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Posts tagged ‘curiosity’

CURIOSITY: The Key to Educational Reform?

Our Educational System:

school houseWhen you think of school—no matter what level—what image comes to mind? For most, it is a teacher at the front of the room, perhaps writing on a blackboard, and students sitting in nice neat little rows.  Things may change with the different levels and over time, but not very much. Sometimes there are computers in the room.  Or maybe the chairs are in a circle, or students are clustered in small groups.  Still, the basics of education have not changed much since schools were first being built.

Sugata Mitra explains that this basic educational structure was delineated during Victorian times when capable workers were needed in factories.  The workers needed to be able to read enough to follow directions accurately and to follow rules and regulations to the letter.  They needed to be able to step in and do the job in the factories without asking too many questions.  Today’s problem is that those skills are no longer what are needed for most jobs.  According to Mitra, “The Victorians were great engineers. They engineered a [schooling] system that was so robust that it’s still with us today, continuously producing identical people for a machine that no longer exists.”

Mastery of content—once prized as the mark of an educated person—is also not so crucial today given how quickly information changes these days and how readily all that new information is available to anyone over the Internet.  What general workers and good citizens need today includes the ability to access information, assess its credibility, and then apply it as needed in new situations.  The world needs critical thinkers who can create, collaborate, and cooperate while still getting the job done.  The world also needs good communicators who can use social media as well as traditional communication pathways to keep the customer informed and satisfied.  And those customers could be from anywhere in the world.  Things like business acumen and marketing strategies and specialized skills or processes are still needed, but by themselves, these abilities will not necessarily keep someone employed.

The Need for Change:

Ask most educators today if the educational arena needs to changed, fixed, reformed, and you will hear a resounding, “Yes!”  The problems come with deciding what changes will help.  And then it is not just the need to try that change in the classroom, but to have the change accepted throughout the system.  Especially in higher education, what happens at the community college has to transfer to four-year schools.  There is a movement through accreditation processes to develop more realistic and appropriate learning outcomes and assessment practices, so the critical thinking and habits of mind needed by workers today can be at least part of what is being taught.  Even the language needs to change:  shouldn’t we be more focused on what the students learn than on what the teachers teach?  The call for this paradigm shift is not new.  Barr and Tagg have been pushing it since 1995. Some have embraced these ideas, but active learning and student-focused education are still not the norm everywhere.

Thus systemwide change is not happening—or at least it is not happening quickly enough.  Online education has brought some changes in the delivery system, but—even though the students are logging on from home—the basic structure of the educational system is still about the same.  Teachers present materials and opportunities for the students to grapple with and learn from.  To really figure out what to change to help people learn and to clarify exactly what should be learned these days, maybe we all need to just step back.  Start over.

Sugata Mitra’s Plan:  Curiosity & Encouragement:

Fortunately, Sugata Mitra has a great idea on how to revolutionize education.  He makes the change sound so simple when he presents his idea at Ted Talks 2013.  Actually, he has been working on this idea since the late 1990s.  And his ideas are based on working with students, with actually trying things out, with kids, getting them to learn. Mitra, a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, calls his idea “minimally invasive education.”  Over the years his project was called “The Hole in the Wall” experiments, but he is now working on “The School in the Cloud.”

Mitra’s plan:  Give kids a question and some learning tools and get out of their way.  Let curiosity take over, pushed forward gently by persistent praise and encouragement.

Listen to him share this simple, profound idea in February 2013 as the winner of the TED2013 Prize:

Can it really be this simple?  I think it can.  The grown-ups just have to let it happen—and then figure out a way to use this notion to reform higher education as well.  Any ideas?

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Quotes by Sugata Mitra

“It’s quite fashionable to say that the education system’s broken — it’s not broken, it’s wonderfully constructed. It’s just that we don’t need it anymore. It’s outdated.”

“In nine months, a group of children left alone with a computer in any language will reach the same standard as an office secretary in the West.”

“It took nature 100 million years to make the ape stand up and become Homo sapiens. It took us only 10,000 to make knowing obsolete.”

“My wish is that we design the future of learning. We don’t want to be spare parts for a great human computer.”


Once again I thank a friend from graduate school for sharing a provocative video (link provided below).  Her action spurred me to write this blog entry.  It is actually two entries in one, but they are so intertwined that I could not see how to separate them, so bear with me.  I hope they make you think and question.  I know they reminded me how being complacent and accepting things as they are is not always the best pathway, even if it’s an easy one.

