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Is This Learning?

Let’s discuss the definition of learning.

Let me start with a couple of interesting “visions” of learning that I’ve read recently.

First, from a Wall Street Journal essay by Yale professor David Gellertner titled “The Friendly, Neighborhood Internet School.” The idea is simple. A one-classroom school, with 20 or so children of all ages between 6th and 12th grade, each sitting at a computer and wearing headsets...In front sits any reliable adult whom the neighbors vouch for—often, no doubt, some student’s father or mother, taking his turn....Each child does a whole curriculum’s worth of learning online, at the computer. Most of the time he follows canned courses on-screen.

Second, from a Getting Smart blog post titled “ShowMe Personalizes Learning Abroad.” Harun envisions ShowMe [an app for creating tutorial type videos] playing a role in the future classroom. ‘Maybe we will shift to a new form of classrooms, leaving the traditional way of gathering 20-30 students in a room every day,’ said Harun. ‘Maybe students will have their own cubicles as we do now, and they will run apps and watch videos, etc.’

New Narrative

These are examples of a growing narrative around what learning should look like in the new, efficient, less costly EduBusiness world that is exploding around us. It’s a vision that uses technology to “personalize” education for each student to meet the outcomes required by the summative assessment, whatever that may be. And it’s a vision that should deeply concern us.

Why? Because this new narrative is based on the idea that we need better delivery methods of curriculum, not better learning. I’ve argued in this space before that we need to move beyond a definition of learning that is based on comparing test scores year to year and content mastery. That definition was built for a time when kids came to school to get the content. The web has changed all that.

If we were really serious about preparing our kids for success, we’d be much more focused on the skills and dispositions they need to make sense of the content, knowledge and teachers they have access to. Instead of them sitting in cubicles to take part in “a whole curriculum’s worth of learning online,” we’d be better off keeping them in classrooms with kids and adults who are asking complex questions, solving real problems, connecting with others worldwide, and adding to the knowledge base, not simply consuming it.

But don’t miss the point: delivering “a whole curriculum’s worth of learning” in the classroom is no different from delivering it on a computer. When we can create our own curriculum as needed, that’s the model we have to break.

New Normal

Two years ago, IBM surveyed 1,500 CEOs from around the country, asking them what the most crucial factor for success is in today’s world. Shockingly, the top answers had nothing to do with mastering content or getting good test scores. Instead, they said that “creativity” and “managing complexity” were the most important traits. Far as I can tell, we can’t deliver those things very easily, nor can we measure them as cleanly either.

But so what? The function of each of our schools is to prepare children as best we can for the lives they are going to lead. Certainly, all of our students need to communicate effectively, have basic understanding of economics and statistics, and have a context for understanding the greater issues of the day. But we have to seriously ask: “How much more?” and “At what expense?” The new normal is learning it when we need it, not when it comes up in the lesson plan.

For administrators, it comes to two questions. Do you believe the world has changed dramatically when it comes to learning? And if so, how can you begin to change the conversation around learning?

If you don’t believe the world has changed, that our priorities must change, I know a guy who’s offering large-volume discounts on cubicles...

Will Richardson is the author of “Why School?” from TED Books, and blogs regularly at