A New Culture of Learning, Douglas Thomas at TEDxUFM

A New Culture of Learning, Douglas Thomas at TEDxUFM


Translator: Rebeca zuñiga
Reviewer: Reiko Bovee I’m really happy to be here,
and I have a lot to talk about. About a year and a half ago,
I published a book with my colleague, John Seely Brown called “A New Culture of Learning.” And it addressed what we saw
as some fundamental problems with what was happening
in education today. And, it hit us very early on that learning is fundamentally
an easy thing that we do, that we do from the day we’re born
until the day that we die. And that for most of our lives it is natural, and it’s effortless
everywhere but school. So, it sort of hit us that maybe we need to rethink a little bit about what learning looks like
in our everyday lives, and start to think about
how we can recreate our educational systems,
our classrooms, our training seminars to mirror what learning really looks like. And we came with the idea
of a new culture of learning based on really three different areas. The first was the idea
that we need to engage passion. If you look at a child learning you see in their eyes the passion, the wonder, the joy. A few months ago,
I was with a colleague of mine with her three-year-old child
walking down the beach in Santa Monica where I live. And he came across a very odd tree that had all kinds of misshapen branches
and a strange bark, and he just sat there
and stared at it in wonder, and then like a child would do
when you’re three, started taking the bark, smelling it,
putting it in his mouth. He wanted to know
everything about that tree. And it was a moment when I thought, I’m really witnessing
pure learning happening. And if somebody
has a passion for something, try to stop them from learning. You can’t do it. No matter what obstacles
you put in the way, they will find a way to learn
what they need to know. That’s the first thing. The second thing that we found as an important component of a new culture
of learning is imagination. And imagination really begins with two words which I think
are the two most powerful words in English language: What if. It’s the ability to imagine things
differently than they are, and the incredible power
that comes out of those two words can literally reshape the world. So, those two things form one component of the new culture of learning. The third component
that’s equally as important is constraint. If you want to drive an architect crazy give them a large smooth
flat piece of land, and then watch them spin out of control trying to figure out what to do with it. But if you really want to make them happy, give them something
that’s impossible to build on. Give them a river, a mountain,
a tree, a big rock in the middle and let them work around it, and they will create something brilliant. I think when Ken Robinson,
at the beginning, he was talking about creativity;
that’s what he meant. It’s the idea of creating
in the face of obstacles. And putting obstacles in people’s way
can harness that passion and imagination, and the combination of those two things
can create something great. And out of all this,
John and I talked a lot about what the fundamental ingredient
was in creating a new culture of learning. We decided it was play. And play is a concept
that combines those three things. And I’ve come up with the definition
that I rather like, which is that play is an emergent property of the application of rules
to the imagination. And if you think about something like
as basic as a game where you say, “Take this ball, put it in that goal,
but you can’t use your hands.” What would you invent?
Football or what we call soccer. So that idea of just putting those rules
in place, fires the imagination, and if you think
of all the wonderful things that people do in that game:
the imagination, the creativity, the joy, it all comes from that simple collision
of imagination and rules. So, that was the fundamental idea
behind “A New Culture of Learning.” And I realized pretty quickly,
one of the great things about my job is I get to go to talk about this book
to lots of audiences, and a lot of them are teachers. And, instead of telling teachers
what they need to be doing, I spend a lot of time listening to them tell their stories
about how their schools were working. And I learned four things
from the teachers that I talked to. The first was that teachers,
just as much as students, have passion. They care about what’s going on
in their classroom; they care about their students,
and they want students to learn; that the reason they went into that job was to see the light bulb go off
over a student’s head, to see their eyes light up with wonder
when they’ve found some new idea. And going through that,
talking to these teachers, I found time and time again
they have roadblocks put in their way. I talked to a ninth grade teacher
who teaches English in California, and on the curriculum,
mandated by the state, is that he teaches the book
“Romeo and Juliet” by Shakespeare. And he tells me the first two pages of “Romeo and Juliet,” this is his favorite thing to teach;
it is his favorite day of the year. It is the day he looks forward to
more than anything else because the first two pages
of “Romeo and Juliet” are full of dirty jokes. And he knows that he is going to get every student
laughing and giggling, and there’ll be the one student
who sits in their going, “I don’t get it,” and somebody will whisper in their ear,
and they will go, “Ohh, I get it,” right. It is a joyful experience for him to watch the language of Shakespeare come alive and for them to say, “Wow, I want to read this” –
it’s a dirty book, right? – “I’m very interested
in what’s going to happen.” And this language,
