Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Education needs to be about learning, not about teaching

As usual the blog post is in the air and, not that unusually so am I as I write this. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older and maybe it’s because I’m back working in and around education but I have noticed a drift in the last few months towards a more philosophical me when it comes to blogging - I’m as passionate as ever about learning, but sometimes it seems that the things we face in the learning world are actually issues stretching beyond learning.  Of course, it may be that actually the converse is true and it’s learning that stretches beyond what we normally associate with learning - it certainly goes well beyond education and that’s something really important to remember :)

Anyway, enough of the preamble.  On my way to the nation’s capital (Wellington aye) and I’ve come up with a plan to change the face of education.  Now education is inherently full of very smart people, but it still seems grounded in the ideas of a teacher and students - smart people and those wishing to learn; those with the knowledge and those needing it.  Bunkum.  That model of learning is gone gone gone and needs to stay gone.  Learning is a journey that gets shaped by those around us.  Think about your own school days and what you learnt whilst you were there.  Now answer this; did you learn everything you needed directly from your teachers?  Or further, did they teach you everything about life?  About bulling?  About how society works?  About popularity?  About love?  About what success was and what it wasn’t?  How much of your subject-based education do you really use now?

Truth is, we desperately need to change our model of trying to teach or educate people in the way we’ve been doing.  Now I’m in adult education and not the education of children, but I have to say in so many ways teaching children seems to be ahead of teaching adults.  Take the environments.  A university has lecture theatres where masses sit patiently (and some even attentively) to the master, a polytechnic or college has a hybrid of lectures and classrooms (even to this day predominantly with desks facing the ‘front’), secondary schools tend to be more grouped and primary education has bright inspiring colours, small groups and a range of different activities going on.  Now we can convince ourselves that it’s about making it interesting for young children and that they have short attention spans and like lots of stimulus, but I find it hard to distinguish that from most adults, self included.  Furthermore a primary school teacher takes the lead across all the subjects a young student studies.  The school of thought (if you’ll excuse the pun) is that this is because they don’t need to be a very deep area in any one subject to be able to teach a wide-range of subjects at a low level; but actually again this model has some massive advantages when we start to apply it in the modern learning world.  Firstly they really know the children in their class and, as a consequence, the children become more attached to their teacher too.  The primary teacher naturally forms more of a guide bond than a subject matter expert - the children are learning so many things and the teacher is their trusted guide as they discover.

Let’s take primary principles and apply to higher education.  Is that my idea?  Yes and no.  I do think there’s lots to learn from the environment in particular, but also the guide and journey type model, but I think we need to recognise that adults do require some different stimuli to children.  No, my idea definitely involves those ‘modern learning environments’ that stimulate learning; they should have and project a kind of energy (yes, colourful, appealing, interesting), allow for group works of different size and shape, supported by technology; multi-user multi-display type screens all over the place (not just one big one at the front), very high quality ultra-fast wireless internet and soft furnishings (this one’s about noise).  But the environment of a successful learning place is not just about the physical environment, it’s also about the people.  Let’s remove all the teachers.  Let’s stop teaching altogether.  Let’s start learning, just at different levels.

The Un-university - and since un-un means we drop the un, I give you the Versity.  The versity (my computer wants to make that veracity!) doesn’t have a single teacher or lecturer in it.  It’s a fantastic environment for learning where people learn at a variety of levels they chose and beyond the services infrastructure (those who support the learning environment) it doesn’t have any academic staff.  The staff that are there are absolutely not teachers.  They are either studying and continuing to learn themselves, or they are there to maintain and improve the environment.  Sounds like chaos eh?  A whole bunch of students rock up one day in this big learning area (let’s call it a learning commons as that’s one of the buzz-words around today) and try and sort out what they’re going to study and how.  Who’s in charge?  Who sorts out the curriculum?  Which qualifications are they working towards? What can they possibly get out of it?

Daft idea you say, but who’s ever been to an un-conference?  Why would a bunch of industry professionals get together in one big room without an agenda or speakers?  But if any of you have been to one, you’ll know that the likely learning in an un-conference is far higher than what you learn by watching one or two good keynotes and some other (and often rather poor) presentations.  In fact when I attend conferences, I enjoy the back-channels and the discussions that others have about what they’ve seen and experienced far more than the presentations (I’ve been known to skip a fair few of these too).  The versity and the unconference have their learning roots from the same place - it’s social learning; the ability to learn from others that we choose rather than those that are forced upon us.

Let’s take social learning to that extra level.  In the learning technology world, Twitter is recognised as the leading tool for learning, yet there are no teachers on Twitter (yes yes, I know some people on Twitter also happen to be teachers, but you know what I mean, there are no ‘classes’).  All Twitter does is connect people and get out of the way.  The versity is the same.

The devil will be in the detail I’m sure, you’ll need advisors (hey that’s my team!) that you go to (not that tell you what you can and can’t study, but that can show you benefits and pathways that you choose), you’ll need to work out a financial model - how to pay for using the facilities (or not), how to pay for qualifications and I’m sure another one of those smarter than me people can work that out.  Essentially think of the versity as the mind gym.  You pay your gym fees to be able to use the facility.  If you want a specific ‘grading’ then there’s a fee for it.  If you want a personal trainer you can hire one, but you could just organise a group session yourself if that worked for you - bring your friends.  Great thing would be that we could radically reduce fees for students this way and potentially bring adult learning back to the masses too.

So there it is, the daftest idea to reform education you ever heard of… or maybe just the next logical step.  Throw me your opinion, tell me I’m wrong or that I’m just misunderstood :)