One of the things I am is a historian. Done the time in the library. Read the original materials. Got the degree. So I tend to take a longer term view of things that people who haven't spent years studying events from hundreds or thousands of years ago do. I also have this tendency to ask annoying questions, like 'where did that come from?' 'when did we start doing that?' 'why did we start doing that?' It bothers me when people don't ask those questions. (Points to whoever tells me who said "A beginning is a very delicate time")
One of the things that also really bothers me (cause I know you were wondering) is when people think they're historians too just because they have the history channel or because they had a history class in college. That's why this kind of crap from the Texas School Board seriously pisses me off no end. All that is a disclaimer of sorts. I'm no teacher, although I have taught. So I'm kind of going to ignore my own warnings here and just present some ideas on the topic of education.
There are two things that are spurring me on here (three really). The first is that I currently am a paying customer of the U.S. K-12 system (I have a kid in the 5th grade). Why this spurs me on should be obvious. My son is going into the 5th grade next year and I've already seen his curriculum grind to halt to make sure that everyone had time to study for the MSAs. He also sits in a classroom at a desk but more about that in the next paragraph. ;-)
The second thing is a presentation that Gary Woodill (@gwoodill) from Brandon Hall Research did titled "The History of Classrooms as Learning Technology" back in August of 2009. I know Gary was nice enough to share those slides with me from that webinar, I don't know if he has them available elsewhere online but they're excellent and I hope he can make them available.
Now books like "Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology Since 1920" are great at looking at the history of technology (radio, TV, etc) in the classroom but fail to appreciate the classroom itself as a piece of technology, as a tool, as a tool designed to accomplish a purpose. Remember that old joke about the little kid being shown around somewhere like Colonial Williamsburg? Her parents have to explain what everything is, the blacksmith, a loom, etc, until they come to the classroom. There the girl feels right at home...because nothing has changed.
When we look at a hammer, we see pretty clearly what it's purpose is. The beauty of Gary's presentation is that it forces us to look at the classroom as a tool. As a tool designed to accomplish a purpose. Failing to look at the classroom itself as a tool and to consider for what purpose that tool was created is a failing of perspective we can't afford. Why? Because we're starting to do things like create virtual worlds with virtual classrooms in them. Why? Why are teaching adults in classrooms?
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry? 1
We should ask what hand created technology like the classroom. What eye framed its "fearful symmetry" (see picture above for fearful symmetry)? Why? Because the classroom has become such a dominant metaphor not only in K-12 education but in Higher Ed and even in our adult training...even in our virtual worlds. In one sense (please see sign at the top of this post), the classroom represents the headwaters of our experience with education and training. The even deeper tragedy is that its not just the classroom we're blindly propagating...its other ideas which are being seriously challenged like No Child Left Behind and its offspring 'teaching to the test.'
If our sons and daughters are struggling with "No Child Left Behind" then imagine their surprise when they get into the corporate world and find our main operating principle with regard to training could be "No Adult Left Behind." Boy, we have got teaching to the test down to a science don't we? So if classrooms are harbingers because they are where we start our experiences, then look at how some of these systems are doing. You have Bill Gates talking to the National Governors Association in 2005 and saying:
Ironically enough, one of the most powerful recent voices to critique the current system and the associated reform attempts has been Diane Ravitch in "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education." The Gates Foundation itself isn't spared either. (1) Her message of the failing of testing and of sacred cows like charter schools has been resonant. Her book is in its 7th printing in 3 months. (1,2,3,4) This critique of the current system is that 3rd thing that has been bothering me. I think I also really like Ravitch because she is a historian of educational policy.
"America’s high schools are obsolete. By obsolete, I don’t just mean that our high schools are broken, flawed, and under-funded – though a case could be made for every one of those points. By obsolete, I mean that our high schools – even when they’re working exactly as designed – cannot teach our kids what they need to know today. Training the workforce of tomorrow with the high schools of today is like trying to teach kids about today’s computers on a 50-year-old mainframe. It’s the wrong tool for the times."(1,2)
So what do I want right? I want us and by us I mean the people who frequent ASTD, ISPI, and the eLearning Guild events, the people who populate #lrnchat, and the people who are charged with using emerging technologies to teach and train..I want us to consider the tools we are propagating. The systems we are perpetuating. The theories and paradigms we use to bolster our plans. These tools, these ideas, these systems, become embedded in our world view since we are indoctrinated in them since childhood. What's the joke about 'who invented water?' 'I don't know but I bet it wasn't fish.' Too true.
We need to critically examine all of this. We need to understand that there is no such thing as a neutral tool. That the creation of every tool is embedded in a cultural context, a milieu of meaning that we must consider when we consider its use. We must learn to not think outside the box but think outside the system. Kill the next button. Kill the idea that no one can fail compliance training but we don't really give a damn if it actually changes behavior or performance by one iota. Kill the idea that taking a course all the way through once and passing produces some sort of meaningful pattern of memory. What would you do if you had a blank slate?
