Tuesday, 6 January 2015

#tiebc: A Book Club Reflection on "Digital School" from Clive Thompson's book, Smarter Than You Think

#tiebc: A Book Club Reflection on "Digital School" from Clive Thompson's book, Smarter Than You Think

The classroom hasn’t changed much over the years. Over the centuries, actually.  In the 1350’s, artist Laurentius de Voltolina painted a scene of a university lecture in Bologna that looks quite like a present-day classroom: The professor sits at a podium at the front, pontificating to twenty-four seated students, one of whom is keeling over in apparent boredom, four of whom are ignoring the lecture while talking, and one of whom appears to be completely asleep. ( p 178-79)

Laurentius de Voltolina [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
What is it that prevents the true evolution of schools and education? Is it university entrance requirements? Is it fear? Does the education profession somehow naturally attract personalities who are rule bound and rigid in their thinking? I don’t think any one factor is entirely to blame, but "Digital School" in Clive Thompson’s book, Smarter Than You Think, propelled my thinking towards questions such as these.  Why do we seem to be so full of great ideas and progressive thinking, yet somehow we remain bound to a traditional curriculum built on traditional grades, percentages and standards. 

In Sugata Mitre’s Ted Talk, “Build a School in the Cloud”, he describes the institution of school as “obsolete” and “outdated”. In my work as a Special Education teacher in a distributed learning school, I have many students on my caseload who haven’t easily “fit” into the mainstream school environment. Central to Mitre’s talk and Thompson’s chapter titled, Digital School, is the idea that students, inspired by their own curiosity, will learn and explore very willingly. As I read and explored this theme, my thoughts kept returning to specific individual students that I work with. I have one student, burdened with a Generalized Anxiety Disorder, very likely meeting criteria as both Gifted and Learning Disabled, who is resistant to traditional curriculum and its mainstream delivery. Capable, but resistant, he’s not interested, doesn’t see the point and lacks motivation. However, he has been successfully coding computer programs for several years ; he has found his way to mentors, online, who share his passion and who guide him via online chat rooms when he has questions or is problem solving his way through significantly sophisticated levels of knowledge and skill on his learning path. I struggle to be the one to say, “Listen, that’s all awesome and great, but you really need to sink your teeth into this grade 9 Math or finish that project on the Renaissance.” We can, creatively, find some ways around some of his coursework, but I am not always successful in my advocacy for students in this context. This particular student has skills, abilities and strengths that are best accessed and utilized in the world of technology, following his own passions and interests. The relevance of the Renaissance or equivalent fractions to his world is a hard connection to make. The fact of the matter is, kids seek authenticity; the age old question “when am I ever going to use this?”comes up frequently and it can be challenging figuring out how to answer it. Maybe it’s not up to us, as educators, to provide the answer or rationale; maybe it’s the student’s own answer that matters most in this.

Consistent with the idea in this chapter that learning should be student centered, Sir Kenneth Robinson explains that “curiosity is the engine of achievement” in his Ted Talk, How to Escape Education’s Death Valley”. I believe that curiosity, or a high level of interest, is what has fueled my student in his pursuit of coding. Integral to this, however, is the fact that, as a subject area, coding is relevant for this student. Kids need to “buy in” to what they are learning; Thompson discusses the way blogs have been successfully used as a writing tool in classrooms and identifies an authentic audience or purpose of writing as integral to student motivation or “buy-in”. Authenticity and interest, or passion, are prerequisites, as far as I can see, to successful student-centered learning.

Thompson specifically discusses coding in this chapter and explains “programming has (deep) effects: For children, it becomes a philosophic act, a way of learning about learning.” (p. 188) It came to me as I read this that we keep trying to compartmentalize learning; the very way our curriculum is laid out, and the way many teachers are hired, is subject by subject, and this approach contradicts the idea that we want to maximize learner potential. Potential isn’t laid out subject by subject; one might be very Mathematical in his or her thinking, but as we know, Math can make its presence known in a wide variety of topics and concepts. And I have seen, firsthand, how many Math “thinkers” aren’t necessarily computation masters. Perhaps the evolution of education is

limited by the notion that we have subjects, rather than disciplines and, as Sir Kenneth Robinson pointed out in his exponentially viewed Ted Talk, “How Schools are Killing Creativity”, we value certain subject areas or skills over others. Perhaps we need to move towards seeing the child as a whole in the context of education, instead of continuing to try to break it down into parts, leading us away from authenticity.

I don’t know for certain what it is that inhibits the evolution of education to the degree that it can sometimes appear that we aren’t making any progress at all, but I think it’s very important that we continue pondering the question as we keep trying to move towards change. Clive Thompson’s chapter, Digital School, raised many points of interest and presented a variety of examples of people breaking the mold in their classrooms. There will be many deterrents, possibly naysayers, and we will make many mistakes, but Digital Schools inspired me to continue to strive towards change. It is messy, and often uncomfortable as we present ourselves in a vulnerable light in the context of our classrooms, to be able to confidently say, “I don’t know” and “let’s see what happens” to our students. Let’s keep painting a new picture of education, where it may be difficult to identify the “teacher” and where many students are talking, but where no one is fast asleep.


"Ken Robinson:  How to Escape Education's Death Valley." You Tube. Ted Talks, 10 May 2013. Web. 06 Dec. 2014.
"Sir Ken Robinson: Do Schools Kill Creativity?" You Tube. Ted Talks, 27 Feb. 2013. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.
"Sugata Mitra: Build a School in the Cloud." You Tube. Ted Talks, 27 Feb. 2013. Web. 16 Dec. 2014. 
Thompson, Clive. Smarter than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better. New york: Penguin, 2014. Print.

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