The revolution is here. Bring on the revolution!
In what may be one of the most comprehensive, balanced, clear-eyed descriptions of the educational revolution we are currently slashing through, Allan Collins’ and Richard Halverson’s Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology (Teachers College Press 2009), based on the authors’ history of education reform course they taught together at Northwestern, describes better than almost any book I’ve read what the new world of education–as opposed to schooling—may look like in the future. Miguel and Rosa, a Mexican American couple in LA who are concerned about the negative environment of their local elementary school, decide to homeschool their two girls using inexpensive laptops, neighborhood networks, and a curriculum devised by a Mexican American educational association; high school students get the credits and coursework they need from Colorado Online Learning or Florida Virtual School, without ever setting foot in a conventional high school building (as hundreds of thousands are now doing); Media Bridges, a community media center in Cincinnati provides access to online media for the neighborhood and acts a learning center for adults of all ages.
Without the usual sense of personal vitriol and working through their own issues, the authors lay out a straightforward, compelling case that we are involved in an educational transformation the likes of which we have not seen since the last educational revolt in the mid-nineteenth century, when Horace Mann traipsed around New England on horseback proselytizing for common, compulsory schooling for all.
THE KNOWLEDGE REVOLUTION
Not requiring horseback proselytizing, the KNOWLEDGE REVOLUTION is happening before our eyes, right now, whether we recognize it or not.
“People around the world are taking their education out of school and into homes, libraries, internet cafes, workplaces where they can decide what they want to learn, when they want to learn, and how they want to learn. These stories challenge our traditional model of education as learning classrooms. These new learning niches use technologies to enable people of all ages to pursue learning on their own terms” (p. 3).
With the clarity and attention to the evidence that only years of teaching a course on the subject can give you, Collins and Halverson describe the inevitability of the new era, a revolution brought on by the invention of new tools. “[The internet] and computer…greatly extend the power of the ordinary mind in the same way the power tools of the Industrial Revolution extended the power of the ordinary body” (p. 11). As personalized, customized, just-in-time, interactive education become the new model for learning for citizens and students, the decoupling of education from schooling transforms the landscape. It changes just about everything.
If a customized local learning network offers a viable alternative to the neighborhood elementary school; high school students can get credit for coursework without attending high school; and exorbitantly expensive, four-year residential colleges and universities no longer guarantee high-status employment and advancement, then why are we in the game? Regular citizens, non-revolutionary folks, plain-thinking sensible people are increasingly wondering whether the hierarchical, batch processing, mass production, certified-at-school industrial model actually makes sense in our new world. Signs of the revolution are everywhere, and cracks in the foundation of the mass production model of education grow more glaring everyday.
TENSIONS/CHANGES IN KNOWLEDGE
This presents terrible dilemmas for the conventional schools, which are built on a model of information scarcity, and their legitimacy to certify knowing. With our new networking tools, and new access to information, who defines knowledge, how it is produced, and who is authorized to certify it, are increasingly up for grabs. (The book describes a 15-year-old boy who becomes one of the most popular legal advisors at an online law site because of the clarity and straightforwardness of his answers to legal questions.) New ways of knowing–interactive, networked, organized by communities of interest, are constantly changing. Fluid, lifelong learning poses fundamental threat to modal classroom practice in the Industrial model. Information abundance is the enemy of control.
Back in the classroom, with these new tools come new assertions of independence from learners, who simply don’t need old-fashioned kinds of command and control classrooms and teachers, and who are skeptical about the paradigms of knowledge built into hieracrichcal model. “Young people are becoming less and less willing to learn what somebody else thinks is best. They want to decide what is of value to them. They are beginning to demand that they decide what they need to learn. [Technological] enthusiasts believe that the ultimate effect of customization technologies will be to break the lockstep of school curricula” (p. 17). As education decouples from schooling, and the learner, along with his or her community, “design” the courses of instruction, instead of being imposed by the state, formerly docile consumers will walk away from the old schoolhouse, no matter how attractively it is reconfigured, and no matter how classroom instruction is tarted up for more appeal.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO TEACHERS/THE PROFESSION
This loss of control poses terrible dilemmas for educational institutions, but is especially difficult for teachers. “Schooling is built on the notion that the teacher is an expert, whose job is to pass on his or her expertise to students. The legitimacy of traditional classroom instruction rests on the teacher’s expertise as the source of legitimate knowledge…Computers act to dilute the authority that teachers have in classrooms, especially the authority over what constitutes legitimate knowledge” (p. 44, 41). Because teachers have been rewarded and expected to, “share their expertise, in environments where technology is used heavily…there are strong institutional and professional pressures that make giving up this control feel like dereliction of duty” (p. 42). “Teachers need this authority in order to justify why schoolwork is important for student to succeed in life. Computers can only serve to undermine their authority further.” As the authors reflect, “There are deep incompatibilities between the demands of the new technologies and the traditional school” (p. 6) that cannot be easily or superficially resolved. We are at a crossroads, whether we acknowledge it or not.
