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Cheating the death of imagination: Teaching the unknowable

The idea of a Technological Singularity has been discussed and debated intensely since the early 1990s. Coined by Vernor Vinge and popularized by Ray Kurzweil, the idea is that as technologies evolve, technologies improve, costs decrease; and, in turn, the process of technological evolution advances and speeds itself up, creating a J-curve of exponential, accelerating change. Eventually, the J-curve hits an inflection point, and change begins to occur at timescales that seem nearly instantaneous. This is the Technological Singularity.

At Education Futures, in our work to help guide governments and organizations, we’ve looked hard at what this means to humans and human systems – in particular with regard to how we will learn and work in the future. In this frame, the Technological Singularity also represents the point at which change occurs so rapidly that the human mind cannot imagine what will happen next. Moreover, technological change facilitates social change (and vice-versa). We need to prepare for rapidly-occurring, intense periods of social, cultural, and economic transformation.

The Technological Singularity represents the limit of human imagination.

It is important to note that the J-curve of accelerating change is graphed independently of scale. There is not a standard measurement of change, and there is no measurement of time. We can look at illustrative examples for correlates, such as the growth of microprocessor computing power under Moore’s Law, but the idea of a Technological Singularity is subjective to the human experience.

Herein lies the rub: We are all very different. We have differing abilities to cope with change, to imagine new futures, to communicate, to solve problems, use resources wisely, and so forth. We cannot expect to experience ‘the’ Technological Singularity together. Rather, we should prepare to experience many individual singularities, as individuals, groups, and as a society. Depending on who we are and the contexts in which we are placed, we will hit the limits of our imagination – our singularities – at different times and under different circumstances. Industries are transforming (and disappearing!) at different rates and at different times, communities are shifting at independent and co-dependent paces, and individuals and families are under increasing pressure to stay relevant.

Humans are not afraid of change, but we fear the unknown. When we hit the limits of our imaginations, we push back toward the knowable, often with very ugly consequences. Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the state-sponsored fake news phenomenon, and the rise of slavery advocate Roy Moore in Alabama – all inconceivable a decade ago – serve as examples that humans are prone to a retreat toward bigotry, ignorance, and hate when confronted with uncertainty. Like the followers of Ned Ludd worked to sabotage the industrial movement in the 19th century, these socially regressive Neo-Luddites subvert technological change to regress society toward an imagined past, no matter how horrible, that presents themselves with a sense of certainty.

A community cannot progress technologically while sabotaging itself socially. While our singularities may be unavoidable, we can at least learn how to cope with them by learning to embrace the unknown. This, at the forefront, requires a tremendous amount of imagination and creativity from all of us.

Our schools, which are designed to prepare youth for static futures, need to be urgently repurposed to prepare all of society for the unknowable. Imagination, creativity, and innovation, together with support for greater agency and self-efficacy must underpin serious efforts to achieve meaningful outcomes for all learners. We must balance core content knowledge with soft skills such as simulational thinking, knowledge production, technology, intercultural communication, critical and multi-paradigmatic thinking, focused imagination, developed intuition, emotional intelligence, and systems design.

Are you ready to take the dive into teaching and learning for the unknowable? Continue on with our series on invisible learning:

 

An argument for testing: Does opting out matter?

As an educational leader, I have been asked why I choose not to opt my son out of high-stakes testing. It’s because I don’t care about the tests nor his scores. In fact, I don’t really care about any of the assessments nor grades he’s given in school, high-stakes or otherwise. I care much more about the skills my son is developing and the knowledge he is constructing; and that learning takes place within every aspect of his life (home, school, play, etc.). It simply cannot be measured through any sort of test.

Our students waste a lot of time in school (and with homework) complying with compulsory tasks that do nothing to develop within them the skills they’ll need as they make their way in this ever-shrinking world – testing included. Opting out of a few high-stakes tests won’t change that.

As educators, we need to be in the business of facilitating students’ construction of knowledge.

