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The Singularity and schools: An interview with Vernor Vinge

Note: An mp3 of this interview is available for download.

Last week, I spoke with Vernor Vinge [Wikipedia | website], a retired San Diego State University professor of mathematics. He is better known as a five-time Hugo Award-winning science fiction author. His works include True Names, Fast Times at Fairmont High, and Rainbows End. Most importantly, his 1993 essay “The Coming Technological Singularity,” argues that accelerating technological change will bring about the end of the human era as we know it, and that the world will become so complex and foreign to human observers, it will be impossible to predict what will happen next.

Ray Kurzweil and others have since contributed to the popularization of the Singularity, but the conversation has been centered on technological determinism. In a world that is consumed by accelerating change, what are the implications for systems that are at risk of being outpaced — namely, human systems? And, what are the implications for how we will learn and work in the near future?

Vinge:

I got this sort of vision where the human workplace is scattered in both space and time, and for a single career, it’s not a merely a matter of changing your career every couple years, it’s a matter of actually changing your point of attention on smaller time scales.

What can science fiction tell us about our future?

According to Vinge, a lot. He helped introduce the cyberpunk genre in the early with his 1981 Novel, true Names. He says, “the technological situation we have now is very similar to what was described in True Names, which actually was implicitly targeted in the year 2014,” but much of that can be attributed to pure luck.

The future authors of the genre have envisioned, he argues, has emerged today as a mix of expected and unexpected dystopian and hopeful elements. Society of today, he believes, has not changed much since the early 1980s. Corporate dominance in government, for example, is still at the same level as it was before, and our views on technology shifted since 1984:

Before the year 1984, people generally looked at computers the way George Orwell did in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. After 1984, people had these great visions of computers freeing the people from tyrannies, and that is still a real possibility… and it is a possibility that has come true in large parts of the world. But, I would say the jury is still out as to what the ultimate effectiveness of computers and communication automation favors tyranny or favors liberty. I’m putting my bets on liberty, but I would say it’s not an obvious win in either direction.

It’s been nearly 20 years since the Singularity was introduced at the NASA VISION-21 Symposium. What’s changed?

I’m still where I was in my 1993 essay that I gave at a NASA meeting, and that is that I define the Technological Singularity as being our developing, through technology, superhuman intelligence — or becoming, ourselves, superhuman intelligent through technology. And, I think calling that the Singularity is actually a very good term in the sense of vast and unknowable change. A qualitatively different sort of change than technological progress in the past.

He still believes four pathways could lead to the development of the Singularity by 2030:

  1. The development of computers that are “awake” and superhumanly intelligent.
  2. Large computer networks (and their associated users) may “wake up” as a superhumanly intelligent entity.
  3. Computer/human interfaces may become so intimate that users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent.
  4. Biological science may find ways to improve upon the natural human intellect.

When asked which one is more likely, he hinted that he sees a digital Gaia of networks plus people emerging:

The networked sum of all the embedded microprocessors in all our devices becomes a kind of digital Gaia. That qualifies, as an ensemble, as a superhuman entity. That is probably the weirdest of all possibilities because, if anything, it looks like animism. And, sometimes I point to it when I want to make the issue that this can be very strange. I think that actually the networking of embedded microprocessors is going like gangbusters. The network that is the Internet plus humanity, that is also going with extraordinarily surprises, if you just look at the successes in the various schemes that go by names like crowdsourcing. To me, those have been astounding, and should give people real pause with how to use the intellectual resources actually that we have out there. So far, we do not have a single computer that is really of human-level intelligence, and I think that is going to happen. But, it is a kind of an amazing thing that we have an installed base of seven billion of these devices out there.

What does this mean for schools?

Vinge believes talking about post-Singularity situations in education are impractical. In theory, is impossible for us to predict or comprehend what will happen, so we should not focus our attention on worrying about post-Singularity futures. Rather, we should focus on the ramp-up toward the Singularity, our unique talents, and how we can network together to utilize them in imaginative ways:

Talking about the run-up to the Singularity makes sense for several different reasons. One is, we have to get through it. The other is that it is our opportunity, as the chief players… it’s our opportunity to make things turn out safely and happily. In the meantime, at just the level of just getting one’s job done, I think there are real changes that are going to be happening in education and more broadly in training issues. I think one thing that is going to become more-and-more evident is the fact that we have seven billion people out there who are variously good … very good … at different things. And, there are ways of enhancing and amplifying that by collaboration. And, when I say “collaboration” […] it is a very good thing. But, if you look at some of the group mind projects and crowdsourcing projects, there is very great imagination that can be exercised in making collaboration effective. One thing is to interface people who have very different skills — that can actually be helped a lot by the network.

When dealing with unknown futures, it remains unknown how to prepare people best for these futures. He states that the best pathway involves teaching children “to learn how to learn” (a key theme in Fast Times at Fairmont High), and that we need to encourage the development of positive futures by attending to diversity in our learning systems. We need to not facilitate the formation of diverse students, but we also need to abandon a monoculture approach to education and attend to a diverse ecology of options in teaching and evaluation.

Most importantly, to meet the individual needs of students, he believes, we need to focus on “shifting the emphasis from intense attention to process and having the process of the teaching right … shifting that attention to having independent rating agencies that are not so much interested in process as they are in giving reliable rating information to people who have to judge the results of the money that is being spent on the education.”

Rethinking human capital development in Knowmad Society

Note: This text is adapted from the original Spanish-language text that I wrote for the first Chapter 1 in Invisible Learning (a book co-written with Cristóbal Cobo). An updated and expanded version of this text will also appear in the next volume, Knowmad Society, due for release later in 2012, and is being shared early to ignite discussion for the upcoming On the Horizon special issue on “Borderless Society.” (The call for papers is still open.)

This working paper presents a framework for conceptualizing changes in society, driven by the forces of globalization, transformations of knowledge society, and accelerating change. The framework is centered on three social paradigms, which Moravec (2008c) labels “Society 1.0,” “Society 2.0,” and “Society 3.0” — expressed as Industrial Society, Knowledge Society, and Knowmad Society. Society 1.0 reflects the norms and practices of pre-industrial to industrial civilization. Society 2.0 refers to the radical social transformations that we are experiencing today, largely due to technological change. The 3.0 or Knowmad Society points to a state of society that is in our near future, where accelerating technological change is projected to have huge transformative consequences. This text considers the human capital development consequences and necessary transformations in education to meet the needs of a rapidly transforming society, and looks into some of the challenges facing Knowmad Society in an era of accelerating change.

The paradoxical co-existence of “Education 1.0” in “Society 3.0”

Society 1.0

Society 1.0 refers to the agricultural to industrial-based society that was largely present through the 18th century through the end of the 20th century. In the early portion of this period, economic activity was centered on family-based enterprises. Children learned at home, and children worked at home. Kids and adults were engaged cross-generationally. Not only were children valuable contributors to the economy at all levels, but adults and kids learned from each other. This paradigm facilitated “learning by doing,” which was formally adopted by organizations such as 4-H, which embraced the principle that if you teach youth ideas and skills, they would, in turn, teach their parents (4-H, 2010).

The rise of the industrial economy saw growth in wage and salary-based enterprises. Kids began to work at low-level, and often dangerous jobs, until they were segregated from the workplace to maintain their welfare. Thus also began the industrialization of education, where, separated from the primary production economy, children were placed into an institutional mechanism where kids learned skills from adults (and not vice-versa), and eventually emerged from the system as “educated,” young adults, immediately employable for the industrial economy.