Those dependent on the institution for employment as a way of life cannot help but react with panic, condemnation, and pain. Or as one teacher at a conference I recently attended asked: “What will we do with all the teachers we don’t need anymore? What are they going to do?”
While the book is quick to say that great teachers do much more than simply command and control, the problem of how the teaching profession redefines itself, and understands new lifeways and new definitions of the work, is increasingly the talk of forward-thinking practitioners.
But the challenge to the very heart of the insitution remains strong, vigorous, constant. It is not going away.
AS THE OLD MODEL DIES, IT CLINGS MORE VOCIFEROUSLY TO OLD DEFINITIONS OF WHAT IT DOES
Schools have repelled revolutions before of course; their structures are especially designed for it. The K-12 institution of schooling is particularly robust, an accreted set of interlocking, self-sustaining practices, structures and beliefs that have managed to repulse threats in the past. “When complex systems are in equilibrium, changing one part of the system usually results in other parts pushing back to restore the initial balance” (p. 34). The usual responses to innovation in school have been condemnation of the new technology, to defang and co-op it; or to marginalize or “boutique” it–all responses to the changing world of the learner that can be witnessed in education blogs everyday. But the profound cultural and social incompatibilities between the old world of knowledge and learning and the new one, make simple co-opting of the technology, or marginalization of it, difficult, Collins and Halverson emphasize. The skills teachers had and have are less desirable, and the environments in which they exercise them more poorly adapted to contemporary culture.
In a last gasp of empire, educational policy makers, state boards of education, teachers unions, and other authorizing bodies have responded to these threats by tightening definitions of what it does–ironically just as technology has OPENED the world to the learner. “The standards movement can be seen as a conservative check on rampant customization” (p. 94) this text notes. The wind shear for learners is intense, as one student recently commented to me, “More and more of what I have to do in school looks nothing like what I’ll be asked to do when I’m working.”
More rigidly codifying standardized bodies of knowledge, more intensive and punitive standardized testing, more arduous graduation requirements, and more insistence on school-based certification, are desperate responses by an imperiled insitution, one that fears for the very heart of its legitimacy. Like the clueless British Parliament passing the Stamp Act on weary colonists, the standards movement is an attempt to narrow options for teaching and presentations of learning, and to measure learning through standardized tests, just as consumers have begun to figure out that they can get what they need in terms of learning without schooling. “To the degree that technology encourages students to go off on their own direction, it is in direct conflict with the standardized assessment…So it in the interest of schools to strictly limit the use of computers…” (p. 45). Learners of all kinds are simply going to walk away from the institution as we know it, as empire clings more vociferously to old definitions of what it does.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Although a little schizophrenic on whether or not schools are going to continue to exist for much longer in their present form (the book suffers from two-author- syndrome, in which the authors contradict themselves on critical points), overall they say that we are stumbling and hurtling forward in a revolution that will increasingly dislocate education from schooling as we know it.
What will the revolutionized institution look like? Will it be an institution at all? While we have glimmerings here, the real value of this book is describing where we are NOW: the deep cultural and structural tensions between the old and new eras; the ways in which those associated with the institution cannot help but react with panic, condemnation, and pain; and how NCLB and the movement towards standards may be a last gasp of empire, an attempt to control what has fundamentally become uncontrollable–the way people learn.
Who will benefit from the revolution? The authors don’t want to go on record too much about that, although at least they address this issue, unlike many technologists who can only see the upside of a new personalized learning era. They describe the differentials in access to technology that are deeply a part of American society, and the construction of cultural capital as it relates educational attainment, and the tendency towards commercialization of educational options that ultimately tend to serve those who are most privileged and already connected to American culture. They briefly unpack the vision of wholly personalized learning, which may overemphasize careerism and individualism, but given the highly competitive nature of most American classrooms, it is hard to see how serious a claim individualism is. (Also, the new vision of education rests on interactivity and finding and creating communities of interest.)
Read this book. It obviates the need to grind through many previous arguments about what is happening in education now, and is a platform to talk about what should happen next–what to do given the changing conditions for learning.
What are the new metaphors for schooling we need now? How can we create a new story about education that can help people in the business make the transition?
That’s what I’m thinking about now.