David armano reports on a talk given by John Seeley Brown (JSB) at ID’s Strategy 08 Conference in Chicago.
JSB’s talk was aimed out how we are learning and being educated and how much change is happening in this area. His framing of the subject matter was to think about education as an institution which needed to be re-built from the ground up. In essance, his call was to re-define what an actual instutuiton is—from something which is controlled and overly structured to something that still has shape but is more flexible and pliable.
But for me—John’s talk came down to one statement he made.
‘We are going back to the one room school house’
I believe JSB was pointing out the irony of what’s happening with how we learn. In the one room school house, the teacher acted as a guide and students learned from each other. The setting was obviously intimate because it was small and the students all knew each other. I’m taking a few liberties with his metaphor, but the one room school house is a really interesting way to look at things. JSB called out that there is a renaissance in ‘tinkering’, a soft skill which in the past has been marginalized, but is being taken seriously as a way people learn. Some would call this learning by doing. How do you think I learned what I have about ‘social media’?
Lastly and possibly most importantly JSB discussed a shift from instruction based learning to ‘interest-driven participation’. While he did not define this in depth, I believe that it reflects other shifts that are happening in all types of fields. Connected and empowered individuals are no longer content to sit back and be lectured to. Information has been set free. Monologues have been replaced by conversations and increasingly we learn by doing—from watching what our peers do, from using what’s been made into open source. So the classroom got a lot smaller—and we’re back to influencing each other directly.
This interests me because it describes a model I think we’re trying to move towards in my university, where the idea of disciplines gives way to the idea of personal and developing interests. The idea that a student wanting to solve a problem will move from one area to another, acquiring skills and knowledge (or ‘buying them in’) opens up all sorts of possibilities that make the future of design look bright.
Of course there will always be those who decide they are a certain type of designer (say, graphic or product) and follow the traditional path.
One of the problems with this model is that probably the only way to accommodate both approaches, the ‘learning for learning’s sake’ and the ‘learning for a defined job’ (for want of better, less value-laden phrases), is to increase modularisation. The irony is that flexibility comes from a clearer structure. Modularisation has not been popular in academia because it is seen as a management imposition and goes against the romantic idea of the accumulation of knowledge over time.
I think, however, that a lot of the things that many academics claim to despise (learning outcomes, assessment, modules and even, in some cases, teaching) are despised because they’re not done very well.
My degree, with the Open University, was pretty much the ideal of the model described above – one year I was studying education, the next Beethoven, that was followed up with Pure and Applied Maths then Shakespeare. The end result – a degree that opened up my eyes to all sorts of things because I linked everything together. What did it qualify me to do? To learn.
When done right, structure permits the most flexible of outcomes – look at cathedrals, all built to the same basic layout but each unique. Or what about trellises you get from a garden centre? Buy six, each identical, and watch your plants grow. No conformity there. Or, if you want to get really fundamental, look at DNA…
I’m going to disagree with David’s summing up, though – or rather, the phrase he uses rather than what I think he means. It may seem like a semantic point but I don’t believe in learning by doing. I believe in learning through doing. The former implies that repeating something you’re shown will lead to understanding, but it won’t – it just leads to repeating (think learning your times tables at school; you may be able to tell me what 10 x 13 is off the top of your head but can you tell me what 2.342 x 11.456 is? Learning by doing/repeating doesn’t teach you how to multiply, it teaches you to recite).
Learning through doing implies demonstrating what you’ve learnt through what you produce, but the learning is not the act of production.
Okay, I know that makes little sense but that’s the trouble with semantic arguments!