Guru or Google?

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to listen to some high school students at an elocution competition, on the topic, “The relevance of the guru in the age of Google”. While one may take issue with the topic on some levels, as falling into the pattern of pitting two unlike things against each other, there’s no doubt that this issue does dominate much popular thinking about education these days. While teachers understand – and so do most enlightened parents – that their role goes far beyond information provision, a function that is admirably performed by the Internet search engines, often classroom practices in many schools seem to put the two in direct competition. But it was heartening to see that all the children, without exception, agreed that the teacher will always be relevant because her role is to motivate, encourage, and guide, all things that you cannot expect from a search engine or an information bank.

The speakers described how a teacher can pitch her explanations to different levels, instinctively knowing how to cater to the different needs of the children in her class. One speaker very evocatively recalled how, on the first day of school, she cried to leave her mother, but now she knows that on the last day of school, she will cry to leave her teacher.

Of course, we might dismiss some of that as hyperbole, mere overstatement intended to impress – all part of the game where the aim is to win, after all. But there was a ring of sincerity to the children’s words, and it would be difficult to disregard it all as mere posturing for the sake of a prize.

There’s no doubt that the Internet has changed the process of education. We no longer need to “know” the contents of a textbook, but we need to understand where the information is, how to use it, and how to relate it to other bits of information. More than ever we need the ability to discern the good from the bad, the hollow from the solid. It is in the building of this discernment that a teacher’s role is most crucial. She nurtures and refines the sensibility and the sensitivity of the child so as to be able to deal with the unending stream of data that flows our way.

But staying relevant also demands that as teachers we begin to de-emphasize the content delivery part of our practice and focus more on the “how to” and “why” aspects of learning. Instead of spending time on delivering facts that are easily acquired, we can use our classes to probe beneath the surface of facts and ideas, to how they come to be and why they matter.