In Society 1.0, we interpreted data – leading to the information age. By and large, our relationships were hierarchical. That is, was easy to tell how we related with each other. Companies had reporting structures that were easy to decipher. And, we had siloed jobs and roles within organizations and communities. Moreover, we did everything we could to avoid chaos and ambiguity.Leading toward the end of the 20th century, this model worked fine. It was easy to understand. It was easily operationalized. And, it benefitted from an education system that produced workers for the industrial-modeled economy.

By the end of the 20th century, the industrialization of education and proliferation of meritocratic academic structures in the 1.0 paradigm all but eliminated the recognition of “learning by doing.” Moreover, this evolved norm generally provided socioeconomic advantages for those that successfully navigated the industrialized meritocracy (better jobs, better pay) than those who avoided it or did not survive the system .

Society 2.0

The appearance of Society 2.0 is associated with the emergence of the knowledge society that materialized in the 20th century (see esp. Drucker, 1969, 1985). Information needed to be interpreted, necessitating the creation of knowledge workers. However, as Polyani (1968) explains, the nature of knowledge, itself, is personal and is composed of tacit and explicit components. They combine in the creation of personally-constructed meanings that defy the absolute objectivity of Society 1.0’s industrial information model. Moreover, as social animals, humans engage in social networking activities and share their personal knowledge across ever complex systems. This growing ecosystem of personally-constructed meanings and values facilitated the creation of the field of knowledge management in the latter half of the 20th century, which attempted to manage the new elements of chaos and ambiguity related to personal knowledge that were inputted into organizational systems.

Advances in information and communications technologies (ICTs) facilitated the broadened production of socially-constructed meanings. Many of these advancements are made possible through the convergence of the Internet (which has become the symbol for all things networking – personal and technological) and globalization, opening potentials for globally-aware and globally-present social networks. Tools that harness ICTs are being used not only to share ideas, but also to create new interpretations. A few scholars (see, for example, Mahiri, 2004) recognize this a “cut-and-paste” culture. One potent example of this cultural shift is hip-hop, which remixes and reuses sounds, lyrics, and imagery to create new meanings that are as much unique and individual to the hip-hop artist as the creator and the original source works. Other examples include the products of “Web 2.0” tools (see esp. Cobo Romaní & Pardo Kuklinski, 2007, for a detailed list and discussion) that allow individuals to harness new social networks to remix and share ideas and media (e.g., blogs, wikis, and YouTube).

The mass availability of these tools also allows everyday people to participate in an expanded array of vocations and citizen engagement. For example, tools such as blogs, Twitter and YouTube allow for the formation of citizen journalists, who are able to directly compete with mainstream media at a miniscule fraction of the cost that mainstream media needs to develop and deliver content . The technologies also allow for the formation of citizen scientists. By donating computing processing time, non-scientifically trained individuals can search for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI@Home project), search for a cure for cancer (Folding@Home), and examine stellar particles retrieved from space (Stardust@Home). Likewise, the Audubon Society has long relied on its social network of professional and amateur birdwatchers to generate a statistically accurate estimate of birds within a given area. Furthermore, technologies allow for the greater democratization of markets, creating citizen capitalists that invest in a global market for ideas, talent, products, and other capital.

Social-orient ICTs carry constraints and limitations that forces individuals to transform how they think and act. For example, Twitter and mobile telephone short message services limit message sizes to 140 characters or less, forcing content producers to deliver clear, concise messages in limited space.

These transformations are leading to new questions for social and educational theorists that are still being debated – and research suggests that these changes are impacting the fundamental organization of the human brain (see esp. Small & Vorgan, 2008). Some key questions arising are: Does Society 2.0 dumb people down, or are we creating a new, hyper-connected, social super-intelligence? If technologically-savvy youth are composing their thoughts in 140 characters or less, are we facing a loss of literacy? In a world of Twitter, do we have any capacity for full-length novels? In a world with YouTube, can we sit through feature length films? Is technological change, paired with globalization, leading to a loss of our cultural heritages? And, finally, what is needed from education to remain relevant in a cut-and-paste society where information flows freely?

Society 3.0

“The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” – William Gibson (interviewed in Gladstone, 1999)

For most of us, Society 3.0 is in the future – possibly in the distant future. But, for a few people leading the change toward this proto-paradigm, it is very real. Three drivers are leading us to the formation of Society 3.0, which describes a world that is somewhere between “just around the corner” and “just beyond the horizon” of today’s state-of-the-art:

  1. Accelerating technological and social change;
  2. Continuing globalization and horizontalization of knowledge and relationships; and,
  3. Innovation society fueled by knowmads.

Kurzweil (1999) postulates a theory he labels the Law of Accelerating Returns to describe the evolutionary process that leads to accelerating technological and social change:

As order exponentially increases, time exponentially speeds up (that is, the time interval between salient events grows shorter as time passes). (Kurzweil, 1999, p. 30)

Figure 1. Accelerating Technological Change

[Note. The J-curve of accelerating change illustrates the exponential development and exponentially reduced costs of technologies. One example is evident in the evolution of microprocessors, which follow Moore’s (1965) Law of doubling the number of transistors on integrated circuits every two years, while also reducing the costs of associated processing speed, memory capacities, etc. The inflection point on the graph is the approximate location of the Technological Singularity, at which point change occurs so rapidly that the human mind cannot imagine what will happen next. One way of thinking of the magnitude of accelerating change is that if Moore’s Law is followed for the next 600 years, a single microprocessor would have the computational equivalency of the known Universe (Krauss & Starkman, 2004).]

In other words, change is occurring rapidly, and the pace of change is increasing. Kurzweil’s idea is founded on the proposal that as technologies evolve, the 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 (see Figure 1, above). As technologies evolve, so will society (Morgan, 1877). This acceleration of change, however, is also expected to impact human imagination and foresight. Vinge (1993) terms the theoretical limit of human foresight and imagination (illustrated as the inflection point on the above graphic) as the Technological Singularity. As the rate of technological advancement increases, it will become more difficult for a human observer to predict or understand future technological advancements.

Given the rate of exponential advancement illustrated by Kurzweil (2005), the rate of technological advancements in the future may seem nearly simultaneous. At this point, Vinge and Kurzweil hypothesize society will reach a point labeled the Technological Singularity. Kurzweil further believes the Singularity will emerge as the complex, seemingly chaotic outcome of converging technologies (esp. nanotechnology, robots, computing, and the human integration of these technologies).

As previously noted, technological change facilitates social change. Near future technological advancements are therefore expected to ignite periods of social transformation that defies human imagination today.

The impacts of accelerating technological and social changes on education are enormous. Today’s stakeholders in our youths’ future must prepare them for futures that none of us can even dream are possible.

Continuing globalization is leading to a horizontalized diffusion of knowledge in domains that were previously siloed, creating heterarchical relationships, and providing new opportunities for knowledge to be applied contextually in innovative contexts. In learning contexts, this means that we are becoming not only co-learners, but also co-teachers as we co-constructively produce new knowledge and its applications.

Table 1 summarizes key differences between the three social paradigms that we explore in this book. In the shift from Society 1.0 to Society 3.0, basic relationships transform from linear, mechanistic and deterministic order to a new order that is highly non-linear, synergetic and design-oriented. The effects of accelerating change suggest that causality, itself, may seem to express anticausal characteristics, due to the near instantaneousness of events experienced by a society in a period of continuous, accelerating change. Therefore, how reality is contextualized (and contextually responded to) becomes much more important to citizens in Society 3.0 than it was in previous paradigms.

