There is a Future for Teachers

At 140, the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh hasn’t lost touch with its roots. We still teach teachers. The 21st century brings new challenges, from keeping education relevant and retooled for increasingly tech-savvy generations to ensuring classrooms are inclusive and effective. An alumnus and futurist, a dean and people in the field all weigh in on what’s ahead for teachers.

In Daniel Burrus’ opinion, R2D2 would make a lousy doctor and an even crummier teacher.

Burrus doesn’t hold much hope for the bedside manner or the classroom creativity of robots.

No matter how articulate or human they may appear in the technologically transformative years ahead, the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh alumnus, best-selling author, futurist and CEO of Hartland’s Burrus Research Associates, believes people who land in the hospital or require higher-skilled care still want a good, old-fashioned human being to communicate and connect with. R2D2 or C3PO might draw our blood, run a scan or help with physical therapy. But Burrus believes we still crave and benefit from an in-the-flesh doctor’s creativity and healing influence.

In classrooms? Same deal.

“Do you want that Watson-powered computer coming up and saying, ‘I hope you get well soon?’ I don’t think so,” Burrus said. “Healing is an art and a science… Teaching is an art and a science.”

“What we’re going to do is free the human teachers to teach the higher levels of the cognitive domain,” he said. “The lower levels are fantastic for automation. Just like in work, repetitive tasks are for robots. The higher levels are what humans do best – analysis, problem solving, synthesis.”

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the 1971 UW Oshkosh alumnus is an education grad. Burrus’ vision is reassuring news for the state’s third-largest and second-fastest growing university, a now-140-year-old institution that, since its Oshkosh Normal School days, has been teaching teachers.

For decades, Burrus has stressed to corporate, government and educational leaders alike that humans have not, and will not, relegate all they do to technology. Rather, they leave the menial stuff to robotic arms and artificial intelligences. In the classroom, that means the HALs and holograms of tomorrow are best to teach rudimentary math skills or the use of commas, freeing living, breathing teachers to concentrate on higher-level lessons.

The 21st century brings new budgetary and cultural challenges for teaching and those who teach teachers. Every year, there are new mandates to keep education relevant and retooled for increasingly tech-savvy generations. Meanwhile, there’s another demand for innovation: Teachers must keep schools havens of accessibility and inclusivity, maximizing the classroom for learning disabled children, non-English-speaking students and the advantaged alike.

The future has a lot in store for teachers. But, in a sense, UW Oshkosh is honoring its past by focusing on the future, leading an ever-morphing, multifaceted campaign to prepare the teachers of tomorrow by embracing all the change.

“It’s a constant adaptation,” College of Education and Human Services Dean Fred Yeo said.

Inclusion as innovation
It has long been a problem with envisioning the future: Humans tend to focus on the gadgets and gizmos likely to develop, à la Star Trek or Jetsons. But in the mission of teaching the teachers of tomorrow, there is as much emphasis on inclusion as there is on iPads.

UW Oshkosh has become a leader in equipping teachers with the innovative training, sensitivity and understanding necessary to make classrooms as comfortable and effective for gifted students as they are for learning disabled and non-English-speaking pupils. It is an ideal that has been stressed since the 1970s, yet, only in the last 10 to 20 years have teachers and researchers really begun to pull the elusive vision out of the abstract, assembling dynamic classroom environments, documenting their approaches and results and making the experience part of student-teachers’ proving grounds.

Controversial though they have been, forward-looking, results-based national policies like No Child Left Behind and Response to Intervention (RTI) are driving change, stressing the need for K–12
education to be effective for students of all learning abilities, socioeconomic strata and cultural backgrounds.

Stacey Skoning, an assistant professor of special education at UW Oshkosh, was teaching elementary math in Madison in the 1990s when she saw firsthand the revelatory impact of inclusive classrooms. She and another instructor “co-taught” a “multi-age, fully-inclusive” classroom with learning-disabled, cognitively disabled, emotionally and behaviorally challenged, gifted, non-English-speaking and average students.

Skoning said that diverse population was far from chaotic. It proved advantageous for all.

While gifted students demonstrated a strong grasp of the mechanics of math, it was the students with disabilities — students who, in earlier eras, were disqualified from problem solving when they couldn’t get past the nuts and bolts of multiplication tables — who proved to be the creative problem solvers, sometimes offering elegant solutions.

When the math class was fragmented back into pieces, separating the learners into their traditional same-ability environments, neither group thrived like they did together.

“It was a phenomenal year and taught us how important inclusive education really is,” Skoning said.

The inclusive ethic is now ingrained in UW Oshkosh’s COEHS curriculum. And it’s also the driving force in an increasing number of University-community collaborations.

