Thursday, September 18, 2008

An Organic Approach to Teaching and How Digital Media Make it Possible

In recent years the trend in digital media design has been toward extending the natural reach of human capacities.
Digital cameras for example are not just getting smaller and lighter but they are becoming easier to use. Background technologies now compensate for low light levels, camera shake, poor composition and other errors. All the user needs to do is point and click.
The irony is that increasingly complex technology often gives rise to simpler and more natural functionality. Give a camera to a six year old and watch what happens.
The same trend can be seen in other designs -technologies such as the wii controller, voice recognition and intuitive Internet interfaces are helping to hide technology and foreground functionality. Ironically, these advanced digital technologies are becoming more transparent and users take them for granted. These designs give rise to new possibilities in teaching and learning.
Traditionally, we've organised much of school teaching around the development of essential skills the so-called 3r's -reading, writing and arithmetic. There are few who would deny the importance of these skills for the modern world and because they are important we can't wait to get our children up to speed as early as possible. The progress of children in learning these skills is constantly measured and we've developed standards such as reading age -we can even compare these standards with those of children in other countries.
Our school system has an end point -the Leaving Certificate for most. Once again there is much measurement and comparison at the output stage. This sorting and grading process helps decide who will progress to what courses in higher and further education.
Why is our education system structured in this way? It is a combination of multitude of factors and influences historical, cultural and practical. Class rooms of today have changed little in the last one hundred years both in the layout and in the activities that take place within.
This is not to deny the great advances that have been made in terms of pedagogic innovation, the professionalism of teachers or the excellent work of the numerous bodies associated with educational reform and continuous improvement. However, relative to other areas of society schools and specifically the craft and science of teaching has not been permitted to achieve it's full potential in preparing our children for a future where the only certainty is that it will be radically different from what we know today.
I argue that just like modern farming we have over-engineered our education system, we have over-relied on fostering narrow skills, we are obsessed with measurement, we continuously intervene in learning, we confine the site of learning to the classroom and we strive to make people homogeneous in their thinking. All of this leads in the end to economic and social perils.
Just like farming we need a new approach and what I call for is a kind of organic movement in learning and teaching.
We need to recognise that learning is a natural process, that all people are curious and have a desire to be competent and connected in society. We need to appreciate the inquiry cycle of ask, investigate, create, communicate and reflect. Above all we need to provide children with the tools that help them learn the world through inquiry.
Why has this not happened before and why is it possible now? The answer is simple about a hundred years ago we removed the site of learning from the lived-world and placed it within the confines of the class room. While many students cope by acquiring there understanding of the world through the abstract processes facilitated by the 3 r's -many others are left behind. Without the essential skills they are left out, unconnected and disengaged.
Until now that is. Well designed digital technologies afford connection, engagement, expression, creativity and learning. They facilitate these transparently -without the need for complex prerequisite skills. Children now have access tools that extend their natural capacities to communicate, participate and make meaning of the world. In the classrooms we've observed as part of the Digital Literacy in Irish Primary Schools (DLIPS) research project we've seen this process in action. Like the example we witnessed of inner city 8 year old boys working in groups making banana splits and recording the process -a role for each child one on the camera, one peeling and slicing, one sloshing on the cream and one writing down the process. Later their picture story set to music, projected and replayed in celebration of all that had been achieved and most significantly achieved by all.
And at last, either now or in the very near future, teachers can get on with what they do best -making learning happen. These teachers who harness the natural conditions of learning will better prepare students for the future.
And yes we will still have the 3r's but they'll stand for something different -R for real questioning, R for relatedness to community and R for reflection on practice. This will be organic teaching made possible with digital media. Watch this space.
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