Three Things to Unlearn About Learning

| July 9, 2012 | 18 Comments
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“If you’re not feeling uncomfortable about the state of education right now, then you’re not paying attention to the pressures and challenges of technology,” said Will Richardson, a veteran educator author and consultant, at a talk at ISTE 2012. “We need to acknowledge that this is a very interesting moment, and even though in a lot of ways this isn’t what we signed up for when we went into teaching… as educators, it’s our job to figure it out.”

Seeing the balance move from a place of scarcity of information to over-abundance on the web — and the ability to “carry around the sum of human knowledge on our phones” — Richardson said educators must start thinking of schooling differently. “This abundance has the potential to be amazing, but it’s not amazing if we don’t do anything with it,” he said. “What is access to all this stuff if you don’t know what to do with it?”

To that end, Richardson proposed a challenge to educators to unlearn three important things that have been taken for granted as immovable, unchangeable ideas.

1.   DELIVERY: The notion of delivering knowledge and information from teacher to student has already been upended. “Kids will not put up with delivery too much longer. They’ll expect something much different,” Richardson said. Rather, educators must hand over control of learning to kids, and understand that there are lots of ways to learn what they need to and want to learn.

“This is a very interesting moment, and even though in a lot of ways this isn’t what we signed up for when we went into teaching… as educators, it’s our job to figure it out.”

“We have to stop being in charge of the curriculum and allow kids to create their own education,” he said. Educators should ask themselves: how am I helping kids develop important skills, dispositions, and literacies they need to create their own curriculum, to find their own teachers, to create their own artifacts that will more closely align with ways they’ll work when they leave school? “The delivery method we use in most schools, what we own and deliver to kids, that will have to change,” he said. “We have to relearn in a way that allows kids to own and drive it.”

2.   COMPETITION: Rather than comparing test scores and grades of schools and of teachers, we should drive education forward on the basis of cooperation. We should use the best ideas of what

others are doing, other classrooms and other schools. “Do we fear someone else is going to take what we’re doing? But isn’t that a good thing, if it’s good practice?” Richardson asked. There’s a larger gain by being transparent. “We can’t fight the greater world problems as well through competition as we will through cooperation.

3.   ASSESSMENT.  Richardson, an outspoken critic of standardized testing, pressed the point that current assessments measure fact memorization, not students’ skills. And with automated essay scoring being used, the range of knowledge is becoming more and more narrow, he said. “If we don’t assess what we value, we will end up valuing what we assess,” he said. “As a system, we’re not assessing what we value.” Richardson does not even favor “open book” or “open Internet” testing, asking the simple but unsettling question: “Why are we asking them questions they can easily find?”

As educators grapple with the shift — in their roles within the classroom, and in the larger context of what’s changing in education — Richardson said they may experience a series of feelings. “You might feel anger, grief, or excitement that kids will learn in a lot of different ways,” he said. “But you have to look at your own learning practice and innovate.”

Try assessing one thing differently, he suggested. Ask students to tap into all the sources they have, then bring other teachers into the classroom and let them influence the discussions. And, of course, engage others in these discussions.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.d.parks.1 Michael D. Parks

    While I agree with Richardson’s points about assessments and cooperation, his point about delivery is grossly mistaken. Delivery should NOT be given over to students. There is indeed a much better way to deliver the education students received in classrooms, but improving it requires that teachers themselves be students of their subjects and students of education science (e.g. neuroeducation’s informing many practices). Knowing how human’s learn is the first step in improving delivery. This discussion is a great point not to be ignored in this larger conversation: http://fora.tv/2012/07/01/NBC_News_Education_Nation_Can_Character_Be_Taught

  • Rjhull

    Oh, delivery, SHOULD be in the hands of students.  Great article!

  • http://twitter.com/K12Kit K12 Kit

    Thank you for this great summary of Will Richardon’s talk. I think he brings up a lot of great points. While I don’t disagree with Michael’s point about delivery being given over to students, I think that perhaps you are thinking of it too extremely. I think that Richardson is proposing more of a shift than a takeover. The way that we communicate and collaborate has undeniably changed immensely, and schools are lagging behind which is widening the gap between teachers and students. One way that this gap may be  

  • http://www.3diassociates.com/ Gary

     This is an interesting post that deserves to be discussed in every school.

    Finland has developed and run its highly successful education system along the lines described here for many years now, as the rest of the world is beginning to take note. Several East Asian countries have radically changed their approaches as a result of learning lessons from Finland, and as a result have risen in the OECD rankings.

    In Finland

    “The premise for providing instruction is the conception of the pupil as an active learner.”

    “Supporting the individual learning process is important and essential, along with the importance of communal process and interaction for learning.”

    “Pupils are guided towards understanding their own learning processes – their ability to guide their own learning and development, and to take responsibility for these processes, is strengthened.”

    “At all levels of education in Finland, trusting this willingness to learn and to take responsibility for one’s own learning is of the utmost importance.”

    “Methods must be selected in a way that they enhance

    * abilities such as the willingness to learn
    * the command of one’s own learning programme
    * the ability to work in a systematic and target-orientated way
    * the ability to acquire, apply and evaluate information
    * communication and social skills.”

    http://3diassociates.wordpress.com/2012/03/15/explaining-the-finnish-miracle-part-two/

    It should also be noted that there are no national high-stakes timed examinations in Finland until the age of 18.

