Learning to Learn

I took the title of this post from a short article about technology and teaching. It inspired a few more thoughts.

On Friday, I had the opportunity to travel down to Võru (an hour or so south of Tartu) to help give a presentation to Estonian teachers. They all came from a single school that is located on the island of Saaremaa.

What was the big deal? Well, consider this question. If you think of a country as a person, what is its most precious asset? Hopefully, there are lots of valuable assets around. But I think its most precious asset of all are its kids. They are the future. But will they be ready for what the future will be like?

Sadly, for a lot of kids, the answer is likely to be “no”. The reason is simple. Universal education as a technology is very new to humanity (less than 200 years old). As Seth Godin, Sir Ken Robinson and a lot of others have argued, it has not changed very much from its early days. The format and curricula of today would be recognizable to kids 100 years ago. Meanwhile, the world around us is changing at an accelerating pace. Ooops. If kids are so valuable shouldn’t we be re-thinking what kind of education we offer them in order to cope with accelerating change?

I think so and this is what we were trying to persuade our audience in Võru last Friday. But how does one do this? Here is a peek at how this might look.

In the old days, we thought education was a good way to nurture great minds. To bring out great intellect so that we could produce more Einsteins and Newtons. Everyone else would become “good workers”. But we now know that learning is at least in part a social activity. Great minds don’t produce great thoughts on their own. In other words, great innovation comes out of great culture. And this is what education needs to instill in our kids.

So how do we help kids learn how to produce great culture? The challenge is that we really don’t know how to do this very well.  We are not sure yet precisely how to reproduce great culture in the classroom let alone the community. We only know that it does not spontaneously generate out of human warmth. Nor is it the application of rational analysis in a vacuum. But at least two things are clear.

The first is that it is not necessary to have a “charismatic teacher”. By this I mean a dominating presence that pushes the class forward. That can be fun, but education must be empowering, not coercing. As Peter Drucker noted, great education is about great learning, not great presentations.

So you might ask why do we test so aggressively? Is it because testing is empowering? On a more radical note, why don’t we thank the kids for the work that they do in school, rather than just shovel information down their throats and expect them to like it? Is it because we secretly believe that whatever kids do is useless?

The second thing is that kids will need to learn how to be at home with technology in what they do. Technology will not suddenly disappear – instead, it will become more and more integrated into everything that we do. So why are still fidgeting about bringing it into the classroom? We fidget because we are uncertain about the process. And that is a damning conclusion when process is everything.

Consider, for example,  Steve Blank’s Udacity MOOC on “building a start up”. MOOC’s may be criticized, but not as a tool for laying out a vocabulary of a process. Is Blank’s thinking just for entrepreneurs or is it something that we all need to know? Ditto for a “Taxonomy for Robotics“. We all know that robots are coming. But how much do we know about robotics?

This is just a peek. As Sir Kenneth Clark said in his opening remarks about the romantic period

… we have a long rough voyage ahead of us and I can’t say how it will end because it isn’t over yet. We are still the offspring of the romantic movement and still victims of the fallacies of hope.

I will not get into what Clark meant by “the fallacies of hope” except to say that our modern culture is wedded to the hope that movement is an expression of freedom in the “now” rather than enhancing commitment to the future, where we will surely end up. We think it normal to separate out “consumption” (pleasure in the now) with “investment” (work to add future value). This has been so deeply engrained in us that we have difficulty seeing ourselves as older than we are now. And yet, we speculate that intelligence, if it is anything, is about expanding future possibilities.

Whether our attitudes are wise or not doesn’t matter. We cannot stop the world and start over again. The next stage of our voyage, I think, is at least to see more clearly that wherever it may take us, we are in it together.

FOLLOW – BTW – I am listening to Dan Pink’s podcast of his interview with Amanda Ripley who wrote “The Smartest Kids in the World”. A few points (1) Great facilities (buildings) do not necessarily translate into great education. (2) Trust in the environment helps kids learn – and kids have to buy into the process of school impacting future (this is not just relevant to kids).  (3) On a relative basis, hard work to overcome failure is as important as native talent in learning. (4) Voluntary conscientiousness is a good predictor of life success. (5) More autonomy is motivating for kids and teachers. (6) Poland is getting better at educating its kids – and earned autonomy is part of that story. (7) Korea does well in testing, but imposes a huge burden on kids which may not be worth it. (8) a high value added from teaching is to not give up when kids need help. (9) Focus matters. So splitting education focus with other activities can reduce the effectiveness of schools.


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