In this second installment of my interview with Rich Halverson, we explore some of the trends impacting contemporary schooling, including the significance of home schooling, his vision for transforming schools, his research on fantasy baseball leagues as a literacy practice, and his thoughts on how and why schools should foster failure. As always, Halverson remains a provocative and yet substantive thinker about technology and learning.
Your book writes extensively about home schooling as an alternative to the current educational system. What advantages do home schoolers have in dealing with technological change? What are the limits of home schooling?
Home schooling is an interesting phenomena on several levels. First, it represents an effort to sever the traditional ties of institutional schooling and learning, individualizing instruction while keeping many of the curricular goals and sequences in place. Second, it cuts across cultural boundaries – many families on the left home-school for academic reasons, while families on the right home often homeschool for predominately cultural and religious reasons. Finally, the integration of technology with homeschooling may well signal a new path toward individualizing instruction in traditional schools. The predominant instructional model in the K-12 world aims toward moving students toward common learning goals, playing down individual difference in the interests of standardized outcomes. Home schooling has clear limitations – it is clearly too expensive (in terms of time, materials and money) to be conducted at scale, and the virtual curriculum used by many homeschoolers is typically based on very conventional page-turning pedagogies. But homeschool communities use technological resources to provide instructional coherence while maintaining individualized attention in ways that is would be smart for traditional school designers to watch.
You describe in the book some aspects of what an emerging educational system might look like. Can you share some of that vision with my readers?
The current state of education looks like an unlikely federation of uneasy partners – some for profit, others non-profit; some non-denominational, others ideological – who provide services to students without apparent coordination. NCLB legislation alone has sparked a vast expansion of third-party tutoring, assessment and coaching services that threaten schools and can be seen as competitors for future school funding. Digital media production, social networking, mobile computing, gaming and blogging operate entirely outside the control or influence of schooling. This motley collection of education services appears more like a consumer-driven market that could not cohere into a an educational system.
However, there are several key steps that might be taken to link these services together into an emergent system. We’d like to highlight two possible steps: 1) when administrative information technologies come to integrate user-driven networking practices, and 2) when some classroom subject-matter areas move to embrace digital learning tools. Schools are developing sophisticated tools for tracking student learning and teacher quality – but these systems are largely constructed about, but not for or by students and teachers. Social networks would provide a personalized complement to such systems that could link technologies designed to measure learning with tools to facilitate the activities of learners. It is not hard to imagine profile software that students and teachers could use to link educational activities, calendars, support services, interest groups, etc. The emergence of these personalized information tools may help usher in an integration of where schools are to where they might be.
In the classroom, one key indicator may be the degree to which non-tested subjects in schools embrace new approaches. Most K12 systems are experimenting with new kinds of media-based extracurricular activities and clubs. A threshold will be crossed when core instructional efforts in vocational education, arts, physical education and language programs follow the extra-curricular example toward greater integration of learning technologies. These subject areas are currently on the fence between embracing the standards-and-accountability practices of literacy and math or moving in another direction. Significant changes in these vital disciplines could serve as an example for how digital media technologies may transform teaching and learning.
In your historical account of the evolution of American education, one key difference between the apprentice and public school systems was how they dealt with the possibilities of failure. You suggest that in the apprentice system, it was taken as given that most students would learn, eventually, what they needed to know, while the public school system starts from the premise that only a small portion of the population can fully master its expectations. Many argue that we learn through failure — through making mistakes and correcting them — but that for this to work, we have to lower the costs of failure. How can we do this?
The idea that the apprenticeship model was successful for individual learning is by and large true. Because the master could work closely with the learner in apprenticeship, most learning failures could be mitigated or averted. In contrast, the American public school system provided little guidance for individuals to learn from local learning errors. Public schools were expected to provide opportunities for interested students to learn, and students who took advantage of these opportunities were able to progress. Public schools structures have typically lacked scaffolded support for individual learners to learn from mistakes – particularly across grades and classes. At the system level, comprehensive public high schools, community colleges and undergraduate programs addressed the learning failure issue in part by providing abundant course and program options for learners who failed in their initial efforts. But the long-term individualized attention to learning-from-failure that came with apprenticeship learning was not a part of traditional public schooling.
