Thursday, February 12, 2009

It already happened; nobody noticed

This is one of my favorite quotes in the universe:
"There won't be schools in the future.... I think the computer will blow up the school. That is, the school defined as something where there are classes, teachers running exams, people structured in groups by age, following a curriculum-- all of that. The whole system is based on a set of structural concepts that are incompatible with the presence of the computer... But this will happen only in communities of children who have access to computers on a sufficient scale."--Seymour Papert


My deep, deep sense is that Papert is right. In all significant ways, computers have exploded our established understanding of the cultural value of schools; the only problem is that administrators and policymakers don't know it yet. The issue runs deep: Given (and I believe it is a given) that school as structured is incompatible with the participatory cultures enabled by digital technologies, what sorts of structures and frameworks can replace the antiquated, industrial-era setup of the school?

It beggars the imagination to think that Papert made the above statement in 1984; 25 years later, we are awash in technologies that must have seemed to him, at best, like glints on the horizon: tools that enable communication, collaboration, and circulation of ideas and creative works. Yet the school as an institution looks very much like it did during the rock 'n' roller cola wars and the first term of the Reagan administration. Students still sit in rows, are still required to memorize facts and spit them back out in the form of standardized tests, are not encouraged--and often, not permitted--to access the information and expertise that's distributed and available across a vast range of media platforms.



Meanwhile, report after report identifies technology trends and highlights innovative new technologies, without spending a lot of time considering how these technologies may be leveraged to shift the educational landscape. As my colleague Caro Williams exclaims, "If we only talk about what's available, we aren't paying enough attention to how technology is re-situating students and people in this strange blend of real and virtual--and THAT'S where this all gets exciting!"

It's easy enough to identify trends, harder to figure out how those trends mean in the classroom. In many ways, non-school spaces (like news media, transmedia entertainment, and so on) are leading the way in terms of responding to the new affordances of new resources. Perhaps that's because the question in any production space contains a dependent clause: "What is this new trend, and how can we use it?" Oh! I know--maybe we should turn schools into for-profit spaces where funding is tied to performance! Bwahahahaha brb sobbing over NCLB



ok back


Okay, so if these technologies really are changing what education may mean in the 21st century, why haven't schools caught on? Pretty simply, because change involves risk; and because when it comes to education, the stakes are really freaking high. What parent, what educator, what researcher would risk tossing children across the gulf between what schools are and what they could--what they must--become?

Yes, a risk is involved (though not necessarily, of course, the risk of dropping kids to their deaths in a bottomless gulch; there is something to be said for hyperbole in moderation, after all). But I believe a risk is what's required, here at the end of all things.

It's the struggle of our society, and one that John Dewey pointed to back at the end of the 19th century, when he proposed development of a laboratory school where educators could try out new approaches to teaching and learning. In setting forth a series of arguments about new ways to think about knowing and cognition, he conceded that
[i]t is... comparatively easy to lay down general propositions like the foregoing; easy to use them to criticize existing school conditions; easy by means of them to urge the necessity of something different. But art is long. The difficulty is in carrying such conceptions into effect—in seeing just what materials and methods, in what proportion and arrangement, are available and helpful at a given time.... There is no answer in advance to such questions as these. Tradition does not give it because tradition is founded upon a radically different psychology. Mere reasoning cannot give it because it is a question of fact. It is only by trying that such things can be found out. To refuse to try, to stick blindly to tradition, because the search for the truth involves experimentation in the region of the unknown, is to refuse the only step which can introduce rational conviction into education.

Long revolution, indeed.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interesting that Papert made the prediction, given that is view of learning was somewhat different than the more participatory view that appears to influence your views of technology and which can capture the potential impact of 2.0 tech. But as Nora Sabelli stated in the 90s PCAST report (President's Commission of Advisors on Science and Technology, paneled to spend billions of tobacco industry settlement on ed tech said), the possibility that education is the one information based industry that will never be transformed by technology is so remote that we should not consider it. So I say lets stop with the silly experimental studies that people say are first needed to prove that technology "works" and engage in concerted design studies of entire swaths of the curriculum.

Dan Hickey at dthickey@indiana.edu

Caro Williams said...

Nice post--you should link it in to our discussion on SMC :) And also, my profile page says I'm faculty, and while I don't mind the promotion, I certainly am not getting the corresponding paycheck!

I've been thinking about our discussion about the Horizon Report, and the sneakily located "just" that you dug out of my post. The reason why it feels like a "just" to me--despite the daunting task it signified--aligns a bit with Dan's post here: it only seems scary because we've never done anything like it before, so let's step up and do it! (Plus, I have the sneaking suspicion that it is easier to do hard things that people are passionate about, than mediocre things that are done because no-one cares enough to speak out against them.)

kerann75 said...

Just happened to come across your blog...thank you! I couldn't agree more that we need to be willing to take risk with our students today. As both a parent and educator we owe them this much. On average our schools are functioning on a schedule designed for nearly 100 years ago. These are not the same students that we have today. We are adding to deficiency by not exposing and embracing the strides we have had in technology. I would much rather have one of my 5th graders blog or do a web chat with another student somewhere in the world about the book they just finished then build a diorama or write a summary!

I understand the need to teach or expose our students to traditional education, however we cannot over look the "life skills" that need to be taught. We live in a world that thrives on information , students need skills to comprehend and participate or even function.

kerann75 said...

Just happened to come across your blog...thank you! I couldn't agree more that we need to be willing to take risk with our students today. As both a parent and educator we owe them this much. On average our schools are functioning on a schedule designed for nearly 100 years ago. These are not the same students that we have today. We are adding to deficiency by not exposing and embracing the strides we have had in technology. I would much rather have one of my 5th graders blog or do a web chat with another student somewhere in the world about the book they just finished then build a diorama or write a summary!

I understand the need to teach or expose our students to traditional education, however we cannot over look the "life skills" that need to be taught. We live in a world that thrives on information and our students need skills to comprehend and participate or even function.

I would love nothing more than to be able to have a class blog, or have web chats, twitter, or skype...but that damn red tape and politics gets in the way. Why do we fear change, especially when it is for the better?

 

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