A student in the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh College of Education and Human Services' Human Kinetics and Health Education Program volunteers time teaching children in the college's summer Adapted Physical Education Program in Albee Hall gym.

COEHS hosts an annual “Planting the Seeds of Inclusion” conference, billed as an open invitation to regional K–12 “educators, therapists, parents and other professionals involved in the growth and learning of children, from birth through age 22, in inclusive settings.” Participants receive training and learn about best practices. Parents of children with disabilities tap into expert wisdom.

With such influential, collaborative programs as reinforcement, Yeo said there is an increasing push to require teaching students to spend more time in inclusive, special education classrooms.

The college is pushing for student teachers to spend three to six hours of mandatory special education time upon graduation, a way to keep their talents aligned with the RTI tenets. That policy calls for delivery of “high-quality, culturally and linguistically responsive instruction, assessment and evidence-based intervention,” according to the National Center on Response to Intervention.

Like No Child Left Behind, RTI also emphasizes the advancement of not only special education students but also those of different socioeconomic or cultural backgrounds.

“We’re all beginning to go, ‘OK, let’s mandate multicultural education in undergraduate requirements,’” Yeo said.

UW Oshkosh teaching students appear to be embracing all the changes.

Skoning said the popularity of COEHS’s double major in elementary education and special education continues to grow. Not only are the dual degrees attuned to the needs of modern elementary schools embracing inclusivity, but they also are a valuable commodity to UW Oshkosh graduates looking to land a first teaching job in a tough economy.

“If I’m a principal, and I’m looking to hire you, and I found out you have elementary and special education background, I’m much more interested in you than an only-elementary school teacher,” Skoning said.

Technology? Sure, but it’s no substitute
While technology isn’t the only prescription for teaching’s future, it certainly isn’t being ignored at UW Oshkosh.

But the emphasis is not on mastery of the gadgets. It is instead placed on using technology in the classroom to convey those higher-level lessons that Burrus considers the bread-and-butter of human teachers’ futures.

Professor Eric Brunsell teaches a variety of graduate and undergraduate courses in science education, including one in which UW Oshkosh students use the face-to-face online video tool Skype to mentor elementary students in the Middle East on science fair projects.

“In our case, future teachers from UW Oshkosh are mentoring students from Islamabad, Tel Aviv, Cairo, Tunis — they are connecting with students all over the world,” said Brunsell, assistant professor in the curriculum and instruction department within COEHS.

“When this year’s graduating class entered UWO, YouTube was only a year or two old,” he said. “Now, more than 35 hours of video are uploaded every second… It is impossible to ‘train’ teachers to adapt to this rapidly changing technological landscape. Learning how to use specific tools doesn’t cut it.

Department of Human Services and Educational Leadership assistant professor Nari Kim assists a student in a summer UW Oshkosh course on educational technology. The course is one in a series emphasizing the 21st century preparation and adaptability of teaching students in synthesizing the meaningful use of technology in their future classrooms.

Instead, we need to focus on developing a mind-set in our students that asks, ‘What can I do with this technological tool that I couldn’t do without it?’”

Heather Peterson graduated from UW Oshkosh with her early childhood education degree in May. As a student teacher, she employed a SMARTBoard in a fifth-grade Neenah classroom and the “Elmos and overheads and PowerPoints” her kindergarten and second grade environments called for.

Peterson said those varied experiences helped her land her first job at an international school in Gunma, Japan this summer.

“With my student teaching experiences as an example, I think that has really prepared me to feel like I can teach anything, anywhere at any level,” Peterson said.

Brunsell foresees quickening computing power and mobile applications on phones — “apps” — leading “to diagnostic assessments that will pinpoint student difficulties and suggest tutorials to overcome those difficulties.” He also predicts the spread of distance learning but not at the expense of in-the-flesh teachers.

“Why does a teacher need to be located in the same physical space as a child in order to focus on critical thinking or other higher-level skills?” Brunsell asked. “Teachers — human teachers — will continue to be important, but their role will continue to evolve.”

So, will students continue to “go to school” to learn? Yes and no, Burrus said.

“There are times when we are going to school when there are things we could be doing better at home, and there are times when we’re at home and we should have been in a classroom — when it would have been better to have been in a classroom with a teacher,” he said.

Burrus believes teaching’s future, like the broader future, is never an “either-or” proposition; it’s always a “both-and.” UW Oshkosh needs to continue to support the perception that technology brings opportunity, not threat, for teachers, he said.

“The past doesn’t go away. It gets repurposed,” he said. “We aren’t having a teacher doing everything, but we are having a teacher there.”

“Most of us are too busy to design the future, so it just unfolds,” Burrus said. “I want us to intentionally build a new future. This transformation is going to happen whether you like it or not. I think educators need to be tone-shaping that transformation or others will do it for them. We could have a more human  and more connected future or not.”

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