Monday, October 29, 2012

Ownership in learning spaces

In The Sciences of the Artificial, Herbert Simon wrote, "Engineering, medicine, business, architecture, and painting are concerned not with the necessary but with the contingent – not with how things are but with how they might be – in short, with design."

Recently some colleagues and I interviewed teachers who live hundreds of miles apart and asked them about how they design their educational spaces. Whether it was the high school art teacher, the middle school technology teacher, or the college philosophy professor who teaches both face-to-face and online courses, all of them spoke of the importance of developing individual problem solvers, but also about fostering valued members of their larger learning communities.

All of three of these educators spoke of student ownership of their learning, even of the environment itself, a shared enterprise where the teachers is also a member of the learning community.

This reminded me of an article by Larry Sanger (co-founder of Wikipedia), "Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age." Obviously Sanger sees the positives of cooperative learning, but in the article Sanger reflects on how the Internet is changing education and among other things warns against the celebration of the virtues of collaborative learning as superior to "outmoded" individual learning. He writes, “my notion of a good scholar is someone who is capable of thinking independently.... Reading, writing, critical thinking, and calculation should make up the vast bulk of a liberal education. Social learning could not replace these individual, 'Cartesian' activities without jettisoning liberal education itself.”

Cracks of Life by Montana Sage
He wraps up the piece with an impassioned plea: “The educational proposals and predictions of the 'Internet boosters' point to a profoundly illiberal future. I fear that if we take their advice, in the place of a creative society with a reasonably deep well of liberally educated critical thinkers, we will have a society of drones, enculturated by hive minds, who are able to work together online but who are largely innocent of the texts and habits of study that encourage deep and independent thought. We will be bound by the prejudices of our ‘digital tribe,’ ripe for manipulation by whoever has the firmest grip on our dialogue.” 

Sanger’s arguments remind me of what Howard Gardner calls the “disciplined” mind: "As the world we inhabit continues to change, educators must frequently reevaluate the goals of education, and the types of "minds" we wish to cultivate." Like Larry Sanger and the teachers we interviewed, Gardner's minds are a balance of the individual who has learned deeply and has cultivated a commitment to their larger communities.

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