The Control Shift: A Grassroots Education Revolution Takes Shape

Kids are taking charge of their own learning as educators grapple with their new roles.


Tina Barseghian

For as long as anyone can remember, adults have played the role of information owners, meting out what they believe kids should know. Whether it’s the classroom teacher imparting expertise in American history, or a parent explaining the birds and the bees, adults have always tried to control what children learn.

Now, with open access to every imaginable kind of information found online, kids are happily seeking and finding it on their own -- and on their own terms. The balance of power has shifted irrevocably.

So what does this mean for educators who are trying to figure out their role in this age of kids' self-guided discovery?

“The control piece is really big, because if it’s acknowledged, it leaves educators with this empty hole,” says veteran teacher Will Richardson, the author of Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms. "‘Well, if we’re not doing that, then what are we doing?' That’s where the conversation needs to be. But it’s a hard one to have. It’s very difficult for people to see themselves in a decidedly different role. But at the end of the day, we have to examine what we’re doing in terms of content in classroom. It should be more about learning, giving kids power to get content on their own.”

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This power shift is at the crux of an education revolution that’s been gaining momentum online. But it’s not about the show-stealing headlines of “Waiting for Superman,” or Michelle Rhee’s vision of school reform that are dominating most of the education-related media.

This revolution is orchestrated by frustrated educators who believe the current school system must be torn down to the studs and rebuilt in order to keep up with the enormous cultural shift wrought by technology and the Internet. And though their own Twitter universe is ablaze with new ideas and practices – check out all the blogs, Tweets and voices on #edchat – it's happening piecemeal, and under the radar of most teachers.

Pockets of Innovation

In spots across the country, innovative programs are leveraging the vast power of technology and the Internet. This Sunday night (February 13), PBS will air Digital Media - New Learners Of The 21st Century, featuring a few examples of these programs. The Digital Youth Network, for example, focuses on teaching kids to record music, create podcasts and videos; New Youth City Network structures the school day around rich sources of information, like the American Natural History Museum, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and New York Hall of Science, among others. Like an extended field trip, students spend time learning about the neighborhoods, the city’s ecology, and practice skills like data visualization and collaboration.

There are dozens of other programs like these across the country, but they're few and far between. Even basic access to the Internet is spotty in many schools, which block major websites like YouTube because of the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act in order to protect kids from unsafe sites. Those pushing for change complain that schools are throwing out the baby with the bathwater – blocking large swaths of rich, useful information online. While some educators push the boundaries by allowing their students to use cell phones in the class to get instant assessment, to take notes, look up information online, and so on, schools across the country still ban the use of cell phones in class.

“Learning through technology will not replace the need for teachers,” said Diana Rhoten, director of the Knowledge Institutions program and the Digital Media and Learning project at the Social Science Research Council. “It will change teachers’ jobs. They become more like coaches or mentors. But I think it will make their job more exciting and give them the opportunity to be pedagogues, which is ultimately more rewarding.”

Where to Start?

But the next step in this revolution is still undefined. Richardson, who travels the country spreading the gospel about harnessing the power of technology to teachers, superintendents and school districts, says that educators are confused about how to proceed.

“The interesting thing is that they will acknowledge that this shift is happening,” Richardson said. “But it’s hard to take that next step, and say, 'Okay, so we really do have to change the way we do things at school, and away from content delivery to learning, and we really do have to change our roles as teachers to co-learners and supporters and mentors?' It’s a big shift to make.”

Although Richardson and his peers have been pushing for the movement for as long as a decade or more, it’s still very much in its infancy. “We have to stop thinking that when one thing goes wrong, that we don’t have all the answers,” says Christopher Lehmann, of the museum-based school Science Leadership Academy in the PBS documentary. “What do we want our schools to be? What’s the most important thing we want our kids to learn?”

Depends on who you ask. Authors Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown might say it's the ability to learn on their own, to create and be part of a community, to iterate and continue refining their own and others’ projects, to learn from their peers, to create their own learning patterns. All this happens when the teacher creates space and opportunity, and gives students control, they say in their recently published book A New Culture of Learning, Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change.

So what will propel the movement to burst out of the Twitterverse into reality? First and foremost, the vision needs to be clarified. There are plenty of pilot programs and school experiments to look to, but there’s no agreement yet on how to apply those best practices within the monolithic, rigid public education system. Especially given the enormous cultural emphasis, government funds, and schools' and teachers' successes attached to test scores.

"I think parents understand that schools need to do something different – but the 'different' doesn’t equate to anything really different at the end of the day because they want their kids to pass tests, get to college, do all the things that we define as traditionally successful," Richardson says. "Parents say, 'There are places that are experimenting on that stuff, but don’t experiment on my kid. I want those grades, I want those scores.'"

As for what's next, here's what some of these thinkers predict: The experiments will continue to proliferate and take shape around the edges, and eventually, if proven to be successful, there will come a tipping point that will drive the change in the public education system.

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“Traditional approaches to learning are no longer capable of coping with a constantly changing world. They have yet to find a balance between the structure that educational institutions provide and the freedom afforded by the new media’s almost unlimited resources, without losing a sense of purpose and direction,” Thomas and Brown write. “The challenge is to find a way to marry structure and freedom to create something altogether new.”

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