(Cross posted to Huffington Post)
The last couple of days I’ve been soaking in a new white paper “Right to Learn: Identifying Precedents for Sustainable Change,” a document that I think nudges the serious conversation about real change in learning down the road a few steps if not more. The paper, written by Bruce Dixon and Susan Einhorn of the Anytime, Anywhere Learning Foundation, is the result of the discussions held at the Big Ideas Global Summit in June of 2010 (which was attended by the likes of Christopher Dede, Sugata Mitra, Karen Cator, Milton Chen, Angus King and many others,) and it poses one compelling question to frame the debate as we think about the future of learning:
Have we reached the limits of our traditional school system’s capacity to deal with the diversity of learners that come into our schools today?
I’m really intrigued by fundamental shift articulated in the paper, a move away from a “right to an education” towards a “right to learn,” a shift that is only made possible by the advent of new technologies to connect us to the resources and people who can help us learn.
To do this we need to shift our thinking from a goal that focuses on the delivery of somethingâ€”a primary educationâ€”to a goal that is about empowering our young people to leverage their innate and natural curiosity to learn whatever and whenever they need to. The goal is about eliminating obstacles to the exercise of this rightâ€”whether the obstacle is the structure and scheduling of the school day, the narrow divisions of subject, the arbitrary separation of learners by age, or othersâ€”rather than supplying or rearranging resources. The shift is extremely powerful…
I agree. It’s huge. And it challenges the very basic assumptions that we have about this thing we call school.
On many levels, this is scary territory to enter. But it articulates an important choice that has been niggling at me for quite some time in terms of where we should be spending our time and effort at this moment of huge disruption and challenge:
We can see an emerging crisis in our schools, while, on the other hand, we see a renaissance for learning. The question then simply becomes: would a completely different perspective that builds on the latter, be a more productive focus for us than the continued, largely unproductive, public debate around the former?…
Instead of thinking about buildings and budgets, we think about what learning might be possible. Instead of thinking about student teacher ratios, and high stakes tests, we think about the impact that a child taking more responsibility for his or her learning might have on a childâ€™s life choices. It simply shifts our emphasis, and most importantly, our perspective.
As a parent and a former classroom teacher, I for one hope all of the current ideas for “reform” fail, because few if any of them put our kids’ learning lives first. It’s about more standardization in our classrooms, more competition between our schools, and whatever is easiest and cheapest to implement. In many ways, it’s embarrassing the depth to which the conversation has sunk. And I agree with the premise of the report; if we continue to place our energy toward “fixing the system” literally millions of kids will be underserved at best in the process. Instead, what if we put a laser like focus on improving real student learning, not test scores? (And yes, the two are decidedly different.) Let’s start talking about how we can begin to deliver more personalized, relevant learning to kids right now, by rethinking our definitions of teacher and classroom and school in some profound albeit radical ways, and by starting to deeply consider the affordances that technologies bring to the learning equation, despite being made decidedly uncomfortable by those potentials in some big ways.
Instead of seeing the non-face-to-face learning space as one of a compromised experience, we surely need to recognize and explore without fear the new and, in many ways, more profound pedagogical opportunities the virtual space opens; opportunities that will challenge and possibly even undermine our traditional perspectives around effective teaching and learning.
The pedagogical opportunities are much more than just taking “online courses” the way we currently define them, more than just moving content online and trying to create communities around it. It speaks to the vast potential of individualization and personalization within the learning process that are possible now but that we haven’t even begun to explore as fully as we need to. I don’t read this as an end to physical space, but as a switch around what supports what. It’s not virtual that supports physical, as we think of it now. It’s where we use the physical spaces to help young learners make deeper sense of the interactions they pursue to a growing extent online. Again, that’s a profound switch, but it’s inevitable, I think.
There’s more, much more about learning and literacy and the like, and I urge you to read the entire paper. But I would love to hear your thoughts on those two “big” questions: Have schools as we know them reached their limits in terms of real student learning? And should we be shifting our focus away from how best to “deliver an education” to our students to, instead, building a new framework around each child’s inherent “right to learn” from cradle to grave?
Patti Grayson says
Wow – what a powerful document! Thanks so much for passing this along. I think the following excerpts of the paper really address how the current framework must change. If we don’t adopt a “very different framework” for our schools, I believe we will reach our limit in terms of student learning (if we haven’t already).
