The Unfinished Project: Exploration, Learning and Networks
I: The Educational Field
We live today in the age of networks. Having grown from nothing just fifteen years ago, the network has become one of the principal influences in our lives. We trust the network; we depend on the network; we use the network to make ourselves more effective. This state of affairs did not develop gradually; rather, we have passed through a series of unpredicted and non-linear shifts in the fabric of culture.
The first of these shifts was coincident with the birth of the Web itself, back in the mid-1990s. From its earliest days the Web was alluring because it represented all things to all people: it could serve as both resource and repository for anything that might interest us, a platform for whatever we might choose to say. The truth of those earliest days is that we didn’t really know what we wanted to say; the stereotype of the page where one went on long and lovingly about one’s pussy carries an echo of that search for meaning. The lights were on, but nobody was home.
Drawing the curtain on this more-or-less vapid era of the Web, the second shift began with the collapse of the dot-com bubble in the early 2000s. The undergrowth cleared away, people could once again focus on the why of the Web. This was when the Web came into its own as an interactive medium. The Web could have been an interactive medium from day one – the technology hadn’t changed one bit – but it took time for people to map out the evolving relationship between user and experience. The Web, we realized, is not a page to read, but rather, a space for exploration, connection and sharing.
This is when things start to get interesting, when ideas like Wikipedia begin to emerge. Wikipedia is not a technology, at least, it’s not a specific technology. Wikis have been around since 1995, nearly as old as the Web itself. Databases are older than the Web, too. So what is new about Wikipedia? Simply this: the idea of sharing. Wikipedia invites us all to share from our expertise, for the benefit of one another. It is an agreement to share what we know to collectively improve our capability. If you strip away all of the technology, and all of the hype – both positive and negative –from Wikipedia, what you’re left with is this agreement to share. In the decade since Wikipedia’s launch we’ve learned to share across a broad range of domains. This sharing supported by technology is a new thing, and dramatically increases the allure of the network. What was merely very interesting back in 1995 became almost overpowering in the years since the turn of the millennium. It has consistently become harder and harder to imagine a life without the network, because the network provides so much usefulness, and so much utility.
The final shift occurred in 2007, as Facebook introduced F8, its plug-in architecture which opened its design – and its data – to outside developers. Facebook exploded from a few million users to over four hundred million: the third largest nation in the world. Social networks are significant because they harness and amplify our innate human desire and capability to connect with one another. We constantly look to our social networks – that is, our real-world networks – to remind us who we are, where we are, and what we’re doing. These social network provide our ontological grounding. When translated into cyberspace, these social networks can become almost impossibly potent – which is why, when they’re used to bully or harass someone, they can lead to such disastrous results. It becomes almost too easy, and we become almost too powerful.
A lot of what we’ll see in this decade is an assessment of what we choose to do with our new-found abilities. We can use these social networks to transmit pornographic pictures of one another back and forth at such frequency and density that we simply numb ourselves into a kind of fleshy hypnosis. That is one possible direction for the future. Or, we could decide that we want something different for ourselves, something altogether more substantial and meaningful. But in order to get that sort of clarity, we need to be very clear on what we want – both direction and outcome. At this point we are simply playing around – with a loaded weapon – hoping that it doesn’t accidentally go off.
Of course it does; someone sets up a Facebook page to memorialize a murdered eight year-old, but leaves the door open to all comers (believing, unrealistically, that others will share their desire to mourn together), only to see the overflowing sewage of the Internet spill bile and hatred and psychopathology onto a Web page. This happens again and again; it happened several times in one week in February. We are not learning the lesson we are meant to learn. We are missing something. Partly this is because it is all so new, but partly it is because we do not know what our own intentions are. Without that, without a stated goal, we can not winnow the wheat from the chaff. We will forget to close the windows and lock the doors. We will amuse ourselves to death.
