When I first started teaching in college (at Stanford) I just stood up and started talking. The students were there because the course was required, not because they wanted to know what I had to say. They just cared about doing whatever they had to do to get a good grade. By the time I got to Yale I had acquired more sense about teaching. The first day I would ask students why they were there. This question was met with blank stares. When I pushed them I got answers about how the course fit into their schedule and that they heard I was an easy grader. By the time I got to Northwestern I had acquired more sense and more power. I did what I wanted to do: started arguments, made students defend their ideas, told them what I thought didn't matter, what mattered was what they thought. As I began to think about online learning during that time, I became convinced that the teacher didn't really matter in these courses except as a course designer. I laid out the groundwork and forced the kids to think hard. I started designing online courses. The student has to achieve an agreed upon goal. You make sure they can achieve that goal by providing good resources. Online courses must have deliverables that students want to create, not teachers they have to listen to.
College was not designed to teach students to do things. The idea was (and is) that students should be taught to know things. But you can't know things because someone told you those things. You can believe things because someone told you them and but knowing requires doing, experiencing, and learning from mistakes. Learning is an emotional experience guided by a desire to do. Online learning must let you do things you want to do. It is not about listening to a teacher.
Tuesday, April 7, 2020
I called two of my grandchildren to ask about how their online schooling was going. They said they were very happy about it. They are bored to death (as is everyone else these days) and they were missing school. They wanted to talk to their friends. They needed something to do. When I asked about what they were doing in online school they both said the same thing. They were listening to the teacher talk, doing some assignments they had been given, and talking with their friends. “Did they like it?” I asked. Well, “it is better than doing nothing, but it is boring. Had they learning anything? “Not really, but they got to see their friends.” “Why did they bother with doing the assigments?” I asked. “Because we don’t want to get bad grades.”
I wonder why they care about grades so much; I didn’t. Their mother didn’t. But we live in a time where everyone wants to go to Harvard and is working towards that goal from first grade on. We have transformed “education” as the goal of school into an obsession with grades.
I have been concerned about this most of my adult life. I studied how learning worked in an attempt to fix school. In 1989, I moved to Northwestern University to create the Institute of the Learning Sciences. My goal was to build an alternative to school that could be done on a computer. Why use a computer? Because by getting rid of the classroom we allowed each kid to follow their own interests and go at their own pace.
Today we hear a lot about online learning but what is really meant is an attempt to replicate the classroom online. This is a terrible idea because the classroom was never really about learning in the first place, unless by learning” we mean memorization followed by a test.
Real learning (the kind we do everyday) occurs in the context of truly held goals and the attempt to achieve them. Kids learn that way in school in the context of everyday life not studying in academic subjects.
When we go back to thinking about online education, please don’t try to replicate the classroom. Try to replicate real life.
Some programs we built in those days which would entertain and educate kids today if they were available to them.
Road trip: travel around the country to see stuff that interests you
Creanimate: design you own animal
Sickle Cell Counselor: advise couples about whether they should get married by doing genetic tests
Broadcast News: review the days event and put together tonight’s evening news.
Dustin: enter a foreign country and try to learn the language by interacting with the people you find there
Advise the president: war has broken out in Eastern Europe. You need to advise the president about what we should do
Is it a Rembrandt: a museum has a painting that they think is a Rembrandt. Help them figure out if it is a forgery
Outbreak: A pandemic has broken out; fix it
We build many more. They were all meant to entertain and to allow kids to learn by doing. They weren’t “taught.”
We couldn’t get schools to use them because “they didn’t fit into the curriculum.” The curriculum we written in 1892. What online learning could do is change the curriculum and allow kids to have fun learning. Sometimes I feel like I am the only one who cares about that.