The room is alive with equal parts enthusiasm and openness, scepticism and exhaustion, closed mindedness and wonder; all attributes of learning. A small group of us approach a table; some of us sit, some of us stand taking in the objects on the table: a petri dish, a beaker full with what we confirm is olive oil, small bottles with glass droppers. In the bottles, we discover, a mixture of water and food colouring. A conversation begins between the sitters and the standers: “What are we supposed to do?” As we look around looking for the answer, one of us has already moved on: the oil is in the petri dish, purple water droplets have already begun the dance of energetics and entropy.
There is a collective guffaw: some of us are uncomfortable with the simple act of having proceeded without direction; others of us are simply not expecting the art of the reaction, which results in a group of us adding more colours to see how far we can push this wonderful collision of molecules. The dance, as John Pollard coins this interaction, eventually has the full-attention of everyone at the table. How could it not? It is fascinating. No one at the table can explain what we see. We seek out someone that can.
The characters in this room, in this small group – it seems instructive – are teachers. Reread the anecdote and consider this: the attributes of learning, even the need for direction to proceed, plays out just as it would with children in a classroom. I can still feel, and hear, the derisive response of my colleagues as I began adding the purple droplets with no consideration for what might happen, including the possibility that acting without direction first was an irreparable error in judgement.
Nevertheless, it turns out this was exactly the point. Later we are told that most groups – remember this is a room full of adults, full of teachers – require direction if not instruction before diving into the learning.
I don’t hate science. In this day and age, to approach science with anything other than an articulation towards learning is simply dangerous, but I am a reluctant learner when it comes to science. I wear the scars of a curiosity crushed, a wonder contained, an attribute defined: all products of a system that while trying to “educate me” with one hand, held in the other what Carol Black terms the “evaluative gaze of school”. A lighthearted but poignant example of the evaluative gaze is central to the animated film “How to Train Your Dragon” with Hiccup’s repeated contention that “you just gestured to all of me.”
As Carol Black spotlights, gesturing to the whole of “me” has consequences:
“There is something profoundly deadening to a curious, engaged child about the feeling of being watched and measured, or even, some studies suggest, the anticipation of being measured… this business of being constantly scrutinized and compared to others does something insidious to the life of a child. I’ve seen kids drop what they’re doing in an instant when they realize they’re being observed in an appraising way. A wall goes up. The lights go out. As psychologist Peter Gray puts it,
Evaluation, when it is not asked for, and when it has consequences as it does in school, is a threat. It narrows the mind… it inhibits new learning, new insights, and creative thought—the very processes that some people think school is supposed to promote.“
Being observed and measured. When did learning become indistinguishable from the deadening gaze of evaluation? Why is it that the institution charged with the learning of our children has lost sight of what learning is. In that full room of educators, the instinct to wait for direction is a default awareness that first and foremost we must comply. And yet if we dwell on the stories of history’s great learners, a fundamental characteristic of them is doubt: in authority, in commonly held truths, in ‘facts’ that have not been personally tested through experience and experiment. The promise of education has become that the future holds great opportunity for learning; for now, though, there’s knowledge. The orientation towards knowing before learning has become the test of being educated: how long should a learner spend collecting truths before they discover them on their own? Moreover, when can learners cast doubt on these truths in a search for new understanding?
As I pointed out to the room full of educators later on that day, I have no memory of ever having the opportunity – in the whole of my schooling – to come upon a table of stuff to experiment with. Never. And yet, this is exactly the foundation of all scientific discovery. Alison Gopnik explains it this way:
“So imagine we taught baseball the same way that we teach science currently. What we would do is we would have children read books about baseball rules. When they got to high school, we would let them reproduce famous baseball plays of the past, and it wouldn’t be till graduate school that they would actually ever get to play the game. And that’s pretty much the way that we teach science. It’s not till graduate school that you actually ever get a chance to do science, as opposed to reading about science or reconstructing science.”
“Children would never tolerate baseball if all they did was practice. No coach would evaluate a child, and no society would evaluate a coach, based on performance in the batting cage. What makes for learning is the right balance of both learning processes, allowing children to retain their native brilliance as they grow up.” (Alison Gopnik: How We Learn; emphasis mine).
Is it any surprise then that Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine contend in In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School that the most powerful learning happening in schools occurs in extra-curricular activities? We cannot pretend to promote new learning, new insights, and creative thought with a model that asks learners to hang on to “graduate school (before) you actually ever get a chance to do science”. Further, we cannot pretend that this model of learning can project any predictive understanding of a child’s aptitude or future readiness in a subject.
And yet, this is exactly what school does.
School operates in this strange deficit lens where the intent of the evaluative gaze is the discovery of what we aren’t. Often based on a sliver of a moment in a learning process, students are gazed upon with a future lens determining what they see themselves as – or, worse yet, what the teacher sees them as – and are then directed – or self-directed – away from possibilities. This future-readiness conclusion is based on the batting cage, or the reproduction of a famous play or experiment, instead of the interdisciplinary reality of the real-world. How I perform in your Chemistry unit cannot predict my value to science, and yet my willingness to see myself in science is determined by exactly that.
The great irony of the present should cause us to pause: children are fascinated by science because a young woman emboldened by the malicious ignorance of adults has stopped attending school to raise awareness and incite action to reverse climate change. A 16-year-old was asked to elaborate on why she doesn’t “want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists.”
The media has focussed attention from Greta Thunberg’s speech to the United Nations this week on the “how dare you” component to the exclusion of the catalyst that draws Thunberg’s ire, her shaking voice, the rage that makes the comment powerful. She begins her comments by saying, “My message is that we’ll be watching you.” There’s applause; condescending laughter; the smugness so central to the treatment of Thunberg with “leaders” looking to her for media-bite worthy hope. You can see Thunberg immediately understands that despite the stage she has been given, adults are still listening to a quaint, uppity child without hearing.
