What will schools look like in fifteen or twenty years? There are plenty of educational futurists that embrace the challenge to cast visions of these futures. While I don’t consider myself a futurist, I certainly dabble in informed and imaginative predictions about the futures of education, considering which trends and innovations will stick around long enough to effect change, and which ones will soon fade away. With that said, many look to the future of education by thinking about broad transformations and about what will exist that does not today. I’m going to briefly attempt the opposite, to predict which current practices will be less common in ten to twenty years. Of course, any good set of predictions need a bit shock value and controversy…enough to challenge our thoughts about the current state of affairs, and I’m sure that this list will not disappoint on that front.
The traditional classroom design of rows and desks is already moving out of many schools, but with the continued expansion of personalized learning, differentiated instruction, blended and online learning, project-based learning, competency-based learning and various forms of in-person and remote collaboration, I have little doubt that the school of the future will have a fundamentally different use of space.
Letter Grade -less
While the technology of letter grades remains embedded in most schools, the number of challenges to this aging technology will soon overcome the current domination of using letters like “A” and “F” to represent student learning. Increased learning analytics, competency-based education, standards-based report cards, advance learning analytics, adaptive learning software, portfolio assessment and many other emerging and future models will continue to make this traditional approach to grading obsolete.
Look at the products promoted by leading textbook companies and we see evidence of this. Many traditional textbook companies have even re-branded themselves as something other than a textbook company. In fact, a growing number of textbooks are increasingly less text and less book. Web-based supplements, multimedia simulations, and embedded formative assessment are just the beginning of this emerging “post-textbook” product. In ten years to fifteen years, I doubt that we will call them textbooks.
Bell & Schedule -less
Plenty of P-12 schools don’t use bells today, but the idea of a scripted schedule that most to all students follow in many schools will continue to unravel into more personalized paths and plans.
Seat Time -less
As I mentioned in a recent post, the future of the Carnegie Unit and measuring quality by the amount of time that students spend in a class is bleak. Future educational models will not be dictated by time as much as mastery or documented learning.
Grade Level -less
As competency-based education, mastery learning, portfolio assessment and other assessment models take center stage in learning organizations, they will also transform the way that we think about largely age-based grade levels in school systems.
Influenced by assessment innovations, breaking down learning experiences into discrete courses becomes increasingly unnecessary as we see some of the other above attributes of traditional schooling move toward obscurity. Expect to see more interdisciplinary learning experiences, more course-less learning experiences that are driven by monitoring of progressively increased competency and confidence of students. While I expect that disciplinary thinking will remain valued and significant in schooling of 15-20 years, the use of distinct courses will not be necessary to teach such thinking.
Classroom Teacher -less
On the surface, this is perhaps the most controversial in the list. I’m not suggesting that learning organizations of the future will not need educators. What I am suggesting is that the idea of classroom teachers leading and running individual classes of students will become less common and less useful as we see some of the other elements listed above fade away. There will still be people who serve as guides, advisors, mentors, subject-matter experts, coaches, tutors, assessment specialists, educational technologists and learning experience designers. These are roles that are often fulfilled by the teacher of today. In fifteen to twenty years, expect to see more of these roles being unbundled from a single teacher. We already see that today in many schools. Again, this is not a critique of teachers. Rather, it is a recognition that emerging models of education will call for different roles for educators. Notice that I’m seeing a long and important future for educators, just not the current concept of the classroom teacher.
What is my source for these predictions? They come from looking at the current trends in education, analyzing the history of education over the last three hundred years, and studying the profound influence of digital technology (an influence that genuinely will challenge the influence that we once saw from the printing press). I’ve also spent the last decade studying alternative schooling and one of the fasting growing sectors in P-12 education, homeschooling. In addition, I’m paying attention to the movements outside of formal education, those areas where learning innovations often incubate before they find their way into the schools and formal organizations. Of course, I started this post by noting that I’m not a futurist, but my confidence with these predictions also comes from the fact that each of them have already happened in some schools. We can find examples of high-impact schools that have abandoned many or all of the items in the list above. As a result, my predictions may be flawed in the degree to which they will dominate learning organizations of the future, but I have little doubt that the the row-less, textbook-less, schedule-less, seat time-less, grade level-less, course-less and classroom teacher-less organization will become increasingly common over the next twenty years.
