For a long period of human history we had one main tool for remembering things – our brains. If we needed information that was critically important, we either had to have it in our heads or we had to be standing next to someone who did. This meant that if I, as a teacher, was meant to teach someone something, a fairly large chunk of what I had to do was get things in your head. In order to try and ensure that stuff was in your brain, we’ve developed methods of assessing you that involve you, by yourself, proving that you’ve shoved those important things into your brain. Sure… education has always been about more than that, but a sizeable part has simply been about making you you remember things that you might need later.
A fair amount of very good educational literature has talked about collaborative learning – particularly over the last 100 years or so. But from a teacher’s perspective, you still needed to be responsible for all the other voices in the room. Whether the rest of the voices were represented by a book or by your ‘experience’ or ‘expertise’ you, as a teacher, needed to have it prepared in advance to bring to the classroom to allow for collaborative learning to happen. If the conversation diverged from your specialty or away from the materials on hand… you were cooked. For a long time, then, we needed to think of ‘curriculum’ as separate from ‘subset of people thinking about certain kinds of things’ for practical reasons. Organizing access to hundreds or thousands of people who are thinking a certain thing, summarizing it, editing it, printing it on paper, putting it on a truck – these things take time.
Broadly speaking, when we think about learning, we have some foundational questions we all want to have answered when looking into a given field like:
- What have people thought of this particular concept before?
- Are there general agreements about how you might think about something?
- Are there good/best practices?
- What mistakes have others made?
Jamming these things into a textbook or collection of books was much more efficient than trying to organize travel for thousands of people to come and talk to a classroom. Our goals are mostly the same now as they were in the ‘print it/drive it around era’ – help someone be an effective member of a given discipline. Help them be understood in that discipline. Help them to make decisions in that discipline. Ideally, help them to become a member of that discipline. And those disciplines have changed along with the communications technologies that have changed mine. Whether you’re a historian, a mechanic or a pilot – life is different than it was 30 years ago.
I think that the scale and the abundance of the internet has changed how we can/should go about it.
Now that we have access to those thousands of people, to those mistakes, and best practices through the internet the community of learning can be the curriculum of a course. A course can be designed so that each of you will do your own work by bringing in those ideas from across the field and will be sharing that work with other learners. When we see and respond to your work we’ll not only understand your perspective better, but we’ll have engaged in a interaction inside our context. As we use these collaborate tools and practices you’ll experience first hand what its like for others to learn. What have they found? What have they figured out? Where does what I know match what they know and how does it differ? As we start to work together, hopefully we’ll begin to rely on each other’s perspective to make our own better.
Why don’t you just tell us what to learn?
There is certainly a time and place to be told to do/know something or not to do/know it – don’t eat the poison berries. I can imagine a situation where it would be useful to have some kind of computer assisted remedial program that would help people understand some fundamental language in the sciences for instance. But i don’t consider actually just ‘getting the job done’, or ‘being able to repeat what that guy said’ to be the same thing as understanding or learning. There are many options out there to choose from to simply be told what to think. I think when we normally ‘tell people what success looks like’ we’re really setting them up to tell us what they remembered. Or, worse, to spend the whole time they are in class trying to figure out the secret code to getting a passing grade.
And, truth be told, there aren’t a huge amount of real ‘best practices’ for complex or interesting things out there anyway. Every situation is different. A quick look around any classroom, with the different backgrounds and different levels of experience, gives you a sense of the flexibility that we need to have to be able to truly have a student centred classroom. You have to consider your context, what you already know, what you suspect, who you are before you can add new stuff to your understanding. Learning how to deal with uncertainty… with that feeling of not being sure what the right answer is and deciding anyway – that is the critical step towards knowing.
Community as Curriculum
Most people in the educational technology industry aren’t able to understand the technology by themselves. We all rely on each other to help us learn and understand our work. I tend to think this is true of any industry. We used to have to turn to books to pass knowledge around but with the communications technologies that we have now, we can work with each other in real time to come up with the answers to our challenges. We can use these technologies for more than simply telling each other ‘things’ we can use it to negotiate ideas between us.
The learning contract
One of the flaws that I’ve had in this approach when I started was that I was lacking a way to bring a method of assessment to the course that reflects the philosophy of education I’ve been working with. The idea of saying that you understood 92% of the ‘right’ way of seeing something is the exact opposite of the way that I see this course. From a traditional perspective… I want you to cheat. I want you to ‘get the answer’ from your neighbour. I want you to tell me that you did that… but more importantly, I’m hoping that you’ll tell each other that. So the an effective learning contract in this instance measures how much work you’re doing – how much you are contributing – not what piece of information you grabbed and were able to regurgitate.
And, if you take anything from this course, is that making meaning, creating knowledge, is something that happens with people.
Here’s an article that talks a little bit more about collaborative theories of education.