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November 17, 2009

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Respecting the ‘Desire to Know’ – ECOO Reflections

by Peter Skillen

“Groups are not just a convenient way to accumulate the individual knowledge of their members. They give rise synergistically to insights and solutions that would not come about without them”Alan Schoenfeld, in Brown et al, 1989

The knowledge is in the connections. Whether they are connections among neurons or connections among networks of neurons excited by the energy of passion and motivation of their holders.  A distributed processing model…but, not simply cognitive – clearly, driven by emotion and affect.

This, for me, was the major factor in ECOO’s success this year.Minds on Media

Brenda Sherry and I have received a lot of accolades about ECOO’s success this year.  It is very flattering and extremely humbling. We were quite ‘front and centre’ during the conference…but, that was because of our roles as chair, Minds On Media and Spotlight Speaker dude.  Others made it all happen.

The ECOO Conference Committee members worked tirelessly to ensure the smooth operation of the three days.

And the Minds On Media facilitators and support folks (pedagogistas)!  I cannot say enough here to express my appreciation for their participation, shared leadership and unfettered desire to learn and to teach.  Once we put the idea out there for this kind of day focussed on ‘constructivism’, I was overwhelmed by the support and friendship.  A most sincere thank you.

Respecting the ‘desire to know’…

We always speak of differentiation for students around ‘process, content and product’, so it only made sense to afford the same reality to teachers.  Please visit the Minds On Media wiki if you would like to taste the flavour of the event.

I have always attempted — above all else — to respect a student’s ‘desire to know.’

For years I have been frustrated with the school system’s inadvertent theft of a student’s locus of control.  Before a child enters school, they are full of questions and make much sense out of the rich complexity of authentic situations.  Once a child enters kindergarten, the educational system begins to set the learning agenda.   Children are segregated into age groups.  The curriculum is defined — segmented and sequenced.  The activities are organized. The learning is controlled and measured.  As the years go on — and students acquire their new roles — their curiosity, passion and motivation to learn measurably decreases.  Neil Postman astutely suggested that, “Children enter school as question marks and leave as periods.”  He reminded me of this when we had a discussion after my presentation some years ago at a conference in Israel.

I believe in kids.  I trust in their power of self-regulation.  I have no doubt in their ability to work together for the betterment of themselves and others.  I also believe in teachers.  People enter this profession for noble reasons. They want to make a difference — to educate all children to the best of their abilities.  Teachers want students to become lifelong learners and they understand that to achieve this they must encourage and support the development of self-regulatory skills — the rudimentary origins of which children had when they arrived in school!

I believe that teachers prefer project-based learning models but in these times of standards and testing they often withdraw to more didactic approaches.

Students can ‘take charge of their learning’.  They have the ability to define driving questions within the context of curricular needs, to set their goals, to generate and implement strategies to achieve those goals, and to reflect on the efficacy of their efforts.  They understand intuitively that this can be accomplished best within a social context and with the tools at hand.

This era of information and communications technologies (ICT) is particularly conducive to a shift towards more natural models of learning and away from the factory model of education that grew out of the industrial era.   Powerful tools exist for accessing and manipulating information and also for supporting rich communications among people.  This is growing exponentially with the development and convergence of social media.

However, I am not so naïve as to think that the creation and use of social media are enough to cause a radical change in education.  But I recognize that such tools represent and support approaches to education that are consonant with our deeper beliefs.  I am also confident that when schools systems adopt these philosophies and tools — and use them well — the evidence of higher student achievement will be overwhelmingly convincing.  The latest brain science research also supports these views.

Using social media is somewhat similar to journal writing in that we put our thoughts out there. Teachers (scientists, mathematicians and other great thinkers) have long recognized journal writing as a powerful technology for thinking and learning.  But these are clearly journals with a difference.  These are not private diaries – they are public accounts of your thinking – of your questions, goals, strategies, solutions and so forth.

With effective use of ICT and social media, school learning becomes more like out-of-school learning.  There is ‘conversation’ with other students.  In out-of-school learning environments there is a natural interaction among peers — one that is driven by passion for the task at hand.  Kids observe others in action with a keen eye and a critical mind.  They see what success looks like and what failure is — and what causes one or the other.  When you write and post, those with whom you are connected discuss your thoughts with you.  They give you considered responses and substantive help.  They see not just the ‘product’ of your learning but indeed the very ‘processes’ as they unfold.  And they are an integral part of the growth of the ideas of the group.  This is powerful.

Accommodating a student’s desire to know requires a shift in philosophy, sophisticated tools and an understanding that learning takes place within a social context.

Accommodating a teacher’s desire to know was the focus of the ECOO conference and of the Minds on Media day.  We need more of this kind of synergy and passion for our teachers and our students.

It is time. Time for (r)evolution.

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