23 Educator Roles: An Imagined Interview With Stephen Downes (#CCK11)

Stephen Downes making a presentation

Me: Twenty Three. Twenty three roles? What have you been smoking? Hey, I’m a teacher. One person. Only one, just one. Not twenty three. I stand in front of the class and talk to everybody. That’s what one teacher does, isn’t it?

Stephen Downes: What year is this?

Me: 2011.

SD: What century is this, the 18th, the 19th, or the 21st?

Me: The 21st.

SD: Teacher, you are living in what we call the “digital age”. One person can’t, and shouldn’t, have placed in their hands all the aspects of providing an education. Even your job title, “teacher”, or “educator”, is misleading.

Me: Now wait a minute. Let me tell you something. There is strong empirical evidence that teachers are the most important school-based determinant of student achievement. Now run and tell that homeboy. 🙂

SD: (smiling) You’re missing the point. It’s the 21st century, and a new approach to teaching and learning, online, is emerging.

Me: A new approach? Tell me more..

SD: It’s an approach that emphasizes open learning and learner autonomy.

Me: Open learning? Autonomy?

SD: There’s more. It’s an approach that emphasizes exercises involving those competencies rather than deliberate acts of memorization or rote, an approach that seeks to grow knowledge in a manner analogous to building muscles, rather than to transfer or construct knowledge through some sort of cognitive process.

Me: Grow knowledge? You mean, like a plant?

SD: There’s more: It’s an approach that fosters a wider and often undefined set of competencies associated with a discipline, a recognition that knowing, say, physics, isn’t just to know the set of facts and theories related to physics, but rather to embody a wider set of values, beliefs, ways of observing and even mannerisms associated with being a physicist.

Me: Sounds like you are saying the student owns the learning by becoming deeply engaged in the learning process, investing themselves personally.

SD: (Smiling) Something like that.

Me: But if I teach my class like that, then I’m not the center of learning. The students are the central focus of learning.

SD: Exactly.

Me: I would have to change how I teach. My role, as a teacher, is no longer to simply transfer what I know from my brain to my students brain.

SD: (nodding his head as if to say, Yes) Yes.

Me: My students have to do more for themselves, and I’ve got to let them…

SD: (interrupting my flow) Explore, investigate, collaborate, connect, communicate, …

Me: (Interrupting) To do all that I would have to become (thinking quietly for a couple of minutes, counting on my fingers) at least twenty-three people.

SD: (quietly) Tell me about those twenty-three people, or 23 roles, that you would have.

Me: I would be:

1. The Learner

2. The Collector

3. The Curator

4. The Alchemist

5. The Programmer

6. The Salesperson

7. The Convener

8. The Coordinator

9. The Designer

10. The Coach

11. The Agitator

12. The Facilitator

13. Tech Support

14. The Moderator

15. The Critic

16. The Lecturer

17. The Demonstrator

18. The Mentor

19. The Connector

20. The Theorizer

21. The Sharer

22. The Evaluator

23. The Bureaucrat

Stephen Downes: Wow! I’m impressed. Now, what can you tell me about the twenty-three roles you just mentioned?

Me: Can you read?

SD: (eyes twinkling in a smile) Yes, of course I can.

Me: Great! I’m going to Share my knowledge with you. Click on this link, and it will take you directly to where you can read about these 23 roles:

SD: Are you sure there aren’t any more, only 23?

Me: You know, I’m not sure. There is probably more that could be (suddenly snapping my fingers) Aha!

SD: What?

Me: Now I know why you say the teacher is not so important. If the teacher has so many roles to perform, then which one of these roles is so Vitally important? It’s almost impossible to isolate all the variables, and then say: I have discovered which role determines student achievement.

SD: Exactly. You can’t take all these 23 + roles, and say that one teacher performs all these roles, for all the students.

Me: There has got to be other people involved in all this. It’s like a 747 flight from Santiago, Chile to Miami, Florida. One person can’t do the job. You need a team working together. The pilot, like the teacher, is important. Very important. But you can’t find a pilot who will say, “”there is strong empirical evidence that pilots are the most important determinant of getting a 747 from Santiago to Miami”.

SD: (shaking my hand) Teacher, you got it. Just like the pilot, you are important, but there is no way you or the pilot can do everything by yourself. Now, tell me where I can find more information about the twenty-three roles you mentioned.

Me: Here it is: Look in the Huffington Post. It’s a post called, The Role of the Educator”, by a guy called Stephen Downes. (smiling)


*** The End

Dear friend(s) and reader(s), This dialogue, imagined, quotes freely and at length from the work of Stephen Downes, dated December 5, 2010, in the Huffington Post.

It is of course thought provoking, and as such, should be critically examined in the light of one’s own beliefs about good teaching and learning.

It is possible that you are not quite ready to accept a vision of teaching and learning that appears to be a complete transformation of the current educational system. Too ambitious to be practically realizable, you may think. It can’t happen, not in this school, not in that school, not in this country, not in that country. Dream on, and on, and on…

Nonetheless, in spite of the cynicism, there is a larger question one must ask: What can I do as a teacher to meet the needs of my 21st century students?

I can’t keep doing the same thing I did last century, can I?

No, I can’t, because if I do that, well, if I do that, then I already know what that would be like, and I don’t want that, not for my students, do I?

No, I don’t!

Best regards,

About profesorbaker

Thomas Baker is the Past-President of TESOL Chile (2010-2011). He enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics. The source and inspiration for his writing comes from his family.
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7 Responses to 23 Educator Roles: An Imagined Interview With Stephen Downes (#CCK11)

  1. Nice. 🙂 I like that you make me smile a lot.


  2. Tracy Parish says:

    Fantastic. I need to remember how you did this so that I may use this format in the future for something! 🙂


  3. Here’s my hope for connectivism in the classroom:

    At least during the days when my children were in school (my youngest was born 1986), most teachers taught to the middle level learners. It was assumed that the gifted could teach themselves and that the struggling learner didn’t warrant more than his/her fair share of teacher attention. Individual educational plans existed on paper but reality was the plans were resented and seldom implemented.

    I see connectivism as the hope that the gifted wouldn’t spend their school hours bored out of their minds and the struggling learner won’t be left to sleep in the back of the classroom while the middle group are being taught an outdated, stale curriculum. One teacher in front of a classroom of children with very diverse learning needs isn’t doing a good job with anyone. In a connectivism model, the individual teacher would not be expected to prepare lessons for everyone based on ability level but could instead direct students to resources at their individual levels so they could all be excited and have meaningful input into more inspiring class projects.


    • Hi Ruth,

      Thank you for stopping by and for your wonderful observations.

      Let me quote you, (here I quote Ruth) “In a connectivism model, the individual teacher would not be expected to prepare lessons for everyone based on ability level but could instead direct students to resources at their individual levels so they could all be excited and have meaningful input into more inspiring class projects.” (end of quote)

      I would agree totally, that a teacher subscribing to a connectivist theory of learning, would be well advised to heed your advice. I know that I will Ruth.

      Best regards,


  4. Hi Ruth,
    My kids were in school at the same time yours were and the division of the teacher’s attention was based on simple math. Too many minds to attend to for one teacher. Kids were left out (often my kids) and I don’t see how connectivism will address this problem of limited resources.


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