“The emphasis is more about who controls the learning than about content. Itâ€™s about learners learning through the lens of topics and issues that are of interest, relevant and purposeful to them; itâ€™s about them constructing knowledge; itâ€™s about connecting to an unlimited resource of people, ideas, and conversations that gives all learners unique insights, insights that underpin deeper understandings about the world in which they live, and how they might act collectively to influence their world and their lives. Itâ€™s about having the freedom to learn in a way that is appropriate in a modern world. Itâ€™s about acknowledging a learnerâ€™s innate drive to learn about, and understand, his or her place in the world.”
“The question becomes how do these ideas about collective knowledge construction â€˜fitâ€™ within our present models of schooling? Is this something that extends what we currently do in school, or is there possibly a very different framework based on our new perspective for what â€˜schoolingâ€™ could and should be?”
“The very notion of constructing knowledge implies self-directedness, self-organized learning that leverages, rather than depends on, an institution to deliver an education.”
We’re working hard to attain 1:1 netbooks for our 3rd and 4th graders next year, and I think we’re almost there. We know that once we do this, it will force our upper grades to move forward with us as these kids move up.
We’ve squashed so much creativity and free thinking from our kids that they have no idea what their interests and passions really are! We need to start young so that by the time a child reaches high school, they are ready to self-direct their learning, and dig deep into the areas they have found to be their passions and talents.
Will Richardson says
Thanks for the comment, Patti. There is much in the reading to pull out, for sure. I hope your 1-1 installation will truly promote self-direction and creativity in your curriculum and in your classrooms, but, as I’m sure you know, for most, that is not an easy shift. We fall back into our old ways despite the new technologies very easily.
Dear Will Richardson,
I believe that students have reached their limit, not schools. Schools are able to cooperate with the standardized testing, but there not the ones taking the test. The more competition between the schools will just cause the students to be pushed harder to learn material over and over so they’ll get high scores on Standardized Testing. Finally, there is the school reform acts which aren’t really helping schools. The millions of dollars they’re pushing into the school system won’t help education at all. They’re just some new acts to satisfy the American Public. I believe that we really should concentration on subjects they like before they get to High School. If we let student’s be naturally curios instead of pushing them towards the schools goals for education. With the students finding what they’re interested we will have more intelligent people in they’re jobs. Before they’re even hired they’ll know everything possible because they will have almost 13 years to study that area.
Kim Davis says
I am intrigued by your questions. As an elementary school teacher who was formally a network manager in manufacturing and banking, I am frustrated by the track I am put upon for teaching. There needs to be a balance between the content the students must learn(concepts like number sense, geometry, writing paragraphs, and science concepts(solids, life cycles, etc) and the exploration of ideas and curiousity mentioned in the other posts. A new track where we move side to side, up and down, and around..where the teacher becomes the coach, teaching the core skills while nurturing the natural talents of the team. There is a teacher who has built some of these ideas into The Flat Classroom Project I read about 2 years ago. Our walls must become flat, as our world is at the fingertips of our children. http://www.flatclassroomproject.org/
Our teacher prep programs are very much like they were thiry years ago, so I ask, how can we make this shift you mentioned when the front line, the teachers, are being trained with outdated tools/ideas? There are some schools making this blended shift from “right to teach” to “right to teach each other”; it will take time to occur, but I believe it will 🙂
One teacher, one class at a time….
Paul Hazell says
As a primary school teacher in the UK, I read with interest your article about the future of schools. As an AST, I lead alot of the new developments in learning. What is key is that the curriculum is designed to meet the needs of the children it serves.
This includes following the learners: in our dialogues with our pupils we must teach what interests them.
Technology engages them but I see it as a tool to help me deleiver outstanding lessons. It can never replace the teacher. For me teaching is about relationships which are bext built with the teacher there rather than him/her being on an online space.
Follow my blog- topteacherast.wordpress.com
Mary Ann Reilly says
It’s overwhelming to consider the changes that could happen if/when schools cease to be de facto and become optional. It is the space between then and now where such uncertainty, unrest, and promise reside. Not a comfortable place.
There is no way back though. That at least is clearly obvious. The constraints schools face are simply too overwhelming to continue as we have been going and none of the “reforms” I have seen or read about are worthy of our attention. Like you I hope they fail, quickly.
