The Invention that Sidetracked Education

While many, myself included, often wondered why I chose to leave a secure teaching position at Niagara College a number of years ago, the truth is I really didn’t have an answer.

While part of it was fueled by a desire for new challenges, it was still somewhat perplexing, particularly as after leaving, I continued to be drawn to anything that provided an opportunity to teach, train, or transfer knowledge in some way.

While I’m now delivering conference sessions, workshops, and keynotes, much of my training has moved online in the form of interactive webinars.

Webinars are also how I’ve managed to further my own online learning and growth in an efficient and effective way.

This week, it was an online webinar that helped me better understand why my teaching direction has veered away from traditional education, while validating my propensity for ensuring more blended learning models.

During the webinar, delivered by Martyn Lewis, participants were asked to identify the invention by James Pillan in 1801 that sent education in the wrong direction for over 200 years.

The answer? While some guessed the typewriter or printing press, it was in fact the chalkboard.

As Lewis went on to explain, up until that point education had taken a much more hands-on approach. Apprenticeships were highly valued and learning was much more social and collaborative. Learners were not only tutored, mentored, and coached; they also spent time learning from their peers.

All of that changed when the chalkboard encouraged the presentation of information to the masses.

From that point on, classes got bigger with chalkboards evolving to become whiteboards and eventually PowerPoint presentations.

The downside of course is that it meant we moved from learning that was social, collaborative, and exploratory in nature, to learning that was more often about the transmission of information. Along the way, a lot of learning became less accessible, relevant, and valuable.

Today we need to be thinking about learning for the 21st Century as something of a hybrid that combines the best of the kind of learning we’ve traditionally garnered from the pushing out of information, with the practical application that apprenticeship once provided.

We will also need to convey why something is important to learn, provide the freedom for each of us to learn in the way we learn best, and provide a positive and encouraging environment.

Lewis suggests it is also becoming more apparent that the physical classroom is not the starting point if we’re seeking learning that is transformational in nature.

We will instead need to ensure flexible and customizable learning paths that provide a variety of options for continuous learning e.g. webinars, face to face workshops, audio clips, pre-recorded video, breakout groups, guided research, coaching clinics, etc.  Much of the learning may not even have to be live.

It will also mean providing opportunities for application and practice. Not unlike the education of 200 years ago, opportunities for practical and meaningful application of the learning will need to be provided via projects, research, etc.

Our world today is undergoing major shifts as we move from hierarchies to networks; from being fixed to constantly changing; from predictable to continually emerging,  from change that reforms to change that transforms; and from linear approaches to those that are more holistic. There is no doubt we will need to ensure we are designing and delivering learning opportunities to match this rapidly changing and hyper-connected world. 

Posted on 03-24-13

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