The Carnegie Unit is yet another 18th and 19th century industrial revolution educational technology that has a questionable future. It may well be that certain emerging innovations will lead to the death of this system. Consider that the Carnegie Unit preceded the contemporary concept of learning objectives, outcomes, or standards (which have their own potential forthcoming disruptions). Nonetheless, with the first use of measurable learning objectives came the first signs that the Carnegie Unit has an uncertain future. To understand this, allow me to tell a short story about yet another historical educational technology, the learning objective.
There is a core value, an embedded bias, to learning objectives. They do not value how much time a learner spends on a subject, how much time one spends in class, how one goes about learning the intended knowledge and skills or even why one learns. Learning objectives are single-mindedly concerned about whether one reached the stated objective. Do you know it? Can you do it? Can you demonstrate that you know it or can do it? That is the core value of the learning objective (there is a second embedded value, but I will save that for another article).
However, when the learning objective first came on the scene, it did not replace the Carnegie Unit, even though the two failed to share the same core value. The Carnegie Unit has the value of time, how much one dedicdates a given class. It has nothing to say about what one does or does not know. In fact, the Carnegie Unit was originally married to the concept of a course, discreet classes that collectively constitute one’s formal education in many schooling systems. While different numbers have been used, an example is how we get to the idea of what makes up a 3-credit hour college course. A typical semester is often about 15 weeks long. For a 3-credit course, that means 3 hours of course time each week with double that time intended for homework. That means 9 hours a week for 15 week, totaling 135 hours. That is the time expected for a 3-credit course. To this day, accredited colleges and Universities need to show how they measure what is worth a certain amount of credits, and the answer is still largely determined by calculating the hours spent on the course. Note that this has nothing to do with what the person has learned. That is why the marriage between the learning objective and the course was doomed from the beginning. Their fundamental core values did not align. They had irreconcilable differences.
Freed from the course and potentially the Carnegie Unit, the learning objective found a kindred spirit withe another educational technology know as competency-based education. These two share the same core value. It is just that the competency has more real world experience, while the objective is a bit of an academic…having been married to the course for so many years. And yet, a learning objective freed from a course and placed in the real world is largely inseparable from a competency. They have their differences, but their strong shared values are more than enough to overcome any such differences. And so the two have discovered one another, and are likely to find many years of happy union. At least that is what the learning objective thinks. What he does not know is that his new partner is slowly poisoning him. Now that he is removed from the course, his days are numbered.
Imagine earning a degree without having to take a single course, without having to sit through one class session. This is possible with a competency-based model. While this is nothing new to certain degrees by research outside of the United States, it is a largely foreign concept to most in US higher education. Consider Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University, and most recently the University of Wisconsin System Flexible Option. They are all examples of a developing trend toward competency-based higher education in the United States. While the regional accrediting bodies along with the federal government continue to cling to the Carnegie Unit in this United States, that is likely to change. For now, schools like these three must document how their new models might potentially translate into the language of Carnegie Units, but that will change within the next decade. As it stands, these competency-based programs allow one to progress through a “degree” by demonstrating competencies and not by competing courses. The models at each of the three schools have their differences. However, a true competency-based model would not even accept course credit as evidence of meeting a competency for a program. Courses do not have meaning in this new world of competencies. As with learning objectives, what matters is whether you can provide demonstrable evidence…in this case evidence that you met the required competencies.
Consider a MBA program that bestows the degree once you demonstrate your ability with the twelve program competencies. The school may create specific measures for determining that you meet a given competency. This could be performance on a more traditional test, a portfolio, or completion of some sort of authentic assessment (maybe successful completion of a business simulation, creation of a business plan that meets certain established criteria, or development of a marketing mix for a real or simulated business).
It is with these assessments that the competency-based models of today still have ample room for improvement. Many still cling to the vocabulary and constructs of the days when they were embedded within courses, and they tend to think that their value still depends upon the institution pre-determining the specific assessments. That makes things easier to measure.
