Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Answer is Not in the Book (or the iPad): On the end of the print Britannica and rise of the iPad

photo by Joi Ito accessed 3/26/12

David Warlick writes an interesting post in his 2¢ Worth: "Coolest Thing I've Seen in a While." He muses about the interconnectedness of knowledge and about the concept of disparate search topics sharing a common root, perhaps multiple common roots.  Mining-down to these roots, he suggests, might (must?) be the true nature of learning.

To many, the Britannica is emblematic of ready access to interconnected knowledge, just as (ironically) Wikipedia is in Warlick's article. "Mining-down" with a print encyclopedia means following cross-references within an article (if there are any), using one's own imagination and good sense to follow up on textual leads (such as the index, citations, section headings, highlights, vocabulary, proper nouns), and - if all else fails - enlisting the aid of an adult.  In the old days there was little mining done in school. One topic correlated to one article.  Within that one article was found all of the information on the topic that it was deemed important for the student to know. It was the perfect correlation of one learning goal to one tool. 

In fact, between encyclopedias, magazines, and textbooks, it used to be possible to teach oneself just about anything.  If you have the interest, read Heinlein's neglected YA SF novel: Have Spacesuit - Will Travel.  He nails this optimistic spirit of can-do learning, circa 1958 (along with insight into the dangers of "child-focused" schooling).

For Warlick and a mounting corps of educators, on the other hand, print encyclopedias and texts, libraries and classrooms, are antithetical to 21st century learning.  In this view, mining-down requires multiple knowledge contexts and access to a vast cloud of opportunities for individual and social construction of learning. This can not happen deeply in a traditional paper and classroom environment.  The new can-do learning optimism says that we can "find anything [we] need" online.  I tend to agree with that statement, but I don't think this is much to shout about.  In fact, I think it is a dangerous confidence.

I thought, when I began this column, that I was going to write about my sorrow for Britannica's disappearance from print - its feel, look, smell, weight, and space taken on the shelf will be sorely missed by me. However, the more I thought about my own experiences with Britannica and other print texts, the more I realized that what I was sorrowing for was something intangible. I sorrow for the experience of finding that the answer is not in the book after all. 

How liberating that moment is!  Learning begins when mining-down ends - not with answers, but with frustration, inspiration, and questions - with a fresh look at sources and research paths - with a desire for more - and with proximal, face to face conversation about all of this.  This might be called mining-up, digging out from the specific and getting lost in larger questions and deeper understandings: learning.  For all of its limitations, the Britannica (and by extension, libraries and classrooms) gave the motivated learner this push - spacial and informational limits became strengths. 

Do we leverage iPads and the internet for not finding the answer? For frustration, inspiration, questioning, and conversations about learning?

No yet, although it is a common belief that we do - that the iPad and other digital tools will make a new level of learning happen.  It is not happening, as Elliot Soloway and educators also realize (source article).  What internet access, especially with mobile tools, has given students is a vast digital book.  More often than not, an app or a teacher-generated site list is still viewed as the perfect correlation of one learning goal to one tool. 

A profound shift in educational process is required to change this, but the shift is not simply away from physical spaces and time-clocked classrooms.  After all, questioning and conversation are older than Socrates - they do not require a digital classroom.  Nor do they require that we rid ourselves of print, libraries, buses, schools, classes, or 7-hour days. 

They do requires that there be a shift from a learning culture of answers to a learning culture of questions.  If we don't make this shift, if we look at the internet (digital spaces) as a virtual place where we can "find everything," we might as well be sitting in a 1958-era classroom. 

Think how deeply this search for answers is embedded in our pedagogy. Essential Questions are used to focus each lesson, every day.  We assess with answer-based questions that are based on standards - which are the answers that guide curriculum. Librarians spend an enormous amount of creative energy to get students to mine-down to a single research question that can be answered. Guided reading is no more than reading with specific questions in mind (or on an organizer).  Organizers themselves organize answers. Teachers themselves mine data for answers that will guide what happens in the classroom. 

And very little of any of this is driven by the student's curiosity and questions. How then will the internet or an iPad change the learning experience?

I have taken individual learning journeys consistently since college, but most intensely in the last few days. Temporarily invalided,  I have wandered through some neglected and niggling print fiction, eBooks, print and digital magazines, brainless brain apps, films, HD TV, and of course the net.  I have been entirely free of limits to learning. I have also been, due to pain and pills, virtually free of questions.

No questions?  Well, actually, I began with no questions - but I have ended with at least five zingers that will consume my thinking about war, iteration, heroes, and humanness for quite a while.

Learning as a journey toward questions - not toward answers.  Think of questions not as iterative and determinate, but as creative and sprawling.  Think of creative, sprawling questions not as impersonal, but as highly personal.  Learning happens when these questions are hazily formulated, tentatively answered, supported/explained, tested, and then both questions and tentative answers are reviewed, revised, and expanded again.  Questions form the framework of learning.  It is a creative process.

Interestingly enough, this is the topic of David Warlick's latest post: About Creativity...  He must have read my mind.

I also don't see a "let them do it" (read Warlick's post) process used often in the day-to-day learning experience k-12.  Why not?

First, creative questioning is not goal-oriented learning. No product or end-game is defined or anticipated at the outset. This is a tough path for kids and tougher for teachers, who ask "Exactly what is it I am teaching?"  It is much easier to frame learning as problem-solving than it is to frame it as problem creation.  We have before us the new Bloom's Taxonomy, with Create as the ultimate goal.  But the general perception of educators is that this means to create a product.  I believe it means to create a new question.

Second, digital technology gets in the way.   It is too easy to find and communicate the answers using the internet and digital tools, so easy that we hardly pause to make time for thinking creatively about all of the input.  And rarely will we generate a creative question solely by using digital tools. This is a great misperception about Prezis, Glogs, blogs, Lit Trips, iMovies, wikis... These are all platforms for digital answers.  All can be components of a good questioning journey, but rarely are they used for this purpose.  Apps may be creative in terms of manipulation of the multimedia used, but they are not significantly different in learning weight and value than the hand-drawn book jackets I made in grade 6, circa 1958.

Third, we do not value questions or the journey toward them.  As a teacher, I always put this at the top of a rubric - at times it was the entire rubric. But this is a minority opinion.  Even the in-development national testing places no value on the questions - only on the answers. What happens to the most creative questions in a student group?  Teachers experienced with group work know they are lost.  It is the answerable questions that are valued.  

Fourth, educators do not know much about encouraging and fostering creative questioning.   The pressures to ask those concrete questions that will yield concrete answers (data that can be measured) are so strong that this is what teachers are learning to do.  The pressures to present learning creatively (eg. in a media product) is being driven by the digital classroom, but in my head creative thinking is disappearing from the ELA classroom (reading without organizers, visual aids or the front-loading of a knowledge base, creative writing, the reading of fiction).  Creative response to literature is itself subsumed by 5-paragraph essays and standards-driven textual analysis.  

We are really not much further along than we were in 1958.  The answer to better education is not in a book, on the net, delivered and archived in a webinar.  It is going to come from good minds asking good, creative questions after accessing a vast cloud of opinions, resources and experiences, and then having lively conversations about change.

Trouble is, a lot of educators think we have already done that.  It is awfully easy to find the answer on the net.

[update: It must be in the air.  TeachPaperless posted this piece this morning: How Did School Do? This is a blog to follow.]

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