A friend recently reported witnessing a teaching program at Harvard that combined student research with virtual reality. The first part of their study included student driven questions about the quality of water in a local river and its impact on the fish and fauna. They actually visited and collected and documented the water quality and gathered basic data and facts. This phase was followed by an under water journey using virtual reality. Students were taken under the water to observe things that were impossible to experience directly without additional and sometimes expensive and even dangerous gear.
Although this kind of technology and teaching is still challenging for most schools, it is nevertheless becoming clear that the role of technology for schools is growing exponentially. No longer do teachers and students and content need to be in the same place at the same time. Sophisticated video games are showing the way of the future, where three-dimensional learning, alternate realities and universes, and an expanding cornucopia of fact and expert knowledge will be available for anyone wanting to find them.
So how do we deal with learning in this age of almost limitless potential? And how can today’s education, frozen in a model created for another time, transform into something that is relevant?
I continued to be convinced that we don’t need teachers to rearrange what they do; we need them to question their job in this new environment. This is why our collective understanding of learning fascinates me. The human brain is designed to deal with engaging and meaningful personally relevant questions. The teacher’s role is to engage and support this search by facilitating student research and mastery of details. This kind of learning however requires that many things be restructured including the use of time, place for learning (including on line environments and life-like events outside of one place or building), and the multiple ways that great work can be evaluated and assessed.
In order to facilitate this kind of teaching, community and healthy relationships come first. Teachers need to know how to establish and maintain an environment, which includes dialog, discussion, healthy and helpful routines and collaboration. Moving from an authoritative to a collaborative environment requires time and training. Letting go of control and allowing for student ideas and creativity to drive content knowledge is very frightening for most teachers and educators. These shifts need a type of self-examination by teachers and educators that requires much discussion and consultation. Until that self-questioning forms a part of the debate, the discussion tends to be about teacher control and authority and learning continues to be defined as mastering pre-specified content already known or determined by others in authority.
All the issues and possible solutions really end up as a kind of window dressing until we shift to a new view of what it means to learn in an age when information is free and the questions drive the learning. Information and skills relevant to new age must focus on meaningful ideas that are usefully explored, applied and useful.