A Journey of Knowing

Three weeks ago I joined the Designing a New Learning Community (DNLE) course from Stanford University.  This post is a reflection on some of the learning about myself and my philosphy of education that has been the result.

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Yes. I admit it. I have been procrastinating.  Following in the well-trodden footsteps of so many students before me I have left writing my ‘assignment’ until the last possible day.  I can claim that I have been mulling over ideas, that other more important things have taken over my time but if I am really honest – I have been procrastinating!  What interests me most about this is, why?

My reflections on this question have proven to be very illuminating.  First of all I was somewhat bemused and then alienated by the concept of having to ‘write’ an assignment for some kind of credit.  I didn’t enrol in this course to gain academic credit, to pass a course or to gain a virtual piece of paper from Stanford.  I enrolled in the course in order to be surrounded by exciting open intelligent debate on the one thing we all seem passionate about – education for the 21st century.  I didn’t expect to be met with expectations of closed participation that appeared to come from the very model that we are seeking to overturn or at least severely modify.

I was also negative about the focus on writing about ‘technology’ – despite having worked and taught in the IT area for 27 years I am not really interested in the technology. Starting with COBOL on IBM mainframes in the 1980’s through the birth of the web to teaching a university class in Second Life, I have always been an early adopter of new technologies that appeared interesting and challenging.

So I reflected and I challenged myself to address these reasons for procrastinating.  Why was I opposed to writing a closed assignment? Why did I take a deep sigh at the prospect of having to write 500-800 words about technology?  In doing so I took out and inspected my deep beliefs about education, about technology and about what motivates me..

Instinctively, intuitively I have always adopted a constructivist pedagogy whether it was teaching history to 11 year olds in the early 1970’s,  virtual worlds to adults in 2012, or how to find meaningful patterns in language to my grandson.  Before I had the intellectual understanding of different pedagogies, I somehow understood that in order for others to learn I had to facilitate their understanding – to show them what they already knew and encourage them to put this knowledge together into new shapes, new perspectives and to make new connections with new information. To meld all of that into an understanding that just became a natural part of their ‘knowing’.

Let me illustrate that with two examples of what I think of as ‘learning moments’.

In one of my earliest teaching positions I found myself teaching about the Domesday Book of 1186.  As a historian I fully understood the importance of this, I had the ‘facts’ in my class notes but why should a class of 11 year olds  in 1977 have any interest in something constructed over 800 years before? I had no idea! Quite by accident at the beginning of the first session I used the phrase ‘second class citizens’ to describe the conquered Saxons. One girl asked me what a second class citizen was, I mention Steve Biko, then currently in the news, we talked about apartheid in South Africa and the rest as they say is history!

A few months ago I was reading Arm in Arm with my 7 year old grandson.  We giggle at the picture of the the eight legged cat – the octopuss – and make the connection to the two octopi of the title and the 16 repetitions of ‘arm in arm’.  The connection with the number eight is obvious.  I asked him if he could think of any other words that began with ‘octo’ – he thought hard and came up with octogon and october.  I temporarily ignored october but we talked about an 8 sided shape, octogon.  Independantly he made the connection – “so ‘octo’ means 8?”, “Well yes in Latin” – “so does October mean eight months……?” a slight discursion into the naming of months followed.  “Are there other words like that?” We try “bi” and “tri”…….”so why are there Latin words? We speak English!” – well that’s a story for another night!

Both of these illustrate, for me, the power of constructivism.  This to me is what education is. It is not the process by which knowledge is provided to others who must then remember it, it is developing, supporting and encouraging the practice of ‘knowing’.  To create successful life-long learners, we have to teach them how to ‘know’ and provide them with plenty of practice – not serve up plates full of knowledge which they are then expected to consume and digest.  Education for me is not about ‘having knowledge’ it is about ‘learning to know’.

For me, this has always been the true function of education but over the last two hundred years or so it has been usurped by the needs of an industrialising society which has needed to ensure that its workforce had a minimum set of skills with which to operate as productive units in the new economic paradigm – the so-called factory model of schooling which Ken Robinson describes so well.   Although referred to as education, for a large majority of the newly schooled it was not really about ‘learning to know’ but gaining skills – what we might now call training.

The needs have now changed, our society and our economy now need workers who can think, who can problem solve, innovate, learn, and adapt to ever changing perspectives of what is possible.  To provide this, education has to re-find its origins and provide a limitless number of learning moments that create the confidence and the ability for people to ‘learn to know’.  Providing these moments in a way which is personalised and individual is both a logisitical and a political problem.  Training is much more economically efficient than education – one lecture hall with 1 lecturer and 300+ students or a classroom with 1 teacher and 40 eight year olds is significantly cheaper than the much smaller staff:student ratios that effective personalised education requires.

Here is where my interest in technology lies – not in the technology per se but in the opportunities it enables to create personalised learning moments that can allow a student to examine their existing understandings, reconnect them in different patterns or explore the patterns to discover new meanings and make new connections to newly discovered information.  That is exactly the process that I have been through in my procrastination! Facing the challenge of understanding my reluctance to engage with the ‘assignment’ has forced me to articulate and better understand my own beliefs.  It has taken me on a journey of knowing.

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