Yoda on learning, “You must unlearn what you have learned.”

Most Star War’s geeks know and love this scene, arguably one of the most memorable in the first trilogy. The segment of dialog that is usually referenced is:

“No! Try not. Do or do not, there is no try.”

I like that, to me it pushes the point that you must have conviction when you take the leap. If you don’t, the experience may look like the first time Morpheus ran Neo through the “Jump Program”:

Okay, I know, the geek quotient is rather high at this point. I want to focus on a different line from Yoda in the scene with Luke and tie that message together with an article from the most recent issue of Wired magazine (yes, I do have a non-digital subscription, so sue me). The line I want to draw out is this:

“You must unlearn, what you have learned.”

There are numerous applications for this line that can be applied to various areas in the field of education and the process of school. I am going to apply it to those seen as leaders in the act of rethinking school. I know, some would argue that it more aptly applies to those that are dragging their feet or maintaining the status quo. That would work too, but here is why I think it applies more accurately to those who are at the front edge of changing school.

Too many students current reality

Many who are working diligently to rethink school and redefine the purpose and process of what happens in our classrooms often fancy themselves “early adopters” of new technologies and regularly lament the number of teachers who seem satisfied with perpetuating the status quo. Regularly on Twitter, I see conversations that include a form of the question, “What are we going to do with those who refuse to take the leap?” Those questions, asked by educators seen as leaders in developing new teaching approaches and making technology ubiquitous, carry with them an inherent assumption that the act of implementing technology in the classroom is the way to “bring schools into the 21st century.” I am going to argue that we, the early adopters and experimenters, are falling further behind at the very time we claim to be headed full steam ahead. Not that what is being done isn’t good, but often times it still lags far behind the ideas of those creating the technology we use. We need to leap forward and create learning environments in our classrooms that are predicated on where the “visionaries” see the reality of technology existing down the road.

If we want our schools to be places where students learn, we need to design them around the act of learning. We need to embrace the furthest edges of the ideas being imagined by those building the pathways to the future. But, how do we do that in a way that prepares students for this future we admit we can’t define? Should we be spending time deciding how to make Interactive White Boards actually become interactive or how to use software licensed and installed on each computer in the school? What about keyboarding or WebQuests? What about games and simulation programming?

While the new iPad has been praised and derided it has none-the-less generated much discussion about where things are going. In the latest issue of Wired that landed in my mailbox early last week, the cover story is about just this conversation. I contend that it has significant implications for education and if we listen now, letting this discussion lead in the process of rethinking schools, we just might make a major leap forward.

It’s often argued that the issue isn’t hardware and that is probably accurate most of the time. However, when hardware frames the view of the future it becomes a serious issue. Kevin Kelly (Blog, Twitter) refers to this new computer form not as tablets, but rather “windows that you carry.” These “portable portals” will “remake both book publishing and Hollywood” because they will “conflate books and video” resulting in “books you watch and movies you touch.” If our students are headed for a world of upside-down interactive data, what are we doing to provide them process knowledge to creatively integrate new tools of this sort into their learning lives?

How will Steve Johnson’s (Blog, Twitter) take on tablet computers change the way students arrive at our school house door? “For decades, futurists have dreamed of the ‘universal book': a handheld device that would give you instant access to every book in the Library of Congress. In the tablet era it is no longer technology holding us back from realizing that vision; it’s the copyright holders.”

Advances in technology will give us plenty of headroom with other kinds of data: streaming real-time video, conjuring virtual spaces, exploring real-world environments with geocoded data, modeling complex systems like weather. But in the tablet world, contextual innovation will not come from faster chips or wireless networks.

Students who live in a world like that BEFORE they enter school will find they have stepped back in time when the walk into a classroom. In  an article for Time.com Johnson explained his early take on the iPad:

The weird thing about the iPad is that it has landed us 180 degrees from where we thought we were heading. The iPad interface — like the iPhone’s — tries to do everything in its power to do away with documents and files. There is no Finder or root-level file navigation. It’s apps, apps, apps, as far as the eye can see. According to the demo last week, the main way to launch iWork documents is by an internal document-selection process after launch, where your files are presented to you in a gallery format.