it has lots of different levels, so they spend the rest of the semester
trying to find the double entendre and all of the magic
in Shakespeare’s language. What a wonderful experience
and to see him in one day and two pages hook kids on Shakespeare! That for him is why he became a teacher. Except this year, because someone complained
because he was telling dirty jokes. And he was called in
not only to the principal’s office but in front of a tribunal
to evaluate his fitness as a teacher. He was suspended from school for a week. He absolutely found this mind-boggling; he hadn’t assigned the book, and he said, “Your problem isn’t with me,
it’s with Shakespeare, and if you’re going to tell me
I have to teach this play, I’m going to teach it properly.” So he was being punished for actually teaching the text
he was told to teach, and the kids’ understanding it. And at one point
he turned to this committee and said: “Has any of you actually read
‘Romeo and Juliet’? ” And not one of them had. But one of them had children who had,
who had explained it to her, and she said to him, “Why can’t you just make it
a nice love story?” And he said, “You do realize
they both die at the end, right?” (Laughter) So that’s the kind of battle that teachers are facing. And to make matters worse, I was just in New York
talking to some teachers as well. They’d done a survey
on New York students, and they’d asked K-12 students
outside of the classroom, what are their major learning resources? And the things that came up with
were their mobile phone or iPhone, Facebook and Youtube. So New York City did the only
reasonable thing that you could do, which is they banned all three,
immediately. Not only for the students
but also for the teachers. So if you’re a New York City
school teacher, you cannot access Youtube
to show videos; you cannot do anything
with mobile phones, and you cannot have
any contact with students or use Facebook in the classroom. And there is a big protest now, where I think 47 of 51of the commissioners
of the New York School System wrote the president chancellor and said, “This is unacceptable.
You must allow phones in the schools, but we agree they should be
kept turned off.” So, that’s the solution. I find this fascinating
that kids are telling people, “This is how we learn,” and the schools are responding
by saying, “You can’t do that here.” So, when I look at what’s happening
in the classrooms I think, what we’ve done is we’ve looked at a way
to prepare out students for the jobs of the nineteenth century. It’s just that we’ve taken
two hundred years to perfect that method and we’ve gotten it right; we are now training people
for industrial revolution factory jobs, and we’re doing a very good job of it; unfortunately, those jobs
no longer exists anymore. And I thought that was the problem
until I talked to the teachers more. And this led me
to my second conclusion: that the system
of standardized testing we have has almost nothing to do with knowledge and everything to do with surveillance. The way in which
standardized testing works is not about accountability; it’s not about making sure
people learn things. But the goal of any system of surveillance
is about normalization. It is about treating every student
like every other student and every teacher
like every other teacher. And I’ve come to believe
that that kind of normalization is incredibly toxic to the things
that we talk about, like passion, and creativity, and innovation. Because it presumes
that everything is equal, and any deviation is to be treated
with suspicion and contempt. And that’s what we’re seeing take over
in our school systems. When I talked to these teachers,
I was hearing all kinds of amazing things. The one that disturbed me the most was because of the pressures
of standardized testing, New York City school teachers
said to me this line, “We have no time for imagination.” And I thought that cut to the heart
of exactly what it is that we’re trying to rail against. So I talked to these
New York City school teachers, and I find that only
a few of them are happy, and the thing I realized pretty quickly
is the ones that are happy are teaching kindergarten, and first grade, and second grade. And I assume that’s just because they’re getting these kids
at that age when they’re still joyful. And someone said, “Oh, no. Standardized testing
starts in third grade.” That’s what’s making
the teachers’ lives miserable because they no longer get to have
any kind of learning in their classroom; all they can do is teach to the test. I come home from New York to California
and hear a news report that California has adopted something
called the California Core Curriculum, and it will now begin
standardized testing in kindergarden. I don’t know how you devise
a standardized test for nap time, but they’re probably
going to figure it out. Now, what’s happening
is we’re sending messages to teachers that essentially they can’t be trusted. My next-door neighbor
teaches third grade in California, and he actually was
“called into the principal’s office,” that’s how he described it, for sneaking Art into the curriculum. It wasn’t in standardized test,
there was no place for it, and the administration believed
it was trading off with higher test scores as a result of putting more information
in these kids’ heads. So he was called in, and disciplined
as if he was a student for sneaking Art into the curriculum. So, what we have now is what we think of as a new culture
of learning only happens when you sneak it into the curriculum,
and it becomes subversive. So, now teachers are not just battling
for students’ attention, not battling to teach them,
they’re also battling their administration defying the space