I mention this because, as educators, it is up to all of us to act as forces for the positive moral good of the culture as a whole. Cultural values are transmitted by educators; and while parents may be a bigger influence, teachers have their role to play. Parents are simply overwhelmed by all of this novelty – the Web wasn’t around when they were children, and social networks weren’t around even five years ago. So, right at this moment in time, educators get to be the adult cultural vanguard, the vital mentoring center.
If we had to do this ourselves, alone, as individuals – or even as individual institutions – the project would almost certainly fail. After all, how could we hope to balance all of the seductions ‘out there’ against the sense which needs to be taught ‘in here’? We would simply be overwhelmed – our current condition. Fortunately, we are as well connected, at least in potential, as any of our students. We have access to better resources. And we have more experience, which allows us to put those resources to work. In short, we are far better placed to make use of social media than our charges, even if they seem native to the medium while we profess to be immigrants.
One thing that has changed, because of the second shift, the trend toward sharing, is that educational resources are available now as never before. Wikipedia led the way, but it is just small island in a much large sea of content, provided by individuals and organizations throughout the world. iTunes University, YouTube University, the numberless podcasts and blogs that have sprung up from experts on every subject from macroeconomics to the history of Mesoamerica – all of it searchable by Google, all of it instantaneously accessible – every one of these points to the fact that we have clearly entered a new era, where we are surrounded by and saturated with an ‘educational field’ of sorts. Whatever you need to know, you’re soaking in it.
This educational field is brand-new. No one has made systematic use of it, no teacher, no institution, no administration. But that doesn’t lessen its impact. We all consult Wikipedia when we have some trivial question to answer; that behavior is the archetype for where education is headed in the 21st century – real-time answers on-demand, drawn from the educational field.
Paired with the educational field is the ability for educators to establish strong social connections – not just with other educators, but laterally, through the student to the parents, through the parents to the community, and so on, so that the educator becomes ineluctably embedded in a web of relationships which define, shape and determine the pedagogical relationship. Educators have barely begun to make use of the social networking tools on offer; just to have a teacher ‘friend’ a student in Facebook is, to some eyes, a cause for concern – what could possibly be served by that relationship, one which subverts the neat hierarchy of the 19th century classroom?
The relationship is the essence of the classroom, that which remains when all the other trivia of pedagogy are stripped away. The relationship between the teacher and the student is at the core of the magical moment when knowledge is transmitted between the generations. We now have the greatest tool ever created by the hand of man to reinforce and strengthen that relationship. And we need to use it, or else we will all sink beneath a rising tide of noise and filth and distraction.
II: The Unfinished Project
The roots of today’s talk lie in a public conversation I had with Dr. Evan Arthur, who manages the Digital Education Revolution Group within the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. As part of this conversation, I asked him about educational styles, and, in particular, Constructivism. As conceived by Jean Piaget and his successors across the 20th century, Constructivism states that the child learns through play – or rather, through repeated interactions with the world. Schema are created by the child, put to the test, where they either succeed or fail. Failed schema are revised and re-tested, while successful schema are incorporated into ever-more-comprehensive schema. Through many years of research we know that we learn the physics of the real world through a constant process of experimentation. Every time a toddler dumps a cup of juice all over himself, he’s actually conducting an investigation into the nature of the real.
The basic tenets of Constructivism are not in dispute, although many educators have consistently resisted the underlying idea of Constructivism – that it is the child who determines the direction of learning. This conflicts directly with the top-down teacher-to-student model of education which we are all intimate familiar with, which has determined the nature of pedagogy and even the architecture of our classrooms. This is the grand battle between play and work; between ludic exploration and the hard grind of assimilating the skills that situate us within an ever-more-complex culture.
At the moment, this trench warfare has frozen us in a stalemate located, for the most part, between year two and year three. In the first two years education has a strong ludic component, and students are encouraged to explore. But in year three the process becomes routinized, formalized and very strict. Certainly, eight-year-olds are better able to understand restrictions than six-year-olds. They’re better at following the rules, at colouring within the lines. But it seems as though we’ve taken advantage of the fact that an older child is a more compliant one. It is true that as we advance in years, our ludic nature becomes tempered by an adult’s sensibility. But humans retain the urge to play throughout their lives – to a greater degree than any other species we know of. It could very well be that our ability to learn is intimately tied to our desire to play.
