In the clouds…

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.

Screen Shot 2015-10-11 at 7.34.40 PM

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.”

Bird-brains

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.

ARE TEACHERS GOING THE WAY OF LOCAL BOOKSTORES?”

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…

3 Replies to “In the clouds…”

  1. Hey Miriam,

    I really enjoyed reading your post. I love the painting of the clouds at the end…I felt the symbolism of the cloud conflicted with the irony of your final sentence, “Perhaps the answer lays somewhere in the cloud…” I found this quite interesting considering your adamant disapproval of Mitra’s School in the Cloud and although I generally disagree with your first impressions of Mitra, I thought that the way you closed your post with that statement made me appreciate your argument more. All that, plus your distaste earlier in your post when you felt offended by the statement, “If you can Google it, why teach it?” made me wonder your thoughts on internet in education all together…although is it fair of me to assume that this was a bit of a rant post?

    Jesting aside (’cause everything up until now has been tongue and cheek if that hasn’t been clear)…I think the balance that you discuss is most definitely imperative to pedagogy. Being the tech advocate that I am, I still used Alexis’ Spider Web Discussion (https://alexiswiggins.pbworks.com/w/page/57830797/Alexis%20Wiggins%27s%20Wiki) in my tech classes today because it helped to illustrate the points I was trying to make on digital citizenship. I did this because, I, the educator, knows when to use a teaching strategy or when to replace it with technology. People often assume that I will answer one way because of the job I hold. I like to think, despite others perceptions, that my main focus is on student interest and developing the love of learning and then leveraging technology in transformative ways.

    That being said, when I watched Sugata Mitra’s Ted Prize video, I was hooked! He said all the things I wanted to hear. It was at a time that I was really digging deep into student led learning and ideas by Alan November on “Who Owns the Learning?”. However, thinking about it now again a few years later, I still find he is one of my learning heroes. I have tried some of his methods in my classes, in particular asking big questions that demand critical thinking, meta-cognition, analysis, synthesis, organization, collaboration and creation. All the while, addressing content. The thing is, I didn’t assume that his School in the Cloud could, or even should replace me, I only decided to give my students even more choice in response to his learning theories.

    I think this is what you are getting at…you stated that you and your peers are already messing around or even geeking out with, “Project-based learning; inquiry lessons; peer-teaching; flipped classrooms; blended learning.” You, as the educator, knows how to employ various strategies that work towards a myriad of learning outcomes and that it can be frustrating when someone else’s ideas make us feel like we aren’t doing it right.

    Your response to his video actually reminds me of my response to the Deconstruction of the K-12 article (https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/03/the-deconstruction-of-the-k-12-teacher/388631/). I felt like this article predicted, or at least was trying to predict the demise to our profession. That is until, I was reminded that we are good at what we do. Especially when we demand balance! Our jobs are obsolete, only if we keep teaching the ways we always have…

    So, is the answer in the clouds??? Probably…but it is probably discoverable within a self-organized group that is being encouraged, prodded and prompted by their facilitator teacher who knows a thing or two about learning…a teacher who has found ways to engage students with big questions, incorporate their own interests and who has given them the space to become makers in their own education…and life!

  2. Miriam,
    Your post got me thinking about a lot of aspects of both the future of the learning environment, as well as the future of teaching. I have always liked the term ‘curator’ for a teacher (same as facilitator), because it is true that most of our job is no longer creating lesson plans from scratch and passing on our knowledge. Rather than training new teachers to be proficient in their content, as The Deconstruction of the K-12 Teacher article notes (https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/03/the-deconstruction-of-the-k-12-teacher/388631/):
    “Should I encourage this aspiring educator to fight for his or her role as the local expert, or simply get good at facilitating the best lessons available?”

    While I agree that the role of the teacher is and has changed, I feel that claiming that schools are becoming obsolete is a bit rosy. This is assuming that all students are highly motivated, focused and self-driven learners. Thinking about some of the students that I currently teach, these qualities have not exactly been instilled in them, and I wonder that if given the opportunity and the freedom of a self-organized learning environment, would they thrive in this environment, or spend most of the time gaming/on social media? Maybe I’m not quite forward thinking enough, but don’t kids need SOME structure that the Victorian model of schooling provides?

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