A Digital Mash-Up of Science, Heart and Mind

Nov 17, 2011 by

Jon Madian and Tom Watkins – How to humanize learning in a technology driven, hyper- competitive, global, knowledge economy—- where ideas and jobs can and do move around the globe effortlessly.

Knowledge today is on steroids.

Without a solid foundation of values and integrity, the acceleration of knowledge can speed up the negative aspects of what we can do with it for evil greed, abuse, theft, fraud, war, murder and worse.

Yet science and technology also exist to guide us on a path for good: love, compassion, imagination, innovation, ingenuity, creativity and a better and more prosperous world for all.

As a country, we are at the crossroads of re-imagining learning. How will we blend science, technology, and research to help make America the brain and values bank of the world again — where everyone wants to come for deposits and withdrawals?

What are the purposes that motivate students and their teachers?

Asking these questions immediately makes us aware that purposes vary depending on age, stage, and individual tastes and background.

What is also clear is that most of our school curriculum comes from textbooks or resources that are responsive neither to diversity nor any learner-felt purpose.

Problems faced by students in their lives are not addressed in terms that help students develop broader perspectives and an appreciation for the value of learning.

Clearly within our schools there are two profound disconnects: One is between where we are and where we need to go as a society; the civic or citizenship gap. Our public policies are formed more by emotions, ideology, opportunism and politics than by balanced conversations.

The second disconnect is more personal. While schools arguably meet many students’ social needs, often they are not met in healthy ways — failing to meet many students’ developmental needs, either cognitively or affectively.

The fertility of school for a student’s sense of well being — belonging, purpose, play, mastery, and personal relevance — seems pathetically low. Were it not for two rather recent developments, perhaps we would not have so promising a means to address these problems.

During the past few decades, we have developed a wonderful body of knowledge about human development and learning. It spans from neuroscience to anthropology, from personality theory to biology, psychology and sociology.

While our first resource to improve public education is knowledge about learners and learning, our second resource is technology. The “interface” between knowledge and technology is clearly blurred. It is also the cutting edge for human education that will drive individual and cultural evolution.

Knowledge management and computer science are two cornerstones on which we are currently building our knowledge-focused communication culture. This technology-garnered opportunity is timely: Federal, state and local coffers are emptier than a collapsed lung.

Strategies that employ technology could offer genuine economies while helping to improve the quality and diversity of learning experiences. Learning and computer sciences have matured. They can provide sound strategies and processes to prepare the nation for a prosperous, hopeful future in an increasingly complex global society.

We also need technology more than ever to help all young people —regardless of learning style and interests — to master both “the basics” and the rich range of other essential skills for thriving.

As a tool, technology can do this like no other through its ability to fit education to the interests and needs of individual learners AND its unique capacities to support investigation and research, bringing people together through social networks to engage in learning activities.

The list continues: Technology offers a design and publishing medium that supports the refinement of ideas and their evolution. It also provides an inexpensive means of delivering resources to any size group, and then to analyze learner interactions and provide feedback in a variety of forms.

Because technology supports the continuous improvement and differentiation of resources, we can maximize learner engagement if we coordinate the efforts of computer scientists with our best communicators, including writers, video, and other artists who translate important information for particular audiences. In this way we can continually improve the organization and appeal of ideas.

But how do we realize the true promise of our learning sciences when wed to technology? How do we harness the twin powers of science and technology to help create a more engaging, livable world? How do we help shape the next generation of creative leaders and contributors? How do we build quality into our learning communities and our lives?

One organization poised to embrace this challenge is the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA). The principal trade association for the software and digital content industries, SIIA provides services to the leading companies that are setting the pace for learning in the digital age.

As such, SIIA a long with organizations like International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) and State Education Technology Directors Association have enormous influence in shaping the future of American education.

SIIA works closely with the nation’s leading hardware and software developers as they create future product lines and services. They serve as a compass to the industry in identifying cutting edge educational strategies and curricula, translating the needs and interests of educators, and helping developers and publishers act wisely and responsibly.

Beyond serving the industry, SIIA views itself as a convener of stakeholders in education, intent on breaking down entrenched silos that have led to both unnecessary duplication of effort and large gaps in services.

In 2010, SIIA reached out to ASCD (formerly the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development) and the Counsel of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) to co-sponsor a national symposium on personalized learning at The Harvard Club in Boston.

Notably, SIIA members agreed to pay additional enrollment fees so that dozens of the nation’s leading educators could attend the conference. The report that resulted from the conference reflects the voices of both the industry and educators.

While SIIA’s Innovate to Educate: System [Re]Design for Personalized Learning, A Report from The 2010 Symposium, is laudible (http://www.siia.net/visionk20/pages/vision.html and website http://siia.net/pli/), the massive need and opportunity it helped clarify remains too poorly focused to be actionable.

The refinement of the vision and the movement from vision to policy, organization, and practices has barely begun. We have yet to find the unity within our diversity and our work is far too unfocused.

Only by integrating heart AND mind, science, technology and politics can we develop a shared, practical, and actionable vision as a nation–a common agenda that will make us stronger–individually and collectively.

What will it take to jump-start this timely, ambitious undertaking?

To begin with, we suggest taking the following concrete steps:

• Bring all stakeholders together to refine the 21st century vision of education

• Move from vision to organization and policy-building that develops funding

• Integrate the learning, management, and computer sciences with the sciences of people and knowledge management

• Create a real time research infrastructure

• Develop learning management and accountability systems that are responsive to diversity and human nature

• Develop social or relationship management systems that facilitate face-to-face and virtual relationships

• Enlist knowledge and computer scientists, artists, and others to form reliable, creative support communities

Realizing the promise of technology is not a slam-dunk.

Technology’s ability to chop and dice our current, too-often irrelevant, curriculum into more “smartly” delivered bits and bites of information, under the guise of personalized learning, is a threat to a more balanced approach to learning and assessment.

We must continually be mindful that to deliver individualized learning appropriate to a student’s ability while taking away the essential meaning of an individual’s experiences and voice is a travesty.

What is gained if a student passes a biology test but has lost her rational and sympathetic connection with the living earth?

Our process of re-imaging learning must be more than simply improving the pony express by delivering letters more quickly.

SIIA took an unprecedented first step by joining with others to convene the Personalized Learning Symposium. This meeting spawned new levels of conversation that must be deepened.

To invent a public education learning system equal to our potential, nothing less is required than the creation of a culture based on the science of human development and learning.

But these sciences will ring hollow without the human resources that only communities can generate.

When we harness technology toward our full humanity, when creativity, compassion and community join comprehension and computation, when we hold ourselves accountable —as professional educators, scientists, business people, parents and citizens–for building humane products and processes in the service of the individual student and the common good, we will be on the path to fulfill the mission of American public education as conceived by its founders.

Americans will be prepared to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.

Then we will truly live the meaning of the words on our national seal: E Pluribus Unum “Out of Many, One.”

We have the knowledge, tools, and can-do mentality — the only question that remains is “Will we?”

Jon Madian is a children’s book author & curriculum designer. He founded the Artist-in-Residence Reading Project and Humanities Software. His current work is on infusing quality into technology supported learning communities and systems. He is a counseling and educational psychologist and can be reached at:

Tom Watkins is a business and educational consultant in the US and China. He is a former Michigan state superintendent of schools and state mental health director. He is a prolific writer on reinvention and reform. He can be reached at: tdwatkins88@gmail.com
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