If we are prepared to swallow this bitter pill, and acknowledge that play is an essential part of the learning process, we have no choice but to follow this idea wherever it leads us. Which leads me back to my conversation with Dr. Arthur. I asked him about the necessity of play, and he framed his response by talking about “The Unfinished Constructivist Project”. It is a revolution trapped in mid-stride, a revelation that, somehow, hasn’t penetrated all the way through our culture. We still insist that instruction is the preferred mechanism for education, when we have ample evidence to suggest this simply isn’t true. Let me be clear: instruction is not the same thing as guidance. I am not suggesting that children simply do as they please. The more freedom they have, the more need they have for a strong, stabilizing force to guide them as they explore. This may be the significant (if mostly hidden) objection to the Constructivist project: it is simply too expensive. The human resources required to give each child their own mentor as they work their way through the corpus of human knowledge would simply overwhelm any current educational model, with the exception of homeschooling. I don’t know what the student-teacher ratio would need to be in a fully realized Constructivist educational system, but I doubt that twenty-to-one would be sufficient. That’s the level needed to maintain a semblance of order, more a peacekeeping force than an army of mentors.
There have been occasional attempts to create a fully Constructivist educational system, but these, like the manifold utopian communities which have been founded, flourish briefly, then fade or fracture, and do not survive the test of time. The level of dedication and involvement required from both educator/mentors and parents is simply too big an ask. This is the sort of thing that a hunter-gatherer culture has no trouble with: the entire world is the classroom, the child explores it, and an adult is always there to offer an explanation or story to round out the child’s knowledge. We live in an industrial culture (at least, our classrooms do), where there is strict differentiation between ‘education’ and the other activities in life, where adults are ‘educators’ or they are not, where everything is highly formal, almost ritualized. (Consider the highly regulated timings of the school day – equal parts order from chaos, and ritual.) There could never be enough support within such a framework to sustain a Constructivist model. This is why we have the present stalemate; we know the right thing to do, but, heretofore, we have lacked the resources to actualize this knowledge.
That has now changed.
The educational field must be recognized as the key element which will power the unfinished Constructivist revolution. The educational field does not recognize the boundaries of the classroom, the institution, or even the nation. It is simply pervasive, ubiquitous and available as needed. Within that field, both students and educator/mentors can find all of the resources needed to make the Constructivist project a continuing success. There need be no rupture between years two and three, no transformation of educational style from inward- to outward-directed. Instead, there can and should be a continual deepening of the child’s exploration of the corpus of knowledge, under the guidance of a network of mentors who share the burden. We already have most of the resources in place to assure that the child can have a continuous and continually strengthening relationship with knowledge: Wikipedia, while not perfect, points toward the kinds of knowledge sharing systems which will become both commonplace and easily created throughout the 21st century.
Sharing needs to become a foundational component in a modern educational system. Every time a teacher finds a resource to aid a student in their exploration, that should be noted and shared broadly. As students find things on their own – and they will be far better at it than most educators – these, too, should be shared. We should be creating a great, linked trail behind us as we learn, so that others, when exploring, will have paths to guide them – should they choose to follow. We have systems that can do this, but we have not applied these systems to education – in large part because this is not how we conceive of education. Or rather, this is not how we conceive of education in the classroom. I do a fair bit of corporate consulting, and this sort of ‘knowledge capture’ and ‘knowledge management’ is becoming essential to the operation of a 21st century business. Many businesses are creating their own, ad-hoc systems to share knowledge resources among their staff, as they understand how important this is for professional development.