This can be done by modeling, guiding, mentoring, and purposively facilitating learning opportunities around critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, perseverance, exploration, reflection, and other soft skills WITHIN and THROUGH disciplinary content (e.g. social studies, science, health, math, language).

Unfortunately, our schools have devolved into places where information memorization is valued over knowledge construction, simply because while students’ retained information can be tested and quantified, their knowledge cannot.

2017: Year of the Mule

In previous postings over the New Year, I shared my predictions for the upcoming 365 days. It was always a mix of good ol’ prognostication with sprinkles of hope — and sometimes acknowledges the stagnation we experience with the slow pace of educational change. They always reflected progress: the central idea that we are building better futures. “Progress” in that we learn from our mistakes, try new things, and move forward. “Progress” in improving education for all of us. 2017 is different. This is the Year of the Mule.

By the Mule, I mean Donald Trump. Fans of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series will recognize the Mule as an anomaly – a tyrant, warlord, and manipulator. He is a wildcard, pushing unpredictability onto the fate of humanity.

I have had a hard time accepting the outcomes of the election in the U.S. I believe it can be argued that nothing is more political than education, and so it came as a big shock to me when Trump and a basket of extreme right-wingers were elected into office.

My first reaction was one of denial. Maybe I somehow crossed over in Star Trek’s mirror universe – you know, the one where Spock has an evil goatee. Where everybody is aggressive, mistrustful, and opportunistic. The universe that reflected the worst of what we could become as individuals and as a society1. Surely, I thought, an outcome like this would not be possible in my America.

But, it did, and that really upset me. How could this have happened? Why didn’t young people, who should care about their future, come out to vote? What did I do wrong? I was angry and frustrated, especially at myself for not doing better.

The election results dropped like an anvil. The presidency is being taken over by a narcissist, truly scary people were elected to Congress, and these people will approve Trump’s picks for his cabinet and the Supreme Court. There’s no room to bargain. This power grab will be swift and absolute.

And this makes me sad. It’s not about having ‘my people’ elected to office or having this ‘my way.’ This is about the decades of progress we have accomplished and the fundamental future of our country. I need to face the reality the dream of American Democracy is dead — or at least on hold for a while — in favor of an oligarchy. Donald Trump is appointing the wealthiest cabinet in history: They control more wealth than a third of the country. His nominee for the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is a billionaire who is hell-bent on dismantling public schools. She advocates for dismantling public education and supports programs that advocate for child labor as service to God. This is not 21st century education. This is not a reflection that we’ve learned from our past. This is not a reflection that the research we’ve conducted over the years have any value. This is a rollback to the 19th century.

It’s going to be rough for at least the next four years. Especially for those of us that work in or with our public schools. I want to be able to say, “it’s going to be okay.” But, I am having a hard time convincing myself. The territory we are entering is truly unknown — and not in a good way. In the hands of a narcissist, who indignantly chooses to go to war against a Broadway musical and a late night entertainment program instead of working on real issues, I cannot imagine how bad this real-life episode of Celebrity Apprentice will get.

The Year of the Mule will be frightfully unpredictable. With top leadership driven by narcissism, distrust of science, greed, and paranoia, hidden under a veil of nationalism, we can only fear for the worst for public education.

As Sen. Paul Wellstone said, “we all do better when we all do better.”

We will continue to create quality research. We will continue to have bold conversations. We will continue to share what we’ve learned. We will work twice as hard to ensure better education futures for all. We will continue to develop new approaches to research, organizational planning, and building a collective capacity to transform learning. We will advocate for all kids.

The Sun will rise again.

Bob Dylan and the genius of context

When I woke up this morning, I was delighted to learn Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” For those of us in Minnesota, still mourning the loss of Prince, this was a welcomed surprise that feels healing, both culturally and spiritually.

I’ve been watching the University of Minnesota’s twitter feed closely. Dylan went to the University of Minnesota when his career was forming, and the University always lets us know immediately anytime anybody connected with the institution wins a Nobel Prize. If they had their way, they’d have us believe that the sun would not rise without them!

