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Grappling with a Learning Paradox

Monday, September 30, 2013

By Tim Lougheed, Learning 2030 In-Camera Blogger  

As science fiction author William Gibson pointed out, the future has arrived, but it is not yet evenly distributed.
That was how one presenter here set the stage for a discussion of where educational technology is at in 2030.
While the developing world is just starting to grapple with how to use digital media, the developed world is awash in educational programs, web sites, and apps…millions of them.
That confronts many of today’s educators with the tall order of trying to figure out what works, what doesn’t, and why.

A rumble over at the app store…

A fairly simple example set delegates in the room arguing here this afternoon: It’s a game called ‘Dragon Box’, which translates algebraic manoeuvres into manipulations that a small child can carry out on a tablet.


“We are engaging with a technology, but the technology is not an enabler,” says one participant, who feels the child in the video is simply parroting movements that have nothing to do with mathematical understanding. “We’re not able to transfer that knowledge.”
Similar points are brought to bear on other game-like activities, even as the virtues of this approach are being touted.
Like it or not, high tech games are familiar territory for today’s students, who are setting the agenda for the kind of educational technology they expect to see in 2030.

Image © WGSI/Sam Saechao

Is digital media truly engaging students?

“Younger people will be pushing for new models, and it will be technologies like this that they’re already interacting with.”
This tendency is clear, from examples of a novel approach to teaching that builds on technologies that engage students much more directly. Physics teachers, for example, realizing that their classes prefer chatting online to being lectured about Newton’s laws, set up an AI to chat with students in the guise of Sir Isaac Newton.
This strategy has been successful enough to be transferred to having students chat online with Shakespeare about his plays and Mendeleev about the periodic table.
In a similar way, students who had no interest in art in class couldn’t stop discussing it when they encountered the same artwork on an island in Second Life.
“You need a lot of noise, a lot of mess, and a lot of ambiguity to run a school like that,” says the individual overseeing these kinds of moves, who says it is important to embrace these ideas in a major way. “The winds of change will blow out a candle, but they will blow up a bonfire.”

Too many eggs in the digital basket? 

This response is typical of the way summit participants maintain a reality check, ensuring that their discussions do not degenerate into vague, jargon-laden expressions of concern for the future of education.
One of them compares the situation to a king followed around by a fool equipped with an inflated pig’s bladder on a stick, who was instructed to whack the king on the head with it if he strayed too far from expressing himself clearly.
“If we are going to create something new and innovative here, we have to do it in clear, sharp language that will convince students and parents.We won’t get there if we waffle-on about sustainable this or that.”
With that in mind, participants debate how they should create a blueprint for a school in 2030 that is “specific enough to be useful but flexible enough to be useful everywhere."                                     

Image © WGSI/Sam Saechao

The great[er] debate: To learn in, or out of school

Participants then debated the meaning of studies showing the overwhelming proportion of human learning – in excess of 95% – takes place out of a formal classroom setting.
Some maintain that any number like this is already suspect, and distorts the influence that school-based learning could have on learning elsewhere.
Others suggest that schools are – in-principle – arbitrary institutions, and the statistic demonstrates a hard fact of human existence:
“Through most of history, we’ve been an unschooled population and yet we were able to become civilized and happy.”
Whether or not learning takes place in controlled, institutional settings, summit delegates wrestle with the fact that they cannot predict the future, and that it is not worth trying to do so.

Preparing for unpredictability

If today’s school are rooted in a desire to prepare students to enter the same world that their parents occupied, tomorrow’s schools must prepare them for an uncertain, unpredictable world where they have to make up their career paths as they go along.
“If we don’t find ways of measuring what we value, we only end up valuing what we can measure,” one participant offered, to a room full of sudden silence and respectful nods.
What’s more, participants argue, if students seek to free themselves from the shackles of an education system inappropriate for today’s social and economic needs, educators are no less eager to do the same thing.
One presenter described a conference where a group of school principals gave sharp attention to the ideas of students who were not in their particular schools. Liberated from the direct administrative responsibilities they have for these young people, the principals were completely open to novel suggestion. It is an indication of the constraints felt by all parties in contemporary education.

Schools as places to ‘do’ education

Nevertheless, a common starting point exists for any of these places: “Education is not a technical exercise,” adds a participant, just before a break for dinner. “It’s a moral exercise…Anything that we call education has to have some kind of moral direction.”
In this light, sum-up several participants, an effective education system for 2030 could be expected to provide students with the ability to begin to define this moral direction for themselves, rather than receiving it from a central authority.
Guided by teachers, but learning to guide themselves, we close for the day musing that perhaps these students will be engaged in a process that somehow transcends this paradox.