This is a new battle line opened up in the war between the unfinished constructivist project and the older, more formal methods of education. The corporate world doesn’t have time for methodologies which have become obsolete. Employees must be constantly up-to-date. Professionals – particularly doctors and lawyers – must remain continuously well-informed about developments in their respective fields. Those in management need real-time knowledge streams in order recognize and solve problems as they emerge. This is all much more ludic than formal, much more self-directed than guided, much more juvenile than adult – even though these are all among the most adult of all activities. This disjunction, this desynchronization between the needs of the world-at-large and the delivery capabilities of an ever-more-obsolete educational system is the final indictment of things-as-they-are. Things will change; either education will become entirely corporatized, or educators will wholly embrace the unfinished Constructivist project. Either way the outcome will be the same.
Fortunately, the educational field has something else to offer educators beyond the near-infinite supply of educational resources. It is a network of individuals. It is a social network, connected together via bonds of familiarity and affinity. The student is embedded in a network with his mentors; the mentors are connected to other students, and to other mentors; everyone is connected to the parents, and the community. In this sense, the formal space of the ‘classroom’ collapses, undone by the pressure provided by the social network, which has effectively caused the classroom walls to implode. The outside world wants to connect to what happens within the crucible of the classroom, or, more specifically, with the magical moment of knowledge transference within the student’s mind. This is what we should be building our social networks to support. At present, social networks like Facebook and Twitter are dull, unsophisticated tools, capable of connecting together, but completely inadequate when it comes to shaping that connection around a task – such as mentoring, or exploring knowledge. A second generation of social networks is already reaching release. These tools display a more sophisticated edge, and will help to support the kinds of connections we need within the educational field.
None of this, as wonderful as it might sound (and I admit that it may also seem pretty frightening) is happening in a vacuum. There are larger changes afoot within Australia, and no vision for the future of education in Australia could ignore them. We must find a way to harmonize those changes with the larger, more fundamental changes overtaking the entire educational system.
III: The National Curriculum
Underlying fear of a Constructivist educational project is that it would simply give children an excuse to avoid the tough work of education. There is a persistent belief that children will simply load up on educational ‘candy’, without eating their all-so-essential ‘vegetables’, that is, the basic skills which form the foundation for future learning. Were children left entirely to their own devices, there might be some danger of this – though, now that we live in the educational field, even that possibility seems increasingly remote. Children do not live in isolation: they are surrounded by adults who want them to grow into successful adults. In prehistoric times, adults simply had to be adults around children for the transference of life-skills to take place. Children copied, imitated, and aped adults – and still do. This learning-by-mimesis is still a principle factor in the education of the child, though it is not one which is often highlighted by the educational system. Industrial culture has separated the adult from the child, putting one into the office, the other into the school. That separation, and the specialization which is the hallmark of the Industrial Age, broke the natural and persistent mentorship of parenting into discrete units: this much in the home, this much in the school. If we do not trust children to consume a nourishing diet of knowledge, it is because we do not trust ourselves to prepare it for them. The separation by function led to a situation where no one is responsible for the whole thread of the life. Parents look to teachers. Teachers look to parents. Everyone, everywhere, looks to authority for responsible solutions.
There is no authority anywhere. Either we do this ourselves, or it will not happen. We have to look to ourselves, build the networks between ourselves, reach out and connect from ourselves, if we expect to be able to resist a culture which wants to turn the entire human world into candy. This is not going to be easy; if it were, it would have happened by itself. Nor is it instantaneous. Nothing like this happens overnight. Furthermore, it requires great persistence. In the ideal situation, it begins at birth and continues on seamlessly until death. In that sense, this connected educational field mirrors and is a reflection of our human social networks, the ones we form from our first moments of awareness. But unlike that more ad-hoc network, this one has a specific intent: to bring the child into knowledge.
Knowledge, of course, is very big, very vague, mostly undefined. Meanwhile, there are specific skills and bodies of knowledge which we have nominated as important: the ability to read and write; to add and subtract, multiply and divide; a basic understanding of the physical and living worlds; the story of the nation and its peoples. These have very recently been crystallized in a ‘National Curriculum’, which seeks to standardize the pedagogical outcomes across Australia for all students in years 1 through 10. Parents and educators have already begun to argue about the inclusion or exclusion of elements within that curriculum. I was taught phonics over forty years ago, but apparently it’s still a matter of some debate. The teaching of history is always going to be contentious, because the story we tell ourselves about who we are is necessarily political. So the adults will argue it out – year after year, decade after decade – while the educators and students face this monolithic block of text which seems to be the complete antithesis of the Constructivist project. And, looked at one way, the National Curriculum is exactly the type of top-down, teacher-to-student, sit-down-and-shut-up sort of educational mandate which is no longer effective in the business world.