But not this time. It took them until just before 11am to make the announcement. And, it was distant, if not cautious:

Why such an innocuous statement this time? Well, history records that Dylan dropped out after just a few semesters; he was successful without the University.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the University of Minnesota – or, the “U” as we affectionately call it. I got my Ph.D. there, and started off my academic career at the Twin Cities campus. But I think there is a crucial lesson to be learned:

Genius is not created by the institution; genius is fostered by the context in which the institution interfaces with the community.

Dylan’s career started not at the University, but across the street in the Dinkytown district of Minneapolis. Dinkytown was eclectic: a zone for free thought, open expression, independent businesses, and a food and bar scene that catered to students, faculty, and staff. The University attracted people in, but it was the music scene of the adjoining neighborhood that helped to propel him and get a start in his career.

After a year at the “U,” he moved to Greenwich Village in New York, and the rest is history.

And the University remains. It’s churned out a few Nobel laureates along the way, but I fear that we will see fewer creatives, like Dylan, emerge. The reason is simple: the context is being destroyed.

The University of Minnesota, like nearly every other institution, has learned that higher education is a big business. This extends not just to research and teaching, but also to the University’s presence in the community. It comes as no surprise that the “U” has been a major player in the redevelopment of Dinkytown. Small, older buildings that once housed its creative scene are being replaced with monotonous, monolithic apartment buildings, chain stores, and generic fast food options. Freewheeling politics, art, and other cultural expressions are being replaced by unimaginative configurations of concrete, steel, and glass.

The context for fostering genius is vanishing. I’m sure many more Nobel laureates connected with our beloved “U” will be announced in the coming years, but there will be no other Bob Dylan emerging from the University without an interface for creativity.

Why Pokémon Go and Minecraft in the classroom are very bad ideas

It’s “back to school” season in the United States and Europe, and the social media universe is ablaze with ideas on how to harness the Pokémon Go craze in the classroom. Some examples:

Global skills? Critical learning? This all sounds wonderful … except that it is not.

When forced upon students by schools, technologies that encourage play rapidly lose their appeal. We’ve seen this before, with examples of how Minecraft can be brought into classrooms to meet Common Core Reading standards, among others. And, these activities, it can be argued, simply ruin a student’s love of Minecraft.

Minecraft and Pokémon Go are built around ideas of free play (play without direction). These are digital expressions of a natural human activity where invisible learning flourishes. Through play, children discover their interests and aptitudes. Play inspires curiosity to test boundaries and learn social rules and norms, together with the development of many soft skills.

In Minecraft, kids build what is of interest to them, fight off creepers, play games with others through mods, and experiment with new ideas. These activities can be done individually or in groups. Learning happens all the time, and because the sandbox world encourages exploration, it is optimized for free play.

Similarly, Pokémon Go encourages kids to engage in free exploration within their communities. They may meet other players, create new social rules, build new friendships, etc. The game provides a framework for new social experiences, but what is learned from it are hard to quantify. What happens, for example, when children engage with people from cultures beyond their own? What do they discover? How does it change them? What new approaches or activities might they create? What skills, competencies, or insights might they develop? This is learning beyond any core curricula.

These games do not belong in classrooms. They are frameworks that place trust in kids to develop their own skills and knowledge. They trust kids to learn what is important to them in ways that are meaningful for them.

The purpose of controlling an educational experience is to make learning visible. It is built on distrust of the learner. Connecting pedagogies of distrust with games such as Pokémon Go or Minecraft creates a disharmony between a realm of free play and control that is not dissimilar to the experience of looking at a beautiful garden from a prison cell.

The Theory for Invisible Learning is that we learn more, and do so invisibly, when we separate structures of control that restrict freedom and self-determination from learning experiences.

If we want to enable invisible learning through technologies, we have to enable trust and reduce the amount of control over learning experiences. Stop using technology to control learning experiences. Stop using technology to create pre-determined learning outcomes. Stop expecting kids to love learning the same old stuff just because we’ve hijacked their favorite games.

