Shifting Cultures of Learning (and Teaching)

'iPad + Peppa Pig = quiet toddlers' photo (c) 2012, Richard Leeming - license:

I have students across both courses reading Thomas and Seeley-Brown’s A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating Imagination for a Imagination for a World of Constant Change.

They start Chapter 2 with this:

“For most of the twentieth century our educational system has been built on the assumption that teaching is necessary for learning to occur.”

And at the end of the  chapter, they write:

…”in the new culture of learning, the point is to embrace what we don’t know, come up with better questions about it, and continue asking questions in order to learn more, both incrementally and exponentially.”

We’ve so long taught that learning is a process of receiving:    Learning in digital medium also requires a great deal of acting, asking, and playing.

Thomas and Seeley-Brown compare digital learning to doing puzzles — when we engage a puzzle, we  begin posing questions of ourselves and of the material, and then the answers for those questions are used to formulate ever  better  questions and what’s learned also becomes part of solving future problems.

So where does this new culture of learning leave teachers?  My job in this work is not just to run tutorials so that others “learn” digital media (though I do tutorials and demo tools all the time).  I remember my early days in this work when software was designed for a very small number of elite users who had to toil to do the most basic tasks, and  those things could only be learned through the “old” culture of learning: An expert passed on knowledge to others in long and tedious lab sessions.

Now, the tools are, for the most part, designed to teach users along the way, like a puzzle.  If we’re  willing to  ask questions of the tools and to explore by clicking around,  just like we might twist a Rubrik’s cube multiple ways at first before starting to see how the patterns work, we’ll not only learn the platform but even deeper things about how to harness a computer or tablet of phone to create and to connect.   If I teach every detailed step, people will efficiently get their blog set up, but — and this is key — they won’t learn anything more about digital learning.

They won’t learn  about the multiple ways that they can make that blog their own creative expression, about how to find information from others who are also learning or how to navigate the community forums that are now working together to learn and troubleshoot new tools.   Those things only come by playfully exploring.

Yet the trick for me is this:  This “new culture of learning” is happening mainly outside of school.  I worth within the deep culture of institutionalized learning, where I and my colleagues are accountable for dictating the learning goals and to pace people through content and to assess what they “know”.

But in this new culture, what we have to learn, after years of schooling that taught us otherwise, is that play and “failure” are key.  Teaching the solution to the Rubrik’s cube step-by-step is missing the entire point of picking it up in the first place.

So I have to work instead to make it safe to play and to fail.  It’s the biggest challenge of being the teacher in this work, when there can be steep initial learning curves and frustration.   When do  I step in?  When do I assure people that they’ll get it only if I don’t step in?  When is frustration an essential part of formulating ever-better questions and when is it counterproductive?

Part of the learning I want to happen in these classes is that students will become adept at making those very judgments themselves:  When so I keep exploring? What can I try that I haven’t yet tried?  When do I ask for help – not only from the “teacher” but from someone who’ll sit down next to me (virtually or otherwise) and ask questions with me?    When do I persist with “what if”, and when do I give up?

And what do I learn about learning when I keep going even when frustrated?

…especially if my sense of myself as a learner was shaped by exceptional success within a culture of  learning that was  mainly about teacher-directed, teacher-paced, and teacher-evaluated transmission of information?

These are huge challenges for me as a teacher, to know when to step in and when to stand back with support and encouragement and  trust that people will get it.

I’m reading every word that people in these classes are writing and at times,  I want to cave and just turn these courses into software tutorials because that would be so much easier for everyone. And at other times, I want people to trust themselves as much as I trust them to learn more than they know that they can learn.

And in the end, it’s not about the tools at all. It’s all about the learning that the tools make possible.

So as a teacher in this new culture of learning, I’m constantly asking: What is my role now becoming?

Thoughts, anyone?



Filed under Dilemmas of teaching

2 responses to “Shifting Cultures of Learning (and Teaching)

  1. Sandy Adkins

    I have asked myself the same questions. What is the role of teacher in the classroom today? I see students working on laptops in the classroom reading websites to answer questions on the handout. Everyone was engaged in the topic and really working hard to read the website and find the information they needed. Some students trailed over to google to get more clarification on thier topic. I did not really have much to do during this class sesssion once the computers were assigned until it was time to return the computers. My role as teacher that day was to make sure students used the computers correctly.

  2. Sandy, Yes. The role is shifting, along with so much else. And finding that balance of supporting the “tech” part and the interconnected ” new learning” parts are so intriguing to me right now.

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