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New Ways of Learning

July 31, 2012

The 21st century has seen a revolution in the way that people learn but, surprisingly, it has not been led by educationalists but by economic necessity. In the collaborative workplace people work in teams, information travels quickly and freely, employees are networked within and without the organisation and people solve challenges and manage projects together; this is already with us in many companies and organisations. Meetings take place on the hoof and as required and are frequently virtual while knowledge management and information transfer is critical to success.

We’re not just talking about Google here. This is the kind of model you would find employed in successful retail and insurance companies and in manufacturing management across the globe. Education has constantly struggled to keep up. Worse still, the education system has a long history of rejecting and even vilifying new media and technologies.

“That’s enough talking!”

Sometimes we have to make what educators do problematic in order to see that there are alternatives. How bizarre is it nowadays to think that people have to be quiet in order to learn? The monastic model of education (silent, repetitious, learning through copying) and the military model (drilling, healthy bodies, timetables, note making) has imposed a considerable burden on schools over the years. We still talk about disciplines in subject knowledge, knowing that the word is also a verb and learning is – apparently – hard work, self-controlled and uncomfortable.

Well it works doesn’t it?

Yes, it worked for you or you wouldn’t be reading this. You are a successful product of this kind of educational model and in your educational career you have probably, if you’re honest, conveyed the same messages to your able students supported by a testing and examination system which is rooted in the same models.

The problem is that this model serves its own followers, reflects class stratifications and the notion of a persisting educated elite and fails far too many people. In a world where China trains more doctors in a year than the UK does in a decade, a Japanese company is the UK’s biggest car manufacturer and most of our energy supplies are foreign-owned, we have to recognise the need to change.

At this point, as an educated professional, you start to feel cynical, complacent and self-satisfied. You know none of this would work in your school or institution and you turn out lots of students who go on to university and you know their parents didn’t so, therefore, the school system must be successful. Of course, it’s nonsense. Over half of these graduates go on to unemployment and when they find work it is not in an area related to their education.

So, what has to be different?

What is emerging is a new paradigm for education – one that is significantly different. Educators are going to have to start by learning more about blended or hybrid learning, the flipped classroom and the notion that knowledge management is no longer about acquisition and memory but about accessibility and deployment. YouTube, Google and Wikipedia can tell Year 12 more about an historical event, set texts, scientific principle, a mathematical conundrum, or the geography of a country, and do it far more effectively than a teacher can. They can tell a key stage 2 cohort more about pirates, Stonehenge and report writing as well. The teacher’s role in the 21st-century is in managing, selecting from, and evaluating that stream of knowledge.

Next, society is going to have to recognise that learning is a social activity – and that will run counter to much that you know intuitively about being an expert. It is simply obvious when you think about it that people learn together, by working collaboratively to explore issues and solve problems. The role of the teacher is to present the right issues, to pose the right challenges and to steer the learning.

If learning is a three-legged stool, with knowledge management and collaboration as the first two legs, then the third is technology and its capacity not simply to break down the door of the classroom or to open a few windows but to dispense with them altogether. In the future, and often in the present, people learn in focus groups related to specific tasks not in the same group. They constantly look outward and draw in additional sources of expertise and knowledge. They are driven by the process and the product not by some kind of assessment goal.

Technology enables all of this and those who do not make use of it will be left behind.

Blended learning

Blended learning is an umbrella term for the kind of social learning, using online and off-line collaborative tools, now emerging across the globe. Instruction consists of short, tightly-focused sessions supported by extensive discussion and activities directed towards achieving process and product goals. Learning is both formal and informal emphasising collaboration, knowledge management and sharing, social networking, coaching and mentoring. Teleconferencing, virtual classrooms, web casts, video and animation all contribute to this kind of new learning. 

Learning is no longer synchronous (a group of people in the same place at the same time learning the same thing) but asynchronous at times which are appropriate to the needs of learners and their personal development. Support is increasingly personalised and based in questioning and challenge rather than telling. People are their own experts. 

Some people would like to pooh-pooh this approach. They think it means that anyone can learn anything about anything and that knowledge is treated as a kind of relativist soup where anyone can stick in a spoon and pull out what they like and where nothing has more value than anything else.

They are, of course, wrong. Social learning is self-managing so that the community of learners determines what learning is appropriate, accredited and valuable. This is an extremely powerful aspect of knowledge management which many people overlook.

Learning in this way requires new skills. In particular, it makes the role of the facilitator much more important. Teachers are going to have to stop imagining that they are transmitters of societal knowledge and are, instead, going to have to see themselves as the enablers and negotiators of other people’s interactions with an unimaginable expanse of information.

There’s nothing to be frightened of in this. The transmission model with all of its clumsy cultural assumptions and its one-way traffic can be happily consigned to history. Mentoring also still looks like a way of holding the cards and controlling their distribution. It can’t go on like this.

Of course, there are risks. Educational censorship is going to have to end and some people will argue that we will miss our experts. Who knows? A Conservative MP, elected for his views, allegedly intelligent and a leader, described the London Olympic Games opening ceremony as left-wing multicultural waffle. A few years ago, a lot of newspaper readers would have taken that view seriously but the same opening ceremony saw an opposing message from nine million tweets. That is a lot of evidence and accumulated expertise which society should embrace.


Jim Sweetman is a writer and commentator on education.


©Jim Sweetman 2012: you are free to share, copy, distribute and transmit this document with attribution and without alteration for educational and non-commercial purposes.




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