A Re-education for Would-be Revolutionaries

Another group funneling money into technology for the purpose of enhancing education is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – a $20 million dollar injection of grant money, in fact. The Next Generation Learning Challenges initiative to support the work of the nonprofit EDUCAUSE, is focused on improving college readiness and completion through expanding the use of IT tools. In an October 11 eSchoolNews article Bill Gates explained the impetus this way: “American education has been the best in the world, but we’re falling below our own high standards of excellence for high school and college attainment. We’re living in a tremendous age of innovation. We should harness new technologies and innovation to help all students get the education they need to succeed.”

All of this seems very laudable, but I do wonder how much change and improvement we will see in education while we focus on the tools rather than the overarching paradigm – because, as Sir Ken Robinson has commented so compellingly in his TEDTalks (Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity Posted: Jun 2006, and Sir Ken Robinson: Bring on the learning revolution! Posted: May 2010, and also the following blog post: TED and Reddit asked Sir Ken Robinson anything — and he answered Posted: August 2009), the educational paradigm under which we are all operating, and into which we are, in fits and starts, trying to employ these IT tools, is seriously misguided. The whole system needs overhauling to fit the demands of our modern, post-industrial society. The entire philosophy just doesn’t make sense anymore.

To start with – and there are many ways our current education system lets students down, to the detriment of society as a whole, so there are many places we could start with this argument – but one obvious way we know our institutions are failing us is the high number of people with degrees who can’t earn a living because they can’t find a job. According to an article in the New York Times, even “Doctoral Candidates Anticipate Hard Times” in our faltering economy. For so long we have operated under the assumption that getting a college degree is the ultimate goal of going to school – that a degree will ensure employment and financial security. And yet students who are achieving the ultimate accolade – the PhD – still can’t get a job. Robinson, in the Q&A blog post, calls this the “biggest fault line” in our education systems right now. When the “basic currency of education has defaulted” we’ve just got to think again about what we’re doing it all for.

And Sir Ken is happy to help us with this. He calls for a radical rethink of school in order to cultivate creativity – the most critical commodity in these 21st century times.

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For our own personal fulfillment and for the betterment of our global community, we need to stop “educating people out of their creativity” and start inspiring it. This also requires that we recognize and nurture multiple types of intelligence to get the best out of people.

Robinson should know what he’s talking about. After all, just over a decade ago at the behest of the British government, he led a massive inquiry into creativity in schools and the significance for the economy. In 2003, he was knighted for his efforts. Then, in 2009, he published a book on his ongoing investigations into creativity and education: The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything.

But perhaps it is his engaging TEDTalks that have disseminated the message most powerfully.

Bottom line according to Robinson – our current school system educates students to become good workers, rather than creative thinkers. Therefore, individual creativity has, and continues to be, ignored, stifled and/or stigmatized. It is simply anathema to the industrial revolution model of mass production.

Yet times have changed, even while the education system has not. When Tom Daccord workshopped with TAS Social Studies teachers on September 22-24, he introduced us to Harvard economics professor, Richard Murnane, and his research into the evolution of workplace skills: The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market (published in 2004 with MIT professor, F. Levy). Murnane’s review of economic and civic changes since the introduction of computers to the workplace shows that routine manual skills and routine cognitive skills have been massively devalued through technology and automation. Meanwhile, complex communication skills and expert thinking skills have become increasingly in demand compared to 1969, with an upsurge in the 1980s.

This makes a lot of sense to me. Computers have replaced human tasks and responsibilities all across the employment spectrum. Even the infamously complex and long-winded process of checking in at airports has miraculously given way to self-service. (I stepped past the self-check-in stands initially for the familiarity of the face-to-face routine, but the last few times I lined up at the airport, it was to get the job done myself. Consumers like me are voting with their feet.) Clearly, computers do very well in “if-then scenarios.” But what they can’t handle is a new problem. They deal with existing data, so if it’s a new scenario, they are lost. Humans still have the upper hand through our ability to adapt and innovate in response to changing circumstances. We also have a distinct advantage when it comes to communication – we trump computers at complex social interaction. Therefore, what the world of work demands from graduates is excellent communication skills and creative thinking/problem solving skills. If the purpose of schools is to prepare students for the job market, our educational curriculums need to shift away from standardization and routine manual and cognitive skills.

And we need to give our employees-to-be access to technology in schools because, as Daccord cited for us, the fastest growing job sector is technology; 15-18% of new jobs in the next decade will be in technology. Therefore, while technology is taking jobs away from humans on one front, it is also creating jobs on another.

Daccord brought in another “big gun” to reinforce this point. He canvassed Daniel Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind, to spotlight once again the shift from an Industrial/Information Age economy (which relied on left-brain skills) to a new Conceptual Age (which emphasizes right-brain skills).

