Design in the Service of Learning

Today’s student is NOT the student of the 70s, 80s, or even the 90s.  Today’s student expects more and value their own entitlements.  The social world around students has trained them to expect more.  More from society, more from their peers, more from schools, and more from their learning opportunities.  The bus has left the school depot.  The one-size-fits-all learning design approach is dead, and our education system knows it.  Yet, not much has changed to address the needed change in our approach to learning because there is a technology gap.  The name of that gap:  Personalized Learning.  Yes, many vendors advertise personalized learning platforms, yet few have delivered on the promise, or perhaps a better statement is that few have been able to fully exploit the power of technology combined with human know-how to realize the power of personalized learning.

All around us, the digital revolution disrupted many businesses.  And the school system is not exempt.  However, the disruption there is slow.  Missing is the understanding that services (like teaching and learning) that WERE previously delivered by humans could now be delivered in a hybrid fashion, with a shift in mental models:  human-delivered services MEDIATED by technology.  Theories such as situated cognition provide us with clues as to how we could image a new personalized learning environment, one in which student and teacher knowledge is embedded in the activity, context, and culture which it is learned.

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The Education We Deserve

Why is it that we humans are so protective of our stuff? Think about it. We build fences around our homes, we install alarms on our cars, we tag our dogs, we tag our books, heck there is even some thoughts of tagging our kids. For all we talk about being an open caring society, we actually practice the exact opposite. Even the idea of open source software and solution creation is challenging to the majority of the population. Once touted as completely free, you can see small pockets of businesses offering support services, hosting services for a fee. Interesting that some in our society have found a way to profit from the openness of free development. Let’s think about textbook companies. They contain information. Information wants to be free. We all know that. Informationmust be free. Yet, textbook companies take the free information and repackage it and restrict it. Unfortunately, that paradigm will not disappear too quickly as the content creation and lesson creation is quite time-consuming and teachers are busy testing, assessing, and evaluating student progress. For what purpose? To re-teach from the same content to the same kids in the same way? Most likely. Assessment is about the past. If you look at the amount of time kids are spending taking assessment you begin to see how truly caught up in the past we really are. Shouldn’t kids and teachers be focused instead on the coming moments, the coming days, the coming weeks. Isn’t technology all about the possibilities of the future? “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future

Marshall McLuhan. This in fact is the history of education. We continually look backward to go forward, perhaps therein lies our mistake. As we’ve all heard, if you wait long enough what you’re currently doing will be back in vogue and you will be the leader again. All teachers will attest to this statement as being true because we’ve all experienced. Yet we continually tout to our students that they need to work hard, study hard, and play hard so they can live full lives as adults. Kids see though us immediately. They know we don’t walk the walk we only talk the talk. What holds us back? Why do we continually fall back on old ways, old methods, old styles? You know, it really is a brave new world. It really is the perfect storm. Why aren’t more teachers stepping up to the plate and saying Enough! Enough all ready. We’re mad and we aren’t going to take it anymore. Teachers have that power, so do the parents. They have more power than they really know. It would be amazing to see it exercised. As long as teacher unions are needed, we won’t see any changes in education. Am I anti-union? No, absolutely not. But, unions are an organizational structure of the past, built for a time that no longer exists. Teachers have the tools, knowledge, and means to take back their profession, to make the changes that are needed, to institute a better way of learning, a better way of teaching, and a better way to the future. The power is in their hands. It’s in everyone’s hands. Yet, the buck is continually passed from one party to another party with lots of finger pointing. Let’s stop this madness. Let’s get down to the business of what’s right for children, for adults, for our future. Let’s take back our profession and create a brave new world. One that explores the possibilities that technology, humans, and society have to offer. The time is now. Act!

If we look at the world today from 300 years in the future, what will we see? Will we see an empowered citizen who fully and responsibly participates in society? Will we see an empowered child who fully and responsibly embraces learning opportunities that enable him/her to fully and responsibly participate in society? We will see an education system that fully and responsibly creates environments that supports the development of citizens who are capable of full and responsible participation in our society? I think not. Shed the ‘good ‘ol boys networks”, the “old lodge organizations” and create the world we all deserve and want.

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Technology Supported Instruction

It is and has been commonly accepted that technology is key to connecting experts and novices in ways that aren’t possible in a face-to-face world.  Throughout the ages, technology has accomplished just that aim. We have reached  a point in the evolution of technology where we can now shed old models of instruction and adopt new models,  supported by technology, that scaffold and support how people learn.

However, what we have seen in the present time period is not the shedding of old models of instruction, but rather an assimilation of new technology into old models.  In fact, professors and teachers are often strongly influenced by methods from the face-to-face classroom.  The learning sciences offer great  opportunity for educators to become part of the shift, part of the change, part of the transformation of what we call “teaching/learning.”

Can technology help us reinvent how we prepare people for healthy and productive lives? Key points to consider:

  • Increased access to learning opportunity is a moral imperative that makes a far-reaching difference in people’s lives.
  • Digitally-based courses and delivery offer powerful ways technology can expand access.
  • Some of the difficult in transforming learning and teaching is that students, administrators, and funders EXPECT education to look a certain way i.e. teachers presenting information.
  • Much of the time (calendar year) spent in formal education settings is less than time spent outside the school setting.
  • A blended environment leveraging both formal and informal learning creates a more powerful design for teaching and learning.
  • One of the major challenges faced will be how educators respond effectively and efficiently to rapid change.
  • Given the continuous and rapid pace of change, the importance of expertise becomes critical.  People must navigate at the edges of their existing knowledge and skills, called adaptive expertise, and this requires the letting go of the “old ways” or “unlearning”.
  • Adaptive people need adaptive organizations.
  • Book: The new division of labor:  How computers are creating the next job market (Levy and Murnane),  explores the value of technology-enhanced learning as seen in the evolution of the stock exchange industry.
  • Digital natives are already self-directed learners, they are already influenced by learning opportunities afforded  by technology outside formal learning.
  • Student capacity for independent learning is essential to their future-success.

