Teacher as provocateur--methods for the 21st century

I am on a plane traveling from San Francisco to San Diego with Seth Brenzel, Director of the Walden School—the creative music school that shares our campus during the summertime. Seth is on the Board at the relatively new San Francisco Friends School  (SFFS) and he shared their new academic guide with me to read on the plane. I am also reading a great book by George Johnson called The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments which covers scientific experiments from scientists throughout history from Galileo to Pavlov. Something in both texts captured my imagination, especially as Dublin School looks to create a comprehensive curriculum and teaching pedagogy for our twenty--first century learners.

One section of the SFFS guide reminded me of one of my favorite roles as a teacher; they refer to teachers as provocateurs. In many ways Galileo was the great provocateur of his time. He challenged the Vatican by asking provocative questions about the solar system and by creating experiments to answer those questions. While many of Galileo’s theories have been disproven, they served the purpose of provoking deep thought and reaction—something we hope all of our teachers at Dublin School provoke. As a teacher I love to provoke students with postmodern concepts of truth. When I provoke them by telling them that concepts like truth and beauty are not natural things, that instead postmodernists argue that they are human constructions, they get fired up and develop often eloquent rebuttals. The interesting part for me is the role I embrace in these classes—in many ways I am acting as the provocateur—something a little different than playing devil’s advocate. A devil’s advocate takes the opposite side of the class consensus in a debate while the provocateur, I would argue, comes to class with a position, statement, or question that has been intentionally designed to provoke. The provocateur is more calculating than reactive. If I am successful, the students ultimately understand the role I am playing, and yet will often (and hopefully) get impassioned in their responses to me. I still tell my students that one goal I have for my classes is that I can succeed in keeping them up late at night thinking about a question at least one night a semester.

If we want our students to be curious, independent, and passionate thinkers and problem solvers I would argue that the teacher as provocateur model is a good model to keep in our teaching quivers.

What other ideas do people have about teachers as provocateurs?