Some statements stand out in your memory for the power with which they resonate through you mind. I recall the first time I encountered the question posed by Alan November “Who owns the learning?” on the cover of his book of the same name. In four words, Alan poses a question that strikes at the heart of education and encourages us to re-think our approach. If we believe that the learner should own the learning, what are the implications of this for our teaching? Like a stone dropped on the surface of a calm pond, the ripples from a powerful idea spread, expand and gain strength.
Warren Berger’s thinking has a similar effect. His work is around the power of questions as a catalyst for creativity and innovation. Ask the right question, in the right way and the effect can be profound. Warren tells the story of innovators who have taken the time to fully understand the situation and found that the answer came from re-imagining the questions that were being asked. The stone that Berger drops in the pond is the title of his book “A more beautiful question”. We ask questions all of the time but for most of that time our energy is spent on finding an answer to the question we have asked. Berger asks us to give more time to finding our beautiful question. When we shift our thinking from a mindset that values answers to one which appreciates the power of a question we open ourselves to new possibilities.
Some statements bring their authors great fame. They immediately grab the attention of their audience with their bold, unapologetic challenge to the status quo. In 2006 Sir Ken Robinson dropped a virtual bombshell on the world of education in what has come to be the most watched TED Talk of all time with over 53 million views on the TED site alone. “Do schools kill creativity?”. Framed any other way Robinson’s query may have disappeared into the ether. Delivered with the perfect mix of humour, charisma and passion, Robinson’s question continues to impact our vision for what education should offer.
The title of a 2014 article by Andy Kiersz is similarly bold in its approach to the teaching of mathematics. “Everything About the Way we teach Maths is Wrong”. There is nothing subtle or gentle about the headline and in the body of the article the author tells his reader about the writing of Paul Lockhart and his book “A Mathematician’s Lament”. Read the full text and explore Lockhart’s writing and you will question why we do not teach a more beautiful model of mathematics. Lockhart writes, "if I had to design a mechanism for the express purpose of destroying a child’s natural curiosity and love of pattern-making, I couldn’t possibly do as good a job as is currently being done - I simply wouldn’t have the imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soul-crushing ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education.”
In 2015 I had the privilege of hearing Lane Clark speak in Bilbao at "ICOT 2015” on the power of real learning. Among many gems is Lane’s essential challenge to how we approach learning; “Now you know it, So What?”. The challenge here is to teach more than knowing and provide our students opportunities to make practical use of the information with which we fill their heads. Lane is not the first to pose this style of challenge. In 2013 Sugata Mitra shifted our thinking about the value of knowledge by asking "Could it be that we are heading towards or maybe in a time when knowing is obsolete?”. For educators the world over, the idea that knowledge could be obsolete was either liberating as it opened the door to learning that focused on dispositions, or was hugely confronting and potentially dangerous. While Mitra’s thinking comes from his observation of the emergence of the internet and his research into the learning potential of an internet connected computer, revealed through his “Hole in the Wall” project, the idea is not new. Those who are advocates of the thinking of John Dewey will know that the teaching and valuing of disconnected or discrete knowledge has long been questioned. “Only in education, never in the life of farmer, sailor, merchant, physician, or laboratory experimenter, does knowledge mean primarily a store of information aloof from doing.”
I share these ideas because I find in considering viewpoints such as these an opportunity to reflect on the manner in which things are done. By confronting ideas that challenge the “way we have always done things” we allow us to either better value what is good in what we do or begin the search for a better story. In their bold and challenging presentation, these ideas force us to think and that can only ever be a good thing. If a bold claim leads to rich and healthy debate, then it has served a powerful purpose; after all the status quo is best imagined as the point where our questioning begins.
I finish with what has become one of the most significant ideas I have toyed with in recent times. It is an idea captured in a single word coined by David Perkins "Lifeworthy; that is, likely to matter in the lives learners are likely to live.” In a single word Perkins challenges his readers to focus their efforts on learning that will matter in the lives that their learners are likely to lead. In a world where there is so much to learn, amidst curriculums which are massively overcrowded, the idea of teaching that which is Lifeworthy has great power and invites fresh dialogue around what we imagine education should provide those who own the learning.
What idea has shifted your thinking?
By Nigel Coutts
Who owns the learning? Preparing students for success in the digital age by Alan November
The title alone is worth pondering, ‘Who does own the learning?’ If the best learning occurs while the unit is being programmed, if the students have little say in the direction their learning takes then how are we preparing them for their learning futures. Alan has a solid understanding of the implications of technology for learning and combines this with student centred pedagogical approaches to describe a model of education that empowers young learners to take charge of their learning. For teachers the challenge is to get out of the way of the spectacular learning that their children are capable of.
Future Wise: Educating our Children for a Changing World by David Perkins
How do you answer the 'uppity question’ from a student who wants to know why they need to learn what you are teaching? Do you reply that they need it to do well in the test or are you confident that it is learning they will need to do well in life? In this book Perkins examines what we teaching in schools and makes recommendations for a shift in focus. A key idea introduced early and unpacked throughout the book is the idea of ‘LifeWorthy’; learning that is 'likely to matter in the lives learners are likely to live’. Future Wise is jargon free and a great book to share with colleagues, it will help you rethink what you spend time on in class and clarify how you see the role and purpose of education.
Visit “A More Beautiful Question”
Listen to Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity”
Listen to Sugata Mitra’s TED Talk - “Build a School in the Cloud”
Find out more about Lane Clark and her approach to inquiry and real learning.