One need only look to comments that climate strikers are naive to understand Thunberg’s awareness of the general consensus of world leaders: “The strikes themselves are not offering any answers. The strikes are not addressing the question of how we reduce carbon demand.” As if the purpose of millions upon millions of people voicing their concern for what is simply a tone-deaf response of world leaders to science was ever intended to be the answer for addressing carbon demand. As if it is some kind of secret that so many of us adults act if not tacitly agree with the sentiment of shrugged shoulders: “Now, do I believe they are right and we should strike and stop the world and stop our economy and stop our way of life? No, I don’t. But I think their intentions are good.”
On Wednesday I had the pleasure of participating in a design thinking workshop at IBM Canada. Our facilitator, Krista Shibata, created a powerful space for delving into the process of using empathy to design solutions for the user experience.
The nuance of the workshop was Shibata’s intentional disruptions to the flow of the experience to highlight her learning for “the educators in the room”. At one point she said, “Educators: if you ask for a vase, you get a vase. If you ask for a way to experience flowers…” Let that statement hang; descend into the particular for a moment. How often in education do we ask for a vase? How often do we engage with learning experiences where knowing is not the intended consequence of the action? How often do we approach learning without a predetermined answer in mind, really? How often do we get lost in the semantics of where student voice begins and ends without ever listening to student voice?
The learners working with Shibata at IBM are reluctant for lots of reasons: they are a product of the system described above: the evaluative gaze has acted as both consequence and threat, and the impact was evident early in the day. In less than 20 minutes, though, student voice was everywhere. Instead of preordained answers, these learners were asked for new learning, new insights, and creative thought, and they delivered. Their voices also filled the room with the kind of thinking the evaluative gaze had already determined they were not capable of; and yet here they were, collectively in a space where they had no experience, with a facilitator they had just met, and educators they still could not yet trust, solving complex problems with the empathetic gaze to the user. The scars of a curiosity crushed, a wonder contained, an attribute defined – these life altering inputs – were simply cast off in the boardroom of a technology giant. The powerful surprise belonged to the educators alone. Shibata and the learners seemed shocked at our surprise. Herein lies the end of knowing.
This week I participated in Sugata Mitra’s webinar The End of Knowing. Mitra took us through his learning from the “Hole in the Wall” experiment to “Self-Organized Learning Environments” or SOLEs to the “School in the Cloud,” “The Granny Cloud” sharing his “thought-provoking experiences that show what happens when children meet the Internet.” Essentially Mitra argues that we have entered the age “beyond knowing”, where the role of the teacher must be to “raise the questions without raising the answers” while following the mantra of “You go there (as learner), I will go with you (as a learner, too).”
From a design thinking perspective we are learners trying to develop solutions to problems by invoking an empathy mindset to a user experience. If we follow Einstein’s contention that “a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels”, design thinking is the process for developing these new ways of thinking. When in school do we create space for the age beyond knowing? If we believe in the beautiful minds that occupy our classrooms and schools, how are we modeling that belief? What are we communicating about our belief in the capacity of our learners to reach beyond our knowing? Mitra points out that most learning begins with the belief that students know nothing and must proceed from the start to get to the finish. His work has shown repeatedly that when teachers get out of the way, students surpass expectations. Indeed, imagine what a year of learning this way can accomplish.
What does this learning look like? Learners in “unsupervised (no evaluative gaze), diverse groups (mixed age, grade, experience), accessing the Internet through large, visible screens, in a safe and public space.” Why? Questions drive thinking, and knowledge is available everywhere. To the issue of the right knowledge Mitra proffers an observation: “Children in SOLEs – Self Organized Learning Environments – can learn anything by themselves” and the groupings of 4:1 or 5:1 per screen are self-correcting. The learning is filtered and critiqued by the group as they encounter information they discover in response to the questions they ask. The capacity to learn is inherently strong; it is a human driver, we simply need to get out of the way of the learning, let our knowing slip to the wayside, and engage in and trust the process we intuitively know can work.
The trick to the room that day, full of educators, the trick to activating the attributes of learning, is that this is exactly the disposition we need educators to take. In “going there” that day with that petri dish, that olive oil, and that water and food colouring mixture, we saw learning through the eyes of the student, and the students saw themselves as their own teachers, to paraphrase John Hattie. Our learning was visible that day, on display, and if we managed to get out from under the evaluative gaze, we travelled back to the future – to a time when the outside pressure that led us to build our walls, and turn out our lights did not exist. This was a time when we imagined; when we created and made things because our hands knew no other way; when our suggested solutions were plausible; when we saw the world for what it could be. As the learners at IBM modeled for us, we can all come back to that time of believing in our capacity for learning, and inventing, and making, and, yes, knowing, but knowing beyond a collection of facts – a collection of stuff – to a knowing that is a step in a series of steps that lead, simply, to more thinking, more learning, more wondering, more solving, more prototyping. More. No destination, just a series of stops along the way; this is learning in the age beyond knowing.
The trick? Did you catch the trick? Learning has always been this way. The age beyond knowing is now, before now, forever after. This is not a new discovery. We just forgot. We got distracted by the gaze; the observer that scrutinized and compared and seemed to think the answer was his alone. We forgot. We got distracted. We’re beginning to remember though; some of us. Because we see that when children say they are watching us, they don’t flinch because they also mean they are watching out for us. And as we get over the role reversal we realize that we can, again, be one of them, part of the we; if we listen to hear, and seek out a better world because we can see it for what it can be.
**Dedicated to Greta Thunberg and all the beautiful minds making their time now, and refusing the idea of future readiness.