The Invention that Sidetracked Education


Some people, including myself, have asked why I chose to leave a secure position at a college a number of years ago. The truth is I really didn’t have a definitive answer.

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

My teaching direction is gradually moving away from what most of us would consider traditional. Instead, it’s becoming more about ensuring a learning environment that uses modular, bite-sized content; flipped learning approaches that amplify engagement; nudging development over time with drip feeds for spaced learning; accommodation of diverse learning styles; and opportunities for practical application and peer to peer knowledge exchange.

One of the catalysts that supported this change in direction was a webinar, delivered by Martyn Lewis, who asked participants to identify the 1801 invention by James Pillan that sent education in the wrong direction for over 200 years.

The answer? While some in the webinar guessed the invention was 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 much larger groups.

From that point on, classes got bigger with chalkboards evolving to become overhead projectors, whiteboards and eventually PowerPoint presentations or videos.
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, learning sometimes became less accessible, relevant, and valuable.

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

We will also need to convey that when something is important to learn, the freedom for each of us to learn in the way we learn best in a positive and encouraging environment should also be provided.

Lewis also suggested it has become more apparent that the traditional physical classroom may not always be 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. interactive webinars, face to face workshops, podcasts, gaming, videos, group work, guided research, coaching, etc. Much of the learning may not even have to take place live.

It will also mean providing opportunities for application and practice. Like the education of 200+ years ago, opportunities for meaningful and impactful application of the learning will need to be provided via projects, research, mentoring, volunteering 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 our rapidly changing and hyper-connected world.

Posted on 10-18-22

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