This is part of the “Hi, AleX” series — advice to AleX NetLit about enhancing her levels of network literacy through day-to-day personal and professional social networking. AleX Netlit is a fictional persona created by Network Literacy Community of Practice to serve as a guide to Military Families Service professionals, Cooperative Extension educators and others seeking to learn more about using online networks in their work.
Pardon this deep immersion in storytelling, but no three accounts better illustrate the kind of world in which we are now living — not to mention, navigating, as 21stcentury professionals.
We’ve already introduced you to Frank Kovac. He is the determined individual whose father instilled him with a deep, abiding love of the stars. From an early age, Kovac dreamed of becoming an astronomer and planetarium operator. Unfortunately, taxing college math courses stymied that dream.
Note that I used stymied instead of prevented, because Kovac never let the lack of a conventional educational credential stand in his way of his goal. You recall the rest of the story: Supporting himself as a paper mill worker in rural Wisconsin, Kovac used his free time to access books and online sources about astronomy as well as the design and construction of planetariums.
In time, he built his own hand-operated planetarium, which he touts as the largest one of its kind in the world. For all intents and purposes, Kovac is a planetarium director in the fullest sense of the word. His small facility has even become a local Wisconsin tourist attraction from which visitors not only leave impressed with Kovac’s immense knowledge of the stars but also imbued with a measure of his infectious passion.
Passion: Kovac’s life speaks volumes about what a powerfully emotive force it an be in shaping lives. Educators are taking note of this essential truth, too. Some, including Dr. Sugatra Mitra, to whom you have also been introduced, are calling for the end of the industrial age educational model, partly for the reason that it does such a lousy job instilling passion.
As Mitra has learned, passion is the key to learning — actually, it always has been, only now, the power of digital media is underscoring that essential truth. As you recall, Mitra got his own taste of this after installing a computer in a wall in an impoverished Indian village near the corporate headquarters of a software company where he worked as a chief scientist.
The children quickly learned how to use the embedded computer. This prompted more experimentation on Mitra’s part. A few years later, he uploaded information about molecular biology onto a computer in a southern Indian village. After informing a group of 10- to 14- year-olds they would find something interesting on this computer, he turned and walked away, not returning until a couple of months later.
During that time, the children not only learned how to work the computer but also were able to answer one in four questions on the computer about molecular biology.
Within few more weeks, the children, inspired by the encouragement of a friendly local, got every question right.
Through all this experimentation, Mitra has gained a heightened appreciation not only for emergent learning but also for the values that underscore it: innovation, creativity, independent thinking and, yes, passion.
These insights have led to something equally significant: a global dialogue about the learning as an emergent process.
Quoted recently in an online version of Wired, Mitra observed that “If you put a computer in front of children and remove all other adult restrictions, they will self-organize around it like bees around a flower.”
To put it another way, “if you’re not the one controlling your learning, you’re not learning as well,” Mitra contends.
Word of these insights is spreading to a growing number of educators around the world, many of whom struggle to reach students in the most disadvantaged of circumstances.
An article published Oct. 15 in the online edition of Wired highlights the efforts of Mexican teacher Sergio Juarez Correa. Juarez Correa has desperately searched for ways to reach his students at the Jose Urbina Primary School, an impoverished school located near a dump in a sun-drenched northern Mexico border town little more than a stone’s throw from American schools where tablets, Ipads another other online learning tools are almost taken wantonly for granted.
Until he discovered Mitra’s emergent learning practices, Juarez Correa employed the same hidebound teaching methods as virtually every other Mexican teacher — lectures, memorization and lots of busy work — ones that had secured the same frustrating results year after year: low test scores.
Juarez Correa determined to put Mitra’s insights into practical use in his classroom by allowing his students, in Mitra’s words, to “wonder aimlessly around ideas.” The change that took hold of Juarez Correa’s class not only astonished him but also his principal upon discovering how this new teaching method produced a dramatic turnaround in test scores.
Previous test scores revealed that 45 percent of the class had essentially failed the math section of the test, while 31 percent failed Spanish. The latest results revealed that a mere 7 percent failed math and 3.5 percent failed Spanish. Equally significant, sixty-three percent of the class garnered excellent scores while none had in the previous test.
These new insights are not only receiving a receptive ear in materially disadvantaged countries such as Mexico. For example, the Wired article reports that in the 1990s Finland, in addition to reducing its math curriculum from 25 pages to four and the school day by an hour, also began focusing on independence and active learning. By 2003, Finnish students had ascended from lower ranks of international performance to first place among developed nations.
Americans classrooms, despite being equipped to the teeth with all manner of laptops, tablets and iPads, should draw a lesson from this dramatic change of thinking.
As the Wired article reports, currently almost a third of U.S. high school graduates are not academically prepared for the first year of college courses. Equally disturbing, the United States now holds a dismal ranking of 49th among 148 developed and developing nations in the quality of math and science instruction.
Equally significant, the article also reports that the top three demanded skills in the 21st century will be teamwork, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills. We need schools that are developing these skills.
AleX, we have stressed to you before how you and millions of other professionals were trained to think about and deliver information in linear terms — through programs such as lectures, seminars, and workshops, with your students serving more or less as passive recipients of this instruction.
The ways you serve you clients have been defined by those methods for the bulk of your career.
All of this is changing — quickly and inexorably, Alex. The ways people connect to knowledge — education almost seems too constricted a term to describe what is taking place — has become more open and democratized than ever before.
And, frankly, we should all revel in and celebrate that fact.
Author: Jim Langcuster (@extensionguy)
This article (The Passion Revolution in Learning – and What It Means for You) was originally published Wednesday November 13, 2013 on the Military Families Learning Network blog, a part of eXtension.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.