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Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Please don't ruin online learning because teachers don't know how to do it

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.

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