I’ve always said that the most important thing I learned in college was how to think better. I attended a fairly free program that allowed me to follow my own interests throughout my four years, not tied down by any majors or requirements. What that did was allow me to evolve and connect my own thoughts. In fact, I can basically chart back, semester-by-semester, how I arrived where I am today. (For those interested it goes something like this: urban studies to educational reform, educational reform to Black studies, Black studies to hip-hop culture, hip-hop culture to postmodernism, postmodernism to digital culture.) When I finally arrived at digital culture everything made sense. It was the thing that finally connected everything together. That webbed network that we all play with was the perfect way to illustrate how the world connected together.
The problem is that most people don’t have this experience. Most people aren’t given the freedom to follow their own path. Especially in pre-college education, so much of school is about teaching subject matter than learning often becomes the forgotten stepchild, left to watch from the corner. In the past, the reason for this was that there was simply no other way for students to learn the things the need to know. Things about math, government, etc. But that’s changing. That 10th grade history book is tiny when compared with the vast universe of knowledge on the web that’s available to students around the world. This should cause a major shift in the way both students learn and teachers teach. Educator Will Richardson explains:
I mean, at some point, we’re going to have to let go of the idea that we are the most knowledgable content experts available to our students. We used to be, when really all our students had access to was the textbook and the teacher’s brain. But today, we’re not. Not by a long stretch. And we don’t need to be. What we need to be is connectors who can teach our kids how to connect to information and to sources, how to use that information effectively, and how to manage and build upon the learning that comes with it.
It’s all about the connections, but before the web showed us just what connections looked like this was hard to understand. The web has fundamentally shifted the way we understand how we think and, in turn, should shift the way and what we learn. Konrad Glogowski at the blog of proximal development, in response to Will Richardson, explains this change quite well:
Learning is no longer an internal, solitary activity happening inside an individual learner – it is also a process of creating knowledge. This connection would not exist without the nodes created by Will Richardson and George Siemens. It would not exist without a personal network of nodes that I created with my Bloglines subscriptions. It cannot exist unless it is reified in this very entry where it becomes another node in an ever-growing network. My learning is therefore dependent on my ability to perceive some sort of connection or pattern in the available chaos. Ã¢â‚¬Å“The value of Ã¢â‚¬Ëœpattern recognition,Ã¢â‚¬â„¢Ã¢â‚¬? to quote George Siemens again, Ã¢â‚¬Å“and connecting our own Ã¢â‚¬â„¢small worlds of knowledgeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ are apparent in the exponential impact provided to our personal learning.Ã¢â‚¬?
When I read the line, “My learning is therefore dependent on my ability to perceive some sort of connection or pattern in the available chaos,” it rung especially true. That is what learning and thinking is all about to me. Those aha moments in life come from realizing a connection between two seemingly disparate entities. It’s how problems are solved. It’s how scientific breakthroughs happen. Yet instead of encouraging students to think about the connections between the information, we just teach them the information. We force feed history dates and the periodic table, but we don’t encourage them to try to find the connections.
That’s what always drove me nuts about tests. A multiple choice test is looking for very little other than basic learning. People who can memorize well do great on tests for that reason. It’s not asking people to think. Ask a student to write an essay and all of a sudden they’ve got to develop thoughts and communicate ideas. It encourages more interaction with the information and opens up the chance for connections to happen. But even that’s not enough.
Today’s teachers must begin to encourage students to make connections. To think about connections. To realize the importance of connections. Whereas teachers of yesterday were DJs, serving up one piece of information after another, today’s need to be producers, giving students all the tools and assistance they need to create their own remixes. Guide them through the process. Encourage interaction.
The question becomes is the average teacher/administrator even cognizant of this shift? It gives me hope to read someone like Will Richardson, but I can’t help but worry. It’s time for a revolution.