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Personally, I’m Hopeful

It’s about as cliche as New Year’s resolutions, but the truth is at the beginning of each year, I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful for what I, personally, may be able to do better, but more than that, I’m hopeful for the possibilities that a new year can bring. Specifically this year, I’m hopeful and excited about what the world of education can become. It seems to me that the past two years have been a crescendo leading to today in many respects: new touch and mobile technologies; rapid growth in access to high-speed Internet; pressure to increase the efficacy of education on a national and world stage from both government authorities and accreditation; difficult economic times that have led many back to further their education; advances in LMS technologies enabling education to be ever more available and increasingly interactive.

As I reflected on and reviewed the articles, conferences, seminars and videos I perused in 2011, a few pieces caught my attention again:

Sugata Mitra is a scientist in Newcaslte, UK who spoke at a TED conference in July of 2010 regarding his Hole in the Wall Project. You can still see the video via this link. Essentially what Sugata and his colleagues did was embed an Internet-connected computer in the wall of a slum in New Dehli with a hidden camera watching it. They did this because they believe that “There are places on Earth, in every country, where, for various reasons, good schools cannot be built and good teachers cannot or do not want to go ... “, so they brought the potential for learning to the children without teachers or schools or organization. What the cameras recorded were children from the slum playing with the computer, learning how to use it, getting online and then teaching each other.  From the results of the project, during his TED talk, Sugata asserts that “Children will learn to do what they want to learn to do” and that even in the absence from any direct input from a teacher, “If children have interest, education happens.” Now, while I don’t believe the most efficacious education occurs in a situation like this, I find it interesting that simple curiosity was enough of a driving force to begin education; no laws or rules or coercion required.

As the nearly six and a half million views of this video attest to, Sir Ken Robinson is an intelligent, dynamic, fun-to-listen-to man who has potentially-disruptive thoughts on the state of education as it stands today. In this RSA Animate version of Robinson’s talk called Changing Education Paradigms (which is well worth the 12 minutes by the way), he asserts that “The current system of education was designed, and conceived and structured for a different age”, and that it no longer applies to the world we find ourselves in. At the time when public education in America was first, truly being formed, “Public education, paid for by taxation, free to everybody and free at the point of delivery”, was revolutionary. But Robinson believes that “we [still] have a system of education that is modeled on the interests of industrialisation and in the image of it. Schools are still pretty much organized on factory lines.” To a degree I can understand why this is still the case. In a nation where we are trying to continually educate roughly 313,000,000 people, there needs to be an overarching organization. However, Robinson argues that we’ve increasingly made education about conformity. He puts it this way: “It’s about standardization; I believe we’ve got to go in the exact opposite direction. That’s what I mean about changing the paradigm.” And what is the exact opposite direction of standardization?

It seems that Finnish education has been in the news quite a bit lately. One article that I ran across recently which could be considered somewhat educationally-provocative, is from ‘The Atlantic’ and entitled What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland's School Success. The article is written by Anu Partenan, who is herself Finnish and currently a journalist in New York City. As many have identified, the article clearly contrasts competition and equity asserting “Finland's experience shows that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity.” However, the underlying theme I found most interesting is one of a student-centric approach. The article also notes that the Finnish policy on education is that “every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location”. Schools in Finland are also focusing on more than just the brain or education of their students by offering free meals, access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance.

While these pieces are all interesting in their own right, I believe that the pertinent common thread is that we’re poising ourselves to individualize education. I think the next age of education is a personal one. Let me explain what I mean (and don’t mean) by “individualized” and “personal” by taking a step back in time. There was a time in history (think along the lines of 1400s, Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci) when many who wanted to have a skilled job apprenticed under a master who closely mentored their students by working side-by-side with them, sharing their  knowledge, giving them experience, and providing opportunity to try and try again. The take away from this type of learning environment is not a need to have learning be a one-on-one or one-on-few experience, but rather that the mentor would adjust their teaching to the abilities, personality and characteristics of the apprentice because they had the opportunity to know their student intimately.

What these mentors were able to do was personalize, or individualize the process by which their students learned. The skills required to perform the work (outcomes and standards) did not have to change or be sacrificed. Robinson’s view is that our education has become a factory where the process is always the same, regardless of variances in input (differing students) and yet expecting the resulting product to be the same (students who meet or exceed standards and outcomes). The truth is that every student will enter into each learning experience from a different place that is formed from both their innate characteristics and their life experiences. One might think of it using this simple analogy: Let’s say that three students enter a learning situation as a 2, 5 and 7. A standardized or constant learning process might be like adding a 5 to each student so that the 2 becomes a 7, the 5 a 10 and the 7 a 12. If the outcome of the learning situation is for the students to reach a learned level of 10, then we’ve wasted the time of the 7, not done right by the 2 and, perhaps luckily, been just right for the 5.

I believe that our change in educational paradigm can be a simple shift in what we hold constant and what we allow to vary. Simply put, the journey, the process, of learning need not be the same for any given learner; let it be flexible, be dynamic, be individualized and personal. Let’s hold constant (or conscientiously raise) our standards and outcomes. If an outcome of 10 is what is needed, then let’s take the time to give the 2 an 8, continue to give the 5 a 5 and provide the 7 a 3 and let them be on their way. But how? This is where the history in which we are living has brought us to a point in time where technology enables us to not only dynamically and intelligently adjust the learning process, but to do it for thousands and millions of learners.

I absolutely love this advice from Walter Gretsky, to his son, The Great One, Wayne Gretsky: “skate where the puck's going, not where it's been”. If we take the time to do similarly and look where our advances in technology are leading (wide-spread Internet access, html5, smart mobile devices, digital resources), we can see that education is going to change to become naturally personal. For each of us, the choice will be whether or not we will meet the puck where it’s going to be or if we'll have skated behind it.

Sugata shows us that learning is a natural thing; we don’t have to enforce it, we only need to give it the conditions in which it can flourish. Robinson shows us that one-size does not fit all; simply repeating a process does not produce (let alone guarantee) the same outcome. The Finns remind us to focus on the learner as a person more than a predetermined menu of what is to be learned in what ways and in what quantities.  The world that we’re living in is showing us that journeys of personal learning can be more than a hope, but are indeed possible.

Luke Cable
Academic Trainer & Consultant
Pearson eCollege

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  1. Its the classic yin yang battle of self automation vs control through hierarchy. Do we teach people to automate themselves or to learn and copy their teachers? Because we are so prone to taking short term desire over long term, structure is required in certain areas to make sure the student stays balanced, but there are areas where students will choose to learn in their own way and enjoy learning. When this happens, the learning stays learned, so it can be very effective.

    Its too bad that we can’t get more one on one training for our students. That’s where the best learning seems to come from.

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