Schools… Not Factories

I listened to Sugata Mitra’s TED talk on self-organized learning, and it was extremely inspiring for anyone interested in learning or the education of children. Sugata Mitra won the TED Prize for 2013 to help seed his ambitious project to create a “school in the cloud.” Here was the a-ha point for me in his talk:

But first, a bit of history: to keep the world’s military-industrial machine running at the zenith of the British Empire, Victorians assembled an education system to mass-produce workers with identical skills. Plucked from the classroom and plugged instantly into the system, citizens were churned through an educational factory engineered for maximum productivity.

In other words, the Victorians assembled a global human computer to run the world, and they created the school system to produce more human parts for the computer. But we don’t live in that age anymore. We have real computers now. So why hasn’t our educational system changed?

Here’s another great point:

Schools still operate as if all knowledge is contained in books, and as if the salient points in books must be stored in each human brain — to be used when needed. The political and financial powers controlling schools decide what these salient points are. Schools ensure their storage and retrieval. Students are rewarded for memorization, not imagination or resourcefulness.

I constantly hear a refrain of “innovation” and “creativity” as what we need for the 21st-century world. Yet our school system is designed to stifle innovation and creativity. Today, we need schools not structured like factories, but like clouds.

Read more and watch the TED Talk: Sugata Mitra: We Need Schools… Not Factories.

Remembering How to Play

Recently, I was talking with my son’s preschool teacher, and I casually asked her when my four-year-old should be learning how to read and write. Her response surprised me.

She gestured at the terrific space she had set up for the children to play in: an outdoor garden and playhouse, swings and slides, climbing ladders and sand boxes and even a space to build a little dam. She said, “He’ll be in school soon enough, and he’ll spend all day every day learning those things. Why push it? This his last chance to spend his days in play.”

As parents, we know that our children learn best through playing. Yet, when children enter school, it seems like the opportunities for play become more and more rare. It is as if we are teaching our children that even though play is the best way for them to learn, the method they use instinctively from when they are born, it is not the acceptable way to learn.

By the time we become adults, many of us have forgotten how to play altogether. I’m not talking about playing video games. When was the last time you picked up some crayons or modeling clay? When was the last time you made something, like a collage, or put together a puzzle, or built a cool fort? Most of us only revisit these activities when we have children ourselves and are playing with them.

This year, I resolved to teach myself how to draw and paint. Not because I wanted to learn a new marketable skill. Rather, I wanted to learn how to play again. I wanted to recapture that experience of making something just for the fun of it. If my creativity improved as a result, and I discovered a new way to express myself, those would be bonuses.

I have to admit that it has been tough, finding time in my busy days to sit down with a pad of paper and some colored pencils. Then I remind myself that play isn’t something to be scheduled, like recess, because then it’s all too easy to discard it when there doesn’t seem to be time.

I can learn something from my preschooler. For him, everything is play. He doesn’t distinguish between play and work; they are the same thing to him. It’s all fun, and it’s all learning. I want to bring back that sense of fun into all aspects of my life.

And I want to make sure that as he grows up, he never forgets how to play.

Is social networking learning?

My social Network on Flickr, Facebook, Twitter...
Image by luc legay via Flickr

A colleague of mine recently asked this question, which sparked an interesting discussion on our Yammer network: Is social networking learning? Especially in the context of organizations, how can social networking be used for learning?

I certainly use social networking tools like Twitter and blogs for informal, personal learning every day. What I like most about using social networking tools this way is how serendipitous it can be. Sure, I can ask questions or search for knowledge on a subject I know I want to learn about, but more often, it seems, I learn things I didn’t know I needed to learn. This happens when people in my network share what they are learning or thinking about or reading or writing about. That, for me, is where the real learning potential of social networking tools kicks in. I don’t think you can reproduce that quality with formal learning tools, because it is so ephemeral and unplanned.

Here are some other good points made in the conversation:

  • “I learn far more about what’s news and relevant to my work from my ‘network of trust and interest’ than I do from common denominator mass media.”
  • “Between spontaneous learning and network-of-trust filtering, you get a new level of just-in-time (JIT) learning: ‘before I knew I needed it’ learning.”
  • “Not everyone is going to succeed using social learning.  Many of those that can already use it.  Some of the rest just need permission.  But if you aren’t really interested in your work, if you don’t think it is cool, how much is unstructured, social learning going to work for you. “

Someone also made this point: “There seems to be a tension … among the openness of informal learning, risk management and message control.” I think that tension is always there when there is also fear over loss of control. I have found, though, that in successful learning networks, people tend to police themselves. The organization must let go and trust its people, or people just won’t use the network sanctioned by the organization. If they are really passionate about learning and connecting with peers, they will find ways to do so outside of the organization’s control and without the organization’s blessing. So why not extend that trust and see what happens? The organization can only benefit from engaged employees actively learning about their fields.

Take a blended approach to learning

No matter what the subject, there are a thousand people who have a one-size-fits-all solution to sell you. As a new parent, I’ve been reading a lot of parenting books lately, and the sheer amount of contradictory advice can be overwhelming. But this is true is pretty much every arena where I have an interest: self improvement, getting organized, writing, even taking care of the environment. Green Daily identifies this problem in the article, “Green impotence, or the ‘every solution creates a problem’ problem.” The truth is that there is no one solution that will fit everyone’s needs. But just because you can’t find an easy, packaged solution doesn’t mean you should give up altogether. You’ll have more success by taking the time to craft a solution that fits your individual needs.

Not even the great guru of getting organized, David Allen of Getting Things Done fame, can claim to have the one solution to all of your organization woes. He has developed the perfect system to meet his specific needs, and in his book about it, he shares a lot of good ideas, some of which may work for you or me. The trick is to identify and borrow those ideas that are workable for you, and leave the rest. There’s no need to go to extremes: to either adopt the system wholesale even if it causes you pain or just abandon it altogether and declare it evil. Take what works for you, leave the rest and thank Mr. Allen for sharing.

This is the best approach to all new subjects you are learning about, whether it’s parenting or self improvement or how to manage a project effectively. Read widely and absorb what many people have to say on the subject. Try out those aspects that make sense to you and see if they work for you. If they do, adopt them. Leave the rest. Keep learning and tweaking and adapting as you go along. You are not obligated to all or nothing.

Unfortunately, this is just what proponents of a particular system would have you believe. Take attachment parenting, for instance. If you get at all involved in the community, you might think that if you don’t practice co-sleeping or baby wearing, you aren’t doing “real” attachment parenting. And probably you aren’t, not the way it is defined by its fanatical adherents. However, you can adopt only those aspects of it that make sense for you and your family, and you’ll be doing quite all right. There is no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. And I don’t mean to pick on this one particular community. All “movements” seem to have their extremely rigid adherents who claim that if you don’t practice by the book, you’re not really practicing (even hula-hooping).

I propose that it is better to question, test and draw your own conclusions — in other words, think for yourself — rather than blindly follow any system set down in a book or website.

What is the point?

I believe that the point of it all is the journey and new discovery each day. I believe we are always changing and growing, and therefore our purpose is always expanding and evolving. But when we become stagnant, and do not grow and change, then we lose our purpose and begin to die.

My purpose is to:

  • Take my journey without fear
  • Be open to where my journey takes me
  • Remain in a state of continuous learning and discovery
  • Where I can, pass on my learning to others
  • Be joyful and satisfied in my life