Three Reasons Why We Keep Reinventing The Same Learning Technology Every Few Years
If you're interested in changing the status quo in education, you'll need to speak WITH and not PAST these reasons.
I’m coming here today not to judge any particular learning technology, just to wonder why we keep reinventing it every few years, generally without any reference to previous versions. I’m trying to understand why its appeal seems inexhaustible and what that appeal says about popular conceptions of what it means to teach and learn.
Here is a system called Individually Prescribed Instruction from the late 1960s:
Students are provided with self-study aids, such as pre-recorded cassettes and videos, library references, computer-assisted instruction, sample tests, or programmed learning modules. [..] When a prescription is completed, the work is checked by the teacher, and if it is satisfactory, the student proceeds with the unit.
Sound familiar? You might recognize the same kind of premise with Khan Academy and the “flipped classroom” movement in the early 2010s:
She's now on her way to "flipping" the way her class works. This involves replacing some of her lectures with Khan's videos, which students can watch at home. Then, in class, they focus on working problem sets. The idea is to invert the normal rhythms of school, so that lectures are viewed on the kids' own time and homework is done at school.
Or the Modern Classrooms project here in the 2020s:
In a Modern Classroom, educators forego [sic] the traditional front-of-class lecture to provide shorter forms of direct instruction that students can access whenever and wherever they might be. In this way, educators duplicate themselves digitally, allowing them to more freely respond to the various needs in their classrooms.
In a Modern Classroom, students go at their own pace. They don’t move onto the next lesson simply because it’s time or because they completed the requisite work. They move on when they have mastered the concept and are ready to build on that skill.
If you get close to the surface of classrooms, it can seem like we all have drastically different ideas about teaching and learning. Everyone is using a different curriculum, different strategies, different stuff!
But what’s interesting to me about this same technology returning from cold storage every few years is that it reveals a secret. It reveals what a huge group of people—including large subsets of the national media, venture capitalists, startup founders, parents, teachers, administrators, etc—believe about education but don’t often say out loud or even necessarily think about consciously.
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The most prevalent of those beliefs seems to be that:
Teaching involves the transfer of extended amounts of information from expert to novice, enough information to make pre-recording it worthwhile.
We can measure teaching quality by the quality of the pre-recorded information transfer—its clarity, its engagement, its effect on learners—and we would ideally invite the people who are the best of the best at that kind of information transfer to pre-record the information.
Learning is the act of an individual and the presence of other learners with differing traits (existing knowledge, interest, participation styles, etc.) inhibits that learning. Therefore, each learner should learn from the pre-recorded information that is best for them.
You can use, love, and probably even invent these technologies without holding onto any of those beliefs exactly. I’m not describing any one person’s beliefs about education. I’m trying to describe why these particular technologies, all of which share a bunch of common DNA, become very popular every few years. That popularization is the work of a group, not an individual.
Part of my work right now is communicating the value of a very different kind of educational technology than the one we keep re-animating. Perhaps you’re in a similar position in your school, district, or board. From that vantage point, I think it’s extremely helpful to understand these enduring beliefs about education, the ones shared by lots of people you’ll need to persuade. Change requires us to speak with those ideas, rather than past them.
[s/o to basically everyone in this Twitter thread sharing their ideas on this same question.]