Table 1: Societies 1.0 through 3.0 across various domains

Knowmads in Society 3.0

A knowmad is what Moravec (2008a) terms a nomadic knowledge and innovation worker – that is, a creative, imaginative, and innovative person who can work with almost anybody, anytime, and anywhere. Moreover, knowmads are valued for the personal knowledge that they possess, and this knowledge gives them a competitive advantage. Industrial society is giving way to knowledge and innovation work. Whereas the industrialization of Society 1.0 required people to settle in one place to perform a very specific role or function, the jobs associated with knowledge and information workers have become much less specific in regard to task and place. Moreover, technologies allow for these new paradigm workers to work either at a specific place, virtually, or any blended combination. Knowmads can instantly reconfigure and recontextualize their work environments, and greater mobility is creating new opportunities. Consider, for example, coffee shops. These environments have become the workplace of choice for many knowmads. What happens when the investment banker sitting next to the architect have a conversation? What new ideas, products, and services might be created?

The remixing of places and social relationships is also impacting education. Students in Knowmad Society should learn, work, play, and share in almost any configuration. But there is little evidence to support any claim that education is moving to the 3.0 paradigm.

Knowmads:

  1. Are not restricted to a specific age.
  2. Build their personal knowledge through explicit information gathering and tacit experiences, and leverage their personal knowledge to produce new ideas.
  3. Are able to contextually apply their ideas and expertise in various social and organizational configurations.
  4. Are highly motivated to collaborate, and are natural networkers, navigating new organizations, cultures, and societies.
  5. Purposively use new technologies to help them solve problems and transcend geographical limitations.
  6. Are open to sharing what they know, and invite the open access to information, knowledge and expertise from others.
  7. Can unlearn as quickly as they learn, adopting new ideas and practices as necessary.
  8. Thrive in non-hierarchical networks and organizations.
  9. Develop habits of mind and practice to learn continuously.
  10. Are not afraid of failure.

(Note: List inspired by Cobo, 2008)

When we compare the list of skills required of knowmads to the outcomes of mainstream education, we wonder: What are we educating for? Are we educating to create factory workers and bureaucrats? Or, are we educating to create innovators, capable of leveraging their imagination and creativity?

Sidebar

Invisible learning a new expressions of human capital development in Knowmad Society

Knowmad Society necessitates the transformation from industrial paradigm, “banking” pedagogies (see esp. Freire, 1968) that transmit “just in case” information and knowledge (i.e., memorization of the world’s capitals) toward modes that utilize the invisible spaces to develop personally- and socially- meaningful, actionable knowledge. There is growing recognition that people with unique, key knowledge and skills (i.e., knowmads) are critical for the success of modern organizations. Godin (2010) argues successful people in today’s organizations serve as “linchpins.” From an interview with Goden by Hyatt (2010), Godin states:

The linchpin insists on making a difference, on leading, on connecting with others and doing something I call art. The linchpin is the indispensable one, the one the company can’t live without. This is about humanity, not compliance.

In their book, The Element, Robinson & Aronica (2009) interview many people who have experienced success in their careers, and identified that the people they spoke with found their “element” – that is, their success was largely due to the fact that they did something they enjoyed in addition to being good at it. This runs contrary to the “just in case” industrial model of education, and suggests that if we enable more people to pursue their passions and support them, they can achieve success.

In the 3.0 proto-paradigm, the inherent chaos and ambiguity related to tremendous technological and social changes call for a resurgence of “learning by doing.” In a sense, we are creating the future as we go along. As co-learners and co-teachers, we are co-responsible for helping each other find our own elements along our pathways of personal, knowmadic development.

How do we measure learning in the invisible spaces?

The cult of educational measurement

A key concern for policymakers and other stakeholders in education is, what is being learned? In an education system focused on industrial production, this is an important quality control issue.

The linearity of the industrial paradigm thrives on mechanical processes. For example, groups of learners are expected to read books progressively, chapter-by-chapter, and recite the information and “facts” they acquired linearly through memorization. In this paradigm, the use of summative evaluation (i.e., tests) is de rigueur.

Throughout the world, we have adopted this culture of industrial learning and evaluation en masse, and created a cult of educational measurement to support it. In the United States, this is manifested through the testing requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. In Spain, the cult is evident in the filtering processes that lead to the Prueba de Acceso. In the United Kingdom, it is expressed within the National Curriculum (Education Reform Act of 1988). And so on.

With policies with names like “No Child Left Behind,” it is hard to disagree: is the alternative to leave children behind? The unfortunate reality, however, is that in these industrial policies we tend to leave many children behind. These industrial-modeled, testing-centric regimes produce exactly the wrong products for the 21st Century, but is appropriate for what the world needed between the 19th century through 1950. As Robinson (2001) and others have argued, these fractured memorization models oppose the creative, synthetic thinking required for work in the new economy and effective citizenship.

Leapfrogging beyond the cult of educational measurement

Focus on how to learn, not what to learn.

In the Invisible Learning proto-paradigm, rote, “just in case” memorization is replaced with learning that is intended to be personally meaningful for all participants in the learning experience. Moreover, the application of knowledge toward innovative problem solving takes primacy over the regurgitation of previous knowledge or “facts.” In essence, as discussed in the previous chapter, students very much become knowledge brokers (Meyer, 2010).

Moreover, the Invisible Learning paradigm enables students to act on their knowledge, applying what they know to solve problems –including problems that have not been solved before. This contextual, purposive application of personal knowledge to create innovative solutions negates the value of non-innovation-producing standardized testing.

The “learning by doing” aspect of Invisible Learning that focuses on how to learn rather than what to learn suggests that measurement or evaluation needs to be outcomes-based in the same way that we evaluate innovations:

  • What happened?
  • Did something new happen? Something unexpected?
  • Was there a positive benefit?
  • What can others learn from the experience?

Although there is a large body of literature supporting the need for formative assessments in education (see, for example, Armstrong, 1985; Marzano, 2003; Stiggins, 2008; Stiggins, Arter, Chappuis, & Chappuis, 2007), as well as a rich educational literature theory base that suggests we need to move toward learner-centered learning (perhaps the most vocal being Dewey, 1915; Freire, 2000), summative evaluations still persist in formal learning environments that present little value to the learner. Strategies to bring the informal into the formal are already present and widely adopted in business, industry, and, ironically, within some teacher education programs.

For example, Pekka Ihanainen (2010) explains that Finnish vocational teacher education, for example, is built on a dialogical professional development model. Knowledge and expertise areas of the teachers in training are identified and compared with their occupational competency requirements and goals. Following this assessment, career development trajectories and educational pathways are developed. The system is not designed to determine only how teachers in training meet state requirements, but also relates to their individual interests and professional development goals.

Finally, releasing ourselves from the cult of measurement requires faith and confidence that we are always learning. As we will discuss in the following chapters, as human beings, we are always engaged in learning– it is one of our most natural activities.

Implementing Invisible Learning: Making the invisible visible

The difficulties in mainstreaming Invisible Learning in Western education are daunting. Formal systems are deeply entrenched. Governments believe in the formal approach (it looks good on paper and within state and national budgets). Entire industries (i.e., textbooks, educational measurement) are built around it. And, the scale of the industrialization of education leaves many people wondering if it’s worth fighting against.

The system is further reinforced, by design, to change at a glacial pace. While markets can transform and reinvent themselves virtually overnight, governments cannot. They are designed to be slow and deliberative. As a result, they tend to lag significantly and react to change more often than they proactively design orpreact to beneficial changes.

Paradoxically, despite being key components of systems most responsible for developing human capital and human development futures, education is designed to change even slower. Educational institutions and systems report to governments, respond to governmental policies, and align their programs to satisfy requirements and funding formulae established by legislative bodies. Moreover, these criteria, including establishing what to teach, depends on who sits on what committee at any given time. By relying on personalities, political gamesmanship, and feedback-looped special interests from the formal educational industrial complex, many question if the system has perhaps become too large, too slow, and unfocused.