And yet, this model has already abandoned the course, and it can soon abandon many other trapping of traditional schooling. This could, in fact, serve as a connection between the growing movement of self-directed unschoolers and organized schooling. Mix self-directed unschooling with competency-based education and we get an educational model that is entirely driven by the same core value that emerged with the birth of the learning objective. It doesn’t matter how much or how little time you spent on it. It is not about time on task. It is about whether you can provide evidence of what you know and what you can do. Even if that is not what always gets one a job in some situations today, it is what leads one to thrive and excel in work and avocations. This reveals the fatal flaw of the Carnegie Unit. It has nothing to say about competence and confidence of the learner, and these are the words that will rule in the future of education.
The MOOC discourse and debate continues, but I am hopeful that the conversation will deepen and expand beyond the few themes and talking points that tend to emerge in the most current media outlets. In some ways, this is reminiscent of the ongoing conversation about online learning in general. For decades researchers have examined the affordances and limitations of online courses, and we have a largely informed understanding of such things. And yet, there continue to be groups that come to the conversation and insist that we return to the same few questions, the most popular being the question about whether online course are as effective as face-to-face courses. As is often the case with such questions, the answer is deeper than can be represented with a single yes or no reply.
Regarding the role of MOOCs, one of the challenges is that many assessments of MOOCs treat them as a single thing. Consider the variety of methods and models of a traditional face-to-face course. What do we mean when we say that face-to-face courses are valuable? Are we talking about a seminar of thirteen students with a committed and knowledgeable instructor, or are we talking about a lecture hall of several hundred students and an instructor who is just doing enough to get by? Also, what is our criteria for assessing “valuable”? Of course, there are any number of other scenarios, and each bring with them different affordances and limitations.
These same considerations are true when it comes to understanding the nature, affordances and limitation of different MOOC experiments. Consider one affordance of a MOOC. Imagine having a large open online course of 1000 participants studying a topic like academic integrity (yes, this is an historical fiction example from a MOOC that I taught in early 2013). Now imagine having a simple learning activity where each participant is invited to contribute 1-3 paragraph case studies of cheating experiences for their own life and work. In a matter of days we can have a massive collection of case studies from which to learn. Of course, the quality may vary, so a second activity may involve collectively categorizing the cases based upon the common seven categories of academic cheating, refining and pruning the pile of cases. Here we have a learning experience that also serves as a form of collective knowledge generation, one that incorporates a more diverse sampling of locations and experiences than is present in any current text on academic integrity or that would be available to learners in most other courses (online or face-to-face). There are certainly limitations with this exercise, but I offer it a rough draft example of an affordance brought about by one MOOC teaching and learning strategy. There are plenty of other affordances, just as there are many limitations. I would not, for example, consider a MOOC of 2000 students to have the affordance of a close and intimate mentoring experience between each student and the instructor.
Neil Postman often challenged readers and listeners to analyze technology and media with a series of questions. One such question was, “What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?” With regard to the Postman question about the problem to which MOOCs are addressing, asking that question is an exercise in which I have been engaging for close to five years now. While the media review of MOOCs currently tends to focus upon less than four or five proposed problems to which some suggest MOOCs are the solution, narrowing the conversation to those few ideas would be limiting and largely unhelpful in developing an advanced understanding of this phenomena. Of course, there is a second question that many are asking as well. Rather than asking what problems they are addressing with a MOOC, they are asking what possibilities they are discovering. I often refer to MOOCs as experiments, as many experiments are not driven by a desire to solve a specific problem. Rather, they are open inquires driven by a question, and the answers discovered show possibilities that did not previously exist or were formerly hidden.
As a result, I contend that both questions about problem solving and possibility discovery are useful aspects of the ongoing conversation about MOOCs. Asking these questions along with a remembering that MOOCs are as diverse as face-to-face learning experiences have the potential to add a needed level of depth to the current conversation.
The US conversation about the role of higher standards in education is about to intensify due to the most recent PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results. My question is whether this will help or hinder the exciting and promising innovations in P-20 education. A second question is whether this conversation will potentially marginalize certain important values for education. Some will use these new numbers as a war cry for higher standards, arguing that we are falling behind in what is being referred to as a global competition. In the recent PISA results, the United States ranked 26th in math, 21st in science, and 17th in reading. As noted in an email from Jeb Bush through the Foundation for Excellent in Education, The United States was also passed up by countries like Ireland and Poland.
