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A friendly word about professionalism

Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, is a fine academic and an inspirational speaker. He is a passionate advocate of minimally invasive education, believing that children with access to the internet can discover things for themselves.

His Hole in the Wall experiment, which embedded a computer in a wall in a Delhi slum to allow children to use it to teach themselves and each other, propelled him to international fame. This was followed by his "granny cloud", in which "e-mediators", often retired people, provided guidance, nurturing and encouragement to children in India and Colombia via Skype. Fuelled by the success of this, he posited the idea of a whole school in a cloud, with no physical staff, for areas where you can't get teachers or they are not up to scratch. This won him the TED Prize last year.

However, Professor Mitra has gone a step too far with his pro-independent learning, anti-direct instruction shtick by seemingly wanting to abolish conventional teaching altogether. The role of a teacher, he told the audience at the Oppi learning festival in Helsinki, Finland, last week, is as a friend. Not as an expert or a guide, but a chum, a George to their Lennie, a Donkey to their Shrek.

"This is no longer the century where we can say `I know best what you should do, just listen to me'," he said. In one fell swoop, he undermined both teaching and educational academe - and, indeed, left many people wondering what made Professor Mitra the exception to the rule.

Children do not need a teacher to be their friend. They already have pals, usually of a similar age. For their part, teachers need to show they can separate the personal from the professional in a responsible way, lest ethical lines get blurred. Further, it is irresponsible to encourage teachers to shirk their responsibilities. There are enough adults already who want to be their child's friend rather than their parent.

And what is it with this trend to undermine the teacher anyway? Why can't technology help teachers to do their job rather than replace them? The role has served us well since Socrates; there's no reason why it can't continue for another few thousand years.

We need to protect the integrity of teaching and its status. Of course, the issue of unqualified staff in the classroom does not help - a profession is defined by its qualification: think doctors, lawyers and accountants. We wouldn't put an unqualified architect in charge of constructing our home, so why should anyone be happy for unqualified teachers to instruct their children?

This is why the unions are so important. It is they that protect and promote the professionalism of teachers and repel the incessant attacks on teaching. And it is this function that needs to be at the forefront this weekend as the big union conferences take place. Please: no whining, no schoolyard taunts of those we disagree with or talk of providing a conducive atmosphere for menopausal staff (such special pleading infantilises women and diminishes their professionalism). Concentrate on the teaching. Hold up a mirror and ask yourselves: is this how we want the world to see us? Let the dialogue be constructive and, yes, professional. Your friends and colleagues deserve no less.

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