....course, that's just my opinion. I could be wrong. (apologies to Dennis Miller)
So I was reading about new developments on the browser front, Firefox 4 is under heavy development, Opera 10.63 is out, I just found ExtensionFM which is a Chrome extension that builds a library of links to every free MP3 that you run across-in essence building a nice little instant MP3 library. We also now have syncing in Chrome and Firefox.
Now I know that #e20 and #mlearncon both just finished up (BTW, I think I just want to start referring to confernces by their Twitter hashtags, deal with it) and watching those associated tweet streams, I was really impressed by what I saw coming out of both conferences. Again though I'm struck by how we sometimes seem to running to the next thing without really looking at what we currently have and what can done with it or even if we need to keep it. I know, this is a weird dynamic for me, I'm usually the kid who comes running in yelling 'this is cool..look at this' and then someone asks (they always ask) 'how will it help us?' and I say 'I don't know...but its COOL.' So I'm taking a bit of a step back here but not really. I think we already have several things in our environments, things that we use every day, that if we used them smarter, thought about them more, we could actually make some pretty serious productivity gains. First up is the browser.
The browser. Possibly the most ubiquitous piece of technology any of us online use. I may be dating myself here but I used to be really familiar with that screenshot over there. Ah, Mosaic. Back in the days of WinSock, Telnet and PINE, Mosaic was my browser of choice (more accurately, the only browser I could get). You know, put in a URL and the go get coffee. That's also back in the day when the most important stuff we did on computers we did using stand-alone, installed apps. Now I would really like someone to name me a mission-critical piece of software I have to use as an installed application whose functionality is not replicated or surpassed by some Web-based client or service. My point (and a super-obvious one) is that not only does the browser now offer us an unprecedented level of functionality...between the services/sites we can get to all the way but they offer us an unprecedented level of customization and the various extensions and widgets provide entirely new layers of capabilities. So how much are we studying this incredibly extensible, customizable, powerful environment? Where are the comparisons across browsers of the various configurations/extensions/widgets/add-ons that could be created to support learning, performance support and collaboration? (Firefox Add-Ons, Chrome Extensions, Opera Widgets) This is not a rant against IE either but where is the questioning about why in so many instances, IE is just the default browser? (Mush like someone somewhere started the myth that the classroom is the gold standard for training/education...that's a whole other post though) Are we really satisfied with IT just handing us something that we'll use every day and not knowing if its the best we can get? I personally have IE, FF, Chrome and Opera installed and am constantly checking out new features...shouldn't we continue to look at this technology with a critical eye? What the heck...let's take a crack at email.
"Reply All"? What idiot thought of that? I think more damage has been done to corporate productivity by that little button then by all the games of Tetris combined (Check out how Zappos handles it). If we're not in the browser, we're probably in Outlook. So alright, how many of use have had ANY training at all regarding email? Yeah, I know that the COO of Facebook has said that email is going away and I think this may be the ultimate instance of closing the barn door after the horse has run out (run out, found a new place to live, settled down, and grown old frankly) but I think this is symptomatic of a deeper issue. We use and abuse this particular technology with absolute abandon. We've even created "email bankruptcy"...does that seem healthy? But its this tool we have that because it seems simple, we all think we know what to do with it and how to best use it like that knowledge comes to us genetically or something. So how do we know if we are using this tool to the best of our ability? To the best of its capabilities? How do we even know if we need to be using email at all? Are we searching for alternatives? If we implement social media tools w/in the enterprise, are we doing the necessary change management to get people off the email addiction? What the heck...let's take one last swing...hey! PowerPoint c'mere...
The story of this slide from the Afghan War has already become legendary. That however is soooo the tip of the iceberg. How much time has gone down this particular rabbit hole? Why do exceptional presentations standout so clearly? I think its because we've seen so many bad ones. Thank goodness for conferences like TED that have been raising the bar on presentations to a level that we can all aspire to. Thanks to to books like Slide:ology and Presentation Zen and Edward Tufte who have been helping us make visual sense of information. I'd just like to ask, how many of our organizations offer training in constructing visual stories, storytelling in general or how to think about presenting information in a compelling, understandable manner? What productivity gains could we get if we invested in some training from some folks like VizThink? We even have multiple tools for converting PowerPoint into training, thus extending the potential for good or ill.
So the browser, email and PowerPoint. How much time do you think those tools take up in our daily work lives? How much thought have we, as organizations, put into the optimal use of these items?I think there are gains to be made and innovation to be had and solutions to be found. Maybe we need to develop some more 'field independent' thinking...maybe we just might need to look more closely.
Still noddling my way around this one but wanted to pass it along.