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Reflecting on the Role of Teachers and Professors in 2040

'Start with this realization: future students will not be clones of their educators nor similar to many students today.'

Our Changing World

Surely we can all agree, even with the growth of artificial intelligence, that we cannot do away with all teachers and professors in the coming decades! The better inquiry is to ask what roles these individuals can and will play within the educational system of the future. The reason? If we fail to prepare our teachers and professors well, they will not succeed in providing optimal education to our students and their families.

Start with this realization: future students will not be clones of their educators nor similar to many students today. These students will be vastly more diverse; they will hail from different nations; they will speak multiple languages; they will be the first in their families to pursue post-secondary education; they will be technologically savvy; and they will not be wealthy (as measured in dollars).

In the coming decades, there will be dramatic changes in the workplace. The employees of the future will not stay with one company, and their professional roles will change with the passage of time. Indeed, it is expected that the workers of tomorrow will hold between 6 – 9 jobs within their working lives. That means the skills taught today will obsolesce and students will be ill-prepared for the future unless we help them learn to adapt to changing environments and technologies.

In addition to changing students and changing workplaces, we will have an increase in technology and big data that can inform decision-making and will benefit society globally, if done well. We will be in the position to serve people’s individual needs and hopefully, provide personal privacy and technology security.

What Educators Need to Know

Currently, we provide teacher education in silos. We have Schools of Education that train educators headed into positions from early childhood through grade 12. But once we graduate our teachers, they rarely engage with others at different “levels” across the educational landscape. For example, early childhood educators do not engage with high school teachers or college professors. In fact, there is much the former can teach the latter, although cultural elitism discourages such engagement. Can you imagine a college mathematics professor visiting a kindergarten class to glimpse how young minds are shaped through technological advantages? Upon reflection, couldn’t we see that those teaching tomorrow’s students should know how students are taught today?

One more reality: we do not teach our college and graduate school/professional school professors to teach. We hire them because of their extraordinary content knowledge and capacity to do research. If these individuals can actually teach effectively, that is a luxury that was neither anticipated nor rewarded sufficiently. We do offer faculty development once someone is a professor, but, ask yourselves how many professors actually want to participate in further training, particularly since teaching is – if we are honest – often not central to the grant of tenure.

And, just as an aside from my own experience as both a professor and a college president, those who partake of these development offerings are already quality teachers/professors while those who could benefit from support are often absent.

What Can Educators do to Enable Student Success?

Recognizing the challenges confronting educating our educators is just the first step; problem recognition is insufficient in and of itself. To that end, here are three concrete strategies to consider deploying in order to help our diverse students flourish.

One: Recognize the value of interdisciplinarity. We teach subjects in silos, non-reflective of real life. We teach math separately from art, and social science separately from music; we often leave out issues of culture, class, and community. It seems we have silos across and within institutions that educate students at all ages and stages, and we fail adequately to interlink knowledge.

So, let’s foster co-teaching across groups and disciplines. Yes, that would be expensive, but if we want to ensure that our students are educated, might we want to change what and how we teach?

Two: Let’s explore technological advances and ponder seriously how to use them for educational purposes and student success. How many classroom teachers and professors struggle with current technology in the classroom? If we can’t get Face Time or the Internet to work, how can we expect to utilize robotics and artificial intelligence? Where do we talk about the differences between open resources and proprietary software? And, where in the educational process do we train faculty?

What if we expand who has technological input, allowing teachers to explore options and then pair them with classroom instructors who are less (or more) comfortable with technology? Similar to data, we collect it and analyze it but we do not enable those affected by it to participate in its analyses.

Again, let’s diminish silos and the notion of ownership of technology by experts.

Three: What if we require all teachers and professors to become students in a subject they haven’t studied? Suppose we ask all educators to take one weekend a year to learn in a strange place (paid for by their institution)? Suppose we ask them to acquire expertise a language they do not know?

Stated another way, let’s foster role reversal – make teachers students so they better understand the challenges of learning. These challenges are not just related to content; they have to do with a realization as to how hard it is to retain information when one is scared or out of one’s element.

Bottom line, ask educators to learn so they can walk in their students’ shoes.

Conclusion:

Ultimately, if we want to improve educational outcomes and prepare students for the workplace, we need to change how our teachers learn and teach. In short, we need to start with the providers of education to ensure that our students will become workforce ready. Ask oneself: how can we prepare students if our educators are not prepared? This effort cannot wait: we cannot afford to lose educational success for generations of students.

About the Author
Karen Gross is a Washington, DC–based advisor and consultant to non-profit schools, organizations, and governments. She is the former president of Southern Vermont College and a former senior policy advisor to the United States Department of Education. She is the author of Breakaway Learners: Strategies for Post-Secondary Success with At-Risk Students and the children’s book series, Lady Lucy’s Quest.

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