The 2001 make-over of Bloom’s Taxonomy was prompted by exactly these concerns that our education system needs to prioritize creativity. The top spot on the order of thinking processes is now reserved for the verb CREATE.

In case educators need some prompting about how to “create” with information and communication technologies, Andrew Churches added some digital jargon in 2008 ( “Bloom’s Taxonomy Blooms Digitally” in Tech & Learning):

Creating = designing, constructing, planning, producing, inventing, devising, making, programming, filming, animating, Blogging, Video blogging, mixing, remixing, wiki-ing, publishing, videocasting, podcasting, directing/producing, creating or building mash ups.

While some educational theorists are reinventing old taxonomies, others are developing new learning theories. George Siemens (in Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age) explains that the old theories of behaviorism, cognitivisim, and constructivism are limited simply by virtue of the fact that they pre-date and therefore do not take into account the impact of technology on education. Connectivism attempts to do this.

The case for a connectivist theory of learning includes the same arguments about job market trends as I’ve mentioned previously. We know that our future graduates will work their way through a variety of jobs in different fields of employment over the course of their lifetime. Higher order thinking skills – creative problem solving skills – are gaining increasing currency as far as employers are concerned in today’s knowledge economy. “Know-how and know-what is being supplemented with know-where.” In other words, learners need to understand where to find the information they need, and how to evaluate, reapply and transpose it to new situations.

Furthermore, Siemens argues that a new theory of learning needs to take into account new technology-enabled trends in learning. For example, formal learning is giving way to informal learning through personal networks and online communities, as well as being ongoing in the world of work. In addition, the technology tools young people are using is rewiring their brains, changing thinking and learning. Another line that is blurring is that between the individual effort and organizational learning.

At the heart of it is connection-making. Identifying connections between disciplines, fields, and concepts is key, as is nurturing and maintaining connections in order to facilitate continual learning.

We know this is an essential understanding that Jeff Utecht wants us to take away from Course 1 – that the internet is really a mass of connections, and that these connections “trump content.” That the advent of the internet hasn’t left us all as isolated hermits withering away in the perpetual darkness of our home offices, ordering pizza online while the old pizza boxes pile up and fester around us, as Sandra Bullock’s old movie, The Net, would have led us to believe.

Instead, the internet has played host to an ever-growing number of online communities and changed the landscape of people’s social lives, student lives, and work lives.

In Jeff’s TEDxTalk, he reeled off an incredible statistic from the CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt: “We create as much content in two days as we did since the beginning of mankind until 2003.” That’s an incredible amount of information out there right now, and an unfathomable amount yet to be created. Knowing how to connect to this information, and knowing what to do with it, will henceforth be critical to success and satisfaction in our personal, social, and working lives.

The Horizon Report 2010 underscores these same points about the need for educators to focus on helping students navigate our new information-rich, highly connected, increasingly collaborative world. No doubt Sir Ken is pleased to see the report recommend strongly that schools emphasize “critical inquiry and mental flexibility” and also provide today’s learners with the necessary tools to engage with broad social issues and tackle large-scale civic action.

So now watching Ken Robinson exhort us to “Bring on the Revolution” has begun to seem less revolutionary to me. Still compelling. But more and more like “old news” – because Murnane, Pink, Siemens, Utecht, and others have been chomping at the bit about this for some time already.

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In fact, it’s all starting to sound like common sense.

Actually, I feel as though there are two things that need to go on at the same time here. On the one hand, educators need to facilitate social and global connectivity to enhance learning. On the other, we need to remember that technology in education also offers huge potential for personalizing and customizing education. One way this is already happening, driven by student-consumer demand, is with online learning. A recently published study showed that the number of students enrolled in some type of online course climbed from 50,000 in 2000 to more than 1 million in 2008. It was reported that these are typically high-schoolers taking courses not available at their local school, or they are catching up on classes they did not pass the first time around. But most interesting is the number of students receiving their entire education online: 200,000.

“For better or for worse, imagine a near future in which your avatar can attend high school in a Second Life-like environment, your body no longer required to sit quietly in a row and your mind no longer obliged to settle for what the local district can offer. You won’t need a locker, and if you realize with swooping horror that there’s a big test today and you’re not ready, you can stop time and study until you are. And your avatar’s skin is clear. And you can fly.”

Yes, technology can certainly provide more personalized learning – a prerequisite for nurturing individual creativity. Thus teachers – yes, that’s me – I need to be more imaginative and creative in how I use IT.

Why me? Because, as Sir Ken reminds me, education is what is happening in my classroom, in the malleable minds of the individual students that I see for 95 minutes every day. Not in the school board room, not in the offices of school administrators. Not in government committee rooms or in international think-tanks on education. But in my classroom. It’s what’s happening in the brains before me. The education my students are getting is the result of what I’m doing with them every day. So it’s my everyday practices that need to change.