The bottom line is learning through these platforms must be centered on trust, and trusting that children always learn — no matter what. It is time for educators to take charge, and look at how we can develop technologies to open ecologies of student-lead learning through invisible approaches. We need to control less, and attend to student learning more.

Lessons from the toilet II: Captive audience

As teachers, we often do not have control over what we must teach. But, we do have some control over how students engage in learning.

This story has an unusual opening. Upon shutting the bathroom stall door at a college campus I was recently visiting, I was greeted by a framed poster of information and upcoming university events called the Captivated Audience Notice (CAN). I’ve seen this method of communication before, titled the Toilet Tribune, the Potty Press, and other clever monikers. But, this particular version irritated me.

Captivate, as defined by the Cambridge Dictionary, means to hold the attention of someone by being extremely interesting, exciting, charming, or attractive. Allow me to assure you, none of the information presented on that poster was more than mildly interesting, and it was certainly neither exciting, charming, nor attractive — mainly because it was all irrelevant to me.

In my opinion, a better title for this series of posters would be the “Captive Audience Notice”. While I was not truly a prisoner in the stall, I definitely did not have a choice in whether to use the bathroom, and no real option to escape once I entered the stall. The only choice I had was whether to focus my attention on the poster. My willingness to read the poster stemmed more from the novelty of its placement in the bathroom stall, a location where there was nothing else to capture my attention for the few moments I spent there attending to other matters, than because I was curious about its content. I have absolutely no recollection of what was printed there. It merely served as something to occupy my mind in a situation where I was momentarily held captive by my body’s needs.

This got me thinking. How does the idea of captive versus captivated translate into classrooms? Are our students treated as prisoners prohibited from escaping under the guise of teaching them? Or, are we cultivating experiences that are extremely interesting, exciting, charming, or attractive to hold their attention to facilitate their learning? How often do students attend to something that is irrelevant or uninteresting, simply because they have no choice but to be in the classroom and once there, nothing else for them to do? How often are students’ curiosities piqued by something at school that is so exciting, they can’t help but pay attention? Are they being held captive by teaching or are they being captivated by learning?

A popular meme that appeared on my social media feeds lately shows the Most Interesting Man in the World accompanied by the following text: “I don’t always care about my grade, but when I do it’s at the end of the semester and even though I didn’t do all of the assignments, I’ll ask for extra credit now.”

It’s always presented as a shared experience for teachers to commiserate with one another in a light-hearted manner. But… wait… what if, instead, the meme read, “I don’t always care about learning what my teacher decides is important, but when I do it’s because I’m curious about the topic and decide I want to know more, not because I’m being bribed with points and a grade.”

because i am curious

To me, this seems far more representative of the actual, underlying issue here. And, it certainly paints students in a better light, though not so much the teachers who would prefer to blame them for their lack of attention, motivation, and engagement in assignments that are neither personally relevant nor representative of what is expected of them as modern citizens in our society.

Why do we resort to using points as bribes for compliance? Why do we blame students for not engaging with what we attempt to force them to learn when lessons are designed to fit standards rather than facilitate student growth toward personal learning goals based on individual interests and aptitudes?

As a part of my job, I am required to attend specific professional development opportunities. These are workshops or programs others have chosen for me based on what they believe to be important learning for a person in my role. Some of them are indeed relevant and interesting to me both personally and professionally; many (if not most) are not. Luckily, I also have a few opportunities (though, not many) to select my own options for professional development based on my interests, aptitudes, abilities, and self-assessed needs for growth within my role.

Can you guess which opportunities directly impact my personal growth and professional practice because I engage in and learn from them? Can you guess which opportunities I spend disengaged, either talking with those around me or focused on my laptop, working on activities that are more personally and professionally relevant to me? Can you guess which opportunities I am excited to attend and those I dread?

I theorize that students who are held captive by teacher-driven, teacher-centered, unengaging, uninteresting, and irrelevant content deal with their forced captivity in one of three ways: misbehavior, compliance, or a mix of both.

