New Eyes for Education

You can’t see the future using the eyes of the past.

It is a central problem we face as we move toward some type of post-industrial society.  Our current institutional structures, based on industrial era models, attempt to re-create the past as a way to solve the problems of the future as opposed to envisioning the new.

What do I Mean by Old Eyes

What is new today?  Let’s consider complexity.  To some extent it’s the success of industrial standardization that has driven the emergency of complexity in the service economy.  With increasing efficiency, fewer and fewer people are needed to continue standardized processes, but this success has uncovered worlds of complexity not only where standardization has failed (like in education and much of the social sciences), but also in new fields such as design.  The problem is that most people today (even within standardized practices) need to address uniqueness and complexity in some way, but too much of our institutional structures are still geared towards a standardized industrial economy that emphasizes “one size fits all” solutions.

An example is NY Times columnist  Thomas Friedman’s view that we need a more highly educated population to address globalized competition.  This may be true, but what would happen if we suddenly started graduating 4 times the number of scientists and engineers.  Well, we’d soon have a lot of unemployed or underemployed scientists and engineers.  What the economy needs now is more entrepreneurialism of the type that fosters a creative interdisciplinary mindset.  We can only succeed now by envisioning and creating the world around us anew, not by growing an economy that in many ways has already become outgrown.  The educational systems is still seeing through old disciplinary eyes and training people to function in the past.  We have seen how the world we face is increasingly requiring us to deal with complexity, but as pointed out by D.H. Haley, our way of thinking, seen as a cultural artifact in our everyday activity, rejects complexity and interdisciplinary. (free with subscription to the Social Science Research Network)

. . . despite their successful interpretations and applications, they (complexity and ecology) have been accepted by neither mainstream science, nor mainstream culture.  Both of these powerful institutions have pushed such modes of thinking and being to the margins of normative knowledge and behaviour, without ascribing any real value or worth. . . . For here, I believe is the real issue, . . .  it is embedded in how our society is educated to think. Just as an athlete trains their muscles to perform certain activities in particular ways, so too, we are coached to think about particular things in certain ways ␣ it is a question of epistemology.

What Would New Eyes See

So how should institutions now be thinking and functioning differently?  I believe we need a new approach to learning and a new way to develop people and their capabilities.

A new approach to learning.

Learning has never been more important, but (as pointed out by Hagel, Brown and Davison) we can no longer predict what knowledge people will need in order to push it out to them.  Instead the learner is in as good a position as anyone to judge what knowledge is needed and needs to be able to pull that learning to themselves as needed.  (If nothing else, this is a condemnation of most approaches to curriculum development, and many forms of pedagogy.)  To achieve a “pull” model I think we will need the following:

  1. technological resources (internet, social media, applications as well as future innovation),
  2. expert guides (a new role for teachers), coaches, mentors, etc. . .
  3. peer networks that push our collaborative capabilities to new levels, and
  4. a vibrant, engaging and vigorous environments (cognitive, social and physical)

All of these elements should by intricately interwoven into each learners learning environment.

A new approach to developing people.

We need people with both breath and depth in their repertoire of personal capabilities.  Base assessment and development activities not on what you want people to know, but on what they will need and want to do.

Breath primarily means interdisciplinarity, especially as you are able to bring different capabilities from different disciplines into your own activity system.  This also means going beyond specific task capability to also include cognitive development and psychological capital development, as well as the promotion of psychological health and  wholeness.

Depth – The need for depth should be based on something like an activity system task analysis, the most important actions needed for everyday activity.  I don’t like a disciplinary view of depth only because the scope of a discipline can be unrelated to everyday activity within an activity system.  It is just that disciplines are historical artifacts with specific historical developmental trajectories, which may or may not fit with the needs of one’s activity system.

This transdisciplinarity need is where new forms of complexity enter into education.  A one size fits all disciplinary education is no longer sufficient.  We need an educational system that can easily be customized to fit individual learning / capability development needs and a system that can be extended over an individual’s productive lifetime.

So, I’m left with the question: what does this look like; what might new eyes see?

#PLENK2010 Thoughts on Fiedler and Väljataga’s Paper, Personal learning environments: concept or technology?

