This post was inspired by a recent post over at The No-School Kids. It’s a wonderful, meaty read, questioning why homeschooling is rapidly increasing in popularity, and relating it to the modern, technological age. This quote gives a taste of the article:
I think these issues of technology changing our relationship to information, changing our jobs and economy, and therefore changing how we want educate our kids — these are real reasons for the growth of the homeschooling movement in my lifetime.
Reading this, I was prompted to put down some thoughts that have been percolating in my own mind lately.
The idea that the internet and the new economy are game-changers when it comes to “what your kid needs to know” is not new. In one of the most popular TED talks to date, Sir Ken Robinson highlighted the importance of creativity and the lack of emphasis on creativity in schools (the title of his talk was “How Schools Kill Creativity”).
In another popular TED talk, Sugata Mitra demonstrated that, using technology, kids can teach themselves what they need to know without the help of any adults. Here is a quote from Sugata Mitra that is particularly relevant to the subject of today’s post:
Schools today are the product of an expired age; standardized curricula, outdated pedagogy, and cookie cutter assessments are relics of an earlier time. Schools still operate as if all knowledge is contained in books, and as if the salient points in books must be stored in each human brain — to be used when needed. The political and financial powers controlling schools decide what these salient points are. Schools ensure their storage and retrieval. Students are rewarded for memorization, not imagination or resourcefulness. – Sugata Mitra
I’m drawn to this subject because of my experiences watching my children use the Internet to learn. They approach learning in a very different way than I approached it (or, more accurately, how it was presented to me) in school. There is the ability to seek out information, yes, but then there is the ability to process it in myriad ways that were not readily available to us back in my day. Rather than a smattering of subject matter broken down into neat blocks of time that rotate throughout the week, my kids immerse themselves in a subject, exploring it in ways that are different for each child but far broader than the usual concept of read-book-memorize-facts. Their learning is more discussion-based, more exploratory, and facts are just stuff that gets stuck in their head along the way by virtue of being used and encountered frequently. Fan sites, discussion forums, YouTube channels, websites, wikis, and blog rings provide different ways to explore a topic, to turn it around in your mind and share others’ perspectives. This is idea-generating learning, the kind that is needed in order to take advantage of today’s opportunities, and those in the near future.
Learning online is not just limited to global conversations, however. Who doesn’t wish to immerse themselves in technical details when it comes to their passions? Enter the online video course. My first encounter with such a learning platform was through my own use of the Craftsy website. Craftsy offers courses in sewing, quilting, knitting, and other crafts presented in video lesson format. Lessons are broken down into separate videos that students watch on their own time, at their own pace. It’s easy to skip back a few seconds and listen again to something the student may have missed, or to see a particular technique being demonstrated over and over (using the 30-second loop function). In addition, it allows for the student to insert notes at any point in the video, which can later be used to quickly access the exact point in the video relating to that subject. Not only can questions be posted to the instructor, who usually replies within a couple of days, but students can also reply or comment on the questions. There are forums in which students and the instructor can engage in detailed discussions about any aspect of the course, and places where students can post photo examples of their class projects. With today’s technology, it is easy to snap a photo of your work, post it, and ask “what did I do wrong here?” or “any feedback?”. In my particular field of interest, quilting instructors have been around for decades, but until the availability of such courses many people had to travel to learn. The online learning platform takes accessability to a whole new level.
Recently, Miss Em enrolled in an online programming course offered by Youth Digital where students learn to program their own Minecraft Mod. This course follows the same idea as the Craftsy courses: video lessons, interaction with the teacher and other students, and includes weekly video podcasts by the host highlighting various students’ projects, etc. It is a truly interactive learning experience that the student can access 24 hours a day, whenever it suits them. The student can progress as quickly or slowly as they need. The lessons are geared toward youth, taught by a young instructor who is familiar with the current culture and language around Minecraft and programming in general. Miss Em found him funny and engaging and far more interesting than I found my Grade 11 computer science teacher to be.
My final example of online learning is the math program I’m using with Mr. Boo. Dreambox Learning presents mathematics in an interactive, video-based format that is heavy on visual representation (something I’ve always felt really enhances the presentation of mathematical relationships). Not only can students progress at their own pace through the lessons, but the program tracks the student’s progress and adjusts the experience to suit their particular needs. When proficiency is demonstrated in one area, the program moves the student through that module faster, and allows them to progress as far ahead as they are able. At the same time, if the student is struggling with other concepts, those are presented in a manner that is gradually broken down into more basic concepts until the program “meets” the student where they’re at, and then slowly brings the student through the material. This ability to completely personalize the experience for each student is one of the most impressive features of such programs and really trumps the experience in school. Ask any teacher how much they could accomplish if they had only one student assigned to them, and you don’t need to think too hard to appreciate what a difference a personalized education can make.
As a long-term homeschooler, my perspective on the current schooling system is already skewed. It strikes me as a giant, slow-moving machine, whose cogs spin with such momentum that enacting any degree of change takes inordinate amounts of time. In our home, when an educational approach isn’t working, we can try something else right away. However, when I ponder the implications of this with respect to the design of schools and what they are intended to achieve (preparing kids for adult employment and engagement with the world), it seems no mystery that the system used to educate our children is now woefully outdated.
I believe in children’s inherent drive and ability to learn, without being instructed in a “top-down” fashion (where student=passive listener and teacher=dispenser of information). However, with the availability of the Internet, and programs such as those I’ve described above, anybody who is comfortable seeking information for themselves can become “educated”. My children have only ever experienced the freedom of self-direction in their learning. They are not familiar with the concept of someone else dictating what they need to know, when they need to know it, and in what order it is all to be presented. But for children in school, this idea that learning is something that happens TO you, rather than something you MAKE happen, is still central to the pedagogy. And this is where I think they are being really shortchanged. Because in the present and future world, in the new economy, the status quo changes so rapidly that without creativity, thinking outside the box, and adaptability, one risks being left behind. Under such circumstances, waiting to be told what to learn, and how to learn it, is a significant disadvantage.
I think these online courses and programs are truly the future of education. I imagine a world where children can choose their subjects, the order in which they are presented, the degree to which they immerse themselves in each, and follow a path that, like the strands of the world wide web, can be traversed by billions of people with never the same path being followed twice. My children’s learning is already intimately connected to the language of the new economy: technology, interconnectedness, and niche environments. They are immersed in that world, that culture, those tools – as are most children – but unlike most children, my children’s learning is also intimately embedded in that world. In many schools (particularly the lower grades) children are still discouraged from using laptops, iPads, calculators, and other devices for “real learning” (those things are considered appropriate for extra-curricular activities). Parents struggle with “screen time” and popular culture treats it as something to be feared and fought against. We have assigned Value status to that which is taught in schools, and anything else is just a temptation leading us away from Success to a life of failure and sloth. I shake my head at this attitude, given what we know about the jobs of today and where they appear to be leading us in the future.
The bottom line is this: the structure of schools is based on a system that has long since gone extinct. We are short-changing our children by presenting them with only one path to learning and success: 12 years of mandatory schooling, another several years of expensive college education, and competing for jobs with the millions of others following the same path with the same results. Massive, bureaucratic, industrial machines such as the education system cannot keep up with the rapidly changing pace of today’s economy and job possibilities. It is my hope that, by allowing my kids the freedom to follow their own learning paths, they will not have to wait to take full advantage of the opportunities provided by the new economy. By the time their schooled peers are allowed to leave the early-19th-century world of en masse, one-size-fits-all, rote-memorization education to join the Real World, my kids will already be long-term residents.