Students who misbehave are disruptive. They talk to each other. They bother other kids. They get up to go to the bathroom when they do not need to go. They sharpen their pencils until all that is left is a tiny, sharp point and an eraser (and then they sharpen the eraser). They doodle. They text their friends. They sing. They tap their pencils as if playing a drum solo in a heavy metal band. They hold a pencil between their thumb and forefinger and wave it up and down so it appears to bend. They make funny noises. They stare out the window. They think about what they plan to do when class is over. They interrupt the teacher. They daydream. They watch the clock. They post on social media. They ask questions that were already addressed. They frustrate the teacher.

I, myself, am guilty of many of these behaviors when faced with being forced to “learn” content someone else has selected for me. How about you?

Conversely, compliant students follow the rules. They stay in their assigned seats. They remain silent during work time. They use their time wisely. They make pretty posters. They diligently take notes. They follow all directions. They listen the first time. They memorize. They copy from the board. They develop flashy slide shows. They repeat facts. They do what they are told.

My hunch is that the these compliant students are mostly comprised of rule-followers who do what they are told because it is how they were taught to “play school.” They may be motivated by praise, points, and grades, but they are not engaged in learning. They likely get very little out of what is being taught; thus, although their behavior may be preferable because it is easier for teachers to manage, their learning is no better than that of their misbehaving peers.

While it may seem like the ideal classroom situation to have rows of dutiful students, silently listening, scribbling down notes, following directions, memorizing information, and repeating facts, in reality, these students are held captive by teaching. The students who comply do so because there is nothing else to attend to.

In my experience, when people are captivated by what they are learning, they behave appropriately (and by this I mean fittingly, according to the learning situation) simply because they are interested in a topic that is of personal relevance. They are excited and motivated to learn more. They identify what is important enough to learn and what is not. They decide the best way to do the learning. They determine their own modes through which to make their learning visible to others. They determine whether to make their learning visible to others. They explore new avenues of learning just to learn more. They seek out new resources. If a prerequisite skill exists that must be attained in order to facilitate their learning, they will master that, too. And, they stop learning about something that is no longer of interest to them and move on to the next topic.

Being truly captivated by learning is hard work! No matter the topic, it requires creativity, reflection, determination, problem solving, collaboration, critical thinking, self-assessment, perseverance, and the transfer and translation of knowledge into new situations.

These are the kinds of skills our students deserve to have as they leave our school systems. These are the kinds of skills their potential employers will be requiring. These are the kinds of skills people need to succeed, no matter the path they choose. And, as educators, it is our job to provide them with opportunities to develop these skills.

How do we really want to educate? Do we want compliant students who either do what they are told or misbehave because they are held captive by teacher-driven, teacher-focused instruction? Or, are we willing to facilitate students’ captivation in their own learning?

As teachers, we often do not have control over what we must teach. But, we do have some control over how students engage in learning.

If we want our students to leave school with the requisite skills necessary for success along any path they choose, we must provide them with opportunities to think for themselves and make decisions about what is important to learn and when and how to do the learning. Only then will students truly be captivated by their learning and not held captive by our teaching.

Lessons from the toilet: Shifting the focus of education back to the learner

learning = the activity of getting knowledge
value = importance, worth, or benefit

(Definitions from the Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary)

Consider a recent time you wanted to learn something:

  • How did you know you needed more information?
  • What was your process for “getting knowledge?”
  • How did you know you were finished learning; that you had learned enough?
  • What was the value of this learning to you?

A few months ago, water began gushing from my toilet tank when it was flushed. In response, I inspected every inch of the toilet. I loosened and tightened bolts. I poked, pulled, pushed, plugged, and pounded on it. I searched the Internet for gushing toilets and possible “do it yourself” ways to fix them. I read articles. I looked at step-by-step directions with pictures. I watched videos on YouTube. I went to the home-improvement store and consulted with experts. When I attempted the actual repair, I used a guide I found on the Internet, I re-watched one of the videos of a plumber making a similar repair, and I went back to the home-improvement store for additional supplies and advice. After several hours of research and application of my new learning, my toilet was fixed! Proud of my success, I posted the experience on Facebook. As luck would have it, one of my friends was a general contractor who knew more about plumbing than I did. He offered some additional advice to prevent future leaks, which I immediately implemented. Several months later, the toilet is still leak-free and I feel the self-satisfaction of having learned how to repair it successfully.

