Innovation in education is often seen as a commitment at improving the quality of education.
But what does it mean to educate?
To this essential question, the French geneticist and humanist Albert Jacquard answers “E-ducere” that is to say “to awaken the appetite, to create needs, to raise questions”. “Education must be lived as a commitment in the collective game where men and women – (Jacquard called them“lucid men”) – build themselves mutually.”
This vision of education takes us far away from the classroom where it usually stays and brings new perspectives to innovators in education.
The challenge is to (re)think of education as a global solution to meet the following three objectives:
Innovation in education in this context means much more than “anyone, anywhere, anytime”.
Education is a dialogue, an innovative form of communication that must favor the creative and constructive appropriation by ALL the inhabitants of the planet and above all by the younger generations of ALL the themes vital to our future.
Education relies in this new context on a “pedagogy of the question” and not on prefabricated answers or ready to use technology with pre-existing contents.
Education requires the participation of all in the construction of the common good.
Education is thus the means of sensitizing and provoking the participation of the greatest number on each of the subjects that condition the quality of our lives and our “living together”.
Education is therefore a tool of social transformation enabling individuals, starting with the youngest, to become aware of problems that are essential to them, to move forward with behavioral changes and to influence the behavior of the community in which they live.
Innovators in education have no other choice than to contribute to this social transformation. Are they aware of it?
Technology in the classroom could pretend to transform learning into an almost magical process connecting teachers and learners between them and to the knowledge they need.
The edtech entrepreneurs present themselves as the new magicians that push back the frontiers of learning, introduce new algorithms to predict how, what and when any person will be ready to learn.
They strengthen the importance of learning for life achievements and at the same time completely change its meaning. Learning for them is not only an aspirational concept but a core component of their business plan. Many of these new magicians just would like to transform learning into gold!
The GESA (coorganized by the israeli incubator Mindcet and the Open Education Challenge (created by P.A.U. Education) is the global stage where the new magicians from all around the world present their most recent tricks. One thousand applications from 70 countries and six continents offer the education analyst a vibrant panorama of the current state of the art in learning innovation.
Some applications have already a taste of “déjà vu”: taking 20 bites of contents, 50 bytes of technology and mixing them up… Others introduce augmented reality for learning purposes, creating a white rabbit that speaks like a teacher… They haven’t succeeded yet in transforming learning into gold and their startups are still struggling to define a viable business model.
Magic doesn’t work for all. But the best magicians have realized that it takes much more than magic to succeed. Their genuine ambition is to respond to real needs and serve real people living in real life. Their commitment is with the learners and the teachers and they are ready to postpone their money making dreams until they will have created genuine value and measured impact.
GESA finalists believe in the magic of words and crafts, of music, books and toys. They understand the social challenge that lies behind each learning innovation. They don’t establish a business model out of the blue but aim at connecting with the learners and make a difference for them.
The best education magicians don’t pretend to transform learning into gold. They simply believe in people’s aspirations to learn more and have a better life… They have understood that an edtech entrepreneur has to reconcile social aspirations and market opportunities.
They are prepared to bring evidences of their impact. This will be truly magical!
Changing education nowadays is often seen as resulting from an almost magical process where technology will have the power to improve the learning experience, i.e. the relationship between a learner and what and with whom he or she learns.
This magical moment simply never happens because of or thanks to technology but the need to change education remains.
Claude Levi-Strauss wrote in his essay « Propos retardataires sur l’enfant créateur » that what makes (education) reform relevant is not that traditional (teaching) methods are bad, but that the social, cultural and economic context has changed.
“New Millennial Learners” are the symbolic representatives of a new context: their skills and expectations aren’t properly taken into account by the education system. Digital natives are not technology-driven. They don’t claim for more computers in the classroom. They simply have a different way to access knowledge, make inquiries, and connect to one another. The way they live outside school seems often to them too far away from their practice at school.