The issue of learning from failure in public schooling became more complicated by the civil rights movement. In the early years of public schooling, students (and families) bore the responsibility of taking advantage of educational opportunities. However, beginning in the 1950s, public education priorities in the US began to shift. The 1954 Brown decision demonstrated that providing access to educational opportunities was no longer sufficient. The War on Poverty of the 1960s and the IDEA act and reauthorizations of the 1970s-90s shifted the national discourse from the opportunities to the outcomes of learning. It was no longer appropriate for states to provide schools where students could choose to learn (or not); instead states increasingly saw their role as creating schools that guaranteed learning outcomes. The 2001 NCLB Act make these new expectations into law by holding public schools accountable for improving the learning of all students. Thus the premise of the early public school model was turned on its head – instead of a system that created opportunities for all students to succeed now expected schools reach all students successfully. Public schools as institutions were expected to take responsibility for educational outcomes, while at the same time absolving students and families from responsibility for learning.
We can either learn from failure, or try to avoid it. Connecting high stakes consequences to institutional failure has led many public schools to pursue a risk-avoidance approach to instruction. This intolerance for failure at the system level has been translated into a similar intolerance to experiment at the classroom level. Contemporary public school policies insist that all students show learning progress, which has led to dominant models of instruction that emphasize efficiency, smooth learning trajectories and predictable outcomes. Schools are often reluctant to experiment with high-yield, high-risk, instructional practices. Innovation is risky – most innovations fail, and even the ones that succeed are usually fundamentally transformed before achieving wide dissemination. The federal educational research policies that emphasize “what works” seem to take for granted that we already know what we need to know to improve learning for all students, and that what is mainly needed is thorough vetting and rigorous implementation of tried-and-true instructional practices. Still, high school dropout rates have held steady, the achievement gap has not closed significantly, and the love of learning continues to drain out of schools that emphasize “what works” over genuine inquiry. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, the tree of learning must be refreshed from time to time by the failures of policy makers, teachers and students. The wild market swings in digital media – in hardware, software and virtual worlds – continue to demonstrate the power of failure to spark new innovation. It seems that schools feel that walling themselves off from the digital media/learning circus will insulate a path toward eventual elimination of learning problems. A more likely scenario is that by cutting off opportunities for interesting failure, schools will continue to apply the same time-tested practices that resulted in contemporary institutional inequalities in the first-place.
Richard, apart from this project, you’ve been looking at fantasy baseball leagues as a site for learning and participatory culture, seeing them as a fusion of fan and gaming culture. What insights do you think educators can gain by looking at these kinds of alternative knowledge communities?
Participatory cultures, such as fantasy sports, highlight three critically important aspects of learning missing from many school learning activities: motivation, production and legitimate audience. Fantasy sports team owners are motivated to play because they are fans, and this (typically) far-reaching set of beliefs, passions and knowledge spark owner interest in competition. The development and maintenance of a team requires owners to produce a competitive roster and to iteratively adjust their production in terms of competitive feedback within the league. Other team owners present a legitimate audience for game play – owners are praised, ridiculed, emulated or resented based on moves against other players. Because typical fantasy leagues persist for months, owners get reputations for game play within the league. Owners acquire status as players, particularly in anonymous leagues, because of their demonstrated abilities within the game.
Many school settings have features of participatory cultures as well, but the participatory culture of schooling is often unrelated to the topics learned. Students are often motivated (or not) to succeed in academic contexts for non-academic reasons; production is typically valued (if at all) as a means toward other forms of reward (grades, etc.), and academic prowess often fares miserably as a path toward peer culture acceptance. Fantasy sports communities provide existence proofs of how learning activities can intrinsically connect motivation, production and audience in assessment rich contexts. It is not a trivial task to select the kinds of tasks around which school-based fantasy leagues can be organized, although activities such as stock-market games or Model UN can bring some common structures to bear in traditional schools. The question is not really how to make a direct translation of fantasy leagues to school settings, but for this and the next generation of educators to understand how the underlying principles of these kinds of learning environments work, then to think about how to design local environments around similar principles.
Allan Collins is Professor Emeritus of education and social policy at Northwestern University and formerly co-director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Center for Technology in Education.
Richard Halverson is an associate professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is co-founder of the Games, Learning and Society group.