Saturday, 14 December 2013

Cultivating Genius & the Zen Teacher

A recent issue of WIRED has an article on student directed learning called: The Next Steve Jobs, which asks some hard questions about teaching and learning during an information revolution.

The idea of regimented learning in rows in classrooms is so obviously indicative of 19th Century factory thinking that it begs for change, but many traditional education organizations have so much invested in the status quo that they will spend all our time and money hammering people into system-serving standardized thinking.  Instead of developing the skills vital for learning in an information revolution, we cling to politics and habits.  Nowhere was this more obvious than in a poor Mexican school that wasn't serving a genius in their mix.

You have to wonder how many of our students are marginalized and never see their own potential because we are wringing our hands about how not-average they are and how they don't respond appropriately to being indoctrinated by an archaic education system.

The article leans on technology, brain science and student centred and directed learning to bring out real genius in a student who was otherwise disengaged.  The brain research is fairly straightforward (though ignored by most education systems):

“The bottom line is, if you’re not the one who’s controlling your learning, you’re not going to learn as well,” says lead researcher Joel Voss, now a neuroscientist at Northwestern University.

Neuroscience has proven this again and again, but education stubbornly holds to an information limited, rigidly programmed learning system because these traditions support the political makeup of that education system.

“If you put a computer in front of children and remove all other adult restrictions, they will self-organize around it,” Mitra says, “like bees around a flower.

Mitra's research still assumes a teaching presence that will bump students along when they run into repetitive habitual patterns.  The key is a good leading question and then that dogged support as students find their own way to an answer.  The urge to interfere in this process in order to make learning clinical and exact is great, and many teachers do this with the best possible intentions, but what they are actually doing is taking away the student's opportunity to internalize learning.

Learning is a messy process, at its best teaching is a subtle presence focused on producing a fecund environment for fearless experimentation and research.  An idea is only learned when it is internalized by the learner and that can only happen experientially.  Any time you see a teacher talking at students there isn't any learning happening.

Faith in the self direction of a learner is something we've tried to remove from every aspect of the education system.  The system becomes the intent rather than the learner's learning.  Words like curriculum, assessment and standardized data become watchwords for how effective the system is as a system, it all has nothing to do with learning.  

Many of the fads we embrace in education around self-directed learning are little more than smoke and mirrors - the appearance of self-direction in order to fool the student into engagement with otherwise rigid systemic need.  This is exactly why a genius in a poor Mexican school couldn't engage enough to show her talents until her teacher threw away the paradigm.