Disrupting the culturePosted: May 10, 2016
It is one of the strange things about education.
Go to a big-ticket conference and you will hear from loads of people; some who have actually worked in education and others who have not. You might expect that this would produce a diversity of views but it really doesn’t. It’s great that everyone feels free to voice an opinion but these opinions are remarkably similar.
In Dan Willingham’s recent blog post, he discusses new evidence for the importance of the social transmission of culture. People don’t simply adapt to their environment through a process of problem-solving, they maintain cultural traditions transmitted to them from knowledgeable forebears. Willingham relates this to education and notes:
“It’s easy to be a little dazzled by the brilliance of the human mind, and to see most of cognitive development as the intrepid mind of the individual, exploring the environment like a little scientist… When it comes to schooling, I sometimes sense a similar reverence for learning that is the product of an individual mind at work, over the mere copying of someone else’s solution. It’s true that you only get true invention/innovation from original thought. But it’s a whole lot quicker and more reliable to copy what others have done. That is probably why social learning seems to be the workhorse of cultural learning.”
I don’t think Willingham is making a case against all forms of discovery learning but he is noting something important; transmission of ideas is a pretty essential part of education. This passage reminded me of a recent blog post by Benjamin Evans where he writes of a conference that seems to fit with what Willingham is describing:
“I spent the last two days in Sydney, with a nice view of Darling Harbour, at a conference which was ostensibly concerned with the design of learning spaces. Though this topic was touched on periodically, it also gave the chance for the presenters to espouse their philosophy of education. This philosophy was remarkably similar, to the extent that some presenters were made to look sheepish as they moved swiftly through the same slides as the previous chap, their shock statistics looking a little less dramatic than they had hoped.
The more presentations I sat through, the more the same mantra was chanted: children in rows is bad; teachers who talk are bad; today’s kids will have 17 jobs in their lifetime (in five separate industries – which seems very specific); we need to teach C21 skills; content and knowledge no longer need to be prioritised because of Google; Schools kill creativity; Project Based Learning is the future; children need to be engaged and this means teaching them what they want to learn…”
It really is a mantra, isn’t it? And it pays no attention to the need for any kind of cultural transmission.
Willingham notes the influence of Jean Piaget in shaping this… er… culture in which the child’s individual discoveries are placed at the heart of learning. In the early 1980s, Seymour Papert built on the work of Piaget to develop ‘constructionism‘; a theory that prioritised the need for students to solve problems themselves and create a physical product. It was Papert that developed the computer programming language LOGO and a little robot buggy known as a ‘turtle’ which could be controlled by the language and draw patterns on the floor. As a student at that time, I had a mess around with LOGO myself (I wrote about this more in my ebook).
Discover-learning LOGO didn’t transform learning. It didn’t really work because it downplayed the role of social transmission in favour of individual problem solving and so it represented a misunderstanding of how we learn. As Mayer notes:
“Papert’s call for hands-on discovery of LOGO environments helped to stimulate a healthy set of research studies. Kurland and Pea (1985) carefully tested a group of 11- and 12-year-olds who had logged more than 50 hours of LOGO programming experience under pure discovery conditions. The students were able to write and interpret short, simple programs but had much difficulty on programs involving fundamental programming concepts. In interviews, students revealed many incorrect conceptions about how programs work although “none of these sources of confusion will be intractable to instruction” (Kurland & Pea, 1985, p. 242). In a controlled experiment, Pea and Kurland (1984) found that students who received extensive hands-on experience exploring a LOGO environment were no better on tests of planning than were students who received no programming experience. In a review of results such as these, Dalbey and Linn (1985) concluded that “students who learn LOGO fail to generalize this learning to other tasks” (p. 267).” [references available in link above]
Why is it that so many people on the conference circuit still want to sell us an idea that didn’t work in the early 1980s? I’m not sure. What I am clear about is this: we need to disrupt these disruptors and change the culture of education. It’s getting old.