Regardless of my opinion, I’m quite certain the internationally benchmarked standards are here for the longterm in P-12 education. At the same time, I offer the following five question to the broader conversation.
1) As wisely noted by Neil Postman, every technology is a Faustian bargain. Things are gained and things are lost. What about the technology of international standards? What is gained and what is lost when we emphasize this approach to education reform?
2) What do the international standards fail to measure the we value in education? People tend to value what they measure. The more we measure something, the more we think about and attend to the thing that we are measuring. If we focus more on what shows up in the standards, what values do we start to minimize? How do we maintain a strong commitment to those things that we value, but that are not in the standards?
3) Is it possible to be amazing at math, science and reading; but lack human agency and the capacity for lifelong self-directed learning? People can score well on all the tests, but the United States is historically founded upon the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This vision and conviction calls for distinct approaches to education, ones that value, highlight, practice, and are shaped by such rights.
4) With increased focus upon certain standards comes contingent funding that reward those who focus upon those standards above other factors. How does this impact education reform needs that vary from one context/community to another? How does it impact promising educational innovations? All of the high standards, accountability measures and teacher resources will not solve issues related to poverty and any number of other social issues that impact what happens in education. How do we ensure that there are adequate resources to address such needs and various innovations in different communities?
5) Do we want our education system to be about mandating what students should like and focus upon, or do we want a system that also helps students find and build upon their unique strengths, gifts and abilities?
None of these are intended to discount the value of developing high levels of literacy, numeracy and scientific literacy. I simply offer them as a balance to the conversation, an effort to help us avoid abandoning or ignoring certain core values at the cost of a few others.
Over the past several years, I’ve started to incorporate more self-directed learning opportunities within otherwise traditional courses. These typically took different forms of project-based learning, with learners having different levels of self-direction. Such experiences so far have usually taken place in otherwise traditional learning organizations with populations of learners who are deeply rooted in traditional notions of schools, namely pre-service and existing K-20 educators. As I continue to reflect on these experiences, I’m starting to notice strong patterns in learner profiles and reactions, ranging from those who are delighted with the opportunity and thrive, to those who consider such practices to be an abdication of the proper role as teacher. I’ll use this post as a chance to reflect on these reactions, the reasons behind them, and how we might respond to them.
The Schooling Discourse
Given that my work has been mostly with pre-service and graduate education students, these are typically people who accept (or at least tolerate) the traditional notion of schooling and related constructs. While some dislike them, most are comfortable thinking about learning in terms of letter grades, quizzes, tests, homework, lesson plans, credit hours, grade point averages, learning objectives, discrete courses and subjects, standards, the role of student, and the role of teacher. While those of us involved on other forms of learning are well aware that none of these are necessary for high-impact learning, such terms constitute the dominant discourse in formal education. There are certainly different opinions about each of these terms or phrases and how we use them, but there is a common acceptance that such terms make up the vocabulary of an educator. I mention this because each of these terms conjure certain memories and expectations about a formal learning experience. More broadly, this means that efforts in self-directed learning sometimes clash with certain traditional notions of formal schooling. As a result, those who value or find comfort in such constructs may become resistant or critical of alternatives.
There are two main ways to approach this challenge: build on new ground, or re-describe and expand on existing terms. One is to focus upon new ground, learning experiences outside of the confines of traditional schooling. People do not expect to use “schooling” terminology when they are exploring a topic for fun and on their “free time.” Most of us don’t use schooling vocabulary when we think of relationships, hobbies, or even our work. The digital world gives us ample opportunities to do this, with the rapid growth in resources for informal and self-directed learning on the web. A second option is to expand on the definitions of schooling terms, to engage in re-description of these terms. This involves accepting the value of a term like assessment, but then expanding our understanding of assessment by discussing concepts like assessment as learning, self-assessment, and peer-to-peer learning. In my work, this second option seems to provide much value, since the learners that I serve are usually living out their work in more traditional schooling settings. At the same time, a few high-impact experiences with the first approach (out-of-school learning) is a powerful tool for helping us consider the possibilities. Debriefing those experiences with discussion about what we can apply to our schools has great potential.
