Friday, February 17, 2006

George Siemens: Rethinking Learning

Here is an articulāte presentation (slides+audio) from George Siemens about learning in the current age. I imagine that many educators out there would like to have George burned at the stake for heresy. For my money, he argues his case well.

The idea that the teacher is not the repository of all knowledge is one that would have appealed to me in the days when I was a teenage upstart who knew it all (some people would say that the only thing that has changed is that I am no longer a teenager!). I am willing to bet that the same is true of today's teenagers - for the same reasons. However, George's ideas have no basis in that sort of defiant truculence.

My 14 year old son recently regaled me with an unflattering, blow-by-blow account of his first textiles lesson in the design technology curriculum. Partly due to my son's talent for mimicry and partly due to the anachronistic didacticism of the teacher concerned, I was torn between howling with laughter and grinding my teeth in frustration. No allowance was made for prior knowledge. In fact, the learners were forbidden to demonstrate any existing knowledge - the teacher saw that as being strictly her province. If my son was any example, the learners were all seething with frustration by the end and champing at the bit, dreading the next lesson, and groaning at the thought that they have 12 more weeks of this type of lesson.

This is learning? Don't make me laugh!

The problem is that there is no learning conversation going on. The teacher is determined to teach, come hell or high water. These kids might think they know a thing or two about textiles, but she's going to start from point zero, because it's dangerous to assume anything else would work. I can see how she comes to that conclusion, but there are so many different ways of tackling this sort of situation, the most obvious of all would seem to me to be some sort of game-based assessment on day 1.

During my Cert Ed course, I attended a four hour session of instructor-led classes each week. The scheme of work for the course was not very promising. The delivery method was set to be very traditional. However, the two instructors were less precious than we had feared and singularly unterritorial about the material. The course leaders were well aware that a wealth of experience was represented in the room. They acknowledged that all of us were already practitioners in the field, simply securing a government required peace of paper; that many of those present might, in fact, be more skilfull practitioners than they themselves.

As a result, the sessions became something of a highlight of my week. I enjoyed the interaction with other learners. I enjoyed the small group work and caused disruption every week by changing seats to sit next to a different person each time (upsetting those who were territorial about "their" chair). This ensured a wealth of input from a variety of different backgrounds and mindsets, from the profoundly deaf teacher of British Sign Language to the extremely fit fitness instructor, from instructors in IT to photography, business studies to life skills for people with learning difficulties. The sessions were loud and lively, challenging and enjoyable. The conversations went on outside of the room. We learnt more from each other in 9 months than we could have done in several years from the course leaders. And naturally, the course leaders learnt from us, too.

When I contrast these two experiences which started from very similar platforms, I can only agree that real learning is as messy and as interconnected and multidirectional as George maintains. Not to mention fun!

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