Learning versus schooling

Beyond Couch Potatoes.

Beyond “Couch Potatoes”: From Consumers to Designers and Active Contributors by Gerhard Fischer

The fundamental challenge for computational media is to contribute to the invention and design of cultures in which humans can express themselves and engage in personally meaningful activities. Cultures are substantially defined by their media and tools for thinking, working, learning, and collaborating. New media change (1) the structure and contents of our interests; (2) the nature of our cognitive and collaborative tools; and, (3) the social environment in which thoughts originate and evolve, and mindsets develop.

Unfortunately, a large number of new media are designed from the perspective of seeing and treating humans primarily as consumers. In personally meaningful activities, the possibility for humans to be and to act as designers (in cases in which they desire to do so) should be accessible not only to a small group of “high-tech scribes,” but rather to all interested individuals and groups. While the core message of the article applies to cultures, mindsets, media, technologies, and educational systems in general, my examples are mostly drawn from computational media, and more specifically from human computer interaction as a particular domain. [Gerhard Fischer] [via David Carter-Tod]

Gerhard Fischer is associate director of the Center for Lifelong Learning and Design (L3D) at University of Colorado at Boulder. This group is doing very interesting projects. I have been following their publications since 1999. Fischer’s focus is on “computational support of self-directed learning”. If I remember correctly I came across Frontier and Manila because of a project that was carried out by the group of Gerhard Fischer. I think it was called DynaSites… or something like that. So, if I wanted to create a BlogTree for my Weblogs, I would have to put the Center for Lifelong Learning and Design (L3D) right on the top. [Sebastian Fiedler]

[Seblogging News]

Following the bread crumbs back to L3D, I started poking around. Looks like a great new resource.

In one of Fischer’s presentations I discovered the following bit of negative feedback from an anonymous student:

I will not ever take a course of this nature again in my undergraduate career, and I hope to find a more structured graduate program with an adviser that is more forthcoming. I will reinforce my strengths by continuing to study in the method that I have developed over the past 15 years. I will redirect my weaknesses by avoiding unstructured class environments.

First, kudos to Fischer for sharing both positive and negative reactions to his work. More importantly, however, I wanted to react to the assumptions reflected in this bit of anonymous complaint because it’s symptomatic of an important distinction between schools and learning that’s caused me trouble as I’ve increasingly focused on the latter.

The more I learn about learning the more I discover how little most school and formal teaching/training environments are organized to promote learning. This isn’t new news, of course (see John Taylor Gatto’s or Roger Schank’s work for particularly strong views against formal education environments, for example). On the other hand, this news isn’t especially widespread. The “average” citizen may care about good schools, but hasn’t thought very much about how schools and learning connect. When and if they do, they seem to end up asking for some idealized vision of what they think school was like when they were in it.

DIGRESSION: When I was at Diamond, I helped create the training function there. I worked with Roger Schank and also with Tim Gallwey of Inner Game fame. I had Tim present his work at one of our All Hands meetings and he asked the group of about 300 at the time to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being highest) on how expert they felt they were about learning. The group average was about 7, I gave myself a 4, and Tim rated himself a 3.

I try to think in terms of setting up conditions that will contribute to better learning. That often leads to doing things that don’t look much like conventional classes or lectures and may not look like I’m doing very much in the mix. In the short term, this leads to reactions like the ones Fischer reports above. If you do it right, however, and can stay with it, you do have people coming back to you later to thank you. On the other hand, it is a very high risk strategy in most environments. Far easier to give the customers what they think they want.

I’m not making claims that I have this all figured out yet. Tenure isn’t the answer because by the time you’ve worked the system to that point, you’re likely to have forgotten what’s wrong with the system. If you’re lucky you land in one of the handful of institutions that get it and support it. One of the wonderful things about the blogging world is how it helps connect you to a larger universe of folks who are more interested in learning than schooling.

Learning and Community

Article : Learning is a Community Experience : By …. Article : Learning is a Community Experience : By Adele Goldberg – “Perhaps it is obvious – you do not learn alone, but you do take responsibility for your own education. (14-pages, 206 KB PDF)
* Go to Learning is a Community Experience, published in the July/August 2002 edition of the Journal of Object Technology [SynapShots]

Adele was one of the creators of the Smalltalk programming language. She worked at Xerox PARC with Alan Kay and later became the CEO of ParcPlace Systems where she worked to commercialize object-oiented technologies. This article contains her reflections on introducing object-oriented technologies and thinking to the technology world. Lots of good material.

I was struck by this definition of an educated person:

We think that an educated person is one who knows a little about a lot, and a lot about some focused subject area – one who reads broadly so is conversant on many topics, but one who holds his or her tongue when the hard data is not there to back up the inclination of that tongue.

Wouldn’t the world be a nicer place if more of us took that advice to heart?

Some other excerpts:

learning on your own is preposterously hard given the quantity of new material regularly generated. Both filtering and selection techniques have to be taught so as to be able to focus without losing sight of the intellectually stimulating neighborhoods that surround any focus of attention.

Here is a small experiment to try when in a room with a group of 10-30 people.

Step 1. First, ask each individual to decide whether the group should consider the individual to be an expert in object technology. If you are an expert, then signal (by standing up) and remaining standing. (Note definition of “expert” vs proficient professional or virtuoso as defined by Peter Denning in the August 2001 issue of the CACM.)

Step 2. The non-experts, those who did not stand up, should find an expert to be physically near (they should physically leave their seats and move near the expert so as to be able to converse).

Step 3. Each non-experts should think about a question that relates to object technology, one whose answer the non-expert does not know and that is a reason why he or she is not to be considered an expert. Ask this question of the expert near you.

Step 4. If the expert was asked a question he or she could not answer, could the expert now designate himself or herself to be a non-expert and look for an expert who has the answer? After finding an answer, the individual can decide whether to stand up again as an expert.

An interesting outcome of this experiment is that, ultimately everyone designates him- or herself as a non-expert at some time in the process, with minor exception. And the exception is typically a developer who, although acknowledged to be an expert, can always find an unknown as a learning challenge but who, in the context of the experiment, was not stumped

Although, Goldberg’s focus is on object-oriented technology, her observations apply to learning and knowledge management issues in other settings as well.

Finally, I have to share one other comment from the article for those of us who have been afflicted with the programming bug at some point or other in our careers.

my colleague David Leibs likes to joke: programming is a personality disorder that you can test for