The Future of Learning: a Mini-Memoir

8 Aug

Last week I was lucky enough to attend the Future of Learning institute, sponsored by the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Programs in Professional Education and Project Zero; the ideas and energy were wonderful–many thanks to the organizers.  I list some of the things that “stuck” with me from the experience.

Games are good.  It ends up games model integrated, formative assessment, inspire intrinsic motivation, and allow for student-driven, project-like learning “quests.”  So says Barry Fishman of the University of Michigan School of Education. But they can also serve (!) as a kind of structuring metaphor for learning contexts. Barry Fishman designed his course on games to be a game itself. Designing games is in itself a deep, immersive learning experience: whole schools now are built around game design (see the Quest to Learn grade school in New York City). Although I don’t know of a school that is itself a game–to take Fishman’s idea one degree further–now that would be neat.

Good standardized assessment is possible.  Zak Stein of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Developmental Testing Service suggests standardized tests can be based on learning theory (ends up they’re not) and on what learners know (as opposed to what experts think they should know) and can be transparent and formative and integrated into the curriculum and thereby give quick feedback right back into the learning process, and not be scary, high-stakes, black-box things. His non-profit group works with schools essentially (in my retelling) to build a ladder of concepts in a given field by conducting an exhaustive process of ethnographic interviews with learners at every level. Then a series of accessible assessment instruments is designed for all the different levels on that concept ladder. The kicker is that taking the assessments essentially looks and feels like regular old quotidien classroom learning, so they’re not scary, and you don’t stop the class to take them; because they’re transparent and immediate, they can show the students where they are comparatively and what the next steps in their progress should be. Students can even jump to the next step.  Or the step beyond that!  (Why not?)

Disabilities are co-located. David Rose of the Center for Applied Special Technology was passionate in pressing home the point that disabilities are contextual. That the environment–or a given communications medium–is part of the problem. Perhaps the problem. And that it should share the burden of adjustment. That disabilities aren’t so much an individual’s fault as a circumstance. Reading problems are often problems with print media but not other forms of communication; ADHD problems are often co-located in the environment which the school and the classroom impose and aren’t problems outside of schools, etc.

Stress is bad. David Rose, Zak Stein, and others also referred to recent findings that physical problems can be caused by stressful learning environments–damage to the brain, ulcers, etc. Sometimes it’s the high-stakes nature of a particular assessment; sometimes an environment is more stressful because of a learner’s predisposition; either way it’s not simply that we learn less well but than we can actually be damaged. Anyone would say it’s illogical to let the measurement of a thing or the environment we create around a thing destroy the thing we’re hoping to develop. Reflecting cursorily on my own experiences of education, work, and life, though, I note that stress is pretty much the coin of the realm, and I fairly gasp in horor at what we may be doing to ourselves.

It’s all about globalization. Perhaps the challenge of the age is globalization, or how you get along in this world where relatively insular cultures with their own rules are thrown together with groups whose rules are different.  In other words, how do we help ourselves evolve to not just tolerate but collaborate with people from other cultural settings?  Because if we don’t collaborate, the earth is effectively doomed . . . In any event, I’ve decided in my impetuous way that basically anything worth learning should also be seen from a global perspective wherever possible. My example is Todd Elkin’s wonderful Shelter Project: Elkin didn’t just teach his local students, say, building design techniques. He asked them to entertain a variety of questions in a global context.  Among them: to imagine sustainable structures using the kinds of materials used in shanty-towns and tent cities the world over; to understand more deeply the housing and living conditions in the world and the causes that shaped them; and to collaborate with students from other places in the world who lived in such towns.

The studio is the answer.  If you read the old posts on this blog, you know I’m a fan of studio learning, which I sometimes refer to as the “atelier” model, using a fancy French word. I was happy to hear Lois Hetland talk about her work researching the qualities of mind artists develop–and the advantages of thinking and learning that come from working in a studio culture. Now I am even more obsessed with applying the studio model wherever I can. As David Perkins notes (page 180, Making Learning Whole), it’s a model that’s probably applicable anywhere you can find a way to make the thinking going on “visible” (imagine various white boards, display screens, sticky note exercises replacing painting with oils).  Wouldn’t I love to work in a workplace-as-studio?

The FOL format is neat. The Future of Learning institute is like the Project Zero Classroom institute in that it has an interesting hybrid format.  Morning plenary sessions by leaders in various learning areas are followed by elective “mini courses,” or 2-hour interactive immersions in a variety of areas from gaming to studio thinking to learning in the workplace. In addition you also have time to meet with a small group of people in more informal ways–and you’re encouraged there to discuss ideas that came up from mini courses and plenaries as well as developing a question or project of your own.  It’s a nice balance of opportunities to absorb information more or less passively with opportunities to engage and process.  A hybrid format like this would probably work well in a variety of other settings. Like school or the workplace.

Project Zero people are worth knowing. The people who go to Project Zero institutes (in my experience) are different than those I know from various higher education organizations. They’re more commonly k-12 teachers and administrators, or curricular specialists or researchers who work with k-12 teachers; they’re more deeply familiar with progressive pedagogy (such as the “Teaching for Understanding” movement that grew out of Project Zero); and they have a wonderful commitment to improving their teaching and improving learning in general. More of the higher education teaching and learning community should gravitate their way, in my opinion: there is a rich future world of shared experiences begging to be engendered . . .

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