New Times, New Ways

October 1, 2010 Sharon Friesen and David Jardine

The Changing Role of Teachers



This is an exciting and difficult time for teachers. The nature and organization of knowledge are changing. Much of contemporary schooling was shaped around what became known as an industrial model of knowledge, whereby school subjects were deliberately broken down into fragmented and unrelated bits. Education was akin to an assembly line, and teaching involved doling out these bits then surveying, managing and assessing their assembly, and knowledge was defined as the ability to recall data and information (Bloom 1956). Over the past 20 years or so, all this has changed and schools have been facing calls for reform.


In the new model, knowledge is understood as organized into living fields and living disciplines, wherein the role of the teacher must, of necessity, change. No longer can teaching be simply the imparting and management of facts and the testing of students to determine how many of these facts they retain, a teaching practice known as instructionism (Sawyer 2006). The role of the teacher is changing because our understanding of knowledge is changing (Bransford, Brown and Cocking 2000; Clifford and Friesen 1993; Gilbert 2005; Jardine, Friesen and Clifford 2006 and 2008; Sawyer 2008; Scardamalia, 2005; Scardamalia and Bereiter 2003 and 2008).


Today, the early- to mid-20th century understanding of knowledge as defined by Bloom is stored on networked computers and instantaneously available to students, teachers and experts alike. The role of the teacher has been taken over by digital technologies.   


As a consequence, teachers are no longer merely institutional managers and dispensers of information; instead, they are asked to assume more fully the role indicated by the word teachers.   


A New Image of Knowledge and a New Role for Teaching

Clearly there is wonderful and difficult news here for teachers. This new vitality of knowledge is enlivening classrooms and leading to intellectually vibrant, imaginative and disciplined work in many Canadian classrooms, as teachers learn new ways to create, verify, practise, demonstrate, publicize and critique knowledge.


The basis of this shift is imagining knowledge as a living field (Friesen and Jardine 2009) and teaching and learning as entering into this field and “learning the landscape.” In this metaphor, learning is analogous to learning to live in an environment; that is, learning one’s way around, learning what resources are available and how to use them. Knowing where one is in a landscape requires a network of connections that link one’s present location to the larger space. Traditional curricula often fail to help students “learn their way around” a discipline (Bransford, Brown and Cocking 2000, 139).


In our work, we have explored the living discipline of mathematics as a sustaining field of relations that one must inhabit to understand, and we have tried to answer the perennial question of how to invite this class or that particular student into such “field knowledge.” In doing this, the teacher takes on a new role as a kind of field guide, someone who works in this field, knows it intimately and can help the inexperienced find their way. Fields are very diverse, and each one has its unique culture that is intimately linked with the cultures of other forms of knowledge. For example, biology and mathematics are not two separate disciplines—they interweave, each making use of the other or finding in the other a field of application. Unlike an industrial assembly model organized around what Fredrick Winslow Taylor called the “one best way” to proceed (Callahan 1964; Kanigel 2005), a living field like mathematics welcomes a wide range of interdisciplinary explorers, ways of knowing and ranges of interests because this is in the nature of a living field. A living field embraces discussions of such issues as diversity, globalization, multiculturalism, ecology and English as an additional language. Shifting from the industrial assembly model to imagining fields of knowledge recasts many of the central and pressing questions facing schools and teachers.


Today’s teachers design learning that invites students into dynamic, living fields of knowledge, and in doing so they take what was once understood as isolated curriculum-guided demands and place them back into the world in which they live. Obviously, in this new role, teachers will not be the vessel that holds all of the world’s knowledge and expertise. That old pretence is over. Many of the teachers we work with do what anyone else would do in working in the world: request assistance from experts in the field. When one teacher we worked with needed to know more about particular historical artifacts, he and his students consulted the curator of an exhibit (, not to replace the teacher but to guide him and the students and to provide a living example of someone who works with historical artifacts. The curator invited students to enter the field of knowledge as a living practice. For his part, the teacher designed a learning environment that resembled a studio more than a regular classroom. In so doing, he (1) selected strands of the emerging work to highlight for discussion and instruction, as not everything the students created was authentic or rigorous enough for this historical study, (2) figured out when to let the students lead the work because a student might have found information or ways of working that furthered the class’s collective inquiry, (3) worked with the students (with the field expert’s input) to establish criteria that would help students assess the substance and quality of their work, (4) gathered the class together to ask questions about what had been accomplished, how to proceed, how to demonstrate what they had learned, how to make the work public and what steps to take, and (5) provided timely, specific, substantive feedback that involved the entire learning community to ensure that the students’ work would contribute to the existing exhibit (visit


Another teacher and her students studied a local pond. In the course of their investigation, they discovered that the pond was dying. “You know, I couldn’t just go to the encyclopaedia or a textbook for the answers. I would have to ask what could be causing this. If we know each of these various parts, can we put them together? It’s a whole construction of a knowledge base that I don’t have in my head and I can’t read in a book. I would have to continually ask, ‘So what do we need for tomorrow?’ I couldn’t just go to my file and pull something out” (personal communication, May 2008). The teacher could not abandon the students to random discovery. Instead, she and her students had to learn the ways of knowing, doing and being of this interdisciplinary field—environmental sciences. This teacher helped them achieve a collective understanding and clarified  misconceptions. Together they discovered that knowledge did things—it wasn’t merely for storage. 


Like the students in the previous study, these students became experts in various aspects. Many of them became passionate about their investigation and about the knowledge they were building collectively as a group. Willms, Friesen and Milton (2009) call this type of commitment to learning intellectual engagement.[1] In order to make a reasoned evidence-based argument to town council for why the pond had be saved, the students made strong scientific judgments about the quality of the data gathered from the pond, analyzed the data, compared the data from their findings with previous years’ findings, and learned what counts as evidence and good field notes.