I always return to Wendell Berry who said we would be wise to â€œlearn to prefer small-scale eleganceâ€ (1989, p.22). Or Alan Luke who wrote, â€œIt should not surprise us,â€ Luke writes, â€œthat â€˜new methodâ€™ after â€˜new methodâ€™ have failed to turn around educational and social systemsâ€ (p. 307). Luke concluded, â€œIf there is a lesson to be learned from educational theory and practice in the 1990s, it is that the problems of discourse and practice, by definition, can only be addressed locallyâ€ (p. 312).
Will Richardson says
Overwhelming, no doubt. Welcome to the transition. And I do think you are right…it’s time to start some new “schools”. If we don’t like the current model, it’s time to build something better. Loving the “small scale elegance” part as well.
James Rolle says
The idea of “the right to learn” makes me think of a recent effort http://uncollege.org. This is about college, but I’m not sure the idea is any different. Schools fail because they are out of touch with students and provide content that is neither relevant nor presented in a compelling way. My guess is they always were, but children now are more aware of the world and more vocal about what they like and don’t like, and perhaps clearer about what they want to do.
There are more and more open resources online, and many of them can be tailored to self-directed learners. At the end of the day, it’s what someone understands and can do that ultimately determines what they do do; it shouldn’t be about how they got there.
But until schools are prepared to approach learning as learning, and not as a process of getting students in and out, it won’t change.
The other big piece of the puzzle is the issue of assessment, and as long as teachers are chasing test results and not real learning, students will not be engaged.
I teach in the regular classroom and I have to point out that the vast majority of my students are not self-directed. Regardless of how “compelling” the information is presented or how “relevant” the “class”, “teacher”, “material” (insert your choice here), learning takes energy and not all students are willing to devote their energy towards learning when it is much easier and more personally rewarding to Facebook. We all go through that process; even as an adult I often feel like “vegging out” when I have much more pressing issues to work on. As the saying goes: “just sayin'”.
Brandon Yanofsky says
I agree with you somewhat NC.
I’m one of the more “motivated” students out there. I went out of my way to learn certain things. But there were still classes I just could not concentrate on. It wasn’t necessarily that the teacher wasn’t compelling, or the subject matter wasn’t taught well. For me, it was I just didn’t see how it applied to my life or what I wanted to do.
Some people I know were excellent at creating things. They now construct houses. But they were horrible in school. It wasn’t relevant to their lives. And they learned differently than school taught.
A great saying I heard is that no matter how much you force a cat to learn how to fly, it just won’t fly. If it took a class on flying, it’d fail. But give it a class on jumping and it’d get an A.
David Loertscher says
In the age of Kahn Academy, it would seem that individual learners could be coached to build skill in the “morning” hours and then join teams of learners in the “afternoon” who would be pursuing collaborative problems, projects, issues, real experiences, etc. For several years, I have had a group of graduate students constructing Knowledge Building Centers using Google Sites where the collaboration in this report becomes real as teacher coaches, teacher librarians, teacher technologists, community experts, parents and the learners, of course talk, work, construct, help, propose, demonstrate and other words used in this report. The growth of collaborative technologies that require the learner to contribute personal expertise to form collaborative intelligence are here. Now. And, the best tools are free. It is not difficult to construct and implement the kind of learning called for in this report. But it does require adults who really believe and test together the notion that two adult coach heads are better than one and the end result is that every learner reaches toward excellence rather than just minimums. The concept of the isolated teacher in a closed environment needs to be shattered.
nancy mansberger says
It’s always been possible, though sometimes challenging, to facilitate “real” learning for students within the confines of schooling. The best teachers are masters at working around the constraints and boundaries posed by schooling structures, policies, personnel (administrators), etc.
Idealistically, I feel I have been waiting for 20 years for the rest of the world to catch up to the power of learning vs. schooling. However, I am very suspicious that the corporate and political powers that are invested in the whole educational corporate business are ready to let us get out of their control.
One of the largest hurdles to the focus on “learning” as opposed to schooling is the little issue of credentialing. Our society has become increasingly, myopically obsessed and dependent on the value of being credentialed (or demanding credentials) for entrance to socially-approved jobs, opportunities, positions, status, etc.