Our challenge as educators seeking ways to transform learning is to find the answers to this key question:

How can technology, aligned with guidelines from the learning sciences, enable the blending of formal and informal AND break down silos AND develop an integrated approach to learning?

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The Paradigm of Mindful Learning

Why blog?  An undergraduate professor of mine frequently told his  students, “You don’t know what you think until you try to write it down.”  I’ve started this new blog to catalog my thoughts, clarify my thinking, explore new perspectives, and participate in broader conversations on that topics interest me.

This is the third blog that’s worked on, and it has been many years since my last entry.  We all know, life just has a way of intervening and new projects become priorities, and before you know it, a year or two has gone by.

But isn’t that the dilemma for most leaders? For most of us involved in technology? Finding time to do those projects that speak to our passions, that support our initiatives, and that give back to our own community often get inadvertently pushed to the back burner. Then  one day, we realize our lack of time has affected our intention: an important project. It is then, and only then, that we rediscover our project and commit to giving it our full attention and time. That’s where I am with this blog, and I plan to make a concerted effort to utilize it to reflect on a variety of topics . This leads me to the topic of this blog entry, “Mindful Learning.”

The Power of Mindful Learning by Ellen Langer.  In her book, Langer puts forth what could be a new paradigm for learning. Ellen argues that traditional methods of learning often produce what she’s calls mindless learning. Mindless learning by students does not allow them to learn facts and skills conditionally. She calls upon us, teachers and leaders to set the stage for students to engage in mindful learning.

According to Langer there are seven pervasive myths or mindsets that interfere with learning. The book lays out the myths and then demonstrates how to avoid becoming trapped by these myths.

The seven myths are:

  1. The basics must be learned so well that they become second nature
  2. Paying attention means staying focused on one things at a time
  3. Delaying gratification is important
  4. Rote memorization is necessary in education
  5. Forgetting is a problem
  6. Intelligence is knowing “what’s out there.”
  7. There are right and wrong answers.

Falling prey to one or many of these myths can stifle our creativity, deaden our questions, and lower our self-esteem.

The challenge for today’s educations is to recognize and understand that these old paradigms have invaded our classrooms and produced generations of students who are, in effect, mindless learners.

Perhaps by overturning these myths we can set a new paradigm—one that allows us to overhaul an ineffective education system and design a system that encourages both leaders and students to be mindful learners.

In the past, Langer notes, we have tried changing the curricula, creating and changing the standards for leaders, teachers, and students, improving parent and community involvement in the learning process, and both increasing and decreasing the budget for education. However, these actions have had limited and sometimes unsuccessful effects. Langer believes that the previous stated interventions alone cannot make a difference unless students have an opportunity to learn more mindfully.

After reading her book, I must say that she makes a good case. I first encountered her book over a ten years ago. And I have to say that ten years later I find myself using many of her strategies and I am pleased with the results.

I have been able to develop new solutions to problems and help others see what’s possible. It was through my regular journal reflections that I rediscovered her book again as I saw that I was actually becoming a “myth buster.” Now I am imagining what an impact these same approaches could make for student learning.

According to Langer, the process of defeating these old myths, in and of itself causes us to question what intelligence really is. A particular question that comes to my mind is, “Does our view of intelligence support inhibiting mindsets?”

In her book, The Power of Mindful Learning, book Langer notes that not only do we as people get locked into single-minded views, but we also reinforce these views for each other until the culture itself suffers the same mindlessness.

So, what exactly is, The Power of Mindful Learning,?

Mindful learning is an approach to learning. It has three characteristics:

  • the continuous creation of new categories;
  • openness to new information; and
  • an implicit awareness of more than one perspective.

By contrast, Mindless learning is entrapment in old categories. It is automatic behavior without any thought. It limits our ability to see new perspectives, signals. According to Langer, it’s like being on automatic pilot.

How do we escape from mindless learning? We must learn to question beliefs–everything is the same until it is not.

One simple way to escape mindless learning is by changing how we ask the questions. Instead of asking Is it possible or Can we do it? We should be asking: How is it possible, or how can we do it.

This simple change in perspective allows us to shift from finding an answer to thinking about how to get from a to b. This simple change shifts our way of thinking and it leads us back to our question, what is intelligence.

I recently came across a brief article comparing the differences between bright children and gifted children. The bright child knows the answers to the question, and the gifted child asks the questions.

I’ll end this brief introduction to Ellen Langer’s book Mindful Learning with these questions that Langer raises: throughout a student’s career, they have learned to delay gratification. They have learned that they have to do their studies before they can play a game or talk on the phone. They have learned that schoolwork is a chore. Why is study itself not gratifying for students? How could it be? If rote memory is a tedious way to prepare for an exam, is there a more effective and more gratifying way? Ah….we are on our way to experiencing mindful learning.

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