Science, Math, and Fan Fiction: What's Worth Learning?

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What happens when you allow kids to figure out their own path to learning by giving them access to the online community? That's one of the thoughtful questions Richard Halverson, co-author of Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology, brings up in this interview at the CYTSE conference.

There's a difference, Halverson says, between using cyberlearning tools for specific purposes -- to learn math or health, for example -- and towards open-ended discoveries, such as participatory cultures like World of Warcraft or FanFiction sites that teach kids the intangibles.

It's a huge leap to make. Educators are still not wholly convinced that technology is anything more than just "bells and whistles," so is it even possible to think about giving kids free rein to design their own path online?

And even in those communities that do embrace technology, "those two communities don’t really overlap very well," he says. "One of them really wants to do what schools do. And the other one wants to see what the tools are capable of."

The closest comparison to this kind of learning model, Halverson says, is the community college. "I think we’re going to see much more of that in our high schools, like less emphasis on core academic curriculum and more emphasis on well what…what interests you," he says.


As for the issue about the control shift -- of teachers letting go of the idea of filling students' heads with facts and information -- Halverson adds yet another level of complexity to the equation. With so much pressure to teach to the test and standardize learning, Halverson says he's heartened by the fact that "teachers still make every single decision about which student gets to speak, how the assignments are structured, what kind of feedback they give to their students."

And for the innovative educator, this is promising.

Read the entire interview with Halverson's here.

Q. What trends are you seeing in cyberlearning world?

A. It’s been the big challenge in the cyberlearning debate I think is that there’s a whole group of people who wants to use the tools to transform what we’re already doing in school. So we have cyberlearning for STEM education or cyberlearning for health education. But then there’s another group of folks who are looking at cyberlearning tools just to see what kind of learning occurs when people engage in…in participatory cultures or they organize around technologies.  And those two communities don’t really overlap very well. One of them really wants to do what schools do.  And the other one wants to see what the tools are capable of.

The big contrast I think is, like imagine a world in which you already knew what students should learn.  Then the technologies are just means. And then you want to test the ability of the technologies to deliver those…those ends that you already know.  But then imagine another world in which we don’t really know what the learning goals are. The tools sort of embed practices that go in their own directions.  And so there’s a whole group of researchers studying that, too, to see like what kinds of learning emerge from using these tools.

Q. Is that what you think will eventually be the norm?

Well it’s the thing that’s transforming our society. I mean everybody uses Google now. Everybody’s got an account at the DMV. Everybody shops online. Everybody pays their taxes on line. Like people maintain virtual selves all over the place. It’s just integrated into their, into their lives. And the people who invented cyberlearning tools are the ones who pioneered these new forms of virtual interaction. So looking at things like World of Warcraft or FanFiction or participatory media cultures really shows the future of what everyday interaction is going to be.

Well kids, I mean the interesting thing about kids is that they’re very early adopters and, but they adopt…they adapt actually the tools to what they think is interesting.  And so social media sites really took off when highschoolers embraced them, first My Space and then Facebook as virtual extensions of their ability to interact with their friends. And the folks in schools have been scrambling ever since to figure out how do we get social network interaction in our school. And the transition has not been very hard because we’re trying…I mean it’s not been very easy because we’re…we’re trying to export natural practices from their native land into an artificial context.

Q. How can this all be integrated into curriculum?

I think one of the problems that curriculum instruction is going to have is the very long sort of industrial model for how curriculum gets organized. It’s over a hundred years old. It’s based on standards and it’s based on shared model of what’s learning. And so in schools you have a model for what’s learned and then all the kids have to go along with that model. And I think the new models that are being developed now are much more production focused where kids integrate what they know into meaningful performances or products. And then the technologies organize around those products both in their production but also in their sharing to give kids a real investment in what they’re building and doing. But the kind of movies or the kinds of machinima or the kinds of production that kids are engaging in does not map very well onto traditional curriculum maps. And so like what happens with chemistry.  Well that’s a big problem because kids are engaged in a lot of sophisticated media production practices that don’t really involve chemistry.

There are different kinds of learning goals like a huge part of our education process is cultural inheritance.  There’s a whole bunch of knowledge that we think that educated citizens should have and that our schools are designed very efficiently to transmit that knowledge.  I mean you can’t teach algebra much better than it’s currently being taught in our schools.  And to have game to do it or other kinds of media to do it, it just the new methods are just inefficient compared to what we already have. The question is, or the question for us is that a lot of kids aren’t engaged by algebra or chemistry. They’re engaged by other stuff. And so we can follow the trail of engagement to figure out what kinds of things interest them and are there…are there legitimate academic pursuits to be sort of discerned in…in that form of participation.