The problem is, the emerging pressures of Society 3.0 require educational transformation today. Schools need to develop students that can design future jobs, industries and knowledge fields that we have not dreamed of. Schools need to operate as futurists, not laggards.

Is educational reform worth fighting for?

No.

Rather, it’s time to start anew. As Sir Ken Robinson eloquently states, we need a revolution, not reform (TED, 2010).

Revolutions are difficult to ignite. An entire genre of literature that Carmen Tschofen terms “change manifestos” has emerged in education that is rich in calls for change, but falls flat on actually creating the change it calls for (Moravec, 2010). The system, perhaps, has too much inertia. As Harkins and Moravec (2006) suggest in their “Leapfrog University” memo series to the University of Minnesota, perhaps a parallel approach is necessary.

Rather than fighting the system, students, parents, communities, and other life-long learners can invest in establishing parallel, new schools and/or networks of learning, discovering, innovating, and sharing. And some communities are already leading the way with innovative initiatives. For example:

  • Shibuya University Network (Japan): “Yasuaki Sakyo, president of Shibuya University, believes that education should be lifelong. At Shibuya, courses are free and open to all; classes take place in shops, cafes and outside; and anyone can be a teacher” (CNN, 2007). In essence, the entire community and its environment have become the co-learners, co-teachers, and classroom.
  • The Bank of Common Knowledge (Banco Común de Conocimientos, Spain) “is a pilot experience dedicated to the research of social mechanisms for the collective production of contents, mutual education, and citizen participation. It is a laboratory platform where we explore new ways of enhancing the distribution channels for practical and informal knowledge, as well as how to share it” (Bank of Common Knowledge, n.d.).
  • TED.com (Technology, Entertainment, Design, USA) challenges lecture-based education by creating “a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world’s most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other” (TED, n.d.).

Redefining human capital development

To move forward in making Invisible Learning visible, we need to engage in conversations on what futures we want to create. We need to clarify our visions of the future. In China, India, and throughout much of the developing world, the vision is simple: Catch up to the West through planned development. But, in the United States, Europe, and much of the rest of the Western world, concrete visions of where we want to be in the future are absent. We assert that we either do not know where we want to be in the future or we lack the foresight to imagine ourselves in a future that is very different from today.

The consequence is that we are not making investments into our human capital development systems that will enable us to meet needs set by future challenges. We need to prepare our youth and other members of society for a future and workforce needs that we cannot imagine. Moreover, given the potential for today’s youth to be engaged productively in a “post-Singularity” era, it is important to assist them in the development of skills and habits of mind (i.e., the Leapfrog Institutes’ liberal skills outlined in the “Leapfrog” memo series archived at Education Futures). that will foster life-long learning and the innovative applications of their knowledge.

This lack of vision –and acting on it– impacts not only education, but also other areas of our socioeconomic wellbeing. Bob Herbert (2010) recently wrote for the New York Times on the United States’ new unfound willingness to invest in ideas that could increase potentials for future growth and prosperity:

The United States is not just losing its capacity to do great things. It’s losing its soul. It’s speeding down an increasingly rubble-strewn path to a region where being second rate is good enough. (Herbert, 2010)

As organizations, communities, and nations, we need to set visions for the futures we will co-create, and act upon them. Throughout the remainder of this volume, we explore some of the methods individuals, teams, and organizations may employ to help develop these visions of the future.

Using technology purposively

When engaged in conversations about invisible learning or other innovations in education, there is a tendency for people to gravitate their thoughts toward technology as if it can serve as a “silver bullet” to slay the allegorical werewolf of the persistence of the Education 1.0 model. Innovation in education does not mean “technology.” Douglas Adams (1999) elaborated on the challenges of defining the purpose of the Internet:

Another problem with the net is that it’s still ‘technology’, and ‘technology’, as the computer scientist Bran Ferren memorably defined it, is ‘stuff that doesn’t work yet.’ We no longer think of chairs as technology, we just think of them as chairs. But there was a time when we hadn’t worked out how many legs chairs should have, how tall they should be, and they would often ‘crash’ when we tried to use them. Before long, computers will be as trivial and plentiful as chairs (and a couple of decades or so after that, as sheets of paper or grains of sand) and we will cease to be aware of the things. In fact I’m sure we will look back on this last decade and wonder how we could ever have mistaken what we were doing with them for ‘productivity.’ (Adams, 1999)

Moreover, we use the term “technology” to describe new tools that we do not understand. In other words, the purposive uses of “technology” are not well defined. As a result, in educational contexts, we often take the best technologies and squander the opportunities they afford us. Roger Schank (in Molist, 2010) puts it bluntly:

It’s the same garbage, but placed differently. Schools select new technologies and ruin them. For example, when television came, every school put one in each classroom, but used it to do exactly the same things as before. The same with computers today. Oh, yes, we have e-larning! What does it mean? Then they give the same terrible course, but online, using computers in a stupid way.(Molist, 2010)

Conversely, the Invisible Learning approach to technology is purposive, pragmatic and centered at improving the human experience at its core. Specifically, this means that it is:

  • Well-defined: The purpose and applications of particular technologies need to be specified. Bringing in technologies for the sake of using technologies will likely lead to their misuse, underuse, and/or the creation of unintended outcomes.
  • Focused on developing mindware: The focus of technologies should not be on hardware or software, but on how they enhance our mindware – that is, they focus is placed on how technologies can support our imaginations, creativity, and help us innovate.
  • Social: The use of technologies is often a social experience and their social applications should be addressed. This includes the leverage of social media tools for learning such as Facebook, Twitter, etc., which are commonly blocked from formal education settings.
  • Experimental: Embraces the concept of “learning by doing,” and allows for trial and error which can lead to successes and the occasional failure – but does not create failures.
  • Continuously evolving: As an area for “beta testing” new ideas and approaches to problems, it is continuously in a state of remixing and transformation. As society evolves continuously, so must our learning and sharing.

Who gets to leapfrog to Knowmad Society?

Lastly, a problem facing Invisible Learning is one of equity and equality. Is it appropriate for a select group of “invisible learners” to leapfrog ahead of peers who may be trapped within the paradigm of “education 1.0?” If 1% of the population benefits from Invisible Learning, what should we do about the other 99%? Should they not have the right to leapfrog ahead, too?

We believe so. But, we also recognize the incredible inertia mainstream Education 1.0 possesses. Given rates of accelerating technological, social and economic change, we cannot wait. The revolution in learning and human capital development needs to begin now. This may mean starting out small, working parallel with entrenched systems, but it also means we need to lead by example.

References

 

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Review: Creating innovators (by Tony Wagner)

Book: Creating innovators: The making of young people who will change the world
Author: Tony Wagner (with video content produced by Robert A. Compton)
Publisher: Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster (2012)

In Creating innovators, Harvard University’s Tony Wagner sets out to describe the crisis facing education in a society that requires innovative workers and thinkers. He presents a systems perspective, and explores what parents, teachers, and employers must do to develop the capacities of young people to become innovators. To make it happen, he argues we must invest more in enabling play, passion, and purpose in the lives of learners — and focus less on industrial modes of production (i.e., refocusing away from standardized tests).

Featuring interviews with innovators, thought leaders, and people working to make change happen in schools, the book does not serve to produce new knowledge. It instead serves as a primer to what innovation is, why it is important for nations, and some of the best practices we can engage in now.

As a nice addition, the book incorporates in-line video content that can be viewed through a mobile device. While the book claims they use QR codes, the scannable codes appear in a proprietary Microsoft format, and require readers to download an app from Microsoft. For users of non-Microsoft platforms (i.e., iOS or Android devices), this could present problems in the future. Thankfully, videos will be made available at the book’s website, creatinginnovators.com.

