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April 30, 2010


Bricolage, Schools & the Internet

by Peter Skillen

I am amazed at the differences between learning ‘in school’ versus learning ‘out of school’.

Once again, as a result of a post by Graham Attwell ‘How we use technology and the internet for learning‘, I am amazed at the differences between learning ‘in school’ versus learning ‘out of school’. The first time I formally thought of this distinction was when I read an article by Lauren Resnick which was the 1987 Presidential Address – called ‘Learning In School and Out‘. (Full PDF here.) It remains, to this day, one of my favourite articles.  Two of the main points Resnick makes are these:

  • ‘Individual cognition in school versus shared cognition outside.’ In school, the most prevalent form of learning and performance is individual. Oh yes, group activities and ‘collaborative learning’ are common, but when it comes time for judgment, schools typically evaluate the individual performance. In addition, many of the school activities, such as homework, are individual.  Outside of school, tasks and jobs are often socially shared and, as a result, performance of the ‘group’ or ‘team’ is often what is judged.  Resnick cites a beautiful example of this ‘social distribution of knowledge’ by the anthropologist Edwin Hutchins.  Imagine a ship being piloted into and out of San Diego harbour.  There are six people with three different job descriptions.  ‘Two people on the deck take visual sightings on predetermined landmarks, using special telescopic devices mounted on gyrocompasses that yield exact readings of direction. They call out their readings to two other individuals, who relay them by telephone to a specialist on the bridge. This individual records the bearings in a book and repeats them aloud for confirmation. Next to the recorder, another individual uses specialized tools to plot the ship’s position on a navigational chart and to project where the ship will be at the next fix and beyond. These projections of position are used to decide what landmarks should be sighted next by those on deck and when a course correction will be required. The entire cycle is repeated every one to three minutes.  No individual in the system can pilot the ship alone. The knowledge necessary for successful piloting is distributed throughout the whole system.’

No individual in the system can pilot the ship alone. The knowledge necessary for successful piloting is distributed throughout the whole system.

  • ‘Pure mentation in school versus tool manipulation outside.’ In school work, although tools (calculators, spell-checkers, concept-mapping, websites, word-predict, smart phones) are often used during learning, when it comes to assessment and evaluation, these tools are very often not allowed. Schools base the ‘greatest premium’ on solo performance – on a student’s efforts without the use of any tools – books, notes, calculators and all those tools previously mentioned. However, outside of school, people are ‘engaged intimately’ with tools as ‘cognitive partners’, as Gavriel Salomon would say. The ship’s personnel in the previous paragraph clearly used tools to achieve their successes.  Schools need to welcome all the tools and look at performance in partnership with those tools.  Open-book exams, if you are into exams, make more sense than do exams without such access.

Graham Attwell makes the point in the above mentioned post that young people (in fact, many people) ‘are using social software and Web 2.0 technologies for work, play and learning outside institutions’. This is no surprise to many of us. The major difference that this highlights, however, is in the nature of the learning – the formality, the control, the engagement.  Learning in educational institutions is generally ‘system directed’ and ‘formal’.  Learning outside of school is generally ‘self-directed’ and ‘informal’.

Learning in educational institutions is generally ‘system directed’ and ‘formal’.  Learning outside of school is generally ‘self-directed’ and ‘informal’.

Graham cites a Pew Research study which found that 56 percent of American young people were using computers for ‘creative activities, writing and posting of the internet, mixing and constructing multimedia and developing their own content.’ He goes on to describe the ‘bricolage’ nature of this constructionist learning – a phenomenon which Seymour Papert held close to his heart.  The bricoleur tinkered with materials at hand to invent and construct something new.

Schools need to adapt.  Administrators and teachers need to accommodate the tools and devices that many students bring to school.  We need to value true collaboration – with other people and with the tools that serve as cognitive and social partners.

This is quite a challenge for us as a society.  Are we up for it?

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. May 10 2010

    I’ve finally started to read Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology and I think you’d enjoy it. I was surprised that I didn’t see Lauren Resnick’s name in the bibliography, but I think it’s more of a big picture text perhaps.

    Technology has definitely transformed education outside of school, and the authors worry about whether schools will be able to harness the power of technology for learning inside of school. Or will only those students with the means, the ability and the initiative, take advantage of technology-driven learning?

    I don’t see big changes in classroom practice in my district, for the most part. Until we allow students to follow their own passion and as you suggest provide ‘self-directed’ and ‘informal’ learning that is more like the out of school learning that we know our students like to do, I can’t see anything changing any time soon. I sure hope I’m wrong, but I don’t see that happening until students finally get the credentials they need outside of school and can start to ‘vote with their feet’.

    I think Collins and Halverston are onto something…we really should worry about who will be able to leave school to pursue their passions in social contexts with the technology that they can afford, and who will be left behind with standardized tests, sitting in desks and completing irrelevant activities on their own….typical in-school transmissive stuff. I don’t think there is much time to wait – schools better get moving or they will be left wondering where everybody went!

    (Love that they’ve mentioned Papert about 4 times already and I’m only finished the Preface and Chapter 1!!)


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