Considering the Power of Pull and Other Ideas

Before too many weeks pass (if only there were 48 hours in every day!) in the MIT #MediaLabCourse I wanted to write up a few scattered reflections on the topic of Interest-Based Learning.

I really enjoyed one of the recommended resources for this topic, Joi Ito’s Keynote to Open Educational Resources and many of the ideas he shared prompted me to think more deeply about education today.

He spoke about the “power of pull” (written about in this book), which I found intriguing. The idea is that people should avoid stocking up on resources and power and instead wait to “pull” on those things until you need them. This seems fairly contrary to much of American schooling, where students are told to “stock up” on a wide variety of knowledge, some of which they won’t use or apply for years to come (if they ever use it at all). Papert describes it nicely when he says “Many react badly to school because its emphasis on memorizing facts and acquiring skills that cannot be put to use is like a prison for a mind that wants to fly.” For example, why do we have students memorize states or countries if they’re not going to be traveling or needing that knowledge sometime soon? Before I travel to a new place, I tend to acquire and pick up a huge amount of information because I want/need to know it. I also feel like I retain more of the information when I learn it in that context because the knowledge holds more value and relevance and can be connected to my experiences.

At the same time, having attended a liberal arts institute for my undergraduate education, I can see the value of learning things that are broader than a specific unit of study or career track. Maybe part of the distinction between what’s meaningful and relevant comes with choice. When I have the ability to choose which courses I would like to join based on what intrigues or interests me, the learning inherently feels more relevant and exciting. When children are told what to stock up on and study, we create students like “Michael” who are labeled as needing special education and not successful in school even though Papert discovered he was primed to engage in mathematical thinking and engineering when he could direct his own learning and discovery.

And then there’s the idea of distributed innovation and the ability to create something amazing and powerful (e.g., the Internet) by bringing together little pieces of knowledge, skill, and talent from many different people around the world. Does that require a diversity of knowledge within each person, or just a diversity of knowledge among many? As Joi explains, the Internet has also been produced and continues to thrive due to a unique spirit where people work together, share and build new tools and sites for the sake of creation. They are motivated by the momentum created by sharing and the incentive of getting to create something. Via the Internet and technology, we are able to pull together amazing teams of people who together have more expertise than could have been assembled in any other way because the people are brought together not by money or a single organization/recruiter but by an intrinsic desire to collaborate, learn, and make something meaningful.

How can we create a similar momentum in schools? Is something missing from our current equation and if so, what is it? To me, it seems the learning-by-building or doing piece is a huge component that schools continue to avoid. Students are often not allowed to express their creative abilities and feel intrinsically motivated to collaborate and make something meaningful because we hold them back from open-ended creation. We don’t  want to “waste” too much time in the act of making or engaging in student-inspired projects that are not in the curriculum and we’re busy trying to meet set standards, which (at times) can mean every child has to do the same thing.

What if, instead, we could allow for the “rough consensus” that Joi speaks about? What if schools created a rough model of their curriculum and then constantly built upon it each year, continuing to change and develop it as an iterative guide for teachers and students but one that is responsive to individual classes’ interests and passions. Instead of trying to plan every lesson before teachers meet their students or having teacher feel unprepared because the week is not planned out minute by minute, classes could become more resilient by being able (and encouraged) to shift and adapt to changing needs and goals.


cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by Krissy.Venosdale

Sometimes I like to imagine a classroom where everyone celebrates diversity and interdisciplinary work, a place where students are “aggressively creative” as Joi describes the MIT Media Lab and students are pushed to think for themselves and even question authority. Instead of learning that school is a place to focus and ignore the periphery – those new ideas just starting to take shape on the boundaries of a new unit or or those collaborations between home/school/community that have tentatively taken shape – students and teachers are asked to embrace them. One of the challenges of cMOOCs seems to be that people can feel overwhelmed and even shut down when faced with such an open model of learning where they decide their own goals, pace, and instruction. If our classrooms where more allowing of community learning, each student named as a teacher as well as a learner, and there was constant serendipitous creation of new ideas and projects, would cMOOCs be such a difficult learning environment?

I’m left wondering and imagining and most recently, thinking about constructing powerful ideas. Are there any in the mix in this post? Are there ideas that I have begun to ignore as those ideas have become disempowered in schools and education?

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One response to “Considering the Power of Pull and Other Ideas

  1. My low performing school is going even more in the direction of Classroom A, pushed by threatened closure by the state for low test scores, embracing “Teach like a Champion” script, while my art class operates in Classroom B model. After the rest of the day is spent in classroom A, classroom B is such a foreign model that the transition is uncomfortable and engagement mostly superficial. My position is being eliminated and the whole layout will be A. Because I was not a good advocate for what I was trying to do? Because I was too isolated? Because it was messy? Because the arts go first as they say? Good luck with that.

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