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Discovery Learning

The title of a recent essay in Wired certainly caught my eye: American Schools Are Training Kids for a World That Doesn’t Exist.

I think anyone who does a realistic evaluation of our educational system in the context of the rapidly changing American society, and especially the world of business, would regard that statement as obvious. But that’s not how school works.

We “learn,” and after this we “do.” We go to school and then we go to work.

This approach does not map very well to personal and professional success in America today. Learning and doing have become inseparable in the face of conditions that invite us to discover.

A large part of our approach to the learning process assumes that students must accumulate facts to some basic level before they can ever consider applying those facts.

Here in the real world, most people begin with a problem to solve, a question we need answered, or a skill we want to acquire. Then we do the necessary research as we work towards the goal. The two parts are so intertwined, I doubt most people notice when they switch between accumulating information and applying it.

The writer, a professor at Harvard, goes on to say “Americans need to learn how to discover”. But he does see something changing in the right direction.

Against this arresting background, an exciting new kind of learning is taking place in America. Alternatively framed as maker classes, after-school innovation programs, and innovation prizes, these programs are frequently not framed as learning at all. Discovery environments are showing up as culture and entertainment, from online experiences to contemporary art installations and new kinds of culture labs. Perhaps inevitably, the process of discovery — from our confrontation with challenging ambiguous data, through our imaginative responses, to our iterative and error-prone paths of data synthesis and resolution — has turned into a focus of public fascination.

Certainly these “discovery” programs are showing up in many schools. But they are not part of “regular” school. They are classes for a special group of kids (generally those who we know will already pass the tests), after-school programs, or occasional reward activities.

The last part of the article focuses on changes at the college level but he discusses one very interesting idea that should be brought into K12.

All this has led to the rise of the culture lab.

Culture labs conduct or invite experiments in art and design to explore contemporary questions that seem hard or even impossible to address in more conventional science and engineering labs.

Instead of starting with memorizing facts and processes, then using them on totally artificial applications, why not ask students below the college level to address those contemporary questions? Why not ask them to investigate the parts of the world about which they are curious as part of “regular” school?

Instead of making discovery learning a supplement for only select kids.

Going Beyond The Textbook

In a recent post at the Fischbowl, Karl asks a good question: What job would you hire a textbook to do?, as the start to providing an overview of Discovery Education’s second Beyond the Textbook event held this past week.*

It’s a topic we’ve been thinking about a lot the past couple of years (and I’ve ranted about a few times) as our overly-large school district has been experimenting with online textbooks, first in Social Studies and then in math. Our results have been far less than stellar, Textbooksprobably because we are not aiming beyond… well, anything.

The digital textbooks sold (more like rented) by the longtime publishers of the paper versions, are also little different from them. Take a pdf version of the analog content, add a few videos, some interactive quizzes, and lock everything to the company servers so nothing can be used on the devices kids have available most often.

So, what how did the group meeting at Discovery headquarters envision what’s beyond the textbook?

Six different groups came up with six different mockups and, as you would expect, there were many commonalities as well as some differences. The main commonalities were that a “techbook” should be very customizable (by both teacher and student), media rich, provoke wonder/curiosity/inquiry, stimulate mathematical thinking/habits of mind, and have a social component. I’m not sure what exactly Discovery is going to do with these results, but I’m hopeful that we contributed at least a small part into making their next techbook better.

Good list of features, although I hope we can find a better term than “techbook”.

Anyway, Karl is right that this discussion – not to mention those that occurred prior to adoption of the online materials we are using – should have started with two essential questions. First, is curriculum necessary?

The second question only arises if you answer “yes” to the first question. So if you believe that curriculum is necessary, or even if you don’t but you think that as a practical matter it’s going to exist for the foreseeable future, then perhaps this question will be more meaningful for you. This essential question is, “What’s the purpose of a text/techbook?” (Or, because I just finished this book [How Will You Measure Your Life] by Clay Christensen, perhaps rephrase that as, “What job would you hire a text/techbook to do?”)

Our instructional people regularly insist that the textbook is not the curriculum, that we have already have a program of studies designed for our students. If so, why do we pay big money for the books, digital or otherwise? As a resource for the teacher? To provide review materials for students? A source of practice problems?

There’s nothing unique about any of those functions. A few states, or even large school districts like ours, could easily assemble a better product to meet those requirements for less money using resources we already have.

But go back to that list of commonalities: customizable, media rich, stimulating, social component. None of that sounds like the textbooks we already have or, for that matter, the versions that would likely come from most educational bureaucracies.

Maybe a non-traditional publisher like Discovery, working with the kind of smart, progressive educators who participated in this event, can create something genuinely new, something beyond what we now call a textbook.

However, even if they succeed, it won’t make much difference unless the rest of our educational system is prepared to change. We also need to go all the way back to the foundation and answer the question “What job would you hire a school to do?”.


* Right around the beltway and they never sent me an invite! Wonder if that’s fallout from our system not renewing with their Discovery Streaming product. Yeah, that must be the reason. ;-)

Image: “Ebook Vs Textbook” by India.edu from Flickr, modified and used under a Creative Commons license.

Testing Trumps Teaching Everytime

Our district subscribes to Discovery Education Streaming, an excellent collection of video and other resources for instruction at just about any level and for almost any topic.

We’ve made it available to teachers for a couple of years now and most of them love the materials and use the service constantly.

However, our IT department this week sent out a message asking that our middle and high schools not use the site from now until June 13th.

Because for the next month those students will be taking the state standardized tests (the SOL’s in our local vernacular) online and, when you have limited bandwidth, it must be reserved for high priority activities.

And nothing gets a higher priority in American education than testing.

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