Note: What follows below is a transcript from a speech recently delivered by Bob Regan, Director of the Big History Project, at an event recognizing Teachers of the Year in New Jersey. Veteran BHP teacher Mike Skomba was awarded Teacher of the Year for Somerset County.
Let me start by congratulating everyone here who has been honored as a teacher of the year. It’s immensely exciting to me to be here with you today. I want to take a moment to thank Melissa Stager and Mike Skomba for the invitation to speak with you all today. Mike and I have had the honor of working together through the Big History Project, and I have come to know him as a pretty remarkable guy. I suppose that is just the way it is with Teachers of the Year. Yesterday, he was a guest lecturer for a course at the University of Michigan. Today, he’s here addressing a room full of some of the very best teachers in the state. This summer, he’s off to Scotland for a fellowship to study Thomas Jefferson. Making the remarkable mundane is part of his magic, and he’s been critical to helping establish a vibrant PLC of history teachers. Some teachers travel as far as two hours for these meetings, and while I am a fan of Alfonso’s [local pizzeria] product, I don’t think they are coming for the slice. Mike, like so many of you here today, to me represents a real reason for optimism in the future of education. On top of all of this, he’s part of the football coaching squad for the state champion Somerville Pioneers. Which, to me, shows the importance of being well rounded.
Just by way of background, my name is Bob and I lead the Big History Project out of Seattle. The Big History Project is a free course that looks at history at the largest possible scale, starting with the Big Bang and ending with the future. It draws upon the insights of physics, chemistry, economics, anthropology and many other disciplines to help us understand our history. If like me, you like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, Big History is for you. But, more importantly, the Big History Project is a way of thinking about free curriculum. But here’s the thing. The Big History Project isn’t a book. I mean, we have all of the things you might find in a traditional textbook with articles, videos, activities, writing assessments, a teacher’s guide, all of that. But the teacher community is what really defines what we are. Mike’s ability to connect to teachers at very different points in their professional growth has been immensely important for us here in the state of New Jersey. Much more importantly, I believe it is a model of what Open Educational Resources or OER can be. It isn’t a textbook, or a replacement for a textbook. It is an active and engaged community of educators. The content and activities are never static, but then again, neither are they a free-for-all. It’s a remarkably simple thing, but with tremendous potential.
Now, I have been privileged to work with Teachers of the Year in the past. I consider you the very best among us. TOYs remind us all that there is reason for optimism. There is a reason for hope for the future. Teachers of the Year give us a reason to think that the long-promised future we’ve been dreaming of really is just over the horizon.
In you, we see the very best of what our classrooms can be. They are both challenging and caring. Stimulating and soothing. Crazy and calm. Teachers of the year have the very best and truly the worst senses of humor. You give the best hugs and high-fives. You can make us think and bring us to tears.
On behalf of everyone that has ever gone through a classroom, I want to offer you all a very sincere thanks. Let’s give them all a big hand.
The bad news
Today, I want to make the case for optimism. But I need to at least acknowledge there is more than a little to worry about. I believe this is precisely why we need to be optimistic. Each morning I wake up, check my phone, say out loud, “cheese and crackers, that’s no good.” While I am not here to get political, that is far from the sole reason on the list of reasons for us to call out in colorful language these days. In 2008, our economy took a bad hit. Our schools did their part and hung in there through cuts and austerity. For many of us, the budgets have not seen much of a recovery. This means we are working with old books that are increasingly out of date and falling apart. Nearly two thirds of teachers are spending five hours a week looking for their own materials online. I won’t even get into issues with professional development. Sixteen percent of teachers in the United States leave the profession every year.
It’s rough out there.
The silver lining
I am an optimistic guy and as such I am always looking for the silver lining. You’ll have to forgive me but I focus on textbooks so, my remarks today will be seen through that lens. I’d be happy to grab a cup of coffee with anyone for more expansive remarks. But given the context today, I see a tremendous possibility in the demise of the textbook. Let’s get rid of them. They were useful for a time, but you know, so was the abacus. I don’t want to see [textbooks] replaced with a simple online version of the same thing. I believe we can replace textbooks with something that is created by teachers, for teachers, that is content, scholarship, and professional development rolled into one. If there is one takeaway from my comments today, I want to see us replace each textbook with a teacher community.
The problem with textbooks
So let’s talk for just a moment about textbooks. Textbooks are expensive. Duh. Fine, let’s set that aside. But there is more. On average, they are only updated once every seven years. They tend to put a lot of emphasis on the content, but don’t spend as much time on the conceptual approaches in math, or the reading and writing skills in history and English. They fuel an approach to teaching that is based more on the multiple-choice test than true inquiry. But more than anything, they don’t invite collaboration among teachers.