While the book provides a nice survey into some of the thinking of innovation in education, it revolves around legacy models of what schools are, and falls flat when it looks toward the future of innovation as it still relies on these old structures. Wagner would have done better to ponder what a continuously innovative society looks like — and might even question whether we need “schools” any more.

By keeping a sharp focus on the old conceptualizations of education, Wagner focuses the bulk of his discussions on what to learn (i.e., STEM), rather than how to learn. Perhaps by exploring the how issues, the book could have provided critical insight into which skills and competencies are critical for success in a society that is driven by continuous, disruptive innovation. Play, passion, and purpose are just fine (and alliterate well), but their usefulness could be constructed within a broader framework (i.e., together with soft skills development) that enables contextually beneficial expressions of personal knowledge.

The bottom line: Creating innovators is an enjoyable primer for those who are just catching on to the innovation bandwagon, but it is not a jumping point for developing new ideas and practices that will transform our education futures.

With the publisher’s permission, here is an excerpt:

How Do We Develop Young People to Become Innovators?

In the past, our country has produced innovators more by accident than by design. Rarely do entrepreneurs or innovators talk about how their schooling or their places of work — or even their parents — developed their talents or encouraged their aspirations. Three of the most innovative entrepreneurs of the last half century — Edwin Land, the inventor of the Polaroid instant camera; Bill Gates; and Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook — had to drop out of Harvard to pursue their ideas. Apple’s Steve Jobs; Michael Dell of Dell Computer; Larry Ellison, founder of the software giant Oracle; and the inventor Dean Kamen are other famous high-tech college dropouts.

So what would it mean if we were to intentionally develop the entrepreneurial and innovative talents of all young people — to nurture their initiative, curiosity, imagination, creativity, and collaborative skills, as well as their analytical abilities — along with essential qualities of character such as persistence, empathy, and a strong moral foundation? What can parents do to nurture these qualities? What do the most effective teachers and college professors do, and what can they — and the young people themselves — tell us about how schools and colleges need to change to teach these qualities? Finally, what can we learn from those who successfully mentor aspiring entrepreneurial innovators? These are the driving questions in this book.

How Do We Develop Young People to Become Innovators?

If we agree on the need to develop the capabilities of many more youth to be innovators, and if we agree that many of the qualities of an innovator can be nurtured and learned, the question now becomes, what do we do? Where do we start as parents, teachers, mentors, and employers?

Encourage Play

Research shows that human beings are born with an innate desire to explore, experiment, and imagine new possibilities — to innovate.

How do children learn such skills? In a word — through play.

And it’s not just infants and children who learn through play. Joost Bonsen, who is an alumnus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and currently serves as a lecturer in the world-famous MIT Media Lab, talked about the importance of the famous tradition of pranks at the university.

“Being innovative is central to being human.” Bonsen told me. “We’re curious and playful animals, until it’s pounded out of us. Look at the tradition of pranks here at MIT. What did it take to put a police car on a dome that was fifteen stories high (one of most famous MIT student pranks), with a locked trapdoor being the only access? It was an incredible engineering feat. To pull that off was a systems problem, and it took tremendous leadership and teamwork.

“Pranks reinforce the cultural ethos of creative joy.” Joost added. “Getting something done in a short period of time with no budget, and challenging circumstances. It’s glorious and epic. They didn’t ask for permission. Not even forgiveness.”

These students were playing — just doing something for the fun of it. Play, then, is part of our human nature and an intrinsic motivation.

Encourage Passion

Passion is familiar to all of us as an intrinsic motivation for doing things. The passion to explore, to learn something new, to understand something more deeply; to master something difficult. We see these passions all around us and have likely experienced them for ourselves.

In more than one hundred and fifty interviews for this book — lengthy conversations with innovators and their parents, teachers, and mentors — passionwas the most frequently recurring word.

Encourage Purpose

Pure passion, by itself, is not enough to sustain the motivation to do difficult things and to persevere — in love or in work! In my research, I observe that young innovators almost invariably develop a passion to learn or do something as adolescents, but their passions evolve through learning and exploration into something far deeper, more sustainable, and trustworthy — purpose.

The sense of purpose can take many forms. But the one that emerged most frequently in my interviews and in the interviews by the authors of “the Innovator’s DNA” is the desire to somehow “make a difference”

In the lives of young innovators whom I interviewed, I discovered a consistent link and developmental arc in their progression from play to passion to purpose. They played a great deal — but their play was frequently far less structured than most children’s, and they had opportunities to explore, experiment, and discover through trial and error — to take risks and to fall down. Through this kind of more creative play as children, these young innovators discovered a passion. As they pursued their passions, their interests changed and took surprising turns. They developed new passions, which, over time, evolved into a deeper and more mature sense of purpose — a kind of shared adult play.

These young innovators did not learn these things alone. They received help from parents, teachers, and mentors along the way. Their evolution as innovators was almost invariably facilitated by at least one adult — and often several. What these parents, teachers, and mentors did that was so helpful may surprise you. Each, in his or her own quiet way, is often following a different, less conventional path in his or her role as a parent, teacher, or mentor. They acted differently so that the young people with whom they interacted could think differently.


Note: The publisher provided a copy of the book for review. Please read our review policy for more details on how we review products and services.

The above excerpt is Copyright © 2012 Tony Wagner.

Basti Hirsch: Rethink purposive uses of technologies in schools

I met up with Basti Hirsch at the NEXT Berlin 2012 conference last week. He is a leader at the Education Innovation Lab at the HUMBOLDT-VIADRINA School of Governance in Berlin. His work focuses on reinventing learning in the digital age. We chatted about what it would take to drive innovation in education, and some of what he believes are the most exciting examples we can learn from.

Basti’s approach to innovation involves bringing stakeholders to the table, integrating technology that didn’t exist before, and focusing on making it happen. He cautions that while technologies can be enablers, but we need to be purposive on how we use them. Moreover, Basti refers to Charles Leadbeater’s matrix of disruptive innovation (see Leadbeater’s TED talk), which illustrates new modes for user-created innovations by using tools smartly.

Charles Leadbeater’s matrix of disruptive innovation

Who’s leading the way? He is inspired by the work of i.c.stars in Chicago, which uses project-based learning approaches to develop young leaders in communities that are otherwise underserved by mainstream education. He also suggests looking at the Stanford d.school. They’re reinventing classrooms, he observed, and helping educators to think beyond static conceptualizations of “education.”

Teacher 3.0: Sharing, creating, and connecting knowledge

In this year’s issue of Villa Onderwijs by APS, Erno Mijland and Rob Mioch present their views of what “Teacher 3.0” might look like (extended from the 3.0 paradigm shared at Education Futures previously). With the authors’ permission, we provide their translation of the original Dutch text into English.

Teacher 3.0

Authors: Erno Mijland and Rob Mioch

Share knowledge, create and connect

Teaching is one of the finest professions you can find. Teachers play a crucial part in preparing new generations for the future. Never before has there been so much uncertainty about what that future will look like.

An invitation to the dialogue about the consequences of these developments for the role of the teacher.

Moores law isn’t just about transistors anymore. The developments in scientifical research, the introduction of new technologies and the expansion of new ideas is going increasingly faster. Digitisation, globalisation, new knowledge about the working of the brain… all matters that run deep into the way we live, learn and work together. Also, the appeal to take responsibility for sustainable development and the reinforcement of our society, accentuate the central role that education has in equipping young people. Professional competences are currently recalibrated.