PART I:  What Internet Searches Via Google & Facebook Are Hiding from Us

Internet search engines are pretty phenomenal. Type in a subject area and avenues of exploration open up almost instantaneously. It’s impressive. As I slogged through my doctoral research, the library search-engine processes were a blessing.  I do have to admit, however, that I am more annoyed than pleased when Amazon.com sends me emails enticing me to buy some book or another because I looked at comparable titles at some point in the past. Or when my local food store targets me with ads to buy again an item I never really wanted in the first place but bought for a friend.  Still, it is easy enough to push those occasional irritations aside, like a bothersome mosquito.  The processes behind Internet searches have been invisible to me—and that has been okay.  Until now.  

When the actual processes are explained, what seems like innocent filtering of extensive amounts of information becomes a bit more complex, even taking on an ominous tone.  And if things continue the way they have been going, things could become very dire indeed.  No, I am not saying there is a conspiracy lurking behind the search engines, but their standard practices are changing our access to all the extensive information that is out there for us to explore. Basically, algorithms control how the information is filtered or personalized once someone initiates a search. The algorithms look at what has been looked at before by the specific person conducting the search to decide what to show this time around. 

This process makes it quicker to get results and ensures that each person is more apt to “like” or “agree” with the information filtered through the search.  But what the searcher is not being shown through the process is becoming greater and greater—and will typically include information that could expand the dialog, acknowledge other perspectives, introduce new ideas, or simply show something unexpected. 

For a theoretical example, say I wanted to research Dog Training.  Given my past searches would have looked at “Pets,” “The Dog Whisperer” and “Puppy Mills,” I would receive info that would take into account that slant or propensity of thought.  I would probably not hear about Vick and dog fighting—giving the illusion that such news stories and activities do not exist.  As I said in an earlier blog entry, I want to be aware of what I do not know, so I can choose my own routes of exploration.  The current search practices on the Internet are taking that choice away from me, from all of us, based simply on how the algorithms work. 

The video my friend sent that introduced me to this worry about the Internet is posted below. It is a clear, concise overview of the longer treatise presented in the book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. Eli Pariser, the author/presenter, was a bit nervous about making his presentation because big names from Google and Facebook were in the audience, but he continued anyway. Along with his basic expose, he also suggests that the algorithms could be re-written.  I hope so.  Watch the video and see what you think. Maybe you’ll have an idea you can share on how to circumvent or undermine current search practices. 



PART II:  TEDTalks?  Aren’t They Great!?

The message of the above video bothered me—and generated Part I of this blog entry. But the video itself, the availability of TEDTalk videos like this one, is amazing and gives me hope regarding access to ideas and information.  Thus PART II of this blog entry. The world is alive with creativity, critical thought, hope, expectation and calls to action. It is clear there are ways to use the Internet effectively to broaden our world and expand our thinking.

I had not heard of TEDTalks before, so I explored a bit. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design and is a non-profit organization devoted to ideas worth spreading. Over the years, its scope has broadened to look at and share ideas from a fuller range of topics than the three elements of the TED acronym.  The TED website gives a lot of information through various features (conversations, blog, talks). The ideas are shared through the website but also through three conferences each year, two in the spring in the United States and an international one in the summer. Pariser’s talk was presented at the March conference.

One of the best features of the website is the catalog of TEDTalks on a plethora of topics.  The website’s talks search index lets you look for the most recently released topics or the ones with the most comments or that are translated into the most languages. The general subject headings include Technology, Entertainment and Design—of course!—but also Business, Science, and Global Issues. Some of the other headings are more intriguing:  they include but are not limited to funny, outrageous, courageous, beautiful and inspiring. 

The website also seeks volunteer translators, so many of the talk videos are available in several languages. And what is available on the website is copyrighted under a Creative Commons license, which basically means teachers can freely use these videos in class to generate discussion.  All the teachers need to do is cite the source and not distort the message, two activities good teachers try to instill as habits of mind for their students anyway.  I am thrilled that this website and all these videos exist, including the one above about internet search algorithms.  Some other titles that caught my eye include “9/11 Healing: The Mothers Who Found Forgiveness, Friendship,” “The Hidden Beauty of Pollination,” and “A Light Switch for Neurons.” 

A Concluding Paradox

Be wary of the Internet. Don’t be seduced by current search practices that give speedy access to a seemingly vast amount of information while simultaneously limiting access to differing ideas and perspectives. At the same time, embrace the Internet and explore such websites as Ted.com and its TEDTalks for a chance to discover a full range of views and ideas. Our thoughtful role in the search process is the crucial step that keeps the Internet a powerful tool that can help keep imagination and curiosity alive. Imagination and curiosity are the goals for a better future.

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“I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity.”  Eleanor Roosevelt

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”  Albert Einstein

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