  • Gericar

    It is difficult to disagree with the writer about assessment and competition. Most thoughtful people have been thinking in this way for some time. But really, is it possible that the current foundering with technology and how to use it leads to an abdication of our responsibilities as adults. What makes us think that the kids know more than we do just because they have 300 friends on Facebook. The secret is that the kids don’t know what to do with this either….  Are we so enamoured with technology that we conclude that this is all there is to education. Education is always evolving and any person who thinks that concern over how the young of the species are educated started 20 years ago needs to take a few history classes. And what is the deal with the Finns. Really are there as many kids in school in Finland as there are in the Los Angeles School District? Not to mention diversity. Nice people and we all want to live there…but the challenges are just not the same. For one thing the Finns hugely respect their teachers…. here..not so much… and this “hand it over to the kids” stuff doesn’t help. 

    • Anonymous

      In my experience with grade 7/8 students, the biggest problem they face in using technology – phones, computers, iPods, you name it – is the amount of reading involved.  I’ve not seen anyone address this issue and would appreciate any information anyone has to share.

      • Nicloutim

        Hi Nancy,
        My colleague and I have been doing a project with a Year 8 English class which focuses on teaching students how to read effectively on the internet. The area of research is called ‘online reading comprehension’ and we are experiementing with the practice of internet reciprocal teaching. W are also using the Teaching Internet Comprehension to Adolescents (TICA) Phase 2 checklist. Google both these terms for more details. Our project has been inspired by the work of Donald J Leu (University of Connecticut), Julie Coiro (University of Rhode Island) and the work of the New Lieracies Research Team at the University of Connecticut. If you are interested in learning more about this area of literacy education at highly recommend you look up these people and their publications.
        Nicole

    • Long-time educator

      Just ditto everything that you stated.  I think that education should be meaningful to students.   Unfortunately, today’s children don’t understand what a bean seed needs to grow without classroom instruction.  They do know the names of a lot of computer games and inappropriate movies. I am not so sure that they know what they need to learn.  Teachers should be caring, educated adults who have knowledge to share and skill to evaluate, plan, and supervise while providing differentiation for growing diversity..  I have noticed that a lot of people becoming teachers are very weak in intellectual matters themselves.  Teaching needs to be a valued profession so that  higher caliber teachers can be recruited.  Before the advances in women’s rights, teaching was a valued profession, although, it was often thought of to be a good supplemental income with summers off to be home with the kids.  What young woman or man today wants to put up with all of the nonsense that is called educational accountability, not to mention lack of respect and decent pay?

  • soliver

    while I totally agree with these points and the skills our students need to succeed in the world outside of school - I wish that folks would address the needs of early learning and how they fit into this picture. What do you think needs to look and be different in an early primary classroom and how do we address the issues of “delivery” when basic skills do need to be taught in some format?

  • http://karenmahon.com/ Karen Mahon

    This is a very thought provoking article, but hard for me to agree with any of the three points as they are stated here.  I took the liberty of modifying the three items in my own post and would appreciate your feedback: http://karenmahon.com/2012/07/10/three-revised-things-to-unlearn-about-learning/

  • Dr. Sean

    it’s great to see that folks (e.g. Richardson) are still out there fighting the good fight – refusing to give any quarter to the “other side” in the edu-wars. Howzabout he start practicing a bit of what he preaches? Cooperation and anti-competition can begin at home by recognizing that many different instructional strategies (including, for novice learners, direct instruction) have been shown to be effective. Similarly, standardized tests, when appropriately interpreted, can be a boon to both curriculum design and instructional strategies. Maybe the larger problem we face in education in the US (and can we pleeze stop with the comparisons with countries that have (a) nationalized curricula, (b) opt-into-vocational-training for middle schoolers, and (c) adequate educational funding??) is that we keep bickering over the One Best Solution for our learners.

  • Scott Merrick

    I’ve lately had the sucker-slapping realization that the key piece is money (duh). Once ANYONE can show a way that legislators and their purse string holders can judge how money can be responsibly apportioned (and AYP based on standardized test scores is NOT in that range of options) doors will open for real change. Some quantifiable and demonstrable measure of Performance or Understanding (repeat parenthetical statement) is the key. Where is that, y’all?

  • Ross

    There is another way to view this. The goal of a creditable education for the 21st century has to founded on the reality that all real learning comes from the inside out. If the student doesn’t have the question the the answer is no good to him. So today we ignore the reality that when the horse is led to water and refuses to drink, we easily and unthinkinglyl drown it. This form of death happens when the student concludes that s/he is stupid, not understanding the implications of not being ready, and there fore becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Have continuous experiences to underscore this and soon learning can become very difficult and unlikable and as a result the student becomes unTeachable. Once this is experienced by a teacher in real time, it becomes obvious that it’s like knawing on concrete and you only stop when your teeth are bleeding and broken.

  • Anonymous

    While I would want to think that we all help each other teach and learn, every accountability model I know compares test scores between students, teachers and schools.  This is inherently competitive.  Further, incentive pay and bonuses are based on these scores.  These scores, competitively generated, have consequences.  I admire school districts which pledge their bonuses to the UnitedWay, but I also understand why teachers don’t want to do give them up.

  • Reading Through History

    How will we know they are learning anything?

  • Derek

    This quote – “Educators should ask themselves: how am I helping kids develop important skills, dispositions, and literacies they need to create their own curriculum, to find their own teachers, to create their own artifacts that will more closely align with ways they’ll work when they leave school?”

    This is all well and good, but what if kids don’t want to develop important skills or create their own curriculum?
    How much freedom can people handle?
    How much freedom is too much freedom?
    Should we try to force people to be “successful?”
    Is it even possible to force another to be “successful?”
    What is the definition of success?

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