Learning at the Speed of Change

I visited a grade 6 classroom this past week where every student had a personally owned laptop.  The students were learning about basic geometric shapes such as triangles, squares, and others with more sides which I forget the names for (I could Google them if I needed to).  The teacher ask them to create a program using Scratch to prompt for the number of sides, the length of a imageside, and to calculate the angle between any two sides, and finally to generate and display the shape.  While I was there, the kids were able to complete, to varying degrees, the pieces to prompt and calculate an angle (not necessarily correctly, but).  Some had a display “algorithm” programmed and were generating all sorts of spiral graph type shapes (not the shape intended mind you).  It was exciting to see their engagement, actually total being absorbed, in the learning activity.  For homework, they were to at least have a correctly running program that calculates and displays the angle.  When I got back to my office I decided to download Scratch and see how easy or hard it was to complete the geometry task the students were working on.  Here’s the result I sent to the teacher:


The teacher gave me a “Gold Star” via a tweet!  The cool thing here is how quickly I could observe student work and learn from the students, to doing something completely new myself, and producing a product.  Kids are really good at this by the way.  Yes this is a simple task but this is the very dynamic world our students are growing up and shaping their futures in.  I have a fond memory of seeing and playing with Scratch 6 years ago in the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab in Boston when Scratch was being “invented”.  MIT has graciously made Scratch available for many 10’s of thousands of students world wide to support their learning.

I think that most, if not all, of us in modern societies would agree that the pace of change in our lifetimes has been rapidly increasing.  “If you ask anyone who has been on the Internet for at least a decade what has changed, the answer will probably be, ‘Everything.’”, A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, Kindle 433. 

“in the traditional view of teaching, information is transferred from one person (the teacher) to another (the student). It presumes the existence of knowledge that both is worth communicating and doesn’t tend to change very much over time.”, Kindle 397 and “approaches to learning in the twentieth century did, in fact, work but largely because of the glacial rate of change that characterized the era.”, Kindle 467

How can we possibly believe that the status quo education system can continue to be useful where “traditional approaches to learning are no longer capable of coping with a constantly changing world”, Kindle 564?

Chris Kennedy, Superintendent for West Vancouver Schools, (see Chris’ post on this topic here) and I, along with Kris Magnusson (Dean of Education for SFU) have been asked to keynote an SFU Symposium Poster - Feb 9 2012upcoming symposium “Targeting Technology for Maximum Student Benefit” in Vancouver presented by the Centre for the Study of Educational Leadership and Policy.  There are 10 or 180 spots left, if interested, register here.  We are tasked with

providing a way of thinking about the broad array of potential uses of technology in education including options we believe are most important for improving student outcomes through ‘personalizing’ their learning” and “describing how we would use limited resources over a 5 year period to initiate technology use in a way that would maximize benefit for students”. 

In an era where students truly do need to ‘learn at the speed of change’, I am finding this task to be rather difficult.  There are so many technological options available that can benefit students. However, options are changing so quickly and over the next 5 years, many will be owned by the students.  How do we wisely advise school systems to strategically use limited funds to iStock_000007192634XSmallmaximize student learning when many options today will be gone tomorrow and options unknown today, will be essential tomorrow?

There are some critical variables that make this very difficult to do.  Pedagogy and assessment are two of these variables.  By adding technology to an environment and not changing current practices, we have the proverbial round peg in a square hole problem.  To provide real benefit, technology in classrooms, used by students and teachers, must change practice (eventually).  There is a somewhat natural progression from ‘preparing’ to ‘exploring’ and on to ‘transforming’.  But too often technology use in schools gets stuck as a minor enhancement to existing practice (preparing).  It needs to move to transforming practice in ways where the learning is significantly enriched and new to the benefit of kids and if the technology were removed, such learning would be impossible.  Professional learning for teachers and school leaders is essential to support this needed shift.  I believe this is a shared responsibility of school systems and teachers – both need to invest time to make the shift, our students are counting on it.  Teachers and school leaders need to recognize our times for what they are: radically different than the past and to realize there is a moral imperative to adapt practice to maximize student benefit.  We need to be thoughtful leaders in these times of extreme change.


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