This week, my school is hosting a Learning Think Tank on the topic of, not surprisingly, “The Future of Education.” On the To-Read/To-Watch list are a number of insightful, compelling and forward-thinking articles. One, in particular, got me thinking about competency-based classrooms where differentiation is the norm, not the goal. Another got me all fired up when the author remarked, “If you can google it, why teach it?” You can NOT google critical thinking, I thought rather smugly.
All together, I spent an enjoyable morning preparing for the Think Tank and reflecting on the “future of education“…and of course, pondering all of those wonderful challenges that lay ahead of us.
There was one video, however, that really got my goat: Sugata Mitra’s Ted Talk, “Building a School in the Cloud“. In this hugely popular talk (2.4 millions views and counting), Mitra argues the idea that schools, in their current state, are antiquated, obsolete and in fact detrimental to learning itself. Inspirational at times, reasonable & thought-provoking at others, the video left the teacher in me feeling just a wee bit, I don’t know – deflated? With comments like
“Schools as we know them are obsolete, not broken”
and “Learning’s not about making it happen, but about letting it happen”, I felt myself doing two things: 1. considering my shelf-life as a teacher and 2. wondering how many 21st century classrooms Mitra has visited.
He does make several significant observations, like the fact that our education system is based on a Victorian era “bureaucratic machine”, producing identical results and creating identical people. And in terms of our current mode of assessing learning, where we ask students to perform under pressure (often quite enormous, e.g. SAT/IB/AP exams), he notes that the avian (bird) part of our brain shuts down everything else when it feels threatened. Thus, he posits, we are essentially asking our students to “shut their brains down and then perform.”
Mitra suggests that our current system of testing was relevant when there was a time “when we needed people who could perform under threat”, but those circumstances no longer exist. This idea was both enlightening and provocative. Lots of room for improvement here.
Finally, Mitra gets to his solution: the “school in the clouds”, or simply SOLE – Self-Organized Learning Environment. Based upon the notion that, if students are provided the space, materials and time, they will not only create their own learning, they will accomplish this learning independent of a teacher.
To be fair, he does allow for one adult presence in the learning cloud. The “method of the grandmother” seems to be Mitra’s answer to the teacher problem. A virtual granny (in the video, it turned out to be, ironically, a retired teacher) is Skyped into the SOLE classroom, doling out little morsels of encouragement and probing “What’s next” questions to the eager students. It would seem that the role of the teacher, in Mitra’s eyes at least, is akin to that of a doting, loving granny. It was hard for me to see my profession – my craft – reduced to something so simplistic as a granny in the cloud offering encouragement.
I’m left contemplating Mitra’s findings – that students learn best when they work together; that students learn best when they’re offered hands-on, experiential opportunities; that students learn best when they receive feedback, particularly positive feedback.
Perhaps I doth protest too much. But to be fair, at my school, we’re doing most of these things already. Project-based learning; inquiry lessons; peer-teaching; flipped classrooms; blended learning. If it’s a new strategy or technology, you can bet that one of my open-minded, courageous and forward-thinking colleagues is field-testing it.
Don’t get me wrong – I love the idea of a self-organized learning environment. Isn’t that what we’re all trying to achieve, to some extent? Giving our students the power to be the authors of their own education? My question remains though: where’s the balance? I need to go between facilitator and teacher in a hurry, because I’ve got a whole lot of content to cover, but don’t necessarily have 6 months to play with (like the kids in his video). Not to say that content wins, but that there has to be a balance between the skills and disposition and the things we want students to know and to understand. How do we pull all of this off while still encouraging organic, self-organized learning environments.
Perhaps the answer lays somewhere in the cloud…