The Future of Education: Technology and How People Learn

No small issue on the agenda here at Aspen Ideas Festival — the future of education, technology, and how people learn — but the panel assembled is in fact up to the task. Connie Yowell (MacArthur Foundation, whose brainchild is the $50 million Digital Media and Learning initiative), Howard Gardner (Harvard Graduate School of Education), and Will Wright (renowned game designer, of the Sims and Spore) are the stars at the front of the room, with lots of other experts in the “audience”: John Seely Brown introduced the theme overall, Beth Noveck, Eric Lander, Dorothy Zinberg, Idit Harel Caperton, and many other luminaries grace the back benches.

(As an aside, the sign of a truly great conference is often the strength of what we used to call the “audience”. People are hanging from the rafters, despite some stiff competition on the Aspen Institute’s campus.)

Gardner starts off with thoughts based on his 5 minds studies. 1) New digital media are plural: games, social networks, all manner of information sources. 2) The Digital Revolution may be as big a deal as the beginning of writing or publishing. The data that Gardner is grounding his work in interviews: with young people, teachers, and psychoanalysts. 3) The most important thing that we need to ask ourselves: what kind of minds do we want to be creating in today’s young people?

Gardner gives us the Five Minds in Under Five Minutes (pretty impressive speed here…): the five are the disciplined mind, the synthesizing mind, the creating mind, the respectful mind, and the ethical mind. The disciplined mind is about becoming an expert in something. It’s hard to imagine that the digital media are helping in this respect. The synthesizing mind, some have said, is the most important in the digital era: to sort through lots more information than has ever before been available to human beings. Digital natives like to search, but it’s unclear that they are in fact good at it. The creating mind comes up with new approaches, new methods. Creating minds think outside the box — but you need the box first, which are from your discipline and your synthesis. One of the big questions: can these media help creativity, or might they instead inhibit creativity, by giving too much of a frame and discouraging going beyond that box.

The other two types of minds are in the human sphere. The respectful mind is about how we relate to others with respect. Most of us are raised to be related to 150 people, many of whom are related to us. How do we relate to more people, in the digital sphere. You can get on and offline quickly, in and out of touch quickly. The ethical mind is about how we fulfill roles: the role of the worker and the citizen, of our communities and of the world. The ethical mind asks: I’m a teacher, a researcher, a writer: what are my responsibilities given these roles? We should look for neighborly morality. How large is that circle of people to whom we have an ethical responsibility? The scale is so much greater today in a digital era. And the scope of citizenship is much greater than ever before: it is, for many, global. Gardner’s research shows that most young people do not have much of a sense of ethical issues, whether online or offline.

Will Wright asks us to step back and ask about the fundamental type of communication in play in a digital era. Kids are getting immersed in these new media, in ways that parents have a hard time understanding. Asynchronous
communications are leading to new techniques of moderation, with new community standards and rules for banning people from communities. There’s a mimicking of biology: instead of top-down control, we see a bottom-up, evolutionary-based set of rules, based on parallelism rather than serialism. Wright applies a Darwinian analogy, echoing the set of Darwin-related themes bouncing around Aspen this week.

Another big difference, per Wright: we each have the opportunity to become the expert in something. eBay flattened the flea market system. It drove people to specialize in specific markets.

Gardner asks Wright about Wikipedia and what it tells us about governance in a digital age. Gardner describes is as a yin-yang exercise between Jimmy Wales and a broader community, and that a tension exists between top-down and bottom-up control. Yowell adds a key note: what it means to move to a different kind of a governance system online is driven in key ways by the practices and theories of Open Source software development.

(As an interesting aside, much a hard problem in my own mind: Wright tells us that surfing is an interdisciplinary exercise. Much of the most interesting learning is happening at the intersection between what we think of as academic “fields.” Gardner disagrees with that statement. There’s room for interesting exploration here!)

Yowell notes that it’s crucial to distinguish between different types of participation. Friendship-driven and interest-driven kinds of participation are distinct, as Mimi Ito has shown. In friendship-driven participation, kids bring their offline relationships and ways of communicating across to the online space. In interest-driven communities, it works quite differently. Wright agrees. What he says games excel at is helping kids to develop a passion for something that may not have interested them quite so much before. Players also learn a great deal from one another in games, such as Spore. Wright pointed to the cooperative process of catalyzing learning that he sees through games. The computer acts as an amplifier on learning and creativity.

Gardner asks about how Wright’s gaming relates to what’s happening in schools today. The digital environments, Wright says, are much better at creating constructivist learning spaces. Yowell pushes back on Gardner: we should not see what’s happening in school and out of school as oppositional, but rather we should look to a larger learning ecosystem for kids.

Eric Lander, an MIT professor of genetics and founding director of the Broad Institute, jumps in from the back-benches of the room. His passion growing up, he tells us, was mathematics. Through peregrinations, he came to become a geneticist. There is a next step, once a passion is sparked, in gaining a disciplinary knowledge of a field. Lander doesn’t think the process of learning this field is in fact found on the web. You can learn facts from Wikipedia, but the online learning environment doesn’t cause the catalyzing effects that we need for learning. He cites MIT’s OCW as a “crummy version” of the university’s learning process. He is looking to the future where we can draw upon the best teaching processes that can be disseminated through digital media. What are the platforms that will lower the barriers to improving education in these promising ways? (Good question. JZ‘s been puzzling about just this problem, from the H20 process and beyond.)

Gardner throws out a “good Aspen idea.” We each should know better how our own minds work, metacognition. This is the kind of thing that works for me, we ought to know. There is a lot of data about how we can continue learning, especially by nurturing our various intelligences. If you’re not so good spatially, you can learn that, and sometimes the Internet can help you to develop these intelligences over time. The Internet also provides scale: not everyone can get to Aspen in the summer, but many more people can access digital networked technologies.

Yowell presses the panel about what’s really helpful about games. She calls games “rails” that can push kids along a trajectory of learning, which she links to Gardner’s five minds. She references Katie Salen‘s effort to create a school that MacArthur Foundation is funding to build a game-oriented curriculum. What is the design methodology? How can we deal with the engagement problem through game design, Yowell asks? Gardner says we have to continue to build in forms of “romance” all the way along the continuum after they get a discipline — back to the Aspen ideal. He cites Personal Knowledge by Michael Polanyi which helps us to understand what it takes to learn in key situations. Gardner describes how this works in the law school (Socratic method) and medical school (clinical) contexts for learning.

And on to a series of rapid-fire comments from the room:

The key to making learning work in these new media environments is to establish the proper engaging context, says one participant. Another says that we need short, viral things that engage kids off the bat. Someone else worries that students are not learning to write well. (Gardner says that his research shows that writing may well be getting less good, but that facility with other modes of communication are improving. He realized recently that he’s a writing teacher on some fundamental level.) Wright: he calls a “peak” to written literacy, with the new literacy having to do with multimedia. Idit Caperton builds on this insight, suggesting that the new literacy is game literacy, and suggests that a sixth mind ought to be added to the framework: an inspiring mind. Another person notes the revolution in the science museum world.

JSB: there should not be a false dichotomy here. There’s a role for a master. And there’s a role for the crowds, the cutting edge online, the gaming, the peer-based learning. We shouldn’t be exclusive in either respect. (There’s a great cathedral-and-bazaar analogy here, building on Yowell’s note about the open source and proprietary software development processes.)