Education, agency, technology, and Will Richardson: Future Trends Forum #4

On March 3rd Will Richardson was my guest on Future Trends Forum.  We discussed the state and possible next years of K-12 education, the possibilities of social media, and the impact on higher education, all in just under one hour.  There were many surprises, a lot of passion, some history, and some hope.

This was a video discussion, partly consisting of Will riffing on my questions.  Once again we used the Shindig platform to bring participants up on stage, temporarily booting me off the main view so they can appear instead.  Here, for example, is Kenyon’s Joe Murphy putting the question to Will.  You can see me waving in exile at the bottom right:

Future Trends Forum screen grab

We even shut down the main stage entirely at one point, asking participants to link up and videochat with each other in small (2-5 people) groups, reacting to Will’s arguments about student agency and disengagement.  It’s fun to see icons race around the screen as people check each other out, then connect:

Forum screen grab: participant and myself

You can see various groups to left and right, with Amy Collier and I as an example in the lower center.

Then we returned to the opening setup (Will and I on stage) and compared notes.

Here’s the full video recording.

And here are my running notes from the hour:

Part 1: K-12 trends

I asked what the major change drivers were, and Will surprised by identifying… none, since he thinks not much is changing.  Yes, there’s an explosion of devices (iPads, Chromebooks, smartboards), but little evidence to suggest much rethinking of teaching.  There are individual projects and experiments, but nothing at scale.  Instead Will sees a preference for recapitulating traditional practices, co-opting new possibilities into traditional roles.  Things are still very teacher-centric.

Indeed, Richardson didn’t see any clear vision for schools to be buying technology in the first place, beyond a perceived need to upgrade, or to compete with other schools, or parental expectation.  Technology purchases for learning are way down on the list.  And when technology appears, it is often unused.  Will cited the epic fail of the LAUSD iPad/Pearson rollout.

Will challenged us to think back as far as a century, to recall that people have been thinking of new ways to teach for some time.  Writers and practitioners (Seymour apert, Maria Montessori, John Dewey) have long thought that kids learn differently than the ways schools work.  So educators need to look back at what we know works, especially giving kids agency.

I shifted the timeline to ask about other, non-technological developments in K-12, including the possible movement beyond high-stakes testing and recent discoveries in neuroscience.  Will’s response: some of the latter recaps what we already knew – i.e., certain conditions need to be there for learning, and tech can stimulate and amplify them. (He cited an Edge.org discussion on schools, but I can’t find it)

Key phrases: “learning is leaving the building”

and “schools aren’t really about learning”.

Outside of schools kids have more agency.  In the real world adults learn by: asking questions; collaborating; working on real world issues.  Adults have some measure of control and agency; “all of us are learners”.  For example, the popularity of YouTube instructional videos, and the rise of on demand learning

I asked how what Will has discovered should inform higher education.  He cited Stanford’s university in 2025 scenarios.

Stanford's future university scenarios

Will also cited one student idea – instead of majors, let’s have missions.  For example, instead of being a biology major, my mission might be to volve world hunger. i.e., it’s not about accruing knowledge, but applying it.  In this case curriculum becomes strategy.  A university (or learner) would bring up pieces of curriculum in response to need.   That means using the curriculum of the web as a strategy.

At this point I played devil’s advocate, citing the popular social demand to impose a curriculum.  Democracies often have opinions about what we think kids should know.  What happens to those demands in such a different education system?  Will cited Seymour Papert, noting that it is actually very hard to choose which pieces of human knowledge kids should learn.  He views the current curriculum as spray and pray, and asks. “At what expense, curriculum?”

Indeed, it’s an old argument that kids would only get exposed to some topics in school.  This is no longer true, given the internet.  But Will does approve of some mandatory basics: reading, writing, functioning in the world.  However, we can teach them as parts of other learning.  Ex: civics learned in context of environmental work, or making a play.

We shifted away from curriculum to teachers.  Richardson argued that tt’s not bad teaching that leads to a poor education experience, but bad systems and bad expectations.  Good teachers work hard, but are so confined by curriculum, tests, evaluations, that it’s impossible for them to create conditions for engagement.  Neither teachers nor students have enough agency.

Part II: Social media

What can social media offer learning?  Will saw that the old potential is still present, especially for developing student (and democratic) voice and for enabling collaborative movements, but things have become more complex and difficult now.  In a way social media shines a light on the best and worst of who we are.  He fears that the downside of web (abuse, bullying, etc.) will scare us away.  Will is also concerned that the web’s potential will be squandered if our internet experience becomes app-ified, if our social circles shrink and close, and also if the media echo chamber is accentuated.  But he’s cautiously optimistic.

For positive alternatves Richardson pointed to Audrey Watters (cf our first Forum), Dave Winer (this one, I think), myself, and the Domain of One’s Own movement (started at University of Mary Washington; its founder will be on the Forum next month).  We also touched on the vital question of how to engage in diverse conversations.  Will thinks this requires a new level of literacy for adults, especially to model types of behaviors for kids.  I modestly suggested the positive experiences I’ve had with discussions on my Facebook page, and mention Alan Levine‘s commandment that we make more art.

Part III: general discussion

Questions came up throughout the session. Here are some more.

Q: how would you advise higher ed on using social media?

A: understand that it’s essential to learning today.  K-12 teachers need to do social media. “[K]ids have to look at teachers and see them as learners… content expertise is everywhere”.

Q: Joe Murphy (see above): We’re past the point of teaching technical competency.  Now we’re reworking courses, which takes a lot of effort.  (Any advice? was the implicit question)

A: Educators need to embrace chaos.  Cites Sylvia Martinez (this one, I think).

Q: from Shelly Alcorn, CAE: how do we better align the needs of adult learners in trade and professional associations with the changes in the K-12 and post-secondary environment?

A: we actually didn’t address this question directly, but it’s a good one.

Let’s close on this quote from Gary Stager: “It’s hard to teach in the 21st century if you haven’t learned in the 21st century“.

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