Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The future of learning

A few months ago, we reported on how schools should change in order to improve children’s learning. We learned that teachers are the key factor because they can make children curious and treat them individually. Makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? But now imagine schools without grades, even without teachers. Impossible, you think? Maybe not.

The classical principle of school is going to change radically in the future. The starting point for these radical ideas is that the system like we have it now is outdated and does not fulfill the needs of the modern world any more. On Psychology Today, educational psychologist Peter Gray from Boston College reports that performance appraisals at school inhibit learning instead of enhancing it. What makes them even worse is that they disadvantage those children from poor families disproportionately.

On the Psychology Today website, there is a whole collection of articles outlining directions into which future schooling (or unschooling?) could go and what requirements should be fulfilled for children to learn well. So what is wrong with a school system that has been used for centuries and why does it seem not to work any more?

In a TED Talk, educational psychologist Sugata Mitra from Newcastle University explains that our school system has its origins in the British Empire and was created for educating people who would later work in the bureaucracy. They had to be able to read, write and calculate, and they were educated for conformity. This is not what we need for today’s world. In his talk, he reports on his experiments with placing a computer in a hole in the wall and just letting children explore themselves. 

In his experiments, Sugata Mitra only gave children a quick introduction into browsing the web with the computer and then let them explore by themselves. The surprising result was that they taught themselves all kinds of complex knowledge. He also found that they could even improving their learning when the teacher, instead of telling them facts, kept on asking questions and made the children explain contents to her.

Just as Peter Gray, he argues that punishment and examinations are seen as threats. Under threat, our prefrontal cortex is shut down by the more ancient parts of our brain. However, the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain where learning happens.

He points out that learning is a self-organised process. You don’t have to make people learn. The teacher only sets the process in motion. The results presented in the talk demonstrate that it works. Again, imagine schools without grades, even without teachers. Quite possible, isn’t it?

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