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Archive for February, 2016

Yearners and Schoolers Revisited

Posted by jturner56 on February 27, 2016

What do you yearn for School and Education?

This crossed my mind as I saw middle school students take ownership of their learning through collaborative flow (that included working through the class ending bell), questioning purposefully, and taking on board feedback constructively as they responded to a subject project task that ended with creative application of value beyond the classroom aligned to improvement-seeking evaluations. All in a digitally facilitated domain. No different to what I have seen working with digital over too long a period to want to mention. Similar case studies such this are not that hard to find.

However, a fellow educator recounted conveying his idea for a similar project to his fellow educators, only to be met with disdain and rejection over School ‘priorities’. Once again something repeated ad nauseum over my time in school education.

How far have we come with our Yearning for a better and more appropriate School education for an age where digital is transcendent? Is ‘failure to improve outcomes’ (OECD), overselling of what could occur (Cuban), or defensive postures from traditional system upholders the best we can expect?

Perhaps re-visiting Seymour Papert’s (1993) The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School In The Age Of The Computer might cast some light on how far, or how little, we have travelled.

The context is interesting. Written before the Internet became mainstream in schools, and based on a long career as a researching psychologist and polymath with traces back to working with Piaget, Papert provided a culmination of his thinking and work on personal learning+computer+possibilities. It came at a time before computers went mainstream in homes, and over a decade before digital phones redefined at-hand personal learning possibilities. (Note: his 1996 The Connected Family: Bridging the Digital Generation Gap explored inter-personal relationship issues).

Let’s start with Chapter 1: Yearners and Schoolers

Papert looked to Yearners – those in schools who yearn for something better. Papert saw them as a sort of Fifth Column, creating “oases of learning profoundly at odds with the education philosophy publicly espoused by their administrators.” He saw in the computer new opportunities for Yearners as harbingers of mega-changes wrought by what computers could offer learning. He saw in Yearners hope.

Megachange to Papert required “a slow, organic evolution, and through a close harmony/ with social evolution. It will be steered less by the outcome of tests and measurements than by its participants’ intuitive understanding.

Schoolers meanwhile, while acknowledging that schools had problems, are those content to focus on “immediate practical problems”, seeing the computer as a means only to address such priorities. Schoolers are content to uphold the constructs of School, “locked into the assumption that School’s way is the only way because they have never seen or imagined convincing alternatives in the ability to impart certain nets of knowledge.”

Twenty years on, Yearners and Schoolers remain, even as personal learning, connection and creativity further embrace digital arenas, and shortcomings of School as a society-valued educating institution remain if not deepen.

Papert foresaw a Knowledge Machine, where four-year-old students could take charge of their own inquiry explorations.

We now have young students with their own iPad in charge of their own inquiry and curiosity-led learning, in some schools, but more so beyond school.

Papert termed Letteracy to denote school’s preferred literacy.

Schoolers seek to assimilate Digital Literacy into School, working hard to subsume language to control conceptual challenges, from digital learning to deeper learning.

Papert cited Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky and Freire, but was careful to note his variance with the progressive versus traditional debates framed solely within the constructs of School. He saw in the computer new ways to define learning; drawing parallels with Leonardo Da Vinci’s concept of man-made flight, that lacked the materials to become real (for several centuries as it turned out).

We see debates still framed as School-based progressive versus traditional, even as new forms of learning through digital means, be they online, mobile or constructive, are increasingly valued within society.

Papert’s particular focus was on redefining approaches to learning Mathematics, specifically Algebra and Geometry. This came from his work with the Logo programming language, and the potential of designed ‘microworlds’ to engender more powerful learning.

Logo has been dismissed as a ‘failed‘ educational technology, yet remains at the heart of many Yearner philosophies. Seeing ways forward have not been helped, though, by increasing inequalities in teacher quality, values, social dislocations, and political machinations around ‘School failure’.

Papert saw in video games a means to “teach children what computers are beginning to teach adults — that some forms of learning are fast-paced, immensely compelling, and rewarding.” He saw “hard fun” learning as a positive for use of computers in education.

Twenty years later video games as an educational consideration are still debated. Where do Schoolers see students as game creators?

Papert saw a need for a new theory of learning built around personal learning and potential. This he explored in depth in Chapter 2.

We now consider learning driven in part by personal learning devices that can fit in pockets. This has a connection to Connected (see Siemens 2004) and Mobile Learning thinking, but do Schools still structurally and operationally hold to Schooler philosophies which retard possibilities?

Papert saw an unchanged School but hope.

In so many ways we have not moved on from this. The three-hour hand-written exam and external standardized testing of closed knowledge remain a dominant value. But without hope, what do school’s provide?

What I take from Chapter One compared to now is:

  • The role of technology in schools remains problematic.
  • The game is the same, even if more overloaded, ragged, jagged, beset and defensive.
  • There is a Yawning gap unbridged between system ‘standards of expectation’ and personal learning potential empowered by digital. Has the gap between system education and personal learning potential  widened since Papert, and with it a fading of the Heart of School?
  • It is not a progressive v traditional issue, it’s about what learning is valued and in what ways
  • Yearners for a better digital-related learning world are still needed. But beyond this lies the leadership issue. Papert’s hope for teacher led mega-change lies unfulfilled. Perhaps it will be up to the students to breach and bridge.
  • History, even in the fast moving world of digital is worth revisiting. I wonder what history will make of our efforts?

Papert may have faded from most educational  memories, and Yearning might not be on the list of ‘success’ for digital in education. He may have fallen short in his hope for teachers as Yearners to lead the megachanges he saw as necessary and achievable. But his insights remain pertinent.

Many Yearners I have known have burnt out, sold out, departed for pastures new, or retired to their cave to plug away. Many Schoolers, now more conversant with digital technologies, still continue to see only efficiency to the status quo, or perhaps as tools of personal expression (for the teacher that is).

Yet I continue to see students empowered through taking personal ownership of their learning through digital means. Teachers setting tasks that unshackle this.

At the heart of Papert’s legacy is a belief that computers used in certain ways can redefine learning for the better, and through this education. To help make ideas aligned to DaVinci’s take flight.  I see Papert’s influence at work. Perhaps there is no holy grail, only the Arthurian journey.

I look forward to continuing my journey through his insights conveyed through The Children’s Machine.

Ich bin ein Yearner

20 years ago I was carpeted for this thinking. I walk the same line even now.



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