to make real learning happen. The result is that good teachers
are forced to become bad teachers, and great teachers are driven
out of the profession. There’s no space for the kind of thing that we think of as that noble art
of teaching and learning. The third thing I learned is that our classrooms and our students
are changing in a way that we haven’t really
been able to keep up with. The reason why
is that we have become a culture, and our learning institutions
have become cultures of context rather than content. And I learned this
from my students as well. I had an interesting class
where I talked to my students, and I asked them a simple question. I asked them, “Who do you trust?” Because when I grew up
it was very easy, if it was in New York Times,
you probably believed it, because they did fact checking, if Walter Cronkite said it, you believed
It was true because it was on the news. You know he was the voice
of objective truth. Now, maybe that was a little naive. But I asked my students who they trusted and they said, “No one.” And I thought they were being cynical, but it turns out I was wrong;
they weren’t. What they meant was
they don’t trust anyone in particular. When a piece of knowledge
comes to them, they want to see it
from lots of different sources. They want to have lots
of different contexts to situate what that piece
of knowledge means. So, they’re living in a world, where,
when a piece of news comes in, they look at four different news stations, they look at a couple
of different newspapers, they hear what their friends are saying,
and their parents are saying. And out of all of that, they come to a conclusion
about what something means. So they’re living in a world of context and they now have the tools
to radically reshape context in a way we never could. If I wanted to reshape information I needed to buy a television station,
a magazine, a newspaper or radio station. All these kids need is a weekend,
Adobe Premier, and some raw footage, and they can reshape anything they want. In fact, there’s a brilliant Youtube video
called “Scary Mary,” which is Mary Poppins,
re-cut as a trailer for horror film. Remarkable. And it probably took a weekend
for a kid to do with Adobe Premier. Simple. So, they can reshape context
and have this acute awareness that everybody else can too. So they’re very aware
of what context means and what content means. Unfortunately, most teachers
and most professors are living in a world
where they believe they are the content, but in our students minds
we’re just another context. What that means is we need
to completely rethink what our classrooms look like. We need to understand where they are. And the place that this came up,
most interestingly is, after I asked them these questions
and grilled them for a few minutes, one of my students said to me,
“Can I ask you a question?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “What is that what you guys” –
meaning professors – “and Wikipedia? You all hate it. Why do you hate it so much?” And it dawned on me that professors treat Wikipedia
as content, but to our students,
it’s just another context, so when they use it,
they use it to gloss information to get a quick understanding of something, to put it in a perspective
that allows them to understand it in a much bigger picture; but we’re still thinking
it’s the Encyclopedia Britannica. So there’s that fundamental mismatch. Now, that brings us to the fourth thing. And, today when we enter the classroom our classrooms need
to become very different than what they are currently. What that means is we need
to reevaluate what expertise is. And this is a very hard thing
for teachers to let go of because we’re used to being the people
that stand up in front of the room and tell you the information
you need to memorize to put on the test as students. And, in fact, education has become a game,
and that game has become: “Guess what the professor wants,
and then you give it back to him.” And you guys as students
have spent twenty years sitting there, and in the first five minutes of a class
you are sizing the professor up, trying to figure out what it is they want,
and you’re going to give it to them. And lots of professors work that way too. So, what it means to give up expertise
is a very scary thing. But what we have to realize
is, as experts, if I’m standing here telling you something and you’ve got your laptop with Google, in that battle of expertise,
I’m going to lose every time. There’s too much information out there. Now, my role has to change;
it has to change to say: Let’s see what Google comes up with and talk about those
eighteen different webpages: What are the good ones,
what are the the bad ones, and why? How do you reevaluate your context? How do you make sense of your world? And what does that mean? And, in doing so, the teacher’s job
becomes creating context. Our job is to create a context
where we can cultivate imagination, where we can honor passion, and where we can help people
connect their passions to the things that they need to learn. And the question
that I’d like to leave you with is: Why aren’t we making
learning fun and easy? Why aren’t we making it a natural part
of the experience of being at school? Probably the worst thing
you can say in reviews of a teacher’s class
is that the class was easy. Why is that a critique? Shouldn’t we celebrate teachers who make learning easy,
make learning fun, make you feel your passion,
cultivate your imagination? And if we can create an environment
in which teachers can do that, imagine what the world will look like. And then imagine
what happens if we don’t. Thank you very much. (Applause)

Author: Kennedi Daugherty

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