The following is a passage from a book I’m working on. I wrote it this morning and thought I’d share it to see if people have any comments. Thanks, Tom —
Clearly we can’t simply drop even the best psychological models and digital technologies into our schools and expect profound improvement. Efforts over the past decades have tried, but if we look through the literature and Web sites, where are all these new schools whose enthusiastic students are busy taking on the world? With the way everything “goes viral” nowadays, wouldn’t we all be copying these incredible successes? If we were a knowledge-building entity, education would be learning about what really works and continuously improving.
We can be, we just need a new understanding, a new awareness. An “Ah-Ha!” Harkening back to Piaget, let’s go through the process: the fact that “technology + assembly line learning ≠ desired improvements” create cognitive dissonance. Something doesn’t make sense based upon our current understanding. Instead of ignoring the dissonance, we could get more deeply into the problem, to explore the gray areas, to immerse ourselves in what may feel like chaos, but once encouraged, our human instinct to learn kicks in and we seek to make cognitive connections between the limits of our understanding and the possibility of assimilating new information and thus broadening our understanding, building knowledge. The “Ah-Ha” came for me when I acknowledged the transformative power of mass production and the moving assembly line and how it has shaped society, including education. We didn’t consciously ask for this transformation, but once it began, nothing could stop it. The “Ah-Ha” insight clicked in when I realized what this century’s equivalent of mass production and the assembly line is. It’s data – from digitized information, to mass customization, to digital footprints and profiling, to smart algorithms that just get smarter through our use. Just as Henry Ford said, we asked for a faster horse, but when the affordable automobile came along, we hopped aboard and never looked back. Those who lament the unintended negative consequences the automobile has had on society and the environment may envision similar downsides to the next revolution through Data mining, but it can’t be stopped. Is anyone asking for poorer search results, less engaging entertainment or losing touch with friends? Just as factories can accost humanity whether in 19th Century England, 20th Century American or 21st Century China, our digital technologies will have their victims while the wider culture embraces what digital data makes available. I’d like to suggest that the victims are not the few horrible cases where Facebook is used by predators to stalk and lure the innocent and naïve. Although blared across the media and clearly tragic, the real victims will number in the millions. And as the world has suffered from the impact of the automobile, another, more analogous revolution, more pertinent to Education and technology’s impact on humanity, is the television. In some ways TVs were the next revolutionizing product after the car to come off the assembly line. Like digital technologies, they also provided a platform for entertainment and socializing that was completely different from what went before. I find it amazing that people will complain about the remote possibility of a child falling prey to Internet-facilitated abduction, but not monitor a child’s access to hours of gaming, chat or surfing. I saw a chilling example recently in a doctor’s office waiting room. A young mother waited with a new-born in a stroller while her toddler danced around the chairs, magazine racks, other patients. This young thing was not being a nuisance, but being a child, seeking something to do. My complaint is not that the mother didn’t reign-in this free spirit, but that never once did the mother look up from her iPhone and Facebook. This is what I think people don’t get and makes me harp on and on. The media loves a good hysteria, but ignores drugs to the masses.
As educators we are in the Humanity business. We can not disconnect from the wider technological and social transformations swelling over the globe. We don’t have that power. Just as we couldn’t provide a scalable alternative to the Assembly line school. What we’ve done is try to humanize this artificial construct as much as we can. We are better at this in the early years when the system is less artificial – when students aren’t shifted down the conveyor of content areas to the ring of a bell and shuttled off to the next stage, the next classroom and year level.
So while we have no power to stop – and really wouldn’t want to – the next revolution based on digitalized data mining, at this early stage of the transformation, we can have a greater impact than we will be able to once the model and patterns are fully functional and implemented. Reflect on how difficult it is to even tweak the current model to consider block schedules, inter-disciplinary studies, cross-age learning or team teaching? Once the dust settles, it will be just as impossible to modify the next model of schooling. Unless we get involved now, in this early and dynamic, sometimes stressful and chaotic transitionary period, software companies, textbook publishers, teachers unions, politicians, and hardware manufacturers will create “solutions” and they will all target the largest customers, the largest educational systems, those that, because of their size, still embrace and are founded upon “one-size-fits-all” and minimizing risk and failure. In other words, 20th Century thinking.
As educators, in the humanity business, our challenge is to use the best tools and approaches currently available to effect the changes that we can – what happens in our classrooms and our schools. This requires taking risks, choosing to do what’s right as opposed to choosing what’s easy or doesn’t create friction to the assembly line. Let’s not support the myths that “School is Learning,” that “Curriculum is Knowledge,” that “Results are more important than Wisdom.” Our mass production schools will not be the same by the time our Kindy students graduate Year 12. Right now, during this little window between eras, we can influence whether “not the same” means “better” or “worse.”