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The 23 Roles of an Educator

As Trainers Warehouse has been celebrating its 20th anniversary, we’ve been looking back at some of our favorite innovations, not all of which have been embraced by our customers. One that comes to mind is a set of Role Play Hats. We envisioned a set of hats that participants could wear to make dreaded role-playing activities more fun. Apparently, the idea of participants donning a Sherlock Holmes hat (detective) or Keystone Kop hat (enforcer), would make role-plays more anxiety-producing, not less — not a surprise in hindsight!

Despite the failure of that idea, it also pushed us to consider the many “hats” a trainer wears over the course of the day–facilitator, presenter, concierge, etc.  So, when I recently read Kim Marshall‘s synthesis of Stephen Downes article in Huff Post Education, it caught my eye.  In it, Stephen Downes shares an even more robust list of the roles played by educators. He created these “23 Roles” in collaboration with a graduate class and Twitter followers.  

The learner – Modeling being excited about something new, exploring it, trying it, and engaging students in learning about it.

The collector – Pulling stuff together for students, whether it’s old magazines or new websites and links.

The curator – Organizing and making sense of what’s been found. “The curator is like a caretaker and a preserver,” says Downes, “but also a creator of meaning, guardian of knowledge, or an expert at knowing.”

The alchemist – This used to involve turning lead into gold, now it’s mixing the mundane with something new and unexpected, seeing patterns and symmetries in materials.

The programmer – Teachers work with computers, design communities and social networks and wikis, and develop course materials and work-flows for students.

The salesperson – Principals sell ideas to the staff and teachers champion a cause, an idea, or a set of values.

The convener – Educators are constantly bringing people together, building networks, and acting as Pied Pipers.

The coordinator – Teachers organize schedules, set expectations, manage logistics, and solve problems.

The designer – Creating a space for learning, including wall maps, desk arrangements, and more.

The coach – “This multifaceted role involves everything from creating synergy and chemistry in a group to providing the game plan for learning to raising the bar and encouraging players to higher performance,” says Downes. “Though the coach is on the side of the learner… the coach also serves a larger or higher objective, working to achieve team or organizational goals.”

The agitator – “The role of the agitator is to create the seed of doubt, the sense of wonder, the feeling of urgency, the cry of outrage,” says Downes. “The agitator is sometimes the devil’s advocate, sometimes the revolutionary, sometimes the disruptive agent, and sometimes just somebody who is thinking outside the box.”

The facilitator – This role is vital to keeping things on track and gently nudging the process forward without imposing an opinion or agenda.

The moderator – Governing and pruning, invoking rules, decorum, and good behavior.

Tech support – Understanding people’s technological needs, solving problems, and making things possible.

The critic – This role “asks for evidence, verifies the facts, assesses the reasoning, and offers opinions,” says Downes. “Every person needs to be questioned; it is part of the learning process. Values, truths, and institutions need to be questioned as well.”

The lecturer – Organizing ideas into a comprehensible whole, making things that are complex clear for the listener or reader.

The demonstrator – In the past, showing was usually done in person, but now it can be done in videos or simulations.

The mentor – Teachers can play this role for students, being there for them as an enthusiastic coach or a constructive critic, showing them the person they might become.

The connector – This role “sees things in common between disparate entities and draws that line between them, creating links and collaborations between otherwise isolated communities and disciplines,” says Downes.

The theorizer – Teachers describe how or why something is true, often working through abstraction and generalization. “The theorizer is also the person who leads us to develop world views, find the underlying cause or meaning of things, or create order out of what appears to be chaos,” says Downes. “If nothing else, the theorizer helps us remember things by giving us a single structure under which to assimilate numerous details.”

The sharer – Teachers move ideas from person to person, perhaps making e-portfolios available, managing the class mailing list, or passing along links and reflections from outside the classroom.

The evaluator – “The evaluator in a digital world is more than a marker of tests and assigner of grades,” says Downes. “Modern technology makes it possible to assess not merely declarative knowledge or compositional ability, but instinct and reactions, sociability, habits and attitudes.”

The bureaucrat – Someone has to collect and keep the records, organize accountability, and maintain systemic coherence.

“Not everybody can perform every role,” says Downes. “Not everybody wants to perform every role.” Extroverted teachers prefer the role of lecturer or demonstrator. The more technically inclined gravitate to being programmers or bureaucrats. The most people-oriented want to be coaches or mentors. And not every student needs every role – for example, some want criticism more than coaching, some don’t need a convener, and not everyone needs a mentor.

“Rather than asking one person to perform every role, some of them very badly, for a given group of students, it makes more sense to ensure that these services are available where needed and to allocate them according to the needs of the students, the nature of the learning environment, and the type of learning being undertaken,” Downes concludes. “This is in fact what is happening online, at least outside the circles of formal education. People are finding coaching where they need it, community where they want it, and lectures and demonstrations for those days when they have the time… Eventually, learning will be transformed in this way; the needs of students and the affordances of technology make it inevitable.”

“The Role of the Educator” by Stephen Downes in Huff Post Education, Mar. 3, 2013; This synthesis was written by Kim Marshall, The Marshall Memo.


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