Notes & Quotes from Joi Ito’s Keynote at #BBWorld14

Joi Ito, Director of MIT Media Lab, took the stage for the opening keynote at Blackboard World 2014 in Las Vegas. The first part of his presentation was a repeat of his 2014 TedTalk, pointing out how the “Internet pushed innovations to the edges…away from the people with the money, power and authority.”

While I’d seen his TedTalk before, these same ideas came across as fresh because now it was challenging me to apply this to the education sector. Is it possible that the Internet will push educational innovation to the edges as well, alway from the people and organizations with money, power and authority? What does that look like? Are things like MOOCs, OER, peer-to-peer learning networks signs of this movement? What is the next phase? Part of that answer, I suppose, comes from the fact that Joi Ito is directing a media lab at one of the leading Universities in the world, and he doesn’t have a college degree. He has clearly demonstrated the knowledge, passion, skill and insight; but he doesn’t have the diplomas…items currently controlled by people with the money, power and authority to issue such credentials. Perhaps this “edge of educational innovation” is a future where learners own their own credentials, where alternative ways of displaying one’s learning are just as accepted (or more so) than traditional credentials like the college diploma.

In the second half of his, talk Ito identified five wonderfully provocative frameworks, concepts or models for thinking about the presenting and future needs of learning: The 4 P’s of Learning, 4 Pairs of Connected Learning, the affordances of anti-disciplinary work, the value of becoming an artist-designer-scientist-engienner (all in one), and Ito’s 9 Principles of Learning. Following is a short introduction to each of these.

The Four P’s of Learning

Ito cast a vision for learning and learning contexts that are largely informed by projects, peers, passion, and play. Instead of having to master the content before you get to do something with it, Ito argued for diving into projects and learning along the way. The same goes for play and the Lifelong Kindergarten at MIT. We learn so much in kindergarten through play but many of us abandon those habits of play. He argues that we need to embrace and encourage them throughout life. Then there is the third P, peers. “You learn when you teach,” Ito reminded us. And peers are not just people of the same age. They are people of all ages, including adult mentors. The last P (although he actually listed it as the third) is passion…what he referred to as, “the energy to want to do something.” Imagine what our learning organizations would look like if these were the four primary ingredients to each school day.

Connected Learning

I learned something fascinating. Until today, I had not clue that Joi was Mimi Ito’s brother! I’ve been a longstanding fan of her work, and it was delightful to discover the connection between these two thought-leaders. It was delightful then, to see Joi spend a few minutes of the good work being done in the connected learning movement. Specifically, he pointed to the work around exploring potential connections between four contexts or groups. He juxtaposed interests and academics, in-school and out-of-school, online and the “real world”, kids and adults. Part of what connected learning does it examine learning in each of these realms, but then also looks for potential connections among them. While he did not mention it, I immediately think of the promising City-wide Summer of Learning Projects, connecting learning outside of school with some of the goals and standards in school. Exploring how we can connect and blend these different elements of life provides us with new possibilities for teaching and learning.

Anti-Disciplinary Work and Thinking

In the MIT Media Lab, Ito requires students and faculty to be anti-discpilinary. If a person’s work and interests fit neatly into a single discipline, then he encourages them to go study in that discipline and not come to the Media Lab. Instead, he is looking for people who are willing to live, think and work in those vast spaces between the disciplines. As Ito explained, “We find that the space between the disciplines is actually bigger than the space in the disciplines.” This resonated with me. After all, the disciplines are the places of tamed, tagged, and sorted thinking. Innovation on the edges is far from any of those things, hence it is arguably anti-disciplinary.

Of course, if we take anti-disciplinarity to its logical conclusion, it could be seen as challenge to much of established educational institutions, colleges and departments nicely labeled and organized with carefully built fences between them, often restricting what can be studied, how it can be studied, and who can or can’t teach. Anti-disciplinary is not just about building connections across disciplines (interdisciplinary) or even mastering and mixing multiple disciplines (multidisciplinary). This is about untamed learning. It is the distinction between visiting a lumber yard and wandering in the forest.

The Artist-Designer-Scientist-Engineer

Ito’s vision is not just to get artists, designers, scientists and engineers working together. He argued for learning that cultivates people who are all four of these, perhaps with one more prominent than the others, but all four are present. As explained by Ito, the artist is interested in art, not usefulness. The designer, however, is interested in problem-solving, solution-thinking. The scientist is driven to discover something new, often just for the sake of advancing scientific knowledge. And the engineer (having some similarities with the designer) is trying to figure out constraints and build something useful. As such, Ito argued for learning that helped people nurture each of these four ways of thinking and being.

Ito’s 9 Principles of Learning

Ito concluded his talk by sharing something that he keeps on the wall of his office, his principles of learning. He didn’t explain every one of them, but simply scanning this list is enough to prompt some wonderfully engaging conversations and thought experiments about education.

  1. Resilience over strength – Being and looking strong is one thing, but resilience is not just about being strong. It is about struggling, facing difficulty, bouncing back, and persevering.
  2. Systems over objects – Objects often mean very little apart from systems. So, why not start with the environment, contexts, and systems. From there we develop the objects.
  3. Disobedience over compliance – As Ito noted, “You don’t get a Nobel prize for doing what you’re told.” So, why don’t we find ways to encourage a bit more disobedience in learning environments. I think it is important to distinguish between disobedience and dishonor. I agree with Ito’s point, but I would frame us as needing to encourage humble disobedience, or maybe a mix of deep honor and daring disobedience.
  4. Pull over push – Ito said, “You can’t get serendipity unless you are looking around you and pulling.” Pushing is organizing/coordinating everything. “Really try to embrace serendipity and pull things together.”
  5. Compasses over maps – A map tells you where to go, but in a world of constant change, what if the continents shifted and you still found yourself using an old map? Instead, a compass helps us figure out where we are going even when the world around us is shifting. What are the implications for what and how we go about education? Is it possible that we are teaching students from maps that are increasingly outdated? How do we give them the tools to navigate life and learning in a constantly changing world?
  6. Emerging over authority – Authority has a place, but on the edges of innovation, it may fail us. That is where we need to hypothesize, imagine, and create…to reach out for or generate the emergent.
  7. Risk over safety – It isn’t just about being safe. If our goal is safety, then maybe we should all just stay in our houses. Instead, it is about nurturing the competence and confidence to take calculated risks.
  8. Practice over theory – Theory has a place, but if it doesn’t work in practice, what is the point? So, practice is where we discover what does and doesn’t work. From there we can revise, refine, change or create helpful theories.
  9. Learning over education – Ito explained how he uses the two terms. “Education is what the system does to us.” “Learning is what we do for ourselves.”

Ito’s keynote was an excellent start to what I hope to be a rich and rewarding gathering at Blackboard World 2014. I commend the company for investing in speakers who challenge things as they are in education, and who invite us to imagine new and promising possibilities for teaching and learning.