Today’s disruptive changes in education – from the proliferation of digital devices to the availability of open educational resources, online universities, and badge-based certification – have the field abuzz like never before. Recently I had the opportunity to give a talk at WNET’s Celebration of Teaching and Learning on creating the conditions for innovation in education. When I began to prepare my talk, I wasn’t sure if it were just my perception that we are on the verge of something extraordinary, or if something really is afoot. In the search for a way to test my perceptions about education today, with its emergence from policy changes such as No Child Left Behind and sobering statistics such as increases in college costs and deeply disturbing high school drop-out rates, I began to play with the notion that we might be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel similar to what happened after the Dark Ages.
Perhaps what we are witnessing is the 21st century’s version of the Renaissance: the education renaissance. The education renaissance that took off at the beginning of the 21st century bears a close resemblance to its 16th century counterpart, during which a blossoming in arts and the sciences swept Europe for the next 300 years and led to scientific discoveries as well as significant developments in the arts. What we are experiencing today in education has been spurred by six forces, all remarkably similar to developments that led to the Renaissance. A look at these forces might give us insights into what lies ahead, if not in the next three centuries, then at least in the next three decades.
First, is the invention of new technology. In the 15th century, the invention of the printing press allowed access to books and greater literacy, which in turn led to the establishment of universities. In the same way, the creation of the Internet and its widespread adoption through inexpensive digital devices, including mobile phones and tablets, has empowered billions of people with the ability to achieve literacy and access information, including learning resources.
Second, is the infusion of large amounts of cash into the arts and sciences. During the Renaissance, patrons in Italy who profited from trading and banking sponsored artists and scientists, from Leonardo da Vinci to Galileo. During the past 25 years, billionaire philanthropists across the U.S. and venture capitalists in Silicon Valley who have profited from business have invested vast amounts of cash into high-tech businesses, which have in turned fueled the development of inexpensive digital devices and thousands of applications, including educational programs. In addition, foundations established through the funds of successful entrepreneurs have sponsored many for-profit and non-profit breakthrough initiatives in education and learning.
Third, is the emphasis on humanism, or the unique and extraordinary ability of the human mind. For the first time, during the Renaissance, ordinary people, rather than biblical figures or wealthy patrons, became the subjects of artists. Today, educators, parents, and students place a priority on the personalization of learning, and programs are being tailored with an emphasis on the individual learner’s style of acquiring knowledge. For example, Daniel Hillis, one of the pioneers of parallel computing, is developing a learning map from the vast database of human knowledge so that individuals can access knowledge in a way that best suits their needs.
Fourth, is the emergence of a vibrant artistic culture with a focus on realism and advances in architectural design. One of the hallmarks of today’s digital culture is the emergence of a vibrant, highly interactive environment, where everyone is given the chance to participate. Digital architecture includes blogs, videos, tweets, Facebook and other social networking platforms that encourage the exchange of information and opinion about virtually everything.
Fifth, is the democratization of learning. Through the invention of the printing press, which made books affordable, and the rediscovery of ancient texts on science and mathematics, knowledge became more accessible to people living in Europe during the Renaissance. In a similar fashion, the invention of the Internet and accessibility through the affordability of digital hardware and connectivity, has allowed more people to get on the Internet, and to participate in social learning. In addition, the emphasis on freely sharing knowledge, through OER Commons and programs like Udacity, CK-12 FlexBooks, and courses by universities like MIT, has created a dramatic cultural shift in the way learning is distributed, open, and collaborative.
Last, is the creation of a process for discovery. In the Renaissance, inventors and scientists developed a process for discovery, which eventually led to the scientific method. Today, new collaborative techniques, such as crowdsourcing, collective brainstorming, and the open publication of scientific discoveries, has led to such creations as Wikipedia, PLoS, and astronomy sites in which millions of people with only a connection to the Internet can contribute to the discovery of a new star, planet, or galaxy. From Galileo to the millions of potential new scientists on our planet today, the new education renaissance holds as great a promise for the future as did its counterpart.
While some are quick to dismiss the disruptive changes in education today, I think we should welcome the highly collaborative, personalized, and affordable opportunities new digital technologies offer learners throughout the world. Although these same technologies create problems, they offer more people the chance to learn, create, and share knowledge. And like the Renaissance, the education renaissance can also lead to a more humanistic and connected world.