This vision is forming while we teach kids about folders and keeping their work organized. Are we really that far ahead in bringing schools forward? The argument about application or practicality of a tablet environment is moot. James Fallows (Blog, Twitter), national correspondent for The Atlantic explains in a sidebar of the Wired article, that pilots have been using a tablet device for some time. These Electronic Flight Bags (EFBs) include models that are similar to the Apple iPad. The idea of tablet computing is not new, it is just beginning to expand. Schools are a perfect incubator space to discover what can be done with hardware of this sort. An initial thought is that they would appear to automatically make the Interactive White Board obsolete before it has even been largely adopted.

Johnson speaks of a “universal book,” which in itself should send the mind spinning when, as educators, we contemplate the possibility of all school related materials being contained in one easy to carry device or even less constrained than that. Co-director of the Institute for the Future of the Book, Bob Stein (Blog), takes the idea even further:

The most important thing my colleagues and I learned from experiments with “networked books” is that as discourse moves from the page to the networked screen, the social aspect of reading and writing move to the fore. A book is becoming a “place” where people congregate and converse. [ ] Simply moving printed text to tablets (as with the Kindle) will be of limited value. To succeed, publishers will have to embrace multimedia and community-building. My guess is that the gaming industry will show us the way. Unlike publishing, the culture of video games is much less stifled by legacy products and thinking.

School has perfected the art of legacy thinking. The status quo is dressed up in new outfits occasionally, like a host at an awards show, but when the discussion turns to getting a new host, the brakes areinstantly applied. The entire system comes to a screeching halt until someone trots the host out in a new outfit and claims it’s “all new and improved.” The current political administration has done exactly this by taking No Child Left Behind and buying it a new wardrobe. It remains, at its core, the status quo.

Seymour Papert, addressing the House Committee Economic and Educational Opportunities Hearing on Technology in Education in October of 1995, addressed what was being presented as the future of education saying, “We are putting [ ] technology in a school system that was designed for a totally different epoch [ ].” His words evidence the glacial pace at which the conversations about rethinking school develop. He also addressed what was then being presented as the classroom of the future, “I object strongly to what you saw being called a classroom of the future. It’s a classroom of the very, very, very near future. I doubt if there will be classrooms in the real future, there will be something else. Obviously there will be places children learn, but they won’t resemble what we see today.” I can’t embed the video here, but you can view it at Techno Constructivist by Carl Anderson, (Twitter) in his post “Stager, Papert & the War Path” which is where I was introduced to it.

Are the schools we teach in meeting any of this potential vision? Are they on their way to, not resembling what we see today? We implement Voicethread, Elluminate, UStream, wikis, blogs, Nings, Etherpad, and a variety of other Web 2.0 tools.

But that is what “IS,” not what will “BE.” I know, we can’t create learning environments with things that haven’t been invented or developed yet. However, are we taking those things that have been put in our hands (or at least could be) and designing spaces and opportunities to launch our students forward?

Chris Anderson (TED, Twitter) addresses some of the arguments that might arise when discussing the power of a new form of hardware, the tablet:

I think most of us are willing to carry two devices (one a phone) [ ]. So why would [users] dump a keyboard for a touchscreen? Look to three data points for the answer: the iPhone, the Kindle, and the cloud.

He goes on to tie these data points together as evidence for a new form of “portable portals,” as Johnson refereed to them, the most potentially powerful idea for education that Anderson addresses is “the cloud”:

Finally, the cloud shows that as more and more of our data and software lives in servers somewhere, the computers we  carry with us can be less and less powerful – thinner, lighter, longer battery life. Let Google buy the big iron; you can buy sexy aluminum and glass that’s a delight to hold. [ ] Modern smartphones have shown us what efficient mobile operating systems and specialized apps can do with hardware that wouldn’t fill a single drive bay on a desktop PC.

Steven Levy, author of the article, reinforces this idea:

While Apple wants to move computing to a curated environment where everything adheres to a carefully honed interface, Google believes that the operating system should be nearly invisible. Good-bye to files, client apps, and onboard storage – Chrome OS channels users directly into the cloud, with the confidence that the Web will soon provide everything from native-quality applications to printer drivers. Google hopes that a wave of Chrome-powered netbooks set for release this fall will hasten that day and its designers are already sketching out the next generation of Chrome OS devices, including touchscreen tablets.