While the Brain Thrives on Novelty, it also Find Comfort in Familiarity
Even while some are open to exploring new approaches to teaching and learning, too rapid of a shift toward self-directed learning can provoke fear, self-doubt, criticism, and uncertainty. As a result, introducing self-directed learning is often not effective with an overnight transformation of the classroom. Many will not be prepared emotionally or intellectually for such a task.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, a simple way of thinking about teacher-directed versus self-directed is by looking at the questions that drive the design of a lesson or unit: What do students need to learn? How will I know when they’ve learned it? How will I monitor their progress? How will I help them learn it? The goal of self-directed learning is to eventually turn each of those into student-centered questions: What do I need to learn? How will I know when I’ve learned it? How will I monitor my progress? How will I learn it? If learners lack the competence, confidence or both of these to ask and answer such questions, that will conjure negative emotions and reactions.
Self-directed Learning Skills
One of the more effective ways to address this lack of competence or confidence is to devise a plan to help students grow in their capacity to ask and answer the questions of the self-directed learner. This can be done gradually, starting by inviting learner input on the goals for a given unit and how to best assess the learning. There may be “non-negotiable” standards or outcomes, but learners can enhance or supplement them. They can also cooperate with the teacher to create a solid assessment plan. In addition, self-directed learning can be preceded by formal opportunities to grow in skills with goal-setting, self-assessment methods and strategies, skills in self-monitoring, and building a toolbox of learning and self-teaching strategies.
When I’ve incorporated opportunity for self-directed learning in classes, the struggles usually relate to this area of competency and/or confidence. Some students are able to flourish right away, while others seek more direction and guidance. From my perspective, this is natural, and it speaks to the ongoing value of a teach/mentor/coach for groups of learners, helping each learner progress toward. Necessary support, mentoring and resources often make the differences between a successful and unsuccessful move toward self-directed learning.
Missing the “Why” of Self-Directed Learning
Skills and confidence are not the online factor. Beliefs and values play a critical role as well. For this reason, the why of self-directed learning is a critical conversation. In fact, for it to be successful, this requires a cultural changing within learning organizations, a move toward a compelling why. Why self-directed learning? What is limiting about the traditional teacher-directed environment? This challenges us to look at the broader aims of education. This is where we might look at self-directed learning as a means of championing human agency, increased access and opportunity, and the critical import of self-efficacy to address any number of broader issues in society. This comes through discussion, storytelling, and a guided activities that give ample opportunity for self-discovery of the whys behind self-directed learning.
While this is not an exhaustive list of challenges to moving toward self-directed learning, it addresses some of the more critical considerations. If you see others, please consider sharing them in the comment section.
How can it be that professional development is not the key to teacher professional development? What I mean is that the common understanding of professional development as training events is not what actually results in teachers growing professionally. If we focus upon the events and activities, we may miss out on what actually helps educators refine their knowledge, skill and ability to help students learn. If it doesn’t come from in-services, conferences, workshops, and courses, then what does help?
To be fair, these can help, but other factors come first. These are the conditions that allow those other professional development activities to have a significant impact upon teachers.
1) A Culture of High Standards and Expectations
This does not mean that I champion some sort of merciless, top-down drill-sergeant leadership. It does mean that a culture of high expectations impacts us. It is not a coincidence that history is full of innovators, authors and change-agents who spent time with each other. They challenged each other toward greatness. When I was a child, someone once claimed, “Show me your friend’s and I’ll show you your future.” There is much that I didn’t like about that statement and I still don’t. At the same time, there is a proverbial truth to it. The culture and standards of those around us can inspire, encourage, and challenge in positive ways. A culture of low standards, minimal expectations for teachers, and one where teacher’s don’t except one another to be their best for the students will have an adverse impact on teacher growth and development. I’m one of the last people to argue for rigid and legalistic standards for teachers, but in all of my visits to schools over the years, it is hard to deny that high expectations among teachers make a difference.
