THE CJ Koh Professorial Lecture was recently delivered at the National Institute of Education by the University of Southern California's Dr John Seely Brown.
By Andy Ho Senior Writer
The polymath urged a move away from the tightly regimented, exam-focused, competitive approach of teaching and learning to a new mode of inquiry-led, Internet-enabled, free-form learning, one bereft of exams or grades.
Now, the teacher as "sage on stage" is to deliver knowledge from her head into her students' heads. This supply-push model builds up an inventory of knowledge "as a series of steps to be mastered" in those heads. Exams are then used to show that learners have acquired that knowledge.
But why is all this still needed now that Internet technologies enable anyone to access any information and learn whatever she wants just in time, on demand and on the go? Moreover, things are changing so rapidly that much of the content taught to students becomes obsolete quite quickly.
So content has become less important than how one learns in a networked world. Dr Brown advocated a new demand-pull approach where students co-learn with others in the same classroom and elsewhere in network-enabled learning communities supported by in-class teachers as well as experts or scholars online.
What they learn is to be based on their choices about what they feel most passionate about. They pull down content from the Internet that they need for the context they find themselves in.
If they want to learn about porpoises or Confucianist ethics on Monday, that is the context that will drive them to pull down the relevant Internet content that day. Google aside, the best Internet content lies in databases of scholarly journals and e-books, which they will have access to through their institutional subscriptions.
But the crucial point is that learning becomes a process of joining a learning community rather than knowledge transfer from teacher to student. This shifts the focus from content to learning activities around content. What we learn becomes less important than how we are learning it.
The old way focused on the right answer to whatever the question was. The new way focuses on asking better questions without assuming any answer is ultimately correct.
Take Wikipedia. To address concerns over its accuracy, scientific journal Nature pitted it against Encyclopaedia Britannica and found it quite acceptable. But this sets the cart before the horse: it is the reading practices that matter, Dr Brown argued. The two must be read in completely different ways.
The authoritative Britannica has been scrutinised by experts, so its content is received wisdom and thus likely outdated when you read it. With Wikipedia, it should be less of reading the front page as authoritative and more of opening up an entry's history pages to enter into the debates by scholars and experts about contestable issues within that entry.
Anyone can modify the Wiki text, but only experts have "administrator" privileges for higher-level editing. Dr Brown said: "By studying these debates, you enter into the highest standards of the learning community responsible for that Wikipedia entry."
Such an approach is why study groups are effective. In the late 1970s, a Berkeley graduate student tutoring undergraduate calculus found that black students did poorly compared to Asian ones.
The former went off to do their problem sets on their own whereas the latter got together to study in groups. These Asian students clarified problem areas for one another. In trying to clear up confusion, the student who taught others benefited from the process itself because it made her own thinking clearer to herself as well.
That graduate student helped the black students form workshop-style study groups which saw their calculus grades go up. Now professor of mathematics and public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, he is Dr Philip Uri Treisman who pioneered this "Emerging Scholars Programme" that now helps underprivileged students in maths and science across many US colleges.
This social form of learning crystallises around a community's practices and passion. The difference today is that such communities are scalable worldwide - novice or expert, others with the same passion about the issue in question can join up online.
For example, schoolchildren around the world may send small creatures like insects to the University of Illinois Bugscope project. It will be examined under a scanning electron microscope that the pupils can control online with a computer to view their specimens in real time. Bugscope experts will answer any questions pupils have and offer input.
In true inquiry, the student follows her interests wherever they lead her. But this is not possible within the current segregation of knowledge into disciplines taught in fixed class periods in brick and mortar classrooms. In the new inquiry-based approach, learning will be free-form and not bound by discipline, space or time.
Teachers will move from being experts in a field to ones who build, shape and oversee learning contexts. They will mentor students in their unstructured learning activities "to get you to discover things you might not know you were interested in, confront topics you are not good at but which, once discovered, you will be".
No core curriculum is needed. Beyond reading, writing and arithmetic plus some basic science, why would calculus or physics ever be needed if the student has no inclination for either?
How is such learning to be assessed? Dr Brown argued that only if education were a machine need you be concerned with efficiency, for which letter grades are assigned. But letter grades assume each question has a correct answer and that answers trump questions. Teachers like this as answers are easy to assess: they are those they taught their students in the first place - but questions are not.
However, in contested areas of knowledge, there are no answers set in stone. In such contexts, questions matter more for they put the child on the path of inquiry for answers. In this context, exams and grades aren't needed.
This is exciting but uncharted territory, maybe too risky for most systems to take up. Perhaps homeschooling families could. I would if I had grandchildren, their parents concurring, of course.