3.0

In this theoretical experiment, we combine several inspiring angles. Following the linear way of thinking, we could have chosen for 2.0. However, that might give the impression of a ‘next version’, an upgrade of the former version like we know from the world of technology.

3.0 focuses on the very core of the profession of teaching in the first part of the 21st century. With this magazine ‘Villa Onderwijs’ (trans.: Villa Education) we would like to give individual teachers and teams at schools the opportunity to engage in conversation about this topic.

Where we refer to the teacher as “he”, we also mean to include the female teacher.

1. The teacher 3.0 has an eye for the future

Children will have to find a place for themselves in a society with increasing risks and uncertainties. The teacher 3.0 will go into trends and scenarios and will weigh the consequences. In case it is relevant, he will make a translation of his findings to knowledge and skills in his professional area and the world of professions for which he prepares his students.

2. The teacher 3.0 offers students a home base

The teacher 3.0 views the school as a society that connects with the surrounding world. He teaches his students to take responsibility for their own lives and the environment they are part of. He teaches them a flexible attitude. That way, he gives shape to the ambition to create – through education – an environment fit to live in.

3. The teacher 3.0 establishes dialogue

Children of today have access to the same sources as their teachers do. Apparently professional knowledge is significant but above all, the teacher 3.0 makes his students go through the experience of learning from each other. The traditional division of roles (the omniscient teacher vs the unlearned student) is no longer relevant. He will initiate the dialogue with his students. Pedagogic skills will be an important tool for the teacher. He will learn more about the experience, the way of thinking and the behaviour of young people. Conversation with colleagues, parents and the world around him, will give him access to a diversity of information, inspiration and ideas.

4. The teacher 3.0 is a catalyst for student talents

Students live in a competitive society. There seem to be plenty of opportunities but there is a risk of ‘unwanted inequality’. The teacher 3.0 will look for possibilities to bring all children to great achievements. He pays attention to the complete child and its total development. He views the intrinsic motivation of the child as the base of his guidance. By working together with his collueges and his peer, he will be able to adjust his actions in order to match the abilities of the students.

5. The teacher 3.0 explores

Through his exploring attitude, the teacher 3.0 tries to get a grip on the unsteady reality around him. Where ever needed and if possible with the help of others, he will search for creative solutions for the – occasionally tough – everyday practice. He will continually work on the effectiveness and efficiency of his teaching. He is not afraid to experiment with innovative methods, technologies and different sources. He will connect these experiments to practice-based research. He will translate the findings of this research to distinct improvements which will be tested and evaluated.

6. The teacher 3.0 is a role model for ‘life long learning’

The half-life of knowledge becomes increasingly short. Knowledge and learning is more and more about the ability to find solutions for new issues. That’s why the teacher 3.0 will have to actively keep learning. This will partly be done in a self-taught manner. It is easy to have access to countless high quality sources through the internet. The teacher 3.0 studies, reflects and arranges to get feedback on his work, for instance through supervision and group intervision. He will remain working on his personal development in a self-steering and enterprising manner. This way he can excel in view of his own professional career, but also for the benefit of his students and the organization he works for. This also makes him a role model for his students.

7. The teacher 3.0 is not afraid to share ánd to ask

Developments go fast. It is impossible to do and to invent everything by yourself and to keep up with everything. That is why the teacher 3.0 actively uses his network where he can ask questions, shares his knowledge and contributes to joint projects. The present times offer unprecedented opportunities to make our knowledge and ideas accessible, for instance through networks and the Internet. Where ever relevant, the teacher 3.0 will contribute to joint products for education. This makes him an active member of a co-creating society. That is the power of being connected.

8. The teacher 3.0 uses technology based on his vision on learning

New technologies and media (like digital black boards, games and social media) offer a lot of learning facilities. However, the teacher 3.0 will not be directed by hypes. With his vision on learning as a starting point, he will critically assess the possibilities and will creatively translate them to the goals he wants to achieve with his teaching. When ever technology doesn’t actually add anything valuable, he is not afraid to say “no” to it. This will not always be easy, because you cannot always know in advance what it is exactly that you are turning down. To make conscious, deliberate choices may well be one of the most important new competences of today’s teacher.

9. The teacher 3.0 works smartly

Technology should make your job easier. The teacher 3.0 uses opportunities to computerize his tasks in order to be able to spend as much time as possible on activities that really matter: direct contact with students. Whenever possible he will use digital testing methods or video recordings of his lessons as a reference work for his students.

10. The teacher 3.0 focuses on his passion and his talent

The life of a teacher 3.0 uses up a lot of energy. There is so much to keep up with, to think about, to try out… and you are never done. Never done? You can only keep that up when you are motivated by passion. The teacher 3.0 is genuine and credible, an important criterion for working with today’s students. He realises that external influences may constantly distract him from his passion. For instance by new regulations, protocols, shifting in activities. Sometimes he will have to stand up for himself and set limits. He will look for the meaning of his work, and will question himself about his true motive. He is aware of which activities he truly enjoys. He finds happiness in his work, in working with students and collueges and in sharing his passion with his peer.

11. The teacher 3.0 is not afraid to be unique

In every school there is a need for wide oriented specialists, ánd specialized generalists. The teacher 3.0 views his profile as a capital T: imagine the specialism to be the vertical line going into the deep and the horizontal line being the widening. The teacher takes authority from his specialism, his expertise. One can get unique, profound knowledge from him. He will think cross curricular. He knows how to make the wide connection between his expertise and the developments in his environment. With his ‘T-profile’ he will contribute to his school in a unique way.

12. The teacher 3.0 takes pride in his profession

As a teacher, you may sometimes feel like a drop in the ocean. But even Einstein, Gandhi and Picasso at one time started out as little boys at a random school, somewhere in this world. Society can have high expectations of education. It is time to stop the blame and shame. The teacher 3.0 knows he makes a difference. He takes pride in his profession.


Erno Mijland is a journalist/writer, and trainer/speaker on learning and technology. Rob Mioch is managing director of professional education at APS national center for innovation and school improvement, the Netherlands.

Scale it sideways!

One of the key points we make in Invisible Learning is that new technologies and new possibilities for social configurations are expanding the ecology of options we have for learning. “Schooling” is no longer limited to just schools. Rather, we can now learn in formal environments, online, informally, and serendipitously. Moreover, we can leverage technologies to remix these modes together — so, for example, it is now possible to have a meaningful and recognized learning experience at coffee shops, city parks, bowling alleys, etc.

Just as wise investors diversify their investment portfolio, so should we build diverse portfolios of our schools. This means that we should not invest too heavily in any one strategy. If we do not know with any precision what the future will be, we cannot have one-size-fits-all schools. We need to expand our ecologies of options.

Many times we find something that works. Perhaps a new pedagogical technique …or, maybe a new type of school. One of the first things we often ask ourselves when evaluating an innovation is: How do we scale it up?

FORGET SCALING UP.

WE NEED TO SCALE SIDEWAYS IN EDUCATION.

Scaling up is how we industrialize ideas, and employ them within a top-down managed system. This works in an educational monoculture, but not in a diverse ecology. Rather than industrializing our best ideas, why not share them horizontally? That is, let’s invite people and schools to adopt them if they work for them?

Scaling sideways invites co-creation. It is dialogical.

The question we need to ask is, how can we facilitate broader horizontalized communications and sharing of best practices, etc., between schools in a diverse ecology of options? Perhaps this means that top educational leaders, governments and other interest groups need to focus less on managing; and focus more on attending to the chaos and uncertainty of a more dynamic educational ecology.

And, let’s make sure to invite the kids into the horizontalized co-creation. We are all white belts when it comes to understanding and acting on our futures. We do not have any role models to draw from. We have never been to the future before.