2) A Culture of Formative Feedback
We get better with specific feedback on how we are doing. This is why many emphasize the importance of reflective practice for teachers. That is essentially a form of formative self-feedback, and it helps us think about how things went, what we want to keep doing, what we need to change, and how we can better meet the needs of different learners. At the same time, self-feedback is often not enough. Feedback from students, parents, other teachers, and coaches also helps. Each gives insight on something of value. Students help us to see things from their perspective and they might offer us with an insight about what they need that we are unable to se from a teacher or parent perspective. Fellow teachers give us good and important feedback based upon their own knowledge of teaching and learning. In addition, a gifted teaching and learning coach, trained to focus upon that which has the greatest impact, can be a powerful resource for personal and professional growth. However, all of this is largely ineffective without a person (and even a teacher culture) that values, accepts and embraces formative feedback, and sees it as something than can help one grow as an effective educator.
3) A Growth Mindset and a Culture of Trust
This requires teachers having a growth mindset (confidence that they can get better) and for there to be a community of trust, one where teachers are not fearful of letting some of their limitations and challenges be seen by others. For the growth mindset, that means letting go of this idea that teaching is nothing more than a gift that you have or you don’t, that it is somehow a genetic trait. Anyone can become a better teacher, and it is important for each teacher to believe this. Once that is in place, then the trust becomes important. Not only do we need to believe that we can get better, we need to be able to be vulnerable and trust others to help us grow. This vulnerability can be difficult for any of us, but as we develop a culture of trust and openness, we also help build a culture that embraces the power of formative feedback.
4) A Culture of Teaching and Learning
Already a decade ago, the idea of professional learning communities started to gain attention in schools. Not long after that, we found countless schools hosting “professional learning teams” that rarely discussed student learning, strategies to improve student learning, and how to make adjustment to help students learn. Instead, I found many groups of teachers gathering to discuss how to address behavior in the hallway or any number of secondary issues. At the same time, when I visited schools that were known for high levels of student growth and learning, I heard teachers, students and administrators talking with each other about teaching and learning. Their focus was upon what students were learning, how they were progressing, how they could make adjustments to help with the learning, how to remove barriers to learning, and how to further support and empower students. These conversations were often specific, practical, and quickly turned into action. If we want to see teachers thrive in helping foster high-impact learning communities of students, then that requires having a community that truly places learning as a core value.
5) A Student Learning First Mindset
This seems obvious, but if we watch the policies, rules and practices in learning organizations of all levels, we quickly see things set in place based upon teacher need, interest or preference. Usually, this is easily seen in scheduling of classes, the structure of classes, grading plans in courses, and many classroom rules and procedures. In fact, we’ve become so used to this that we sometimes don’t notice such things even when they are brought to our attention. Consider, for example, what day of the week certain assignments are due. What about policies on “late work”? While the reason given might sound like they are about the students (to teach them timelines, for example), that is not always the full story. There is a need to be realistic with this fifth point. This is not about letting students do everything they want or about teachers burning themselves out. This is simply about re-evaluating our practices and polices in view of what will best help students learn, even when it requires teachers to change.
As we have these five elements in growing measure, then we are likely to see professional development having a greater benefit for teachers. They will seek out and learn from these other PD activities in a way that helps them genuinely grow as effective educators.
There are certainly examples of excellent teachers who cling to these five values even when they are not present in their school as a whole, and these teachers often continue to have a large and lasting impact. Nonetheless, it is a wonderful and exciting thing to see an entire learning organization that holds to these five values. It can made for a pleasant, challenging, inspiriting learning community where students and teachers are growing and learning together in often impressive and unexpected ways.
I had a great time this week connecting with people around the world at the Global Education Conference. This free and open online conference is one of best that I’ve seen, including participants and presenters from seemingly every continent. As part of the event, I had a chance to present on a couple of topics: one about global perspectives on grading and assessment and a second on helping students development personal learning networks. This post is a chance to recap and reflect further on that second topic.
However, there is a smaller and potentially even more significant conversation about personal learning networks that is taking place. That consists of a growing number of us who are looking at the idea of a personal learning network, combining it with the promise and possibility of self-directed learning and starting to think more about how we might empower and encourage students to cultivate their own personal learning networks.