The teachers are usually made responsible for this situation and are said to represent the main obstacle to innovation in the classroom. It would be their fault if so many students drop out or fail to find a job. They simply would be unable to speak the language of their students. Their lack of technological skills would condemn them to turn their back to their students and develop their teaching in an empty nutshell.
Too easy don’t you think!
Most of the time, teachers are left alone in the process of change and are having a hard time figuring out what to do with digital tools. A reason could be that they don’t have themselves sufficient digital skills even if teachers’ surveys confirm on the contrary that they are proficient users of social media in their private sphere (see my blog). We are left with a situation of “décalage” (mismatch) and with an apparent contradiction between their public and private practices that is reviving the debate about the very meaning of teaching in a digital natives’ context.
This is where most edtech innovations pretend to make a difference, enabling the teachers to overcome this contradiction by using tools that will (re)create a one-to-one relationship between the teacher and his student. The teacher will be able thanks to a software or a device to personalize his/her teaching and adapt it to the needs of each student.
There is a new paradox between the one-to-one dimension of the technological device and the signification of one-to-one “referring to a situation in which two parties come into direct contact, opposition, or correspondence”. The classroom experience enables a unique direct contact between a teacher and the students and between the students themselves that no technology can substitute. Going to school is part of a huge socializing experience that should promote collective learning and collective achievements: learning together, helping each other…
The teacher developed for centuries a singular one-to-one learning relationship; the class was considered as one despite the differences between students. The “one teacher to one class” relationship helped to overcome the students’ individual differences and enabled the acquisition by the multitude of an homogeneous set of knowledge… And there was apparently no magic in it, no devices…
Until an in-depth assessment – PISA and others – revealed tremendous disparities. These disparities could also be observed by just sitting in the classroom at the beginning of a school year. Out of 30 students in a class, 10 will move forward almost with no help, 5 had already resigned any ambition from day one and could be considered as potential dropouts and 15 are still hesitating on the way to take depending on the school’s climate, good or bad influences…
Teachers’ illusion to respond – almost magically – to the needs of a full classroom collapsed as it was clear they had no time to attend so many different individual needs and no magic skills to maintain the illusion of the classroom considered as “one”.
Time appears to be the teacher’s main constraint. The “right” technology may help them achieve a better time management and make possible new types of one-to-one relationships such as:
- a teacher paying personalized attention to the students that most need it during the class (and voluntarily ignoring the ones that best perform)
- students paying attention to each other with another type of one-to-one relationship based on friendship and mutual learning
Which technology will the teacher chose and how will it be used?
… (to be continued)
Education is (still) the answer
A metro station (and most classrooms) are not learning places
Joshua Bell, one of the most celebrated violinists of our time, decided a few years ago to play in a Washington metro station pretending he was one more street performers. He played, thousand passed by and only 27 stopped and listened. At the time his concerts were sold out all over the world. An article by Pulitzer Prize Gene Weingarten gave this unique performance a worldwide coverage and helped question the appreciation for beauty in the modern world. Are we too busy to stop, listen and enjoy? Are we unable to open our eyes and look around? Have we all become bystanders, passively consuming predigested knowledge and unable to detect the value of the unknown, the emotions of beauty?
Bell alone on a corner went unnoticed as would have happened to most artists in the same conditions.
In my understanding, Bell’s metro concert raises another question regarding the aesthetic or learning function of space.
Are we ready to accept that any place like a metro station be a concert’s place? Do we have enough “brain plasticity” to consider that any place like a metro station can be a learning place?
Aren’t we fully conditioned by the predetermined meaning of a place and therefore only able to accept that learning can take place in a classroom? Even the MOOCs haven’t fully succeeded in breaking this “glass ceiling” and remain secondary learning options.
Joshua Bell decided to come back a few years later and give it another try. But this time, the outcome was different. He brought with him a group of young musicians and publicized it. People came and listen… The venue was the same but the very meaning of the space had changed. Instead of standing alone in a corner, Bell was now the center of attention on a stage set for the occasion. We were told in advance that the metro for a few hours will be a concert’s hall and we got prepared to it.