We must engage kids in this conversation now. Knowmad Society is their’s, but it is up to us to build it together.


Note: Adapted from my plenary talk at the Onderwijs en ondernemen “op expeditie” conference in The Hague, Netherlands on October 6, 2011.

Roger Schank on Invisible Learning: Real learning; real memory

With the free release of Invisible Learning (Aprendizaje Invisible), I am pleased to share the original English version of the epilogue, penned by Roger Schank.

The full Spanish-language text of Invisible Learning may be downloaded directly from http://www.invisiblelearning.com/download


Epilogue: Real learning; Real memory

by Roger Schank

What do people need to learn and how can they learn it?

Every curriculum committee and every training organization has at one time or another convened a committee to answer this question. Their answers are always given in terms of telling about subjects: “more math,” “leadership,” “risk management,” “company policies.” But subject matter is far less important in learning than one might think.

Consider medicine. What should a doctor learn? Doctors take courses in anatomy and immunology and so on, and certainly we want any doctor who treats us to know about these things. But, what skill do we want him to have above all? We want a doctor to make a proper diagnosis of our problem.

Now consider a car mechanic. We want him to understand how an engine works and such. But what do we want him to know more than anything? We want a mechanic to make a proper diagnosis of our problem.

The same is true of business consultants, architects, financial planners, and most other professions. We want people who can do diagnosis. But, when do we teach diagnosis? Typically we teach it within the confines of a particular subject, way at the end, after all the theories and facts have been explained. This is exactly backwards.

What is harder to learn, proper diagnosis of an illness or the names and functions of all the body parts? Most anyone can learn body parts, but diagnosis is a seriously important skill. You would never choose a doctor based on their ability to name the body parts quickly.

But, if diagnosis is difficult to learn, that implies that one needs a lot of practice in doing it. And, if it is important to learn, that implies that one ought to be practicing it very early on in life.

Other critical skills include determining causation, making predictions, making plans, and conducting experiments.

How can we learn these skills?

People learn diagnosis by doing diagnosis. This means that learning occurs when people have to do diagnosis. They might have to do diagnosis in order to figure out why they are losing a video game or why they always eat too much. While diagnosis is, unfortunately, not a subject in school, it is a process that everyone practices. They practice it without help most of the time and unless they have a parent who can help they may well be lost and might not get better at it.

Consider experimentation. We think of this as being something scientists do, when in fact, two year olds do it constantly. They try out experiments about what is good to put in their mouths, what annoying behaviors they can get away with, and what happens when they smash a favorite toy.

When we assess someone’s intelligence we can forgive lack of subject matter knowledge much more easily than we can forgive lack of diagnostic ability. Here is a Sarah Palin supporter responding to a question about Palin’s foreign policy:

I don’t know much about her foreign policy but the state that she did govern was right across the street from Russia. You know so I’m not saying that she ever had to deal with Russia but I’m sure she had boundaries issues she had to deal with. We have boundary issues right now with Mexico now.

Clearly this man has no ability to make an effective diagnosis. He does not understand causation either. In short, he seems stupid not because he doesn’t know about Palin’s foreign policy, but because he has diagnosed “illegal immigration” as something one would certainly be an expert on if one had governed Alaska. The critical issue in learning is learning to think more clearly.

How can technology play a role in teaching diagnosis and in teaching thinking in general? Or, to put this another way, why is it that courses rarely work the way I am suggesting (diagnostic issue first, facts and theories later)?

When you teach a course in a classroom, it is not so easy to start with a diagnostic problem. Such problems require real thought, hard work, recovery from errant hypotheses, and mentoring focused on creating new ways of looking at a problem. In other words, teaching diagnosis is facilitated by one-on-one interactions between teacher and student. We can do this easily online (or at home with our children), but it is very hard to do in the classroom. One value of technology is to enable one-on-one teaching in a world where people can no longer afford personal tutors. And, of course, we can model physical situations virtually. These situations can be richly elaborated and allow for exploration and discovery. It is much better to diagnose a virtual patient (or a business or an electrical problem) than a real one.

To understand why learning needs to happen this way it is important to realize that all human beings have a dynamic memory, one that changes in response to new experiences. The popular conception of memory is a static one, more like a library in which what one puts in stays there unchanged until it is needed again. This popular conception of memory causes schools to try to pour in information and test to see if it is still there. And, it causes parents to worry if their child doesn’t seem very good at either acquiring information or retaining it.

Human beings do not have static memories. They can change their internal classification systems when their conception of something changes, or when their needs for retrieval changes. For the most part, such changes are not consciously made.

Despite constant changes in organization, people continue to be able to call up relevant memories without consciously considering where they have stored them. A dynamic memory is one that can change its own organization when new experiences demand it. A dynamic memory is by nature a learning system.

People use the knowledge structures created by this memory, the ways of organizing information into a coherent whole, in order to process what goes on around them. What knowledge structures does a child have and how do they acquire them? They have knowledge structures about their own worlds: what the people they know are likely to do, how the stores and parks around them function, and they ask questions endlessly to find out more.

Understanding how knowledge structures are acquired helps us understand what kinds of entities they are. A script is a simple knowledge structure that organizes knowledge we all know about event sequences in situations like restaurants, air travel, hotel check in, and so on. We know what to expect and interpret events in light of our expectations.

If something odd happens to us in a restaurant, how do we recall it later? We would recall it if we entered the same restaurant later on, or if we had the same waitress at a different restaurant, or if we ate with the same dinner companions (assuming we ate with them rarely.), or if the food was extraordinary, or if we got sick. An incident in memory is indexed in many ways. Those indices are about actions, results of actions, and lessons learned from actions.

People can also abstract up a level to organize information around plans and goals. To put this another way, if the waitress dumped spaghetti on the head of someone who offended her, you should get reminded of that event if you witness the SAME KIND OF EVENT another time. The question is, what does it mean to be the same kind of event? Whatever this means, it would mean different things to different people. One person might see it as an instance of “female rage” and another as an instance of “justifiable retribution.” Another might see it as a kind of art.

The key issue is to learn from it. Any learning that occurs involves placing the new memory in a location in memory whereby it adds to and expands upon what is already in that place. So, it might tell us more about that waitress, or waitresses in general, or women in general, or about that particular restaurant, and so on, depending upon what we previously believed to be true of all those things. New events modify existing beliefs by adding experiences to what we already know or by contradicting what we already know and forcing us to new conclusions. Either way, learning is more than simply adding new information.

A child’s mind is acquiring and abandoning scripts. A child is wired to create patterns by expecting something to happen after something else because that is the way it happened last time. A child is set up to make generalizations, have them fail because his expectations were not met, and then create a new generalization.

And then, there is school. No actual experiences, except those about school itself, are had. So a child easily learns how one is expected to behave in school and how school functions, but he may not want to behave that way or function in that way. Reading, writing, and arithmetic, actual skills, can be taught because they are the new experiences the child is wired to seek. But other subjects, ones that are not themselves experiences, i.e., scripts that can be practiced, are much harder for a child to learn because they are not offered up by schooling, typically.

As a child gets older, he begins to understand implicitly that it is his goals, and his plans to achieve those goals, that drive his learning. While the child seeks to make his script base larger and to clarify the expectation failures he has had and to find new stories to tell or hear stories that will help him make sense of his world, the school takes a passive, librarian’s view of knowledge as something you can just deposit.

In school, all children are seen as the same, and the goal is teach them all the same stuff. But, a child processes new information in terms of the memory structures he already has. Since those are different than those of the child sitting next to him, he literally will not hear the same thing that a teacher is saying, in the same way.

The people who are in charge of schools completely misunderstand the inherently experiential nature of learning.

