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January 17, 2012 / glencoyote

Windows and Boxes

I recommend A New Culture of Learning, by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown to anyone who needs to think about how digital tools are transforming education. Thomas and Brown argue that the enormous resources of the internet and the creative power of digital communities is challenging the traditional role and authority of the teacher. Traditional education, conceived as an information delivery system in which knowledge is transferred from books and teachers to students within the physical structure of the classroom, is being displaced. In the digital age, knowledge is constructed in imaginative learning spaces “of information and experimentation” that transcend the classroom. Authority emerges out of the process of creation, within communities that embody “the new culture of learning”(117).

I nurture a memory of public education as a window onto the world. My working class parents never attended college and our home had a television and few books. By contrast the facts within textbooks, the sophistication and knowledge possessed by my teachers, the perceptions and aspirations of my classmates, and even the physical resources of the classroom with its atlases, posters and workspace all represented seemingly boundless vistas. Thomas and Brown suggest that my quaint window has closed and school has become a box, a shield (albeit increasingly porous) protecting the traditional educational process from the perceived disruptive effects of the digital world. That the rapidly changing digital world creates a fluid infrastructure that swamps the conventional infrastructure of books, teachers, and classrooms, not simply in quantity of information, but even more importantly in the unlimited imaginative potential for engaging that information as part of self-motivated learning communities. In my gauzy memory engagement with school was easy because school was a window onto wonders, today the school is too often a boring box that kills student engagement by demanding their disengagement from what is truly wonderful in today’s world.

A colleague recently mentioned that one of our students had arranged for a former teacher at our school to serve as the outside mentor on the student’s senior project. This mentor had spent one year as a technology teacher in our program and then left for a private sector job. As a teacher he had experienced all the challenges typically faced by new teachers, with the attendant classroom chaos, and his short tenure was neither unusual nor cause for particular concern. Yet in discussing his subsequent usefulness to this student’s project we found ourselves wondering whether the traditional institutional framework that we use to evaluate teachers might impose limits on our ability to see teachers as resources and facilitators. Is it possible that the classroom management/lesson planning skill set so essential to 20th century classrooms is losing its efficacy? That what we need from teachers in the digital age is the passion to work with students to create learning experiences in the digital space? Is it possible that the institutional frame through which we view teachers is unsupportive of the fun, creative, flexible, and collaborative energies needed for digital learning?

Teaching in an urban school whose students are low income and living segregated lives, it is hard not to be disillusioned by the ongoing debate between traditionalists and so-called reformers over what is wrong with education. The traditionalists correctly point out the limitations of standardized testing and the debilitating impact of poverty and social trauma on student performance. The reformers note the general lack of accountability within public education and are right to see institutional barriers to change as an important part of the problem. But the focus on learning gaps and their causes, on both sides of the debate, might also be distracting us from the transformative potential of the digital learning culture described by Thomas and Brown. While pre-school programs, supportive social services, motivated teachers, and committed school cultures all have their value, the discussion tends to assume that there is one educational path that students must follow. The focus tends to be on the student’s location along the path and whether or not there are methods for accelerating progress along that path. The alternative culture of learning that Thomas and Brown are describing highlights not one path, already constructed by the educators, but rather the possibility of many paths, all waiting to be constructed by the learners. Is it possible that disadvantaged students, rather than running faster in a race of someone else’s choosing, can more effectively find personal success through creating digital communities to create their own challenges and develop their own learning path? Is it possible that the real reward of diversity is in the social benefit of learners liberated from the tyranny of one path?

Institutions do not change easily. Any entity that involves power and rewards, experiences change as a reordering of winners and losers. Change engenders resistance and, absent intervention, inflicts pain. But schools are transforming. They must change if students are going to place school at the center of their learning experience. They must change if talented people are going to be persuaded to help students create a future for our society. The learning experience can no longer be thought of as a scripted process.  Education delivered through canned materials in a learning environment pre-imagined and maintained by adult authority is a failure of imagination and a betrayal of our students’ potential.

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