Stephen Wilmarth: Five Socio-Technological Trends That Change Everything in Learning and Teaching

In his chapter of Curriculum 21, Stephen Wilmarth puts forth an argument that we are in the throes of a revolution that will upend what we assume to be true about learning and teaching. The trends are as follows:

  • Social Production: the creation of content through various digital tools
  • Social Networks: the connection of individuals into like-minded groups at the digital level.
  • The Semantic Web: the transformation of the web into patterned information based on the coding of individual “pieces” of information
  • Media Grids: three-dimensional representations of space using computing power and the internet (Wilmarth, 91)
  • The New Zoo of non-linear learning: the mastery of biology through technology.

I can’t recall exactly how he said it, but on Thursday, Chris Dede from Harvard University, described our visions of the future as never being fully realized, but it still matters that we have them. When reading through Wilmarth’s chapter, I got just that feeling–as if I was reading about what our best selves as educators and leaders might look like. In reality, I am not so sure about his vision, but I like that he expressed it in terms of the types of learning that will need to occur for his vision to become reality.

A long-held belief of mine has been that technologies that make us less social and more fragmented will not succeed; they are just contrary to our genetic makeup. A passage from the chapter echoes this:

The way people connect with each other–the community that’s created–determines the power of learning shifts. If a technology makes connections more interesting, more varied, or more frequent, it is likely to be more widely adopted and have disproportionate effect on the creation of dynamic learning communities.

Essentially, the more human technology makes us, the more likely we are to proliferate that technology–we’ll call it technical selection. Wilmarth uses the example of Facebook and Twitter to prove this point. It’s not been lost on me that some of the most reticent users of technology in the classroom I have worked with all now have Facebook pages, yet still ask for assistance when sending attachments via email. One connects us, the other confounds us. Where Wilmarth and I truly agree is in the fact that we should examine the structures within education that can make us more human, more connected and push in that direction.

In his summary, Wilmarth makes a very salient point, and one that after the last two days of interaction I’ve had, deserves restating:

What we thought about teaching and learning, the cathedral-like, elegant, top-down, complex systems we designed to support the formal processes of learning and teaching, just may not be the relevant model. We may have to imagine a model that will behave more organically.

The point has come where we stop supporting systems that are not meeting the needs our students, not pushing our teachers to learn and grow alongside their students, and rooted in tradition rather than research and logic.

It would be great if someone was providing blueprints…

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Heidi Hayes Jacobs: Curriculum 21 Essential Education for a Changing World

On my desk yesterday sat an unwrapped copy from of Heidi Hayes Jacobs’ latest book “Curriculum 21 Essential Education for a Changing World” my monthly gift from ASCD. In all honesty, I immediately balk at most things labeled with the ordinal number “21” as a result of its saturated use in educational circles these days. Rarely does a memo leave the offices in Trenton without mention of this initiative or that program designed to incorporate the 21st Century in some manner.

I am just a little over the term, that’s all.

Being that today is a day of airports and the requisite time-suck that they, and the airlines, put you through, I knew that I’d have time to get through some of the book on the way down. My intent was to use some of it as a springboard for FETC, as some of the themes presented are concurrent with some of my aims at the conference.

The book is laid out in an interesting format, in that Jacobs is the editor, but the first four chapters are hers. Following her are chapters from: Stephen Wilmarth, Vivien Stewart, Tim Tyson (of Mabry Middle School fame), Frank W. Baker (who is also creating a ton of great content over that the Making Curriculum Pop Ning), Daivd Niguidula, Jaimie Cloud, Alan November, Bill Sheskey, Aurther Costa and Bena Kallick.

Since this is mid-flight, and I am nowhere near through the entire book, I thought I’d start with some reactions to the first chapter authored by Jacobs. The thrid through fourth chapters dealing with the structural change to schools and curriculum at the systems level, also Jacobs’ chapters, I’d like to treat on their own, especially after some of the sessions I plan on attending tomorrow.

“The good old days are still good enough.”

In chapter one, I enjoyed the three myths that she believes need addressing when talking about school reform, especially curricular reform. The first myth is a sentiment anyone involved in moving schools and districts forward encounters on a daily basis. Very much the same as the TTWWADI mentality, this one extends beyond schools typically and into the community that surrounds it. There are methodologies that are timeless in education, and there are those that are fleeting. Without careful examination and experimentation with these ideas, we lose the ability to know what works best in given situations. Schools or communities, Jacobs states, are “shackled by memories,” and many times paralyzed by the insecurity of change.

“We’re better off if we all think alike–and not too much.”

The second myth addresses what Jacobs calls “America’s love/hate relationship with being educated.” The myth, is as unsettling as it is hilarious. The glorification of the self-made man who rises out of poverty with little or no formal education to millionaire status is revered among the general population of the United States. Jacobs points to Susan Jacoby’s “The Age of American Unreason,” here with its examination of the fracturing of American discourse into factional discord, whereby thinkers surround themselves with those who share their own ideas. This for is evidenced by the consistent battle between the viewers of Fox News and those of every other major media outlet. We now have the ability and what’s worse, the desire to surround ourselves, rather insulate ourselves with those who think like us. What is missing and necessary in any future of curricular change, according to Jacobs, is a return to active, open discourse between factional thinkers. We were founded amid chaos, and our students need to understand that disagreement is not disloyalty.

“Too much creativity is dangerous–and the arts are frills”

Even though we have much data showing the correlation between study of the arts and music and future academic success, as a society we marginalize the study of these disciplines in times of extreme panic or budget shortfall. Jacobs looks to Dan Pink to help characterize the future skill-set of the 21st Century worker (ugh, I used it as an adjective). Sir Ken Robinson defines creativity as this: an original thought or idea that has merit. In that capacity it cannot be limited to the realm of arts and music. We don’t have innovation fields like accounting unless there is someone who sits in his or her chair and conceives of a whole new way to crunch numbers and manipulate their trade. Eliminating or denigrating arts as “frills” does a complete disservice to the students we teach today who will become tomorrow’s leaders.