DML 2012: Audacious Goals for Transforming Learning

Saturday, March 03, 2012 at 12:46 pm
Jennifer Dick's picture

Diana Rhoten of Startl kicked off the MacArthur Foundation's DML 2012 conference in San Francisco on March 1st with a bold challenge: have audacious goals. For this group of practitioners, researchers, and other interested stakeholders, pushing for rich learning experiences that allow learners to explore, create, experiment, iterate, and collaborate, we have to be audacious: for all of the fawning over Finland's and Singapore's educational successes (where testing is far less frequent and is used to facilitate student learning, not punish schools), our educational policy is still clutching standardized tests and back-to-basics drill-and-kill pedagogies--despite the fact that research tells us these are not effective practices.

This failure to engage young people in their learning doesn't just register as various statistically significant outcomes research: we hear it reverberate through drop-out rates, number of incoming college freshmen having to take remedial math and English courses, and young people who lack the skills they need to find employment in this incredibly competitive job market. These three days are full of sessions addressing the finer points of motivation research and the most effective ways (and different ways!) to employ badges; how to make learners active participants and decision makers in their own education; how to use quantitative and qualitative data from social learning networks to communicate how learners use online tools to further the conversation; and much more.

As a former high school teacher, I've been a bit wary of John Seely Brown's educational philosophies. Not because I think he's wrong, but because of the logistics involved in trying to make such self-directed learning work for every child given public education's ever-shrinking resources. Such learning experiences seem to belong to the wealthy who can afford the low teacher-student ratio required. I'm a sympathetic skeptic: I'd love to drink the Kool-Aid, but I'm concerned about the number and price of available glasses. 

His opening remarks Thursday acknowledged these concerns, especially scalability. While he didn't have any answers (yet), he did have some interesting examples of online and digital media phenomena educators can look to for inspiration. It's not a simple problem, so it's understandable that there are no simple solutions, but if we seek to "create an arc of life learning that scales," its something we all need to think about.

Seely Brown also spoke to the need for us (learners, educators) to participate in "information flows," explaining that this is "an act of sport, ... constantly creating the new...in a state of flux." This is part of being an "entrepreneurial learner," which Seely Brown characterizes as one who is "able to look around, see information, and have ideas for how to use it." Entrepreneurial learners know not only the importance of contexts in knowledge construction and understanding information, but they create contexts in which to curate the information they want to communicate. Seely Brown says they understand what David Weinberger argues in Too Big to Know, that they know knowledge has moved out of books and into networks, that boundaries are always changing, and nothing is absolute.

Seely Brown notes that we're "moving from 'learning to belong' to 'belonging to learn,'" and that we need to reintroduce play into the classroom--play being characterized as "permission to fail over and over until you get it right, as imagination, and as epiphany." Play is one of three core epistemologies in Seely Brown's model: knowing, making, and playing. Through "tinkering," learners use critical thinking skills to troubleshoot solutions, knowledge, and application. Our current model of public education puts most of its emphasis on the knowing, and less on making (and almost none on play). By balancing the focus on all three nodes, we will nurture more balanced learners.

I think more educators than some might think would be on board and game in trying to make new learning work in formal school settings, instead of it living only in semi-formal and informal spaces. But educators aren't operating in a vacuum: sadly, I haven't met any principals or district officers at the conference yet. The issue of depoliticizing education and letting teachers do what research and practice tells us works via policy support hasn't been addressed yet. I look forward to it entering the conversation.

Watch John Seely Brown's keynote here.