School itself is a technology. We need to change the operating system of school.

What if it is possible to redesign the operating system for school so that most users immediately see the benefits of the new approach? What if the benefits are similar in their revolutionary impact to those provided by the personal computer and the graphical user interface? The computer scientists and engineers who conceived and developed the personal computer and graphical user interface knew that they were opening up the power inherent in computers to regular people. They understood that in order to do this they needed to completely rethink and replace the existing paradigm of computing. If we want to open up the power inherent in schools to everyone, we need to completely rethink and replace the existing paradigm of schooling.

The following is an attempt to understand some of the forces involved with this process, and perhaps through increased understanding, move the process along a bit.

I believe a new paradigm of education should be based on the foundation established by John Dewey.

Dewey rejected the notion that a child’s education should be viewed as merely a preparation for civil life, during which disjoint facts and ideas are conveyed by the teacher and memorized by the student only to be utilized later on. The school should rather be viewed as an extension of civil society and continuous with it, and the student encouraged to operate as a member of a community, actively pursuing interests in cooperation with others. It is by a process of self-directed learning, guided by the cultural resources provided by teachers, that Dewey believed a child is best prepared for the demands of responsible membership within the democratic community. (http://www.iep.utm.edu/dewey/)

We already have a range of prototypes in the Deweyan tradition available to study. These range from old established progressive schools to newer computer-infused models like Science Leadership Academy, High Tech High and the EdVision schools. While many of these schools are wonderful, they have not managed to create a paradigm of school that large numbers of traditional schools have felt compelled to adopt. One possibility for the lack of adoption is that the existing progressive models are good enough to emulate, but traditional schools are just stuck in their practices and incapable of significant change. Another possibility is that the paradigm provided by the existing Deweyan models is not yet compelling enough to prompt change in traditional schools that believe that their educational practices are actually working quite well.

I believe that we need to create a new Deweyan-based paradigm that is as compelling to students, parents and teachers as the personal computer with graphical user interface paradigm has been to computer users. When people experienced graphical user interfaces on personal computers they didn't need to be pushed to adopt this paradigm... they jumped on board with passion and enthusiasm. One-to-one computing, the Internet, Web 2.0 tools and a rapidly improving understanding of how our brains work are the major forces coming together to provide a new infrastructure that allows for the possibility of a breakthrough highly-compelling new paradigm for school.

What made the personal computer with a graphical user interface so compelling? A couple of things, curiously both of which seem to have relevance for our new paradigm for school.

First, and perhaps most obviously, personal computers were personal. They were designed so that their user could work autonomously on whatever was of interest. Up to that time computers were shared institutional resources that were accessed through time sharing. When your turn came you gained access to the computer's resources for a short period of time, you would get some feedback, and then wait for your turn to come again. The more people using the system the longer you would wait for your turn. I hope this reminds you of a learner's access to feedback from a teacher in a classroom characterized by direct instruction? With a personal computer each user has the full and undivided attention of their computer. As a result feedback is provided virtually immediately, and progress on whatever task is being attempted can move ahead at whatever speed is best for the user. In a school characterized by project based learning, the potential exists for each student to -in effect- have their own personal school in which they can often work autonomously on whatever is of interest and receive frequent and fast feedback on their learning progress.

Second, graphical user interfaces made the abstract visible, and visible in more accessible and understandable ways. Before GUIs users interacted with data in a computer by viewing lists or tables of data and typing commands. GUIs allowed not only graphics, but the use of images to represent data and actions (icons). Information which had previously been abstract and hard to manipulate became concrete and manageable in a very intuitive manner. A data file, which had previously been represented as a name in a list of files, now was an icon on one's virtual desktop, which could be moved around, put away in a folder, or thrown in a trash can. Icons -along with windows, menus and a mouse controlled pointer- made it possible for virtually anyone to make use of the information processing power of computers.

Every school has a huge collection of data which currently -especially from the perspective of the student- is highly abstract, inaccessible and hard to understand or independently explore. This is, of course, the school's curriculum. Schools' curriculum data currently is very much in the state of data on computers pre GUIs. What if we could take this data, represent it as a manipulatable explorable customizable 'intelligent' set of related objects, and provide each teacher and student a virtual 3-D environment with their own customizable collection of these curriculum objects. Imagine that this 3-D environment is as explorable, dynamic and graphically rich as the very best 3-D computer games.

Now let's consider the curricular objects. Each object could represent a coherent learning objective that might be a skill, a concept, some content or a combination of the three. Color, shape, and markings could be used to provide visual clues to the data represented by the object. Clicking on a curricular object would open a wiki-like window containing text, images, embedded videos, links to related information (including other curricular objects), and information about assessments. What each student sees when they open a curricular object might vary based upon their interests, learning styles and past work with the content of the object. In other words, the objects would be 'smart' and know things about the person accessing them and what that person had previously accomplished with the object's learning objective.

Teachers and students could create new curricular objects reflecting their own learning interests and add these to their own or their school's sets of curriculum objects. Objects could be rated and shared, both within a school and between schools.

Some questions
  • What would be lost with an approach like this? It is almost like moving from an analog to a digital representation.
  • What role would competition play? Would families compare the curricular object trees of different schools looking for the fullest crown?
  • Could the object representations become overwhelming?
  • What about the large amount of information that isn't in "the map"? A school's hidden curriculum.

A very abstracted right brain visualization of 3D collection of curriculum objects. Just throwing it out there. :-)

right_brain.jpg