Teachers of the Year
One quick anecdote. In a previous job, I was lucky enough to get to spend time with the Teachers of the Year program run by CCSSO. For a while, all 54 of the state teachers of the year were brought together for a week at the Smithsonian to learn and share. These were terrific sessions. But they did something else [that was] small, but really, really important. They created a closed Facebook group. I was able to participate and it was a fascinating experience. There is a reason Teachers of the Year are T-O-Ys, because teachers have the best sense of play. Silly, goofy, and more than a little sentimental, but always in pursuit of engaged, meaningful learning. Now, this was a Facebook of a different age. It was full of pictures of kittens, daily affirmations, and families. But these little connections allowed [those teachers] to build up a lot of trust. They really got to know one another. This allowed them to ask one another what might be considered “dumb” or “crazy” questions. It enabled them to take risks professionally.
This led me to the most important realization I have had about the increasing futility of fixed, printed textbooks. More than the content in them, the conversations they spark among teachers is the thing. Our goal shouldn’t be to create a perfect textbook, it should be to create better conversations. These conversations themselves are the professional development we need. Ideally, we would see outsiders join in these conversations from time to time. The curators at the local museum join to talk about our community history. The teacher educators at the local college to talk about what’s new in learning science. But in the Big History Project, we’ve learned that a simple online conversation among teachers, tied to a “textbook,” has transformed the way we think about how to do things.
Free like a puppy
Now, please don’t [misunderstand] me. Free textbooks are not free. I fear that for too many schools facing a budget crunch, the idea is that by embracing free, online materials, they think they are getting something for nothing. This isn’t free like a beer that you can drink and go home. Free curriculum is like a free puppy. It can be great, but you have to help raise it or it will become a misery. In order for this approach to work, someone has to allocate funds to give you time to talk through the work with your colleagues. And you sure can’t do it all on your own. Ideally, there would be an active community of folks working together with you. The experienced leaders out there, people like yourselves, would help the new teachers find their footing and talk through problems. The new folks will in turn help us see problems we haven’t thought through before, pushing our own teaching.
The problem with binders
Now, at the Big History Project, we have to balance our approach to teacher autonomy. On the one hand, we don’t expect, or really want, anyone to teach everything in the course—any more than you would expect to teach every page of a textbook. There has to be room for teachers and students to find a topic they love and to take a little time to explore those ideas. On the other hand, it is really hard, especially for inexperienced teachers, to create an entire curriculum from scratch to reflect these interests. Sometimes, it is helpful if someone gives you a first draft and you improve it a couple of weeks at a time, over a period of years. If your friends in the online community can try out your ideas and give you feedback, that’s better. If you can try out their ideas, even more so. Over time, you start to see a living, breathing curriculum where the wisdom of the classroom comes to the surface.
But, this means we have to think about teacher autonomy in a different way. Let me share one more story. We were in an adoption process with a district in suburban Seattle, just down the road from our office. We were the finalists; it was down to us and a major textbook provider. The teacher chairing the committee in the very first moments of the final pitch meeting raised his hand and told me, “No offense, but I want you to know I am rooting for the book. I have spent the last 15 years working on a binder for each unit of my class and I know that if we go with the book, I can set it on the shelf and keep doing what I have been. Your thing seems like it would force me to change.” He’s absolutely right. It did force him to change. And I am sure what was in those binders was terrific and it was a terrific class. But here’s the thing, he wasn’t discussing any of those materials with other teachers. When he retires, those binders will sit in his basement, never to see the light of day again. Would you want your doctor to hide her best work, like this? Say a doctor discovers a cure for – I don’t know – hangnails. All her patients get to be hangnail-free, while the rest of the world’s hangnail sufferers are out of luck because they don’t know what’s in the binder. That’s not how doctors work, and neither should teachers. I think this is important to acknowledge. We need to be cognizant of the fact that these collaborative approaches mean sacrificing a bit of the individual autonomy of some of our classrooms. But by giving a little, we stand to gain so much more in what we learn.
So, just to step back and conclude. I want to highlight that none of what I have talked about is particularly high tech. In fact, we had most of the same tools back in my classroom of the early ‘90s when a group of us were teaching art history. We didn’t have Facebook, we didn’t have the Internet, but much of the same practices were at work. But, we did have posters of Nirvana and Blind Melon on the walls. I would argue that even a terrible, really awful textbook, empowered by a Facebook group, an enthusiastic group of teachers, a couple of knowledgeable outside guest speakers, would result in something better than just about anything else out in the market today. If you want to see what it might look like, come check us out at the Big History Project.
I want to again thank you all for your time today and to congratulate all of you once again. Thanks.