Students who are wired to learn from experience will have a hard time learning from static information that does not clearly relate to goals they have. Curiously, little children learn very well until they meet up with school and its arbitrary standards. They have experiences and they learn from them. The more varied their experiences, the more they can be said to know. The more they have interesting people to discuss their experiences with, the more excited and comprehending they become about their own knowledge.

Not only does school ignore what we know about how human memory and learning work, it is also concerned with teaching subjects that have nothing to do with everyday life. So students learn the wrong stuff in the wrong way.

young men grow up such blockheads in the schools, because they neither see nor hear one single thing connected with the usual circumstances of everyday life

That was written by Gaius Petronius in the Satyricon although it is just as true today.

We need to re-think our very conception of learning. What we have now simply doesn’t work. It’s time for a new model.


Dr. Roger Schank is the CEO of Socratic Arts and Managing Director of Engines for Education (a non-profit). He was Chief Education Officer of Carnegie Mellon West and Distinguished Career Professor in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University from 2001-2004. He founded he renowned Institute for the Learning Sciences at Northwestern University in 1989 where he is John P. Evans Professor Emeritus in Computer Science, Education and Psychology. From 1974-1989, he was Professor of computer science and psychology at Yale University, Chairman of the Computer Science department, and Director of the Yale Artificial Intelligence Project. He currently works with La Salle University in Barcelona on developing new online degree programs.

Classroom of the future? A response

This article from the New York Times on the use of technology in classrooms and test scores merited a response:

Dear Mr. Richtel–

I enjoyed your article “In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores” — but I have a key concern.

The entire “debate” around the use of technology in classrooms is focused around using new technologies to teach the same, old stuff. You cite a few studies, and there have been more globally (i.e., OECD) that agree with the finding that simply injecting technologies into the classroom will not make any difference. The *purposive* element (the “so what”) of what they’re being used for is not adequately addressed.

Instead of using these tools to teach centuries-old subject matter, perhaps we should instead use them to help us develop meaningful skills and personal knowledge — and to enhance our capacities to imagine, create, and innovate.

Any furtherance of using such devices for “teaching” ancient information hinders the potentials these technologies provide, and puts our children at risk by excluding them from the co-creation of opportunities in the 21st century. We need to create, not repeat.

Sincerely,

John W. Moravec, Ph.D.

Bulgarian students dream about future schools

As we shared earlier, Project Dream School started with a simple question: If you could build a dream school, what would you do?

This morning, I received some inspiring ideas. Elena Stateva writes,

Dear Dr. Moravec,

I would like to share with the you the Dream Schools of my students. They worked on them as a project for their Philosophy in English class (grades 8-11). We are from Bulgaria, and we are part of a summer school program.

And these dreams are inspiring: Robot teachers? No tests? Creativity and the development of individual identity?! Read on:

PROJECT: “JUST A DREAM”
Creators: Radoslav Asparuhov (16), Daniel Rashin (18)

Just a Dream is a school made of technologies, but not only about technology. It places a very high value on the potential of technology to transform the ways we see education. As full-fledged citizens of our dynamic modernity, students at Just a Dream are extensively trained how to use technology in the most innovative and effective way. For example, sculptures and other three-dimensional figures are created on computers, thus enabling students to develop their spatial and analytical intelligences. Top-notch technological innovations render the school one of the pioneers of knowmadic thinking.

Furthermore, Just a Dream gives students the crucial opportunity to have a practical go at their field. Relevant internships at successful companies are provided to each student, through a wide a range of sponsors. The sponsorship by highly acclaimed names in the business makes it possible for the students to go to school and use their modern facilities practically for free. In fact, these companies often recruit graduates from Just a Dream as the most prepared professionals.

In addition, Just a Dream is a school which recognizes extracurricular activities, within and outside the professional field, as essential to students’ academic and personal growth. Therefore, school trips are regularly organized, featuring exciting destinations in the country and abroad.

PROJECT: “MY DREAM SCHOOL”
Creators: Victoria Ivanova (17), Magdalena Kostadinova (15), Blagovest Pilarski (16)

My Dream School is a unique institution, notable for its out-of-the-box, ground-breaking philosophy. Using a student-centered approach, which values what really is best for the student (and not for the administration, for example), My Dream School incorporates a wide range of fundamental practices. Combining the arts and technologies, students experience a comprehensive headstart to their professional careers. All subjects are taught in a way, which does not stifle student’s ideas, but on the contrary – encourages students to have their own opinion. Thus, My Dream School stimulates its student body to be active citizens, able to think critically about the world around them, instead of following blindly the leaders of today.

Moreover, My Dream School defines the term “revolutionary”, with its grade-less system and robotized teacher collective. Originating from the notion of boosting motivation internally (as opposed to externally, which is often the case), My Dream School has removed assessment completely, allowing its scholars to pursue knowledge itself, and not just good grades. The replacement of teachers by robots has further contributed to the establishment of an objective, knowledge- and skill-oriented classroom, free of discrimination and favoritism. Thus, students can learn in a safe, conflict-free and thought- provoking environment.

In addition, My Dream School puts great emphasis on the connection between learning and nature. During the weekends, students can enjoy environmental activities, such as hiking in the mountains, which build up mind and body together. The beautiful parks surrounding the school are themselves a source of relaxation, inspiration and energy.

PROJECT: “ART SCHOOL”
Creators: Elena Kehayova (15), Dafina Nedeva (15)

The name of this school – Art School – already speaks a lot about its fundamental values. And yet, the Art School is much more than a school about art. It is a school where students go not only to grow in the direction of their talent, but where they actually find their talent and grow as a whole person. At Art School only the core subjects are obligatory – Literature, Math, Foreign Languages. The other subjects are a matter of preference: each student has the right to choose every part of their education. This freedom allows the students to explore their interests, inclinations and talents, to strengthen them or create them. Creativity – this is the key word which this school emanates through all its elements – from its facilities, to its curriculum, and of course – its teachers. The teaching collective is distinguished with its sharp eye to talent, broad mind for creativity and liberal view on individuality.

In addition to its exceptional creativity, Art School prides itself with a policy which preserves equality and prevents discrimination. Everybody at Art School is regarded equally, as an equal member of the school community.

Want more? Have a dream to share? Project Dream School invites you to submit your dreams online at http://projectdreamschool.org/

A plutocratic education

This piece from KQED captured my attention:

a number of authors and high-profile businesspeople and entrepreneurs are debunking the notion that college is the best solution. They’re questioning whether paying tens of thousands of dollars and investing four or five years in an institution should be the default for young people when so many more options exist. With free, high-quality education available to anyone, is college necessary? These folks say no.

Indeed, we have been hearing a lot from the überwealthy lately on what they think of education. Bill Gates thinks the Web will outperform universities (Windows required?); Peter Thiel thinks higher education is in a bubble of false promises; Mark Zuckerberg dabbles by bankrolling Newark’s schools; and, Oprah is waiting for Superman to revolutionize America’s schools.

They might be right. But, that’s not the point.

The problem is that these people have hijacked the entire conversation.

If the ultra wealthy are concerned about America’s competitiveness, the schools aren’t failing. They’re failing the schools. The nation’s ranking on the PISA tables continues to slip, but if we control for poverty, we’re darn near the top.

Maybe the problem doesn’t stem from failing schools and a rotting education system. Maybe the problem is that the number of America’s poor under 18 years of age is rising (21.7% live in poverty as reported by UNICEF in 2007) and wealth among all age groups is being concentrated to a tiny percentage of the population. Given a problem that is rooted in poverty, can we trust the ultra wealthy to “fix” education? …or, can we build a more inclusive conversation and generate more realistic solutions?