This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post, September, 28, 2010
On opening night I got to see the new documentary by Davis Guggenheim, “Waiting for ‘Superman’,” a film that is bringing cognitive dissonance to educators across the country. Before that, I had read a dozen or so well-written blogs that had described in detail the movie’s “anti-teacher, union-bashing and pro-charter school stance” purportedly portrayed in the film, some by those who had seen early previews of the movie (and by several who had not). Therefore, I found myself more than a bit surprised when I walked out after seeing the movie — amidst a teacher protest that was taking place outside of the theater — feeling what I can only describe as relief. I felt relief because the film had rather skillfully named the proverbial elephant(s) in the room, raising issues that many educators find extraordinarily uncomfortable to talk about. And I thought, is there room for a new dialogue now that these problems had been expressed so publicly?
For some, the education problem in this country is one of social justice and eradicating poverty. To others it is about staying competitive in science and technology, or making sure we have an abundance of critical thinkers, global problem solvers, and creative minds. To say that the film offers evidence of the parts of the system that are broken is probably an understatement. But at the same time, to say that one film by itself can tell the story of all education in the country seems foolhardy. And to Guggenheim’s credit, he does not attempt to tell all stories about our education system.
He tells a story through a poignant journey of the promise of education as seen through the lives of five low-income families who are desperate to provide their children with a better life — a life which they know can only be obtained through education. It portrays failing public schools and the limited opportunities for these children to get into public charter schools that have demonstrated high levels of success. The title of the film is taken from a line by one the film’s stars who tells us the story of realizing as a young boy that Superman is not a real person, and therefore, no one is going to magically come along and save him and his community. The film shows the real heroes (not Superman) as the educators who work tirelessly to create a system in which all can succeed. At the end, you’d have to have a heart of stone to not feel the disappointment of the families who are denied that opportunity (via a lottery).
Conversations about education reform are taking place every day, at education conferences, in online forums, in teachers’ rooms across the country, etc. But it is time that public education be on everyone’s agenda, not just teachers, administrators, and education reformers. However, airing our dark secrets in a more transparent public debate is something we do infrequently. And it is uncomfortable. Because, after all, why, after decades of education reform, are these problems as prevalent as ever?
Perhaps riding on the coattails of the movie, NBC sponsored a teacher town hall on Sunday, in which teachers’ voices were heard on a nationally broadcast. That is not something we see every day. And what was surprising to outsiders (perhaps even to the host himself) was that not all teachers agreed on the solutions. For example, younger teachers in the audience were adamant that teacher tenure was keeping incompetent colleagues in place and stymied their ability to innovate. These teachers had taught both in public schools, as well as public charter schools, and had seen a difference. In what professions wouldn’t its workers be demoralized by those who do not perform?
I left the film thinking about how public education as a system is entrenched in old ways of doing things. I did not leave thinking unions were obsolete. Teachers want to create better schools. So do unions. These were tireless teachers, and hard-working administrators. The film gave us no silver bullets. The film itself notes that only one in five charters is highly successful. While we know that any large systems, unions, governments, etc., are hard to innovate within, the question raised in the film was a good one: How can we be sure that the decisions we make in education truly put the needs of the kids before the adults. Are there better ways of organizing human talent? How can we support all the young people in a city, not just the few? Are there great ideas incubating in public charter schools that can scale into traditional public schools? What about new strategies to engage students and allow them more freedom to love learning by learning what they love, more transparency, more support for risk-taking. We need new ways to think about using resources, and strategies to move us away from where we are now to achieving a vision of what a new kind of education might look like. It’s worth thinking about.
We all know that a good education should not be determined by a lottery. “Waiting for ‘Superman’ ” puts that squarely in our face. Yet, my hope is that we can resist the urge to turn this film into a story about heroes and villains. We have an opportunity to bring the public into an open debate on public education. The spotlight is on education like never before. Can we use this opportunity to start meaningful dialogue and discussion? To spur a movement catalyzed by the conversation? Education can learn a great deal from the innovators in this country. Not the least of which is that innovation can be scary. It takes courage and risk-taking, and outcomes are often unknown before you start. Let us use this as an opportunity to write the storyboard for the documentary that will come out five or 10 years from now.