I think the best model that I can think of now is what’s going to happen with high schools in the next twenty, thirty years. The community college model which is an enormous range of electives for all kinds of practices, right, from media production to professional trades, to sciences, to math, to literature, a huge smorgasbord. It almost takes a comprehensive high school and explodes it and puts the learning in charge constructing an educational pathway. I think we’re going to see much more of that in our high schools, like less emphasis on core academic curriculum and more emphasis on well what interests you.

Q. What happens to "core curriculum" in that case?

Well I think we’ve settled as a culture on sort of a 19th century definition of what constitutes and educated person. Chemistry was a rather late edition to that but math is definitely a part of it.  And I think what we’re going to find out in the next fifty, a hundred years, at least from the perspective of an economic productivity that some of those disciplines just don’t matter for creating ways of life and…and new economic productions. I mean I work in a group that does game production. And we see really smart kids all the time who are disaffected from their schooling, want to come, they want to build worlds. And they want to use programming tools to do it. And if it’s about learning then that’s great. And it’s not clear that that’s directly related to chemistry or any other of the things that we currently teach in schools. I mean algebra gives you a routine of thinking. But the actual content of algebra it just doesn’t come up very often. The sad fact of it is you just don’t need algebra. You need proportions. You need need to be able to make judgments about similarity and difference.

Q. What message do you have for parents who are unhappy with the public school system?

What should parents’ reaction be the current state of schools? And one of the issues is that schools are not a monolithic entity. There’s your local school and a lot of parents understand that if they participate in their school that benefits their kids and so local community participation in school is a really important thing.

I think a bigger question is how do we react to other people’s schools?  It’s sort of the general public support for public schooling. Like how do we feel about creating a common institution that helps the needs…the education needs of all of our kids? And that right now in 2010 is a think an emerging public dispute. I’m from Wisconsin. And so right now in the state capitol the future of public education is being debated, the future of how, whether teachers are going to be able to unionize and to bargain and so forth.  And it’s brought out a lot of discussion about how our schools aren’t any good anyway so why don’t we hasten their destruction and bring in charters and so forth. And so we as a culture we don’t really have a good sense of the quality of other people’s schools. And that’s an important thing for us to understand. It’s almost not as a parent but as a citizen, it’s important to understand like what’s the role of public education as an ongoing sort of institutional benefit of our culture.

Well it’s really hard to discern the state of public education because all the press is negative like the liberals are (unschooled/on schools) because of their failures. The conservatives are unschooled because they cost too much. Parents are (unschooled) because of taxation and disciplinary issues, students are unschooled because they don’t want to be there. Teachers are overworked, and it’s a universally negative message. And so it’s really hard to discern what’s actually going on, what are the day to day practices that give people life in schools. And that voice is just not being heard. The voice of teachers who, you know, aren’t dealing with extraordinary circumstances every day but are just trying to teach algebra. They’re just trying to teach programming. They’re trying to teach kids how to read. Those stories are just not being heard in the…in the contemporary discourse.

And on the one hand I think all this attention is good because institutions don’t grow if you don’t point out their critiques. You got to have a persistent atmosphere of criticism otherwise it just becomes good enough. And so the fact that American public education is such a hot button issue really gives us sort of a public incentive to make change in schools. But I am worried about the baby in the bathwater problem that the stuff that works in schools just doesn’t get reported and so we, in this cycle of constant reform that doesn’t really stick to what we’re already doing.

Q. What are your thoughts about the role of the teacher, and the idea of them letting go of control of owning subjects and the content they teach?

It’s been a dream for the progressive movement in education for a long time that teachers would let go of the control over to students and engage in constructive conversations with students.  But that dream has really been on the run in the past ten years. We’ve entered an era where we’ve used information technologies to capture outcomes for student learning. And once we determine the patterns and the outcomes that leads to prescribed methods of instruction, so teachers have less and less control than they ever had over the methods that they use, more often teachers are being asked to stand and deliver. "Here’s my curriculum. I’m supposed to deliver it to my students." And then we’re supposed to measure the outcomes. And that’s what constitutes teaching.


Now that being said at a macro level I think it looks sort of bleak for teachers. But at a micro level, teachers still make every single decision about which student gets to speak, how the assignments are structured, what kind of feedback they give to their students. The great promise of the whole school reform argument that we’re having is that at the micro level teachers have as much control as they ever had. And they can ask questions in however they see fit to interact with students. So to me there’s enormous amounts of hope in the very place where that makes the most difference.