When knowledge and ability and experience is once again valued more than some damn paper credential, we as a society might be on the track toward supporting “learning”.
Doug Spicher says
I like the idea of kids being responsible for their own learning; for creating their own path. But are we giving them the proper tools to choose that path? When do we allow that path to be chosen? Who will vet what they learn as accurate, or will that be part of the learning process? More than that is the parents…will this be supported by making kids learn the right things at the right time or would we be in danger of creating generations of kids who are simply advanced users of social media?
Excellent points. And how about those children whose parents are too caught up in divorce or unemployment issues to keep track of their children’s progress? As I pointed out before, many children will choose to continue playing tag rather than study the difference between their, there and they’re. Who decides what “…the right things at the right time…”? These are important questions that need answers. Unfortunately, not all children have parents and they are often the ones that need supervision the most.
Of course we’re reaching the limit! We’ve been perfecting this style of education for a hundred years, and we’re at a point where changes all have pros and cons. We’ve run out of improvements, and now we’re mostly weighing trade-offs.
The next question is: is a shift to more individualized learning worth the massive effort? Not right now, but once 1:1 computers with ubiquitous network access are rolled out in more places, the effort needed will be much much less.
“The effort needed will be much much less” – and where are you getting the personalized software that the motivated student will be using? The effort is not less and less, as was said by better than me, “we have just begun…”!
In your “Have Schools Reached Their Limits”, I agree completely because schools are a lot more focused on doing what they can with the very limited money which they are given. Sometimes they look for the easy way rather than focusing on making sure everyone is “learning” the material. They might just wing it with standardized testing and other forms of testing. Like you said “To do this we need to shift our thinking from a goal that focuses on the delivery of somethingâ€”a primary educationâ€”to a goal that is about empowering our young people to leverage their innate and natural curiosity to learn whatever and whenever they need to”. Some of us donâ€™t want to do the work required for school because we are too lazy. Learning is taken for granted; lots of less fortunate people would only wish for my education. This will all take a little time because less fortunate people donâ€™t have much and having a basic education would open up so many opportunities. As I grow up and witness people my age, it seems like the like basic morals that used to be so common are now hard to find- even morals such as simply doing the right thing. People are selfish in a way. Lots of teens today just steal and do whatever they please lacking the very essence that creates a working society. In conclusion, the flaws in education lead back to the studentâ€™s habits. If schools would get more funding that would erase many problems.
Brandon Yanofsky says
I love this idea of education vs learning. I graduated college about a year ago and already see the big difference. Education is structured and therefore stifling. It teaches you how to regurgitate information and think like everyone else.
Learning though has no boundaries. And let’s us come to our own conclusions.
Our society and culture needs to place a higher emphasis on learning and less on education.
Thanks for raising these ideas Will. As always, looking forward to more.
Great ideas. I love the discussions. We have so long to go that I can only imagine what the end of the tunnel will look like. I am only seeing the sign “tunnel ahead”.
Justin M 2014 says
Dear Will Richardson,
I read your article â€œHave Schools Reached Their Limitsâ€ and it surprised me that you think we could personalize learning so much that it would help every student with he or shes every needs. I agree with part of what you are saying that we need to help the students more so they can do good in school and have a right to â€œlearn.â€ The part I am disagreeing with is getting most of the big stake tests abolished because I feel as if there was nothing that would make or break their grade they would not try as hard. In my eyes the test is a part of school that will always be needed because it is the motivator that helps students better understand the knowledge of the content they are studying because they have to memorize some of the facts. I am a student myself and as much as I do not like tests I do learn from them and my mistake from them. The other part of your article that I half agree with is the on line learning to make communities. I think that is a great idea in itself but the part I disagree with is not going to a physical learning space because if students are at home I believe they will slack off. I believe we do need to update the learning system but also keep some of the old ways because if it is not broken then why fix it?
Joel VerDuin says
To the first question on reaching the limits of diversification – we reached that limit a long time ago. It is only now becoming increasingly evident, more visible, and less tolerated. I would also argue that we had less care for it in the past and simply ignored those who were not being served.
As to whether we should be shifting the focus – interestingly, I see us doing the exact opposite as we move towards increased attention to national standards. Add to that a school structure which favors standardization and same-ness, and we actually are moving the whole system in the opposite and easier direction.