Today, what is paramount is how one creates knowledge, changes knowledge, builds on another’s ideas, puts forward evidence and communicates that new understanding to others. Knowing how to work creatively with concepts to come up with new ideas, new knowledge and new products is the work of the classroom.

To bring students into this type of relationship with knowledge, teachers must abandon the theory-into-practice mindset. Rather, teachers now question their practice and their own relationship to discipline-specific ways of knowing, doing and being. Teachers must develop scholarly rigour; in so doing, they also expect a version of that rigour in each of their students (Clifford and Marinucci 2008).

The New Necessity of Digital Technologies

Teachers also need to become comfortable with digital technologies, many of which have simply been inserted into the old model of industrial assembly. In their new role, teachers will find that digital technologies are already in the landscapes of knowledge they are exploring, for there is no part of our world today that is untouched by digital technologies. For example, in the historical study cited above, students needed to access primary sources, remix images and hold a video conference with an expert from afar. The pond study needed digital probes, high-powered digital microscopes and applications that allowed the class to make accurate predictions. The technologies affected how teachers and students thought. Teachers and students used the technologies in the same way that people working in the disciplines use them: to create, analyze, communicate and hold collective understandings. 


Digital technologies should never be about pouring old wine into new bottles. If educators lack the imagination or the will to rethink schooling for today’s world, they should not waste their money and time on these powerful technologies. However, if they want to educate for today’s world, they have an obligation to learn how to use technology to do things at a level of complexity and sophistication impossible without a computer—to create, not simply consume and reproduce knowledge.


In conclusion, the good news

This new role for teachers requires them to renounce old habits. Our work has demonstrated that the industrial model of education cannot keep up with new demands, and simply accelerating it or mixing in new technologies will only aggravate the situation. These new roles require teachers and school administrators to step out of this closed loop and the self-defeating exhaustion and cynicism it often produces. But there is good news—these new, emerging roles allow teachers to think of themselves and their students as being entrusted with the living knowledge of the world, which is a complex inheritance that they are asked to care for, nurture and protect. Teachers are no longer required to be shop managers but scholars, explorers, inquirers, guides and weavers. And there is a deep intellectual pleasure to such work; there is honour and pedagogical soundness in the hard work it requires, and such work energizes and uplifts students and teachers alike.

Finally, these new roles mean that the walls of the classroom have been breached, and now we can share the excitement, questioning, exploration and work that are involved in coming to know about the world. We’re no longer siloed into classrooms but can allow ourselves to be held in the embrace of the world and those who, like us and our students, wish to know about its ways.


Bloom, B. 1956. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals. Handbook 1: Cognitive Domain. New York: Longmans.


Bransford, J., A. Brown and R. Cocking, eds. 2000. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.


Callahan, R. 1964. America, Education and the Cult of Efficiency. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Clifford, P., and S. Friesen. 1993. “A Curious Plan: Managing on the Twelfth.” Harvard Educational Review 63, no. 3: 339–58.


Clifford, P., and S. Marinucci. 2008. “Testing the Waters: Three Elements of Classroom Inquiry.” Harvard Educational Review 78, no. 4: 675–88.


Friesen, S., and D. Jardine. 2009. “On Field(ing) Knowledge.” In Relatively and Philosophically E[a]rnest: Festschrifte in Honour of Paul Ernest’s 6th Birthday. The Montana Mathematics Enthusiast: Monograph Series in Mathematics Education, ed. S. Goodchild and B. Sriraman, 149–75. Charlotte, N.C.: Information Age.


Gilbert, J. 2005. Catching the Knowledge Wave? The Knowledge Society and the Future of Education. Wellington, N.Z.: NZCER.


Hargreaves, A., and M. Fullan, eds. 2009. Change Wars. Bloomington, Ind.: Solution Tree.


Jardine, D., P. Clifford and S. Friesen. 2008. Back to the Basics of Teaching Learning: Thinking the World Together. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.


Jardine, D., S. Friesen and P. Clifford. 2006. Curriculum in Abundance. New York: Routledge.


Kanigel, R. 2005. The One Best Way: Fredrick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT.


Sawyer, R.K, ed. 2006. The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences. New York: Cambridge University Press.


-------. 2008. “Optimizing Learning: Implications of Learning Sciences Research.” In Innovating to Learn: Learning to Innovate, ed OECD, 45–62. Centre for Research and Innovation: OECD.


Scardamalia, M. 2005. “Learning Sciences and What We Know About How Children Learn.” Keynote address, CASA Annual Conference, Quebec City, October 15–17.


Scardamalia, M., and C. Bereiter. 2003. “Knowledge Building.” In Encyclopaedia of Education, ed. J.W. Guthrie. 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan Reference, USA.


——.  2008. “Toward Research-Based Innovation.” In Innovating to Learn: Learning to Innovate, ed. OECD, 67–88. Centre for Research and Innovation: OECD.


Willms, D., S. Friesen and P. Milton. 2009. What Did You Do in School Today? Transforming Classrooms Through Social, Academic and Intellectual Engagement.  Toronto: Canadian Education Association.


Sharon Friesen, PhD, is the cofounder and president of the Galileo Educational Network and an associate professor in Educational Leadership, Faculty of Education, University of Calgary. David Jardine, PhD, is a professor in Interpretive Studies in Education, Graduate Program in Education, University of Calgary.

[1] Intellectual engagement is defined as a serious emotional and cognitive investment in learning, using higher-order thinking skills (such as analysis and evaluation) to increase understanding, solve complex problems or construct new knowledge.

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