Reformational Evolution

As Educators what do we do to further educational reform?

That’s one of the #edchat questions for this week, and today I got this tweet from @GardnerCampbell: Re-reading Papert’s “Why School Reform Is Impossible.” So, so deeply resonant for me.

So, here’s my preload for tomorrow’s #edchat:

First, I think we need to examine what we mean by educational reform.

Many of us talk about needing to switch the emphasis in our schools from “teaching” to “learning”.  It’s not about what we teach, it’s about what the students learn—we can no longer say, as in the cartoon, “I taught it, he just didn’t learn it.” We can no longer absolve ourselves of responsibility—thus the data-driven instruction movement, the need for PLCs, the growth in RTI movements.

Many educators are talking about student ownership of learning. . . Students do so much of it OUTSIDE of school on their connected tools—they stay connected whenever they are NOT in school and are constantly engaged—perhaps playing games, perhaps interacting with friends, perhaps building websites or blogging or constructing and creating new materials, apps or even devices. How do we move that engagement, that initiative, that drive into our schools?

Many of us talk about needing to restructure our learning spaces—that it no longer meets the needs of today’s learners.  We need collaborative spaces—but we also need the caves, the watering holes, the fireside gathering places for the many different kinds of learning that needs to occur at various times.  We need openness and light, we need materials to tinker with and fiddle with and play with to energize our brains and allow the creativity to flow.

Brain research shows that “sittin’ and gittin” doesn’t do it for best learning. We also know that we are not supporting our students to learn profoundly, understand deeply and think critically and creatively with many of our current structures in place. Both teachers and students feel stifled in the current culture of schools.

Having recently read Papert’s  “Why School Reform Is Impossible,” I must say I agree with him that reform is NOT the same as change, and I believe we need more than reform. In the world of today, we need a different idea of what school, teaching and learning is and should be.

Today’s students bring to us a very different type of sophistication about learning and researching and sifting and sorting information than did the students of the 1800s and even the 1900s. Am  I saying they come to us proficient?  Of course not, but they do come with strategies and experience–and we need to honor that while shaping it to be more efficacious. The knowledge students often bring TO the table is much greater, having been indoctrinated into the world of science and history through TV offerings like the Animal Planet, the History Channel, Discovery Education, National Geographic, interactive web sites and the ability many have to travel so much more easily.

However, while many educators recognize the need to do something differently, we often bemoan the systems that keep us from doing so. The culture of schooling as it has developed from the early 1900s to today is a culture not easily changed. Papert describes the system of schooling as one that has “developed harmonious and mutually supportive — mutually matched forms. There is a match of curriculum content, of epistemological framework, of organizational structure, and …of knowledge technology.” When we try to change one of those, the other “matches” in place pull us back into line and that makes the whole structure much more resistant to change.

However. ..

We know that powerful changes in nature often come about, not though deliberate design, but by evolution. So instead of thinking about how to change schools, about how to reform them, suppose we look at how we can help speed up the evolution of them—the metamorphosis of them into the learning places we want them to become?

So, let’s look at what Papert says:

“the shift from a stance of reform to a stance of evolution does not exclude active intervention, but the role of the change agent becomes less like the architect or builder and more like the plant- or animal breeder whose interventions take the form of influencing processes that have their own dynamic.”

Computers—whether they be in the form of cell phones or iPods or laptops- are becoming more ubiquitous and students come to us knowing a LOT about the world around them and a LOT about how they can learn more. Teachers can leverage that ability to help students become even more sophisticated learners at even earlier ages than ever before.

“As ideas multiply and as the ubiquitous computer presence solidifies, the prospect of deep change becomes more real. Their day-to-day work with computers will be the seeds from which it will grow.” (Papert)

One of my Twitter friends today DM’d me: I’d like to see Tweets be about HOW to effectively use tech not IF we are using or SHOULD be using tech.

We need to start sharing lessons where the technology is transparent  and the learning deep. Papert speaks to students being able to use computer simulations at an early age—even elementary- to understand concepts such as a parabola.

Suppose “imagining an alternative mathematical education in which the typical activity begins with and consists of creating, modifying, or controlling dynamic computational objects. In this context the parabola may be first encountered by a child creating a videogame as the trajectory of an animal’s leap or a missile’s flight; here, the natural first formalism for the parabola is an expression in a child-appropriate computational language of something like “the path followed when horizontal speed and vertical acceleration are both constant.” “For children who have acquired true computational fluency by growing up with the dynamic medium as a primary representation for mathematical thinking, I argue that it would plausibly be more concrete, more intuitive, and far more motivating than quadratic equations.”

Suppose we provided elementary students “an entry into rigorous mathematics and science” through the activities and experiences we provided?

Suppose we began sharing how we do that in our isolated classrooms, our outlying schools and we make a repository of those reformational lessons somewhere?

Suppose we continue deep conversations we begin over Twitter, at conferences like EduCon 2.2 and we REALLY began thinking about how to offer, as Papert suggests, “an example showing a different content, different style of learning, different epistemology, and a different medium all matched to one another and to a form of school structured without curriculum or age segregation.”

Suppose we allow that to evolve as we provide rich experiences for our students, invite their expertise in, and allow them to use those tools they use so well outside of school?

Suppose we create the conditions to simply let the rich diversity of our students’ knowledge and abilities play itself out inside of those brick and mortar buildings we call school?

If we paint those pictures and build those structures, will school evolve more quickly into powerful cultures of thinking, inquiry and capacity building for profound –and playful–learning?