Sunday, September 9, 2007

Knowledge Webs and What Schools Should Be

Via Al Fin, a post about virtual schools.

Reading the Wired article he linked to, this part jumped out at me:

Struggling students such as Kelsey-Anne, who suffers from attention deficit disorder, can take more time to finish courses while those who are gifted can go at a faster speed.

Casey Hutcheson, 17, finished English and geometry online in the time it would have taken to complete just one of those courses at his regular high school in Tallahassee.

"I like working by myself because of no distractions, and I can go at my own pace rather than going at the teacher's pace," he said.

I wish dearly a system like this had been in place when I was Casey Hutcheson's age, or better yet an eight-year-old. The slow pace at which new things were taught to us from kindergarten on onwards was a constant source of frustration to me, become particularly acute in high-school but present throughout. This irritation led me to take a long, deep look at modern education, and into the philosophy and aims that spawned it (most of the structure has it's aims in a social engineering project designed to raise good factory workers.) If our aim is for kids to learn as much as they can, as fast as they can, well hell we can do a lot better.

My own private vision of the school of the future is that the formal learning would migrate mostly online, with the network replacing both the textbooks and testing. Read this essay by W. Daniel Hillis, Aristotle: The Knowledge Web to get some idea of what I'm talking about.

The gains in efficiency from really learning to use networks as education tools are pretty staggering. Right now, the situation is that slow learners struggle along, never really gaining mastery over anything because there simply isn't time to let them catch up; while fast learners are held back from acquiring the full range and depth of knowledge open to them. Of course, in the real world there aren't three different types of people (subnormal, mediocre, and exceptional), there are six billion, spread out over a bell curve of ability levels. So in truth, everyone's under-served by the old model.

Of course, there are always critics, and the Wired article finds one of them, trotting out the same old argument that "There is something to be said for having kids in a social situation learning how to interact in society," said state Rep. Shelley Vana. "I don't think you get that if you're at home." Well, yeah, I have to agree with that. Homeschooled kids might learn faster and better, but yeah, the ones I've met have been odd people. In my case - growing up in deep cottage country, surrounded by trees and old people - school was the only opportunity I really got to socialize at all.

The thing I see schools evolving into is basically a place for teenagers to hang out, under adult supervision, and not so much learn stuff as participate in various collaborative projects. Adult staff won't be there to teach them, exactly. The teaching will be done by an educational network, one that knows exactly what every one of its users has mastered (dispensing with old-fashioned metrics like As and Bs and courses passed: instead of a transcript a university or employer could see a map of a student's acquired knowledge that much more accurately delineates what they do and do not know), and exactly how each user learns best (be it watching, reading, listening, or doing.) The job of teachers in this environment isn't to lecture, but rather to provide support to student projects; to advise, to help, and to keep discipline. Basically, their job will be one part guidance councilor and one part after-school club-leader.

Classrooms as they're now understood (ranks of desks facing a chalkboard where a teacher talks to them for an hour) can also be dispensed with. In their place would be a mixture of general-use areas - where students can withdraw to converse or study or whatever else they want to do - and spaces dedicated to single uses, such as sports, laboratories, and fabs. Instead of joining classes, students could simply reserve time in the dedicated areas when needed, either individually or as part of a group, spending the rest of their time where they please.

Of course, there would be no point in enforcing attendance at such a school. Since the formal learning is entirely web-based, students could either learn at home (if they're the shy sort), or small groups could meet at places of their own choosing and educate themselves there. Schools would have to attract students' voluntary attendance, by offering services and facilities - computational, industrial, and above-all recreational - that students could not find elsewhere. Essentially, schools would be forced to become cool places to hang out, instead of prisons in which society locks you eight hours a day.

It's possible concepts like 'graduation' might cease to exist, as well. If a person's acquired knowledge can be mapped out in enough detail, accreditation can take place both gradually and instantly. One danger is hyper-specialization; a 15-year-old student might, for instance, master what would today be a grad-school level of knowledge about history, but only an elementary school level of math. But an upshot is that it would no longer be necessary for there to be a strict dividing line between school and the outside world; elementary school would blend seamlessly into highschool, university, graduate school and the workforce, with people returning to educational institutions whenever they wanted - for an afternoon or a decade - to pursue whatever educational goals they have.

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Will Brown said...

I note that you don't maintain any links to other sites so apologies if this is old info to you. Given your stated interest level in this topic, I thought you might be interested in another site with extensive resources on the subject:

Connie Du Toit has an extensive background regarding homeschooling, I recommend her.

I found you via Al Fin, where I frequently appear in comments.

Keitousama said...

That's why I've developed the bad habit of hawking my wares on other people's property ... best way to get readers!

Thanks for the link. I certainly haven't come across that blog before, and I'm sure there are millions of others I haven't seen. So many blogs ... so little time!

So far as a blogroll goes, I've really got to get on top of that....