Archive for July 6, 2020

Paradigm shifts in education and educational technology: Influencing the students here and now

Back on my last blog post referencing Morgan Ames’ book The Charisma Machine, Alan Kay said in a comment, “What we have here is a whole world view and a whole different world.” I’ve been thinking about that sentence a lot because it captures what I think is going on here. A Kuhnian paradigm shift is happening (and maybe has already happened) in research around education and educational technology from the world of Papert and Bruner to the world of learning sciences. I am going to take a pass at describing the change that I see happening in the field, but I encourage you also to read the International Society of the Learning Science (ISLS) presidential address from Victor Lee here, which describes the field more authority and with more authenticity than me.

I remember asking Janet Kolodner (first editor-in-chief of the Journal of the Learning Sciences), “Why? Why learning sciences? We have educational psychology and cognitive science and so many other education disciplines.” She said that learning scientists were tired of just knowing what should happen. They wanted to get out to influence education practice and understand why learning doesn’t happen. Cognitive scientists mostly (at the time) ignored affect and motivation. Educational psychologists most often worked in controlled laboratories or experimental classrooms. Learning scientists wanted to understand and influence what was really happening in educational contexts, both formal and informal. More, they were devoted to expanding access to high-quality education. Yes, learning scientists explored cutting edge technologies to see what was possible, but even more, we try to figure out contexts that make or inhibit learning for real kids. Look at the titles of the Invited Speakers at ICLS 2020: Lost and found in dialogue: Embracing the promises of interdiscursivity and diminishing its risks, The Ed-Tech Imaginary, and Learning as an Act of Fugitivity. Words like “promises” and “imaginary” and “fugitivity” reflect a desire to change and to respond to what we thought might be, but discovered that reality is different. (Audrey Watters’ keynote is available as an essay here.)

David Feldon told me once that the field is misnamed. It’s much more “Learning humanities” than “Learning sciences.” Once you decide to study what’s going on in actual practice with actual students, you find that you’re mostly in studies with really small n. Contexts, teachers, and students vary wildly. Nobody that I know in learning sciences is trying to invent a general dynamic medium for thought, because it’s so hard to get anything actually adopted and used in an impactful manner. I see Jim Spohrer’s work in Service Science as being part of the same paradigm — how do you actually get services designed and implemented that work in practice?

This shift from the general to the specific, and from what could work to what does work is true in my research too. One of my recent NSF proposals is about working closely with a particular school district to figure out what is going to work there. What we know about Brookline or Brasil is almost irrelevant for this district. Another proposal is about inventing a dynamic medium for thought — but in a particular set of classes, in a task-specific form. I still would love to have a general dynamic medium for thought (as Alan suggests), but I believe we have to figure it out from the ground up. Over time, we will find specific notations that can work for specific tasks, and generalize as possible from there.

The majority of the literature that I draw on these days is about teachers: how they learn, why pre-service education has so little influence on actual teacher practice, and how to influence adoption. Teachers are a gateway for technology in the classroom. There are lots of technologies that could work with kids, but don’t work with teachers. In my work today, I draw on Bruner and Papert for their theoretical framings.. I draw on Bruner’s laboratory-based work (e.g., his definition of scaffolding). I draw on Papert’s descriptions of what the computer offers learners, e.g., its protean nature. But I draw less on their implementation work. Bruner’s MACOS was a brilliant project that had a catastrophic result because they didn’t consider enough what would actually work in US schools. Papert created interesting interventions that didn’t become systemic or sustained. Ames is telling me what’s going wrong in actual implementations of OLPC and may some of why it went wrong. If I want things to be actually adopted, I need to avoid the mistakes that The Charisma Machine is describing.

David’s description of what happened in Brasil in a comment to that earlier blog post is fascinating and super-useful, but doesn’t decrease the value of Ames’ description in Paraguay. I don’t agree with all of her rationalizations of why things turned out as they did (e.g., I don’t find the “technically precocious boys” perspective compelling or having explanatory power), and there are very likely things she missed. But what she describes obviously did happen. Learning from the experiences she describes informs our design processes and iterative feedback loops as a way of improving outcomes.

Like any paradigm shift, it doesn’t mean that all the work that went before is wrong. The questions being asked in each paradigm are different. They start from different world views. Papert and Bruner both offer a vision of what we want, Logo and MACOS. Both ran up against the reality of school in the US, where Thorndike won and Dewey lost. Now, how do we help every student, in real school contexts?

Nathan Holbert and David Weintrop recently told me a great phrase that’s common in the constructionism community (variously attributed to Seymour Papert or Uri Wilensky): “Are you designing for Someday or are you designing for Monday?” Are you designing for a world that might be, or are you designing for things that can go in the classroom soon? Neither are wrong. I don’t think that they even need to be a dichotomy. In my task-specific programming work, I’m making things that can’t go in the classroom Monday, but could go in the classroom next year, which is still a lot closer than Someday. Even to be in the classroom next year, I have to start from where schools are now. There won’t be a Dewey-an revolution in schools over the next year. But maybe Someday there will.

July 6, 2020 at 7:00 am 10 comments


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