How classrooms can survive when education is leaving the building

Will Richardson color photo 300 dpiWill Richardson has been a familiar name to DA readers over the years. An educator, author, speaker, and one of a handful of original education bloggers, Richardson advocates for change in the classroom in the context of the diverse new learning opportunities that the internet and other technologies offer. His latest book, Why School? How Education Must Change When Learning and Information are Everywhere (TED Conferences 2012), argues that schools, of their own device, are hampering their ability to educate, while young people take advantage of a wealth of outside knowledge and expertise to learn on their own. “With few exceptions, all the things that our children are using to connect and learn outside the classroom—social media, cell phones, internet connections—are banned inside the classroom,” he says.

Your book is about how education is not and should not be the same as it has been for the last 150 years or so. Reformers are trying to change things, but in your view they are taking us down the wrong path.
There are really three narratives right now around what school should be. The first is the narrative that says we need an influx of corporate money to build charter schools, to get rid of bad teachers, to compete with Finland; corporate thinking applied to public schools can raise test scores and make us more competitive.
The second narrative says schools really aren’t that broken, that what we really need to focus on is less testing, fewer standardized assessments. We need to support and nurture teachers as the most important things in classrooms. We just need to do school better than we’ve been doing it.
I’d argue the third narrative, which isn’t as pronounced right now, is that we want kids to go to school and to be with teachers. But what happens in schools has to be really different now. It isn’t so much about learning a discrete set of content, because in today’s world, you can get access to that content in lots of different places. I don’t need to send my kid to a school to learn algebra, or French, or U.S. history if we are going to measure it by being able to pass a test that says you can do it. I don’t need school for that any longer.
What we do need school for is to build the types of skills and dispositions that kids need to be successful learners in a world where they have access to so much stuff. The emphasis should be on: Can kids collaborate with others? Can they create? Can they solve meaningful problems, authentic problems—not contrived problems in the back of a chapter somewhere. Can they do work that really lives in the world?
Give kids real power to do authentic work, to get out into the world, and to participate in these spaces, and to invent, and tinker, and play in lots of different ways that are going to make them more suited for success, rather than memorizing a whole bunch of content knowledge.

You tell how your son taught himself how to use the online building simulation Minecraft with the help of online videos, forums, and chats. My son did the same thing with stop-motion animation when he was 10.
I think many people have similar stories. But a lot of what happens in school looks nothing like that.
More parents are seeing their kids do things with technology—learn things, make things—that are profound at an early age, and that are really interesting, and that the kids are really passionate about. Then they go to school, and it’s difficult because they are not learning the things they care about. They are not allowed to do the work in ways that they find interesting.

But in many cases, teachers’ hands are tied.
I believe the kids aren’t going to stand for it much longer. I talk to many teachers whose kids are really pushing them in classrooms and saying, “Why can’t I do this history project in Minecraft? Why can’t I replicate Colonial America in Minecraft as a way to show my understanding of it?” I think, more and more, teachers are being forced to say, “Okay, yeah. Go ahead and do that.”
We are at an unusual and change-filled moment, which is really disruptive. We are all going through this very interesting period where education is leaving the building and we’re not sure what to do about that. We don’t know how to react to it. We’re not sure whether we should support it or try to rein it in.

But how do you assess that kind of learning? In the end, that will be the deciding factor for the policymakers who need to show results.
It’s not that we can’t assess it. Employers assess that type of stuff all the time. But we can’t quantify it as easily unless we trust teachers to do a good job of assessing that more qualitative learning. It’s a “we know it when we see it” type of thing. But we can’t give a multiple choice test on it to make sure that kids understand it or not.
So much of what we do in schools is done because it’s easy, because it’s efficient. But it’s not necessarily best for kids. We’ll need to look not so much at content knowledge, but whether kids can think critically. Can they solve real world problems where there isn’t one path to a solution, or there isn’t just one answer?
You used the phrase “old wine in new bottles,” to describe how new technology isn’t being used to its full potential when it is merely being applied to old ways of learning.
Because policymakers and the big name school reformers themselves don’t use technology in transformative ways. They don’t make stuff. They aren’t collaborating with other people to create things that are meaningful that live in the world. I don’t mean PowerPoint and Word documents. We’re talking about the types of things that our kids are creating—stop-motion video, sharing that with the world, having other people interact with that, finding a network of people who share those interests and passions, who push your thinking, who want to work with you, who want to do stuff with you.
The reformers don’t look at technology that way. They look at technology as a way to deliver the information to personalize the curriculum so that it brings us to those better test scores. They don’t understand at a personal level what that transformative use of technology looks like. Technology does not amplify their own learning, so they can’t write policy around that.

So change will likely come from the bottom up rather than the top down?
I think education is in a vice grip between policymakers and parents. We’re not going to be able to loosen the policymaker side because they are, for lack of a better phrase, bought and sold right now. There’s so much money in writing policy that supports business growth. And education is a billions of dollars industry. That side isn’t going to loosen.
The parent side of it is where we’ll be able to make inroads; especially with parents of younger kids. Many of them, because of their own use of technology, are more comfortable with it. I’m not sure they understand the real transformative parts of technology, but I think they are more open to the possibilities. And I think they are more open to a conversation that says the world is significantly changed. The skills and dispositions that their kids need to be successful are very different from the ones that their own education experience was centered on.
That’s the third narrative I was talking about. There are parent groups saying, “We have to think about schools differently, and we have to really start focusing on helping kids be really creative problem solvers now instead of just masters of knowledge.”

Learning how to learn.
Exactly right. That’s what school has to be about now. Superintendents tell me, “Love the ideas, but it’s really hard to figure out a way to do it.” I understand that. But I think you have to find a way to begin to do it classrooms. It’s a huge step for a lot of people to make, because they don’t have the experience of learning with technology. When I ask most teachers about their own practice, they just aren’t using technology in those kinds of amplified ways when it comes to their own learning. They are using it to consume content. Everybody has an iPad now, but that’s not a transformative use.

So schools will have to catch up to what the students are already doing.
Yes, but what schools must do before they try to catch up is to give kids the freedom to learn; to say to them, “That is important learning that you are doing and we’re going to support that. We’re going to make that count somehow.” School takes on more of a support role in that respect. It can be a place where kids interact with other learners who are passionate about their stuff too. They become a part of a culture of learning that is inspiring and where they want to be, instead of this culture of information content and testing where kids don’t want to be. Imagine if school was more of a place that supported what kids wanted to learn on their own. That would be really cool. That would be a great place to learn.


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