Something old, something new...

Commonly, the New Year is a time when we think of renewal, look forward to the future and anticipate what might be on the horizon. It's often 'out with the old and in with the new.' What might we expect in the world of education this new year? Globally, there is the potential for a great deal of change. There is also a lot of inertia. The two are incompatible. Somewhere in the middle of this tension sits the student, who is there to learn, despite sometimes being a political pawn in the game.

There are signs that a new learning ecology is emerging. As you will see, it arises largely from the interface between humans and their technology, and is mediated through their need to connect with each other. It is propagated within the digital habitus and amplified through the free sharing and repurposing of content. It rides on the back of the willingness of some maverick teachers to practise new forms of pedagogy where learning takes precedence over teaching, and where being a content expert is less important than being a co-learner with one's students.

'I don't believe education is about centralising instruction any more.... it's the process of establishing oneself as a node in a broad network of distributed creativity.' said MIT Media Lab's Joi Ito. In so doing, he described a juncture in educational history where some teachers have transgressed the age old boundaries laid down by traditional, realist educational philosophy.  These visionaries and mavericks have begun to establish new curricula where conversation becomes the conveyance and community becomes the subject as well as the recipient. Such teachers are considered radical, because they fly in the face of what many consider to be tried and tested methods.

One of the most important facets of the new ecology is the act of supporting personalised learning. There is a movement toward teaching and assessment that focuses on the needs of individuals. There is clearly tension between this stance and the constraints imposed upon state funded schools where massified education is conducted through the delivery of homogeneous content, teaching children by age group and standardised testing. Alternatively, personalised learning approaches are generally student centred, and where teachers take a supporting role in the process. Some personal learning approaches also enable learners to determine their own routes through education, and where assessment is process rather than product based. Personalised Learning Environments (or PLEs) are generally, but not exclusively, based upon each student's personal selection of personal devices, web tools and learning communities.

Another important component of the new ecology is the choice of progressive pedagogy. Teachers who elect to facilitate forms of pedagogy that involve learning by making will discover that less content is required, and that learning outcomes are generally much more open and unpredictable than those resulting for more formal, traditional lessons. Students tend to collaborate together more, and conduct more personal research than those who are engaged in traditional forms of education. Learning by inquiry and the solving of problems are major elements of this kind of education, and the learning tends to be deeper and more meaningful than didactic approaches. Students have a purpose for making and as they make, and as Phil Shapiro has pointed out: 'Teachers who incorporate making into their teaching are not at all interested in what their students are not able to do. They focus on what their students are able to do. They look for hidden talents and help uncover those talents.' 

Both of these approaches are heavily dependent on digital media and personal technologies. I intend to write more on the concept of new learning ecologies in future posts.

Photo by Ian on Flickr

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Something old, something new... by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Martin King said…
Its good to start each new year wit some optimism

Connected learning and maker learning for personal learning are all so refreshing and relevant to the 21st century.

The Smartphone is a powerful (even transformative) tool .. could be that in 2015 it starts to impact formal education .

But then again .. the flip side of every tech is that others will see it as a means for more standardisation, measurement and control .. the exam boards are already seeing this potential for more assessment .

Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks Martin, yes I see the danger. Like any innovation we need to guard against new tech being used inappropriately, especially for any purposes that remove the personal affordance which after all is the most powerful. I'm aware of the exam board aspirations, having recently sat in on a meeting that discussed this very issue. I know this though: As long as students have their own devices, they will continue to discover and use new ways to learn and discover.
Foke Satome said…
Making: I became a mathematician because my teacher found out I liked making things. Each Friday he gave me an equation in x, y and z to make into a cardboard surface (e.g. see Steiner's Roman Surface in Wikipedia).

Making: Mathematics, by its abstract nature, does not often lend itself to learning through making tangible things. However, mathematicians develop mental toolkits with which to construct mathematical objects and theories in their minds.

Personalised Learning: Disciplines that involve a professional expertise, such as medicine or engineering, require learners to master a canon of received knowledge. If learners want subsequently to practise, this puts severe constraints on the degree of freedom they have to control what they learn or how they learn it. Moreover, a subject like mathematics, being hierarchical, requires learners to acquire a body of knowledge, and conceptual and technical fluency at each stage before they can proceed to the next.

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