All of which means its probably best that we avoid viewing up the National Curriculum as a validation, encouraging us to continue on with things as they are. Instead, it should be used as mandate for change. There are several significant dimensions to this mandate.
First, putting everyone onto the same page, pedagogically, opens up an opportunity for sharing which transcends anything before possible. Teachers and students from all over Australia can contribute to or borrow from a wealth of resources shared by those who have passed before them through the National Curriculum. Every teacher and every student should think of themselves as part of a broader collective of learners and mentors, all working through the same basic materials. In this sense, the National Curriculum isn’t a document so much as it is the architecture of a network. It is the way all things educational are connected together. It is the wiring underneath all of the pedagogy, providing both a scaffolding and a switchboard for the learning moment.
Is it possible to conceive of a library organized along the lines of the National Curriculum? Certainly a librarian would have no problem configuring a physical library to meet the needs of the curriculum. It’s even easier to organize similar sorts of resources in cyberspace. Not only is it easy, there’s now a mandate to do so. We know what sorts of resources we’ll need, going forward. Nothing should be stopping us from creating collective resources – similar to an Australian Wikipedia, and perhaps drawing from it – which will serve the pedagogical requirements of the National Curriculum. We should be doing this now.
Second, we need to think of the National Curriculum as an opportunity to identify all of the experts in all of the areas covered by the curriculum, and, once they’ve been identified, we must create a strong social network, with them inside, giving them pride of place as ‘nodes of expertise’. Knowledge is not enough; it must be paired with mentors who have been able to put that knowledge into practice with excellence. The National Curriculum is the perfect excuse to bring these experts together, to make them all connected and accessible to everyone throughout the nation who could benefit from their wisdom.
Here, once again, it is best to think of the National Curriculum not as a document but as a network – a way to connect things, and people, together. The great strength of the National Curriculum is, as Dr. Evan Arthur put it, that it is a ‘greenfields’. Literally anything is possible. We can go in any direction we choose. Inertia would have us do things as we’ve always done them, even as the centrifugal forces of culture beyond the classroom point in a different direction. Inertia can not be a guiding force. It must be resisted, at every turn, not in the pursuit of some educational utopia or false revolution, but rather because we have come to realize that the network is the educational system.
Moving from where we are to where need to be seems like a momentous transition. But the Web saw repeated momentous transitions in its first fifteen years and we managed all of those successfully. We can absorb huge amounts of change and novelty so long as the frame which supports us is strong and consistent. That’s the essence of the parent-child relationship: so long as the child feels it is being cared for, it can endure almost anything. This means that we shouldn’t run around freaking out. The sky is not falling. The world is not ending. If anything, we are growing closer together, more connected, becoming more important to one another. It may feel a bit too close from time to time, as we learn how to keep a healthy distance in these new relationships, but that closeness supports us all. It can keep children from falling through the net of opportunity. It can see us advance into a culture where every child has the full benefit of an excellent education, without respect to income or circumstance.
That is the promise. We have the network. We live in the educational field. We now have the National Curriculum to wire it all together. But can we marry the demands of the National Curriculum with the ludic call of Constructivism? Can we create a world where literally we play into learning? This is more than video games that have math drills embedded into them. It’s about capturing the interests of a child and using that as a springboard for the investigation of their world, their nation, their home. That can only happen if mentors are deeply involved and embedded in the child’s life from its earliest years.
I don’t have any easy answers here. There is no magic wand to wave over this whole uncoordinated mess to make it all cohere. No one knows what’s expected of them anymore – educators least of all. Are we parents? Are we ‘friends’? Where do we stand? I know this: we stand most securely when we stand connected.