Disconnected learning

If you could have a day off tomorrow to learn anything you wanted, what would it be? Have a think now…

There could be so many things you or I could learn in a day, probably the vastness of choices would make it so hard to decide. It might be connected to other people. It might be working with experts. It be making something, or finally learning to finish something. Imagine the pathways that one day of learning might open up for us? OK, now back to reality. Sorry.

Today across parts of Australia, children undertook testing for NAPLAN, the National Assessment Program – Literacy And Numeracy, to help the Government work out how well our children spell, write, add, subtract, etc. A lot of anxiety happens around NAPLAN. Schools become dominated by it. There’s the idea that a lot is riding on how well the students do, because it reflects how well the teachers do, leading to how effective the school is. Sure, I get it. I can understand the pressure. What I can’t fathom is the learning.

I hear that some schools let primary school students watch a movie after their NAPLAN test was over. I hear some schools are giving students the Friday off from school after all the testing they’ve endured over the week. Are these meant to be rewards? Are they an acknowledgment that testing is hard work? The preparation, the testing, the recovery – all this for what are otherwise incredibly disconnected experiences from real learning.

You know what hard work is? Changing the system of education. If you’re reading this then you probably have a very good idea of what challenges this kind of change brings. Seeing education evolve isn’t going to happen with NAPLAN. It keeps us firmly planted in the traditional mindset that testing, scores, and buckets of testing data is going to give us insights into how to help education be better, be more effective; be better funded? Today I came across this video about the ’10 Expectations’ of school from the people at Leaving to Learn. The video does a very good job of defining the things that make school work, giving teachers and students a sense of purpose and engagement. The irony is that these ten expectations are more like ten challenges – because schools don’t work this way. These expectations would scare many schools.

As the video explains: these are imperatives. And to think that schools might evaluate themselves by these? Now there’s a test I’d like to see implemented. These imperatives suggest that current schooling is full of disconnected learning: we give kids the pieces, in the form of lots of separate lessons, hoping that somehow they will figure out how to make a whole. What it ends up creating are lots of ‘holes’ – ones that I’m sure existed for all our school experiences as well.

This thinking leads nicely into another piece of the puzzle: the content king. Education is dominated by content. It is saturated by it, driven by it, and confused by it. And in the world of the internet, content has multiplied millions and millions of times, in all its forms, from catalogues to cat videos, from testimonials to tweets. What we’ve gained in the technology though, is the ability to finally make connections with our learning, in real time to real places and people, really, really fast. The web scares schools too – because, just like the big bad world outside the walls of the school, the internet is waiting to chew up our attention, making us mindless, thoughtless, and selfish victims. Or so Nicholas Carr would have us believe.

Something about this logic seems all wrong. Just like the logic of NAPLAN tests. It makes sense at first, but the more you consider how the web is empowering nations of people who haven’t had the chance to learn what they really wanted, to help innovators and inventors iterate faster than ever, then you have to wonder whether Carr has simply watched too many cat videos. If you only go by the numbers then we all think Gangnam Style is the world’s greatest ever music video. The long tail of the web should make us think twice. ‘Disconnected learning’ in this context, can also relate to those moments when we are absorbed in thinking and learning deeply through the web on a key topic, a key talk, a moment of inspiration. If we need to make time to refocus, think deeply, meditate away from all the distractions of this world, then education is still not making the grade.

As a final footnote, last night I played Commander Chris Hadfield’s now famous video cover of ‘Space Oddity‘ to my two little kids. They were amazed. The questions came thick and fast. We went to his Google+ page to have a look at his other exploits and commentary while he was at the space station. More questions. More wonder. More opportunities to learn. I found it quite amazing to see these two little children discover there was another world in space, where the laws of science weren’t quite the same as on Earth. It gave them new perspectives, and a reason to connect with their learning.