I agree with Sebastian and Terje’s paper on this point:

“The development of Personal Learning Environments represents a significant shift in pedagogic approaches to how we support learning processes” . . . “(and it) is not a separate space on the internet, it is an essential part of the users’ workspace”.

As S&T point out, many people are already experiencing a self-directed life in the digital realm, often with an essential PLE workspace, and they are finding that traditional institutional power and pedagogical relationships are incompatible with this new world.  Just from a practical point of view, PLEs are usually embedded in users workflow and daily routine.  Classroom activities are not and can seem contrastingly irrelevant to one’s daily activities.

In addition to the specific socio-historical incompatibility that Sebastian and Terje point out, I also think that there are more incompatibilities lurking behind the academy’s veil.  Higher Education pedagogy was never intended to be vocational training in line with the expectations of most students.  (Professional schools with substantial practice components, like medical schools with residency requirements are the exception.)  Higher education was designed to make a class distinction, whether you were headed for the nobility or the clergy.  Higher education in modern times made entry into business management or the military’s officer corp the primary path for graduates.  Those with less education were expected to do the grunt work.  This changed when college degrees became common and the diploma no longer assured one of entry into a “high class” well paying job.  To that extent, higher education no longer serves the same goal and people are not willing to submit to something that no longer has a traditional end-game.  In contrast , PLEs are a natural adjunct to one’s everyday activity systems and in some ways may prove more directly relevant to people’s life goals when compared to traditional pedagogical forms.

I also agree with their concluding remarks:

A simple collection of potential resources (artefacts, natural objects, people) does not make a “personal learning environment,” if there is no personal model of intentional learning activity in the first place, or if people run on out-dated models from previous times.

So we need to move toward a learning model that is appropriate for the digital realm, one that re-envisions how learning functions in our everyday lives and how we are able to grow our ability to act in productive ways.

P.S. A small pet peeve.  I don’t like the way they refer to (adult) learning.  We can speak of adult activity systems, adult expectations for learning, or how learning occurs in adult activity systems, but I’ve never seen a convincing explanation of how the process of learning differs by age.  See Wikipedia’s critique section on andragogy.

Knowles himself changed his position on whether andragogy really applied only to adults and came to believe that “pedagogy-andragogy represents a continuum ranging from teacher-directed to student-directed learning and that both approaches are appropriate with children and adults, depending on the situation.

How to Think: Developing a Personal Learning Infrastructure

Ed Boyden from MIT’s Media Lab had an interesting post way back in 2007 titled How to Think: Managing brain resources in an age of complexity.  He lists 9 great insights that relates to structuring a personal self-managed learning environment.  The following is my edited personal version:

  1. Synthesize new ideas constantly. Never read passively. Annotate, model, think, and synthesize while you read (or receive input).
  2. Learn how to learn and prototype ideas (rapidly). ?
  3. Work backward from your goal. Make contingency maps. Find out which things depend on other things. Identify things that are not dependent on anything but have the most dependents, and finish them first.
  4. Always have a long-term plan, even if you change it every day.  Use logarithmic time planning; events that are close at hand are scheduled with finer resolution than events that are far off.
  5. Collaborate.
  6. Make mistakes quickly, then move on. As Shakespeare put it, “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.”
  7. Develop personal best-practices protocols and make them routine.
  8. Document everything obsessively and watch carefully for surprise and insight.  (Ed’s e.g. Compose conversation summaries on a notepad. At the end of the conversation, digitally photograph the paper and uploaded to a computer for keyword tagging and archiving.)
  9. Keep or make it simple, even if that is hard work.

It’s #2 where I have the most questions concerning how.  But really, everything else relates to #2.  I see 3 main thrusts in this list:

  • #1 and #5 are about expansive thinking, opening up the possibility of new ideas.
  • #3, 4 and 6 – 9 are about achieving focus.  Thought is focused by imposing constraints.
  • Also important is linking thinking and acting.  This is done through #3, 4, 5 and 6.

#7 is also a core thought. Work routines (along with a collaboration platform) are an important part of a personal learning environment infrastructure. It’s some of the ways we can create our own resources.