Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Change every lightbulb in the house

In Uruguay, every schoolkid has a laptop. A hard cased plastic laptop with wifi and a webcam. Costs a couple of hundred dollars, probably a lot less. Kids can use these laptops for whatever they like, not just schoolwork. What do you think happens - they spend all day on msn? not listening to the teacher anymore? they load it up with games? probably a bit of it all, probably some school tests, probably some web browsing, some wikipedia reading, some media sharing.

Ask a class in Uruguay any question - how do you wire a plug, what is the definition of this word, who was the first man to climb Everest, what is the speed of light, how does this relate to the big bang... and they will have the knowledge at their fingertips. This makes the job of the teacher more interesting. Instead of using a written textbook with a set collection of facts, or lecturing them your set of facts, you can guide them through the connections they make between the information online in a discursive way, a collaborative way. Learning happens most when we are talking, expressing ourselves and interacting with others who are expressing themselves. It all comes back to the questions we ask of the content, not the content itself...

Let me explain. Before google, if you wanted to know something - you had to go to a library. When you got to the library, you looked in a encyclopaedia, arranged alphabetically, and discovered the information in the context of the rest of the article, written generically. For example, you want to know more about the music written by handel, or beethoven. the article will probably tell you a few facts about these people such as birth, death, main compositions, but this is unlikely to satisfy you like the music does. You want to know more about the situation that brought these artists to compose such pieces, what they felt like when they were writing them, who they were socialising with, what other things were happening around the time, how is the music a representation of the epoch. but the encyclopaedia cannot give this to you, and if you either devote your life to finding the small answers in the thousands of books that form part of the bigger answer for you and help you appreciate the music more, or you give up and join a pub quiz team - they love little facts - hatched, matched, despatched, clinical, emotionless information. can you see how this about the questions we ask though? - we ask our questions to a search engine, it gives us an immediate reply of the keywords we choose ' handel politics', 'beethoven string instrument', 'scientific discoveries of the xxx century' - we can get to a position of evaluating more ideas more quickly and dissolve the boundaries, we can see unity and parallels and metaphors between the subjects - history and music, engineering and art - we can move to experiential appreciation of knowledge. By discussing the ideas, we are forced to defend what we think, to actually express what we think, and often causing us to re-evaluate what we think. this is learning. Ask, Express, Evaluate.

Click the first link of a wikipedia article and in less than 10 clicks you are at 'Philosophy'. Everything is philosophy because philosophy is about questions and hypotheses. Facts are facts, not very interesting on their own, until we ask a question and connect it to another fact. then we get ideas, or hypotheses.

Summary: textbooks are history. content has no boundaries, experience is knowledge, ask, express, evaluate - and that's what they can do in Uruguay now in their formal education process if they want. Who does it, maybe nobody, maybe its multiple choice questions everyday. But it seems to me to be opening the leaking door and letting the new ways flood in, whatever shape that may turn into. And the kids have control now, or at least they will shortly when they know more than the teachers!

We cannot say the same here. although perhaps the same things are going on informally, outside class. it just seems like a massive shame not to have a stake in the questions and connections of the future.