Mar 06 2012

Why Learning Needs a Clean Slate

CoSN conference Opening Plenary speakers Douglas Thomas and Mark Edwards share their vision for what learning can be.

“Our schools aren’t broken. Our model of learning is broken.”

With that bold statement, University of Southern California professor and author Douglas Thomas outlined for the district IT leaders and other educators attending the Consortium for School Networking’s annual conference the many ways in which change is altering how teachers teach and students learn. Noting that the world is in a state of constant flux and that “we are forgetting things faster than we can learn them,” Thomas pointed out that current teaching methods are training students for “jobs of the 19th century — jobs that no longer exist.”

Echoing themes from A New Culture of Learning, the 2011 book he co-wrote with John Seely Brown, Thomas encouraged conference attendees to “make a distinction between teaching, which is what schools are doing now, and learning, which is what the schools of the 21st century need to be doing.” That means making play, innovation and the cultivation of the imagination cornerstones of learning.

Thomas, an associate professor in USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, shared several anecdotes during the conference’s Opening Plenary session, including the story of a student who once asked him what the focus of her thesis should be. When he advised her to choose something about which she was passionate because she’d be devoting so much time to researching and writing about the topic, she responded that “no one had ever asked” her what she cared to learn about.

Ultimately, he said, educators must stop trying to be the expert and empower students to learn in their own way, using the tools with which they are most comfortable and focusing on the subjects of most interest to them.

“When I stand in front of the classroom, I still feel like I need to be the expert,” he said. “That’s how I was trained, and how I’ve always done it.” Transitioning away from this model will be difficult, he added, because it’s essentially “asking people to give up expertise when they really are experts.”

Joining Thomas on stage were Mooresville (N.C.) Graded School District Superintendent Mark Edwards and Karen Cator, director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology. “Learning should be fun,” Edwards told the audience. “There’s a great opportunity for all of us to create conditions where students truly love learning.”

The challenge, he added, is “balancing innovation and accountability.”

Follow EdTech: Focus on K–12's CoSN coverage here for all the latest news and events from the show.

Culture Clash?

In A New Culture of Learning, co-authors Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown explain that our understanding of what constitutes “a new culture of learning” is based on several basic assumptions about the world and how learning occurs:

  • The world is changing faster than ever, and our skill sets have a shorter life.
  • Understanding play is critical to understanding learning.
  • The world is more connected that ever before. Can that be a resource?
  • In this connected world, mentorship takes on new importance and meaning.
  • Challenges we face are multifaceted, requiring “systems thinking” and socio-technical sensibilities.
  • Skills are important, but so are mindsets and dispositions.
  • Innovation is more important than ever, but it turns on our ability to cultivate imagination.
  • A new culture of learning needs to leverage social and technical infrastructures in new ways.
  • Play is the basis for cultivating imagination and innovation.

SOURCE: A New Culture of Learning

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