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Hacking Education
Alex Steffen, 31 Oct 03

Modern schools are products of the Industrial Age. You don't have to subscribe to the radical critique of Dumbing Us Down author John Taylor Gatto (though his recent Harper's essay is worth reading) to know that schools designed to turn out competent and compliant factory workers might not be the best thing for our economies, our democracies or our kids themselves.

But what's the alternative? There's no doubt a huge warehouse somewhere filled with dusty and deteriorating reports on fixing education, but most of these proposals have earned their obscurity: their reforms are tepid ones, designed to preserve most of the elements of the status quo while tinkering at the margins with class size, the curriculum, or the kinds of tests kids are forced to take.

But one new report stands out, if only for its implications. Education Epidemic:
Transforming secondary schools through innovation networks
, by David Hargreaves, offers glimpses of what could be the salvation of schools. (it's a 700KB file)

Hargreaves argues that schools need radical, not incremental, innovation, and that adopting an open source model for sharing advances in teaching and school administration is the best way to get there. He suggestions on this front are quite good, and he includes nifty graphs and hits all the right buzzwords (collaboration, emergence, peer-to-peer, tipping point), but in the end, he misses the boat. The real transformation is not teachers sharing better ways of standing up in front of their classrooms: it's reinventing the role of teachers themselves, seeing teachers as guides showing students how to network and collaborate. Teachers learning skills in an open source manner is smart. Teachers showing students how to learn by working in unfathomable new ways is a revolution.

(excerpts below)

"[Schools are] seriously out of step with the demands of employment in knowledge economies, where new knowledge, skills and attitudes are at a premium – the ability to learn how to learn and other meta-cognitive or ‘thinking’ skills; the ability to learn on the job and in teams; the ability to cope with ambiguous situations and unpredictable problems; the ability to communicate well verbally, not just in writing; and the ability to be creative, innovative and entrepreneurial. To enable teachers to help students to learn in these ways, and so to organise schools, would indeed be transformation. In the knowledge society teachers could with advantage be models of what their students are to become – highly effective and adaptable learners."

"The best way to spread new practices that people must choose voluntarily rather than conform to in response to central prescription is through peers. Innovations have to catch on, like best-selling books, because they seem to be what everybody is doing, or are caught from personal contact, like a virus. ... What is needed is innovation news that is credible and an infrastructure by means of which the news can travel far and quickly"

"The path to transformation requires every school to be willing to give away its innovations for free, perhaps in the hope of some return, but with no guarantee of it. Is there an example of how this might work? Yes. It is the culture that characterised the beginnings of the internet, which itself started out as a peer-to-peer network of cooperating users."

"A hacker, said Eric Raymond, is ‘an enthusiast, an artist, a tinkerer, a problem solver, and expert’ – terms that will arouse fellow feeling in any classroom teacher. For years the profession has complained that government education policy has reduced teachers to technicians, rather than respecting them as creative professionals. Ironically, the hacker culture that produced innovative technologies displays values and norms that are quite close to those of teachers, who must now introduce into the education service the very practices that allowed the hackers to transform their world through creative collaboration."

"The open source (or modifiable software) movement among hackers hinges on the notion that software evolves faster, becomes better and more stable as more people work on it. In a similar way, the transformation of secondary education needs innovation networks that can achieve transferred innovation much faster and over a far wider range of schools than ever before. And there might come a point – the tipping point – where there is the same exponential effect or geometric progression by which a Napster arises or a book becomes a best-seller or the mobile phone becomes a commonplace possession or the virus turns into an epidemic, all of which are transformations."

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In the current educational system, teachers will probably need to experience using innovation networks before they will be willing to lead their students in these activities. Perhaps there will be a two step process with teachers learning first and then drawing their students into collaborative learning.

“Teachers learning skills in an open source manner is smart. Teachers showing students how to learn by working in unfathomable new ways is a revolution.”

Is anyone aware of schools that are involved in making this transition? How did they get started and what kept them on track?

Posted by: Nancy Riffer on 7 Dec 03

That's a really good point, Nancy, and one worth keeping in mind. Even where a radically better possibility may exist, people still need to find their way to it, and that involves lots and lots of individuals trying things out and seeing how it fits - worth keeping in mind, definitely.

I'd be interested as well in hearing stories of schools involved in making this transition.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 7 Dec 03



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