Bell’s announced success condemns in a way serendipity learning. It says that learning always happens in predetermined conditions. We all have in mind the picture of students sitting passively in a classroom and listening to their teacher, How many are really learning? How many are thousands of miles away lost in their dreams? How many of those listening to new Bell’s concerts were really listening to the music and how many were just enjoying the fact they were among the happy few in a once in a lifetime cultural event?
For me, nothing will substitute the exceptional experience lived once by 27 people that stopped and listened to the beautiful music of an unknown music star.
The problem is that hardly no one is prepared to listen when not told to do it or actively learn outside the classroom if not allowed to do it. No education system is ready to commission Joshua Bell to go and teach music in a metro station to students on their way to school… certainly for fear they’ll arrive late…
While learning is restricted to a classroom with four walls, students can’t be emotionally challenged to learn outside and get used to sit and stare.
Are the teachers mere followers of innovative trends in the classroom or true entrepreneurs that deeply transform education everyday? Are they artisans that are reinventing their work everyday or visionaries that use technology to change the way we learn?
Are the teachers “bricoleurs” or “entrepreneurs”?
Bricoleur is a French word described by Claude Lévi-Strauss in ‘The Savage Mind’ as “someone who works with his hands, using devious means. His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand’”.
Alex Beard from TeachUK once argued that “teachers will be bricoleurs” and that by 2030 “adaptations, mash-ups and bricolages will be the norm”. The teachers-bricoleurs will be “continuously using, adding to or adapting new resources for new learning needs, inviting peer-review and providing evidence of learning results”.
“Whatever is at hand” is exactly what the Israeli artist and educator Hanoch Piven experiences when engaging teachers in thinking about their practices as if they were bricoleurs experiencing the art of mash-up with everyday objects. Hanoch asks teachers to use objects in a distorted way in order to think creatively about what they do in the classroom, and why.
Hanoch and Alex reinvent Huberman’s vision of a teacher “who is always busy, creating or repairing learning activities of different kinds with a distinctive style or signature”.
Bricolage is not a second best solution neither for the teachers or the students but has to be central to creative thinking. In the words of Seymour Papert, “bricolage is a way to learn and solve problems by trying, testing, playing around”.
How do we combine “bricolage” and technology?
The bricoleur-teacher stimulates creativity in the classroom, in a much more powerful and sustainable way than through the use of technology alone. Jim Groom, in his evocation of The Glass Bees, reminds us that “teaching and learning are not done by technology, but rather people thinking and working together”.
In his article ‘Mashing up the Institution’, Hanley argues that the bricoleur-teachers will have to disrupt existing representations of teaching and learning by asking “students to make meaning through new conjunctions of sound, image, and text”.
Hanley asks what happens when teachers within public school systems think of themselves as bricoleurs rather than the users and clients of sophisticated Learning Management System that are increasingly used in schools to connect with students and parents. And he answers: “we’ll have to abandon our institutional identities as users and clients to embrace more inventive, experimental, self-conscious identities”.
The bricoleur-teacher will emerge as a strong figure in these times of changes when technology tries to make its way in the classroom and when at the same times schools face lack of resources and “the daily scramble for a dry-board marker that still has some ink in it.”
Teachers can no longer be seen, as Eileen Honan states it, as “policy-users who compliantly follow instructions and programs laid down by policy developers” but as “bricoleurs” that design artisanal solutions that will fit individual and community needs.
In the end the teacher bricoleur is the true innovator, the closest representation of a teacher entrepreneur.
And the good news is that there are many of them!
 Huberman: the model of the independent artisan in teachers’ professional relations in: J.W. Little & M W. McLaughlin (Eds) Teachers’ Work : individuals, colleagues, and contexts (New York, Teachers College Press) 1993
This post is a revised version of a text published in this blog in June 2013.
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