Looking Forward at Learning

From the “Making the Compelling Case Dept.” comes this article from the new International Journal of Learning and Media titled Learning: Peering Backward and Looking Forward in the Digital Era. Written by Howard Gardner, Carrie James and Margaret Weigel, all from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, for me at least it’s one of those must reads that helps put in perspective the many changes that learning is going through right now and helps affirm a vision of learning that may come to pass. As my critical friends frequently point out to me, my own historical context for a lot of these conversations is not what it should be, which is one reason why this piece has a lot of appeal to me. This is a great read, well worth the time, one that I’ll try to summarize the highlights of below.

The thesis here is basically this, that after an extended period of education as we know it, change might finally be upon us whether we like it or not.

In this article we argue that, after millennia of considering education (learning and teaching) chiefly in one way, we may well have reached a set of tipping points: Going forward, learning may be far more individualized, far more in the hands (and the minds) of the learner, and far more interactive than ever before. This constitutes a paradox: As the digital era progresses, learning may be at once more individual (contoured to a person’s own style, proclivities, and interests) yet more social (involving networking, group work, the wisdom of crowds, etc.). How these seemingly contradictory directions are addressed impacts the future complexion of learning.

The authors weave a very readable narrative of the history of schools and learning to present day, making the case that

the European classroom models of the 19th century continue to hold sway: Teachers give out information, students are expected to master it with little help, and the awards of the culture during the years of school go to those who can crack the various literate and disciplinary codes.

There are some shifts, however. Over the last century, education has become more and more universal, we’re moving away from the humanities and language toward more science, technology, engineering and math disciplines, and there is now more emphasis globally on nationalized curricula and international comparisons for assessment. These have not, the authors suggest, changed much about what happens in schools or the learning that takes place.

“Learning is problematic.”

I was particularly struck by this passage about truth, one which articulates really well the struggle that I see a lot of traditional teachers having right now:

In the absence of recognized authorities and standards for determining what is considered true, learning is problematic. This postmodern perspective is not universally shared. Many continue to operate in a climate in which facts are fixed entities taken for granted, information is created and circulated relatively slowly, and authority figures are invested with the responsibility of determining and sharing what is considered true and good. Even so, it is undeniable that new opportunities for individuals to assert the truth, or their truths, are afforded today; educators will likely grapple with questions about what is true, and what is worth teaching and learning, more and more, both now and in the future.

There is talk about new skills that this new world requires.

In these frameworks, the traditional “three R’s” remain but are supplemented by a broader focus on metacognitive skills and an acknowledgment that individuals live in a complex world defined in part by existing but fluid frames of meaning (Geertz 1993). Most would agree that a well-educated individual should be able to successfully participate in a global economy where money, culture, ideas, and people circulate rapidly; to synthesize and utilize vast rivers of information obtained through a variety of channels (textual, visual, multimediated); to engage with this information across a variety of disciplines; to be comfortable negotiating a range of social connections, including interacting with diverse populations; and to serve as an engaged and responsible member of one’s profession and one’s communities.

I think I would add a need to create their own learning opportunities and spaces in which they interact in passion-based, self-directed activities. Or something like that.

The Promises are Realized

While the authors “recognize that we could be wrong” about this vision, it seems we may be at a “perfect storm” moment because of the affordances that new digital media (NDM) create.

That having been said, we believe that a “perfect storm” of NDM affordances, sociocultural changes associated with globalization, and the growing pace and interconnectedness of human life may potentially add up to a formidable tipping point. We operate on the assumption that NDM contain affordances that, if leveraged properly, could create future learning environments and cultures in which the promises of constructivist, social, situated, and informal learning are realized. We recognize that we could be wrong. We also recognize—and will elucidate at critical points—how the integration of NDM practices into a school setting can be challenging, such as the difficulties of implementing more social-based Internet practices in the classroom, or of incorporating youth’s extra-curricular, digital pursuits into fruitful classroom instruction, for example.

I love that line: “We operate on the assumption that NDM contain affordances that, if leveraged properly, could create future learning environments and cultures in which the promises of constructivist, social, situated, and informal learning are realized.” And the key there is the phrase “leveraged properly.” While we may not know exactly what the most effective uses of these technologies are yet, this is where I just believe our work as educators is right now. We need to be deep in the practice of leveraging these connections for ourselves. (Broken record, I know.)

Which leads, inexorably, to this:

While the ubiquity of digital media resources allows for more customized learning within a formal learning context, its primary value lies in the acknowledgment of the legitimacy and value of learning that take place beyond formal schooling.

And that, is what we have to be preparing our kids for, that learning that is going to happen, using these technologies in these mediated spaces or “networked publics” throughout their lives. It’s about self-study, self-direction, independent learning. Right now, as the authors suggest, our biggest challenge is we’re not teaching kids to be that type of learner.

However, there are serious challenges associated with implementing an NDM-based pedagogy. NDM may be seen as sources of entertainment and escape, not learning; additionally, the determination of the proper level of scaffolding can be difficult. The Internet’s potential for learning may be curtailed if youth lack key skills for navigating it, if they consistently engage with Internet resources in a shallow fashion, and/or if they limit their explorations to a narrow band of things they believe are worth knowing. Left to their own devices and without sufficient scaffolding, student investigations may turn out to be thoughtful and meaningful—or frustrating and fruitless. A successful informal learning practice depends upon an independent, constructivistically oriented learner who can identify, locate, process, and synthesize the information he or she is lacking.

Schools as Almshouses

There is much, much more here to read, and I don’t want to just list all the really powerful snips that are in there, but the conclusion is compelling.

Part of the answer to change surely lies beyond the walls of schools themselves. Parents, government, the professions, even the marketplace, are all important stakeholders in the state of learning. Alignment among these diverse constituencies may be hard to achieve; here political leadership of the highest order is essential. In the last few decades, the phrases “learning communities,” “lifelong learning,” and “the learning society” have virtually become clichés. Yet like many clichés in education, and elsewhere, the terms themselves are more familiar than actual instances of the phenomena they describe. In our view, no society is likely to thrive in the future unless it actually is dedicated to lifelong learning; and this, in turn, will require both a society that values learning, and communities that continue to learn. As educators, we hope that this learning will continue to take place in educational institutions. But unless the schools are equal to the task of absorbing the new digital media, and making acute use of their potentials while guarding against their abuses, schools are likely to become as anachronistic as almshouses, teachers as anachronistic as barber-surgeons. Any culture that wishes to survive will ensure that learning takes place, but the forms and formats remain wide open.


As always, would love to hear your thoughts.