Sunday, November 30, 2008

An Information Theory of Learning -- Part 1

Constructivism is a dirty word in K12 education. While educators generally acknowledge constructivism as a pedagogical theory, they doubt its practicality — Too unstructured; takes too much time; OK in the arts or Gifted classes, but doesn’t work for all subjects and all learners.

Here’s something to consider: Constructivism is not a theory of pedagogy. It’s a theory of learning.

Cognitive scientists and other who research how humans think say that we learn by constructing new knowledge. [See How People Learn (2000), from the National Research Council.] That doesn’t mean that we make up things (like intelligent design). It means that we add new information to our existing frameworks of knowledge. We literally rewire our neural pathways in order to fasten new material to existing parts of the network.

This is how we learn. All of us. All of the time. In all circumstances.

Think about the implications…

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Orders of Change

I was thinking about orders of change yesterday while I was stuck in a traffic jam during the middle of the day. I escaped to a side street by nudging my car across three lanes of stopped traffic to make a right turn. I was somewhat pleased with my relatively nimble escape. Three other cars, in front of me, had also taken the road less travelled. They all turned left at the first traffic light to return to their intended direction. But I cleverly proceeded to the next traffic light. That’s when I started thinking about orders of change. To wit:

Experiencing the problem -- Stuck in traffic
First order of change -- Get off the thoroughfare to the side street
Second order of change -- Take the second alternate route

But then it occurred to me that I hadn’t made any change at all. I got out of the traffic jam, but I didn’t do anything to help alleviate the problem of congested auto traffic. Talk about quick fixes. Do I ride public transit frequently? Do I push for more video conference meetings? Do I join a monastic order?

Education leaders like to talk about second (and third) order change. Meanwhile, we quietly return to tracking, and we test all kids more. We jump from Reading First to RTI. We work in PLCs. We make decisions based on data (whatever that means). We get document cameras for every classroom. Maybe some of these are first order change, although they mainly feel like taking the sidestreets to me.

What would second order change look like? Focusing our learning standards on mastery of skills rather remembering and comprehending content? Ensuring that every learning experience is premised on authentic student engagement? Insisting on rigor rather than coverage?

To create powerful learning that prepares kids (and adults) for their future, we need to rethink the entire framework and culture of school. That is going to be difficult even to conceive, much less to do. But it’s the only way.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Organizational Size Matters

In our conversations about education change, Stevan Kalmon and I explore the conditions that support change in schools and districts. Recently we discussed the Rule of 20 as defined by the Coalition of Essential Schools: that classrooms of no more than 20 students, and schools with no more than 20 classrooms provide ideal conditions for learning to take place.

Taking it a step further, Stevan posited that districts should have no more than 20 schools. Go too far beyond that number and the bureaucracy required to hold things together pushes conditions toward rigidity. Change is difficult and there is great pressure to hold to a uniform way of doing business. Go too far below the Rule of 20 and districts/schools/educators tend toward isolation; new inputs are limited; organizations are not at critical mass for dynamic action.

Of course, great things can happen at either end of the school district size spectrum. But larger districts must cope with a higher degree of complexity. One of our Learning Partners, Eagle County School District, near Vail, Colorado, seems well poised for change. With 19 schools, it meets the Kalmon Corollary of the Rule of 20. Eagle has a dynamic and forward-thinking new superintendent in Sandra Smyser, and a smart staff of professionals steering the district toward a vision of 21st century learning. Under John Kuglin’s tech leadership, the district is integrating tech tools in support of its instructional goals in innovative ways.

I suspect we’ll learn lessons from Eagle that will prove useful to others interested in developing intelligent learning communities. We’ll keep you posted.