Google vice president Sundar Pichai contends that having an iTunes-like app store is unnecessary, because desktop software is just about dead. ‘In the past 10 years, we’ve seen almost no new major native applications,’ he says, ticking off the few exceptions: Skype, iTunes, Google Desktop, and the Firefox and Chrome browsers. ‘We are betting on the fact that all the users will need are advanced Web apps.’

Unconstrained access. Google is looking for ways to facilitate the unchaining of our learning and the products of our actions. In a future where students arrive at the school house door having immersed themselves in the very latest technology tools and the tools have developed along the lines imagined by those most involved with their development, what should school be? What should it look like? What will we do when the open-source mindset hits the educational system full force? It will, it has already begun to. Students who have had the freedom to develop ideas and interests without constraints will challenge a system that wants to categorize and organize them and then define their learning for them. As parents take notice of what their children are doing, they will see the disparity of options and opportunities available in schools compared to those outside of school and may very well make the decision to forgo the formalized status quo of school. How many will opt for online learning or hybrid learning, or even a fully self-directed models using open educations sources like Harvard and MIT?

In her just release book, DYI U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Edcuation, Anya Kamenetz (Blog, Twitter) in Chapter 7 provides, “A four part guide for the student who wants to hack [their] own education.”

The so-called path – graduating from high school at eighteen, going straight to college and living on campus, graduating at twenty-two and going straight into the workforce with a college appropriate job – describes the experience of just 10 percent of people today. If you belong to the other 90 percent, whether you’re sixteen or sixty-one, here’s how to take the first steps down your own personal learning path.

In the introduction to the book, Kamenetz makes a point that, I think, is critical to rethinking school and discovering its purpose in our society today:

Technology upsets the traditional hierarchies and categories of education. It can put the learner at the center of the educational process. Increasingly this means students will decide what they want to learn; when, where, and with whom; and  they will learn by doing. Functions that have long hung together, like research and teaching, learning and assessment, or content, skills, accreditation, and socialization, can be delivered separately.

As much as some teachers have moved forward, experimenting with technology in the learning environment, have we really made strides that would allow school to propel students along the trajectory suggested above? How far have we really come? Kamentez’s suggestion indicates that Christensen, Johnson, and Horn didn’t go far enough with the idea of disruption; technology isn’t just disrupting the educational hierarchies in existence, it is upsetting them.

This isn’t an attempt to legitimize the iPad as “the next best thing for education,” rather it uses it as a catalyst for discussing the big questions that face us today:

1. What is the purpose of school and the systems that support it?

2. How do we design schools for unconstrained learning: physical design and learning design?

3. How do we design new organizational structures to support this new idea of school: teachers, administration, finances?

4. How do we keep the answers from 1 – 3 from becoming the entrenched status quo?

We have expended great efforts to experiment with the implementation of technology in learning environments. It just might be time for us to “unlearn what we have learned” and start learning a whole new way, by asking ourselves the questions above; by listening to those who work tirelessly to study, imagine, and move creativity and innovation forward; and to begin to aggressively challenge each other and become the type of “critical collaborative” we ask our students to become in the classroom.

Additional Reading:

Is ‘The School of One’ the future of schooling?” by Scott McLeod (Twitter) at Dangerously Irrelevant

Open High School of Utah

Colleges Dream of Paperless, iPad Centric Education” by Brian X. Chen (Blog, Twitter) at Wired

Anya Kamenetz talks about her new book DIY U and the future of higher education” by Andy Santamaria (Twitter) at CMTY

Ani & the iPad or ‘Much Madness is the Father’s Curse” by Bud Hunt (Blog, Twitter) at Bud the Teacher

iRrational iPolarization” by Alan Levine (Twitter) at CogDogBlog

Artwork is linked to its source.

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About Greg Thompson

I'm a dad, Educational Freelancer, Edupunk thinker, EdTech Blogger, Paralegal, Foodie, and I love inspiring and facilitating change in education.
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One Response to Yoda on learning, “You must unlearn what you have learned.”

  1. Pingback: The world isn’t flat anymore, it fits entirely in your hand. « Constructing Meaning

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