direction.
I have traveled a long road to get here in my thinking; political context, LGBT issues, studying disability, mathematics education, and now facilitation. I have been presenting at mathematics education conferences, attending charter school conferences, attending facilitation trainings, and taking every opportunity to practice my teaching skills. But I still have a long way to go to undo my own habits and impulses to explicate and explain and direct and control and coerce student learning. It’s a process, and I’m learning how to facilitate my own process– something that will serve me well as I continue to guide students in their continued, life-long exploration of this adventure of knowledge and learning.