Reflections on a Parallel Universe

Don’t you look forward to those times when you walk into a classroom and the place is alive with learning?

It might be kids lying on the floor with their laptops, some connected up to control devices, others remotely running robotics, while over in the corner there is a a cluster of students staring at screens as they are concentrating on a program they are coding for a game.

Everywhere you look there is intensity, passion and engagement at a level you wish you could see all the time, in every class. But just how real is that?

Well no, this is not a Maker class I’m describing, but rather what I saw when I walked into Adam Smith’s Grade 5 classroom in Melbourne in May 1990. Yes, 1990. And those kids, well they were 9 and 10 year old girls who were doing amazing things with a piece of technology that today is a museum piece. Their Toshiba T1000SE laptops had 7” mono screens, no hard drive, a magnificent 1MB of RAM and a one hour battery life, if they were lucky. And did I mention this was ‘BI’? (Before Internet.)

Yet what they were doing is unfortunately still not commonplace in enough schools today, some 25 years later.  That 1990 classroom was engaged in the sorts of activities that many schools today still strive to replicate. So why? How can it be that a quarter of a century later, after untold multiples of Gordon Moore’s Law we are still seeing so much pedagogical timidity when that early technology seemed to promise us and our students, so much?

Of course we could answer with the ‘pedagogy before technology’ cliché, but that is only part of the solution. Certainly while our awareness of the rate of change in our lives has created an imperative that was not there before, above all I think in large part it’s because we seem to have been operating in a sort of parallel universe.

School has been motoring along on its own, as it has for decades, with a focus on student achievement, attendance and behaviour, while at the same time there has been a very different world context operating in parallel, rather than intersecting with that world of schooling.

It’s not that we haven’t been aware of the technology, because as each decade as passed we have become more and more digital in the way we live and work, but at the same time there has been a sort of illusion that the technology would just fit into what we did in school, we would accommodate it, then it would let us continue on our merry way.

An illusion it certainly has been because as much as there have been enormous improvements in what the technology is now capable of, and most importantly what it now makes possible, that hasn’t for the most part, impacted significantly in the way our schools operate.

When I think about the art of the possible, I am always drawn back to Adam’s class. I think of just how much a gifted teacher was able to do with what were really quite primitive technologies, and yet it also tells me that we have so much more to do.

It’s not about faster bits, or fancier 3D printers, or even mountains of bandwidth, but at the core it comes down to calling on the pedagogical imagination and wisdom of teachers like Adam. Sure we’ll never truly understand the possibilities if we don’t empower our modern learners….but just as importantly we have to empower our teachers; for how many hundreds of millions of corporate dollars do we have to see wasted on Amplify’s and In Bloom’s and every other hero solution, before we focus on the people who have the experience, expertise and creativity to make the illusion a reality.

I feel confident that this year we will finally start to see reality break through. To do that we also need leadership to step up and be better informed about the investments around technology they are making, while concurrently lifting their expectations about exactly what those investments could and should make possible for their young modern learners.

So to continue the commentary this year from time to time we will feature discussions around the sorts of technology topics that we hope will help educators and leaders be better informed. We are all very busy people and the four letter word ‘time’ is always top of mind. Hopefully you’ll find that our dialogue around these topics will enable you to create a culture of innovation, iteration and improvement in the ways both your students and their teachers leverage the amazing technologies that are available today.

Image Credit: Bruce Dixon

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