What if learning communities and organizations made student personal learning networks an integral part of the learning experience? As students progress through their schooling years, what if they cultivated a deeper and more substantive global personal learning network? Informed by the idea of connectivism, a student personal learning network is one that helps learners not only learn about a given topic, but also grow in their understanding of how to cultivate and make use of knowledge networks. It is one thing to study world geography out of a textbook. It an entirely different experience to connect with people around the world, learning from each, comparing and contrasting geography in different parts of the world, and building meaningful and sometimes persistent connections with people around the world.
A Little Learning Theory Background
If we look at some of the trend in education over the past century, we can see them as extensions of four learning theories: behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism and connectivism. Behaviorism is where we get things like measurable learning objectives in education. This is the body of work that focused upon observable behavior, reward, punishments, classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Behaviorism is often associated with names like Watson, Skinner and Thorndike.
The influence of behaviorism in education can be traced to the early part of the 20th century, but it continues to inform thought and practice today. We see it informing the work of many scholars and educators over the last century, and it can also be seen as a significant influence in the push toward the use of observable and measurable learning objectives. Teachers in the 1960s and 1970s started to be introduced to this idea through books like Robert Mager’s Preparing Instructional Objectives, but by the 1980s use of such objectives became common practice in schools around the United States. If you can’t see it, measure it and document it, then it loses significance from a behaviorist perspective.
Alongside the influence of behaviorism we saw the development of cognitivism. One of the more well-known educational influences of this movement relates to the idea of developmental psychology, when we discovered that the brain develops in certain stages and we can start to plan learning experiences based upon where people are in these developmental stages. Where behaviorism focused upon external observable behavior, cognitivism invited attention to the inner workings of brain.
Constructivism emerged amid these two perspectives on learning, adding yet another strand to the conversation. As the name might suggest, constructivism focused upon the idea that knowledge is not simply something that one person transfers to another, but knowledge is constructed within an individual through experience. For many educators, John Dewey is likely the first name that comes to mind when thinking about such ideas. You may also think of people like Vygotsky, Kolb, and Montessori.
While I represent these three as if they came in a nice and neat chronology, the reality is that they often crossed paths with another. We see amply evidence of them intermingling, especially when we look at educational models and practices over the last century. Today it is common to find a educators who describe their educational philosophy and practice in a way that seems to relate to all three of these in one way or another.
More recently, even into the 21st century, we find yet another perceptive added to the conversation. George Siemens and Stephen Downes introduced connectivism, which seems to suggest that knowledge is not simply something that exists in our brains. Instead, knowledge exists in our connections with other people, resources and communities. This resonates with the experience of many in this digital and information age, as we often find that our connections with others is what enables us to work and flourish. Medical professionals rely upon complex data systems and other professionals for certain tasks. Even historians, sometimes thought of as solitary scholars, now share rich data sets on the web and collaborate with one another to carry out research goals and tasks (See the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database as an example).
Now allow me to turn our attention to the topic of self-directed learning for a moment. As I look at learning organizations today, I see two major approaches to teaching and learning. I will use a fishing analogy for this example. Some schools are set up as fish distribution centers. They are like fish markets where a person is given a fish and can then prepare it and eat it. Other learning organizations function more like places of fishing lessons. They don’t just give out the fish. They teach the people how to fish for themselves. The first is the school that seems content with distribution as the goal, leaving the learners dependent upon a teacher to grow and learn. The second focuses upon equipping learners with the ability to learn for themselves, allowing them to develop the skills necessary to thrive as a learner for life. From this perspective, the goal of a learning organization is to help students progress toward independence.
In reality, few learning organization are one or the other of these two. They are most often at some point in a spectrum between the two. Some focus upon content distribution with some opportunity for self-directed learning, while others are heavy on self-directed learning with occasional content distribution. An easy way to think about this is to consider the spectrum of a school based upon four questions (as seen below). One the one side we have a more teacher-directed approach. On the right side, we have a more self-directed approach. Usually we find schools that vary on the spectrum for the four questions. Whatever the case, my argument is that our goal is for all learners to eventually be empowered and able to function on the far right side of this chart.
