Tag Archives: communication and analytical skills theme

Process and content: education needs both

We live in a world where information is being generated at such a rate, and existing knowledge being challenged so readily, that the best education we can give children is to teach them how to learn. They simply cannot memorise content any longer. More important than knowing information is knowing how to look it up and apply it. This is the true skill of the lifelong learner.

This is one of the key tenets of the Shuttleworth Foundation’s view of education for the 21st century, and one with which I wholeheartedly agree. However, this is not a new perspective. The assertions above were made by William Heard Kilpatrick of Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1925. He pushed for a “progressive education” that set aside the teaching of facts and figures for the fostering of critical thinking in learners.

The 1940s video clip below is a wonderful piece of history, providing a summary of progressive education. The contrast of this approach with the existing educational practices of the time is significant. A critic of the new way warns that such revolutionary ideas “caused a softening of the fibre of Greek education 2,500 years ago and played a part in the decadence of Greek civilization.”

While the philosophy of progressive education is something with which I agree, it is also important not to be wholly celebratory about it, as in the video. Education is highly politicised: the pendulum usually swings from extreme to extreme. In the case of South Africa it swung from a highly instructionist model to a post-Apartheid constructivist outcomes-based education.

Perhaps the best option lies somewhere in between, drawing on either approach as it is best suited to the content at hand. For example, the instructionist approach is best for learning times tables, whereas the constructivist approach offers an appropriate way to learn fractions, as learners experiment with physical objects (2 sticks out of 4 is the same as 1 stick out of 2).

Ten years ago an essay was written — in a deliberately dramatic tone — that bemoaned the progressive approach and how it left learners all clued up on process, without any content knowledge. The author of Why Johnny’s Teacher Can’t Teach states that Kilpatrick “forged the central educational fallacy of our time: that one can think without having anything to think about.” The essay makes interesting points, but is again wholly celebratory about good old-fashioned instructionist learning. (In a world gone crazy, isn’t it necessary to return to traditional, trusted ways?)

I am really beginning to believe that the answer lies somewhere in between, tending more towards the constructivist approach, but not without a necessary does of content. Content provides the material with which to develop the higher order thinking skills. Yes, content may change, and yes, it may be easily looked up on the internet, but it is still necessary. Without it we might be teaching children to talk without the need for words.

Education in an emerging participatory culture

A paper co-authored by Henry Jenkins, Director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, titled Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, considers the proliferation of online content creation and networking activities by teens in the USA.

Jenkins’ paper explains that most of these teens are involved in participatory cultures:

A participatory culture is a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices. A participatory culture is also one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).”

A growing body of scholarship suggests potential benefits of these forms of participatory culture, including opportunities for peer-to-peer learning, a changed attitude toward intellectual property, the diversification of cultural expression, the development of skills valued in the modern workplace, and a more empowered conception of citizenship. Participatory culture shifts the focus of literacy from one of individual expression to community involvement. The new literacies almost all involve social skills developed through collaboration and networking. These skills build on the foundation of traditional literacy, research skills, technical skills, and critical analysis skills taught in the classroom.

The new skills include:

  • Play — the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving.
  • Performance — the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery.
  • Simulation — the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes.
  • Appropriation — the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content.
  • Multitasking — the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient details.
  • Distributed Cognition — the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities.
  • Collective Intelligence — the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal.
  • Judgment — the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources.
  • Transmedia Navigation — the ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities.
  • Networking — the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information.
  • Negotiation — the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms.

A central goal of this report is to shift the focus of the conversation about the digital divide from questions of technological access to those of opportunities to participate and to develop the cultural competencies and social skills needed for full involvement. Schools as institutions have been slow to react to the emergence of this new participatory culture; the greatest opportunity for change is currently found in afterschool programs and informal learning communities. Fostering such social skills and cultural competencies requires a more systemic approach to media education in the United States.

Question: is this relevant to youth and educators in developing countries? Can the same appropriation of technology be expected of youth in South Africa? Is there an equal need for cultural competencies and social skills needed there? And can these activities, which are clearly engaging for young people, be used as a vehicle for other forms of learning?

I believe the answers to be yes more than no. At the Shuttleworth Foundation, the focus area Education in an emerging participatory culture will frame all projects and research of the C&A theme.

Beginning to define the C&A skills theme

The Foundation has five core themes, one of which is communication and analytical (C&A) skills development. This is a very broad theme that needs to be defined and focused, something that I’ll be doing over the coming months. As a starter Helen King, the Shuttleworth Foundation’s Principal Advisor, pointed out the following regarding this theme:

  • The Foundation seeks to promote the development of C&A skills of school learners. Where possible, technology should be used in skills development.
  • The focus for the Foundation is not on the bright learners who will have access to good maths and science educators and go on to become mathematicians, scientists, engineers, etc. It is concerned with the vast majority of learners who are currently being failed by the system because they receive inadequate maths and science teaching. Reasons for this include there not being enough educators in these subject areas and not enough text books for learning.
  • While most of these learners won’t pursue careers in maths or science, they nevertheless need C&A skills to be productive members of society.
  • The question then is: how can learners effectively be taught C&A skills in schools in ways that can fall outside of the maths and science classroom, and in the context of a developing country in the 21st century?