March 4th, 2013

The Questions

Audrey Watters, in her most excellent post deconstructing Sugata Mitra’s $1 million TED prize award from last week:

I have questions about this history of schooling as Mitra (and others) tell it, about colonialism and neo-colonialism. I have questions about the funding of the initial “Hole in the Wall” project (it came from NIIT, an India-based “enterprise learning solution” company that offers 2- and 4-year IT diplomas). I have questions about these commercial interests in “child-driven education” (As Ellen Seitler asks, “can the customer base be expanded to reach people without a computer, without literacy, and without any formal teaching whatsoever?”). I have questions about the research from the “Hole in the Wall” project — the research, not the 15 minute TED spiel about it. I have questions about girls’ lack of participation in the kiosks. I have questions about project’s usage of retired British schoolteachers — “grannies” — to interact with Indian children via Skype.

I have questions about community support. I have questions about what happens when we dismantle public institutions like schools — questions about social justice, questions about community, questions about care. I have questions about the promise of a liberation via a “child-driven education,” questions about this particular brand of neo-liberalism, techno-humanitarianism, and techno-individualism.

Here’s my question: What happens to these questions (and others) that we need to be asking about schools and classrooms and learning in general? How do we answer them? How do they enter the larger debate which, by and large, has and is ignoring them?

Whether you agree/believe/get tingly about Mitra’s work or not, and regardless how you feel about the whole TED approach, this award does, I think, serve a positive purpose in our little corner of the student-centered reform world here. There are now whole bunches of more people considering the role of schools, the value of technology in learning, and the new paths that are opening up to learning. In many cases, his vision is going to pull this conversation to a different place. There are lots more questions being asked. I think, on balance, that can be a good thing.

But only if we’re engaging in those conversations critically. Only if, like Audrey, we’re willing to read further, to engage in the debate, to articulate our own thinking around it not just to those we know in our local communities but in our online communities as well. Only if we’re brave enough to take the learner’s stance and say “I’ve got an opinion, but I want to know more.”

This is hard, especially in the online space. And it’s not just the idea that online spaces can bend toward an uncivil, almost bullying tone. It takes a confidence and boldness to engage. This is not easy even for someone like me who has been doing it for a dozen years or so. My brain explodes when I think of all the people (many of whom I know) who are just much smarter than I who might read this and might chuckle at my ignorance.

Yet I’ll read and I’ll write because I want to know more, and I want those who might read this to help me clarify my thinking, and I trust them to do so with civility and not disdain. But I also know full well that the vast majority of people who read this won’t engage either here or elsewhere. 

Which, as almost always, brings me back to my kids. How do I/we help them help them want to learn more, help them understand the value of engagement, and help them become able to navigate the rough spots in all of this? I’m not sure Mitra’s vision is the definitive answer, and as Audrey suggests, there is much more a potential public good in community schools that can be replaced by grannies in the cloud.

But it does beg that ongoing question that we still need to push: are our schools and systems helping our kids develop into the types of modern learners that will flourish in this  modern world? And if not, what do we do about that?

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Welcome! I'm Will Richardson, parent, educator, speaker, author, 12-year blogger at Weblogg-ed and now here. I'm trying to answer the question "What happens to schools and classrooms and learning in a 2.0 world?" Best selling new book: Why School?s...order now!!


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