I have the opportunity to interact with children in K-12 public school classrooms on a regular basis. When asked about learning, students typically only consider experiences they have within the context of the structured school setting. They know what to learn because their teacher tells them it’s important; their process for learning is to follow the instructions provided by the teacher; they know they’re finished learning when they’ve satisfied the teacher’s objectives and are told they’re done; the value of the learning is the final grade given by the teacher.

At a recent visit to a middle school in Wisconsin, I met a pair of 7th grade boys. I observed them silently reading and taking notes out of a shared textbook for approximately 10 minutes during science class before approaching them.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Learning how to use a microscope,” one responded. There were no microscopes anywhere in the classroom that I could see.

“I wonder if there is another way to learn how to use a microscope. What do you think?”

Puzzled, they looked at one another, glanced at the whiteboard where the “Daily Objective” was clearly printed, and after a long pause, one hesitantly guessed, “Maybe we could try using one?”

Their responses to further questions I posed about learning were very similar to those described in the previous paragraph. When I suggested they might broaden their thinking about where, when, how, and with whom learning might take place, they became quite animated and excited to share their authentic learning experiences with Minecraft.

According to these boys, they play Minecraft because they like it and it is fun. They seek out opportunities to learn more about what they can do within the game because they want to be able to play and build better things. They learn by playing, watching videos, and asking friends. They know they’re finished learning when they feel they successfully accomplished what they set out to do, or they determine they are no longer interested in continuing with that particular learning. Often, they are so excited about what they’ve created within the game, they share their successes through recording and sharing videos on YouTube so others can learn from their experiences. When I asked if they needed a teacher to tell them they had satisfactorily completed the learning and assign a grade to represent their knowledge of Minecraft skills and techniques, they laughed.

“The value of school learning is the grade, while the value of learning done outside of school is what the learner places on it.”

When we are interested in something or recognize a personal need for information, we seek out learning opportunities and continue gathering information until we’ve satisfied our curiosities and learned enough. We have developed skills, strategies, and resources for learning; and when we determine we need to seek out additional sources of information, we do.

When I first asked these boys about the kinds of learning they do at home, their responses were framed around homework assigned by their teachers. Like many other students with whom I interact, it didn’t occur to them that what they’re doing when they develop their Minecraft abilities is learning. The difference for these students in learning done at school and learning done at home, is value. The value of school learning is the grade, while the value of learning done outside of school is what the learner places on it (e.g., fun, personal satisfaction, or function).

The following questions are often used to frame teachers’ thinking as they develop lesson and unit plans:

  • What do you want the students to know and be able to do (i.e., what is the standard/objectives)?
  • What activities or learning tasks will you design for students to complete?
  • How will you monitor students’ progress on these learning tasks as they move toward mastering the standard/objectives?
  • How will students prove they’ve mastered the standard/objectives?

What’s the difference between these questions and the questions I posed above?

Learner focus.

Using my original questions, learners design their own experiences to satisfy self-developed curiosities, desires, and needs. Using the teacher-developed questions, mandatory learning is decided by someone else and forced upon learners regardless of their curiosities, desires, and needs.

The real question then becomes, can we shift the focus of learning at school back to the learner? As educators, we owe it to our students to trust their abilities to identify topics of interest, develop and engage in their own tasks and activities to support knowledge gathering, and recognize when they’ve learned enough to thoroughly satisfy their curiosities. This is how people create personally-meaningful value in their learning. In reality, the skills and strategies those 7th grade boys use in attaining and applying Minecraft knowledge transfer to other areas of Minecraft, to other games, and to other situations, including (should they be curious about these topics) fixing toilets and using microscopes.