Allow me to add one more piece to this puzzle before drawing our attention to the final picture of a student personal learning network. This last piece relates to the concept of self-blended learning. Blended learning is the mixing of face-to-face and online learning. Some talk about self-blended learning as a situation where a learner takes online courses and some face-to-face courses. I suggest that this is too limiting of a definition. Instead, I use self-blended learning to mean any situation where a learner self-blends a learning experience, combining connections in the online and face-to-face world to learn and grow. If this interests you, I provided some examples here. From this perspective, self-blended learning is self-directed learning plus informed blended learning.
Pulling it All Together
This finally brings us back to idea of a student personal learning network, which is a mix of connectivism, self-directed learning and self-blended learning. As defined at Wikipedia, “A personal learning network is an informal learning network that consists of people a learner interacts with and derives knowledge from…” When I ask people to describe their personal learning network, they sometimes start by describing the technologies that they use, tools like Twitter, blogs, YouTube, and Google Hangouts. That is understandable because these are the tools that allow them to connect with their network. However, I argue that the network is largely the people, communities and resources; not the technologies themselves. If I showed you a picture of a large public swimming pool full of people and asked you to describe what you saw, you would likely not describe the technology of a swimming pool. You would instead talk about the people, what they were doing and how they are behaving. Similarly, a personal learning network is first about our relationships and connections with people and resources. We use the tools to strengthen, lengthen, and make such connections.
A Student Personal Learning Network
A student personal learning network is, therefore, a rich and ever-growing series of connections with people, resources, and communities around the world…connections that allow us to grow in knowledge, skill, ability and perspective. What if we spent more time thinking about the networks that students are building as they go through their schooling years? What are the tools and technologies that they use and how are they using them? One of many connections in this network will likely be one or more teachers. It will also include classmates, family members, community members, and others who whom they learn and interact in the physical world. As it expands, it will also include people far beyond the walls of the home, school and community.
What if we made the building of such a network a central part of the curriculum, inviting students to keep a log or journal of their growing network, and how this network is empowering them to learn, how it is expanding their knowledge and perspective? How are they building a meaningful network? This would genuinely turn schools into places of fishing lessons. Students can interview people around the world, tutor and be tutored, take part in formal and informal learning communities, take part in Twitter chats and Hangouts, learn from and engage in the blogosphere, experience the power of working on a meaningful project in a distributed/virtual team, participate in a massive open online course (or design and teach one), share resources through social bookmarking and other technologies, host and take part in webinars, and build new online and blended learning communities around topics of personal value, need, and interest.
Over time, the students may not only build a personal learning network, but also venture into starting their own personal teaching networks, being agents of change and positive influence in the digital world and beyond.
Practical First Steps
Does this interest you? If so, here are a few simple ways to get started.
1) Introduce students to the idea of a personal learning network and have them create a map of that network using their favorite mind mapping tool. If you have one, share your PLN as an example. Be sure to spend time on the “why” of a PLN. Then invite students to add to and refine this network over the year.
2) Set aside time for PLN Show and Tell – This is simply a time where students display the visual of their network to others, explaining how they use it and how it helps them. On occasion, have students explain what is new in their network, how it was added and how it helps them. This provides a wonderful opportunity for peer-to-peer learning.
3) Create simple challenges where learners find a problem, try to solve it and periodically report back to the group. They will build and leverage their network to solve the problem. Along the way, they will not only find potential solutions, but they will experience the power of connected learning.
4) If you are working with younger students, consider building a class PLN, where you map it out on the wall, and you collectively add to it throughout the year through Skype sessions, Google Hangouts and other connections with people and groups around the world. When you face a new challenge as a class, ask the students, “Is there anything in our PLN that could help us with this? Do we need to expend or expand our PLN in some way?”
5) Revisit the chart above that contrasts teacher-directed and self-directed learning. Find places in your course(s) where you can edge one or more activities a bit closer to the self-directed learning side of things. Invite students to use their personal learning networks to find and achieve learning goals.
These are enough to get you started. As you have interest, try one or more of them and let me know how they work? Also, feel free to add more suggestions in the comment area.
If you are interested, below is a recording of the full session.