Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Learning Environmentalism

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Mar 16, 2004

This Book Chapter published as Learning Environmentalism in Publication in Manual and CD-Rom for 2 Courses, Theoriques en formation a distance (EDU 6101) in French and Theoretical Foundations of Distance Education (EDU 6111) Sept 07, 2007. Tele-universite of the Universite of Quebec [Info] [List all Publications]

Imagine a world in which the people had a diet of suet. The health of the population was generally bad, since suet is not especially healthy, but the people had good doctors who were able to attend to their diet and to cope with problems that came up.

Now imagine what happens when someone comes along and suggests that the people eat a more healthy diet, one with meats and fruits and grains. The population would not be able to change, not because suet is so much better, but because their doctors don't know anything about the new diet, and would not be there to help them.

Our schools, says Seymour Papert, feed students a diet of suet, "for reasons that once made sense." But who knows how to make a new diet?This is not a question that has an obvious answer.

Speaking to the RIMA ICEM conference in Quebec City, Papert raised the issue of what is fundamentally a sick school system and wondered aloud about what to do about it. "Instead of trying to make children love the math they hate," he said, "why not make a math they love." He paused. "Because it's very hard."

When we look at the issue of school reform, it seems clear that reform should come from the outside, he said, remarking that it was notable that the RIMA ICEM conference was sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce. "It's not the suet makers who should be making changes to the diet," he quipped.

Relating this to the laptop programs - he was a key figure in launching the Main Laptop Program - he noted that in an equivalent program in France, the change was actually opposed by the Ministry of Education. In Maine, as well, the change did not come from within the educational system, but was launched by the Governor.

Putting laptops in schools, he noted, is not tantemount to educational change, but it's the seed of educational change. It is the act of putting the change in motion. But it couldn't have come from within. Ask educators what the proper ratio of computers to students is, and you may hear, %:1, 6:1 - but the proper answer is 1:1 - but that is something that can be said only outside the system.

Consider, he said, an advanced civilization that had not yet invented writing. Then, the day comes, and the question is asked: how many students should we have for each pencil? Should we have a separate room for writing?

But the answer is clearly that each student must have a pencil, and it's the same with computers. Any resources, he argued, that make students make do with fewer computers is just a waste. And yet, "It's quite clear to me that if we had started by asking the educational sector, it would not have been 1:1.

So, let's step back, and take this in perspective.

Consider the growth of the environmental movement. "When I was a child," he argued, "'the environment' didn't exist." The word existed, but the concept of the environment, in the sense of a global system, didn't exist. It was only Rachel Carson's publication of Silent Spring that precipitated this movement.

It was a 'tipping point' - it's not like the problems weren't there before, but they were localized. You could deal with the London fog, the silting of the Mississippi, the Amazon rain forest, at the local level. But there came a point where you couldn't do that any more. You couldn't do it in this fragmented way.

When we think about the learning environment, we are in the days before the tipping point. "We use the little room (for writing)" but we don't have the whole concept. "You have specialists in pre-school, e-learning, adult learning - but who is there whose job it is to take it as a whole? There are people, but these aren't professionals, we don't recognize them as professionals."

Now take someone like James Gee, who yesterday talked about the role of games in learning. "I work with kids, saying, mostly, help me learn this game. They say, 'You'll never learn.' How come?

The kids, argued Papert, are learning in a new way. It's a new paradigm. A new game comes out, and you want to be the first on your block to master it. Your learning has a distinctive beginning, middle and end. You are in control. "How seldom in this world people have this kind of discrete learning experience."

But the kids don't have the words to articulate this - they need to use games as a way to develop a framework for thinking and talking - and in the home, we need to think about how we develop a "learning culture" as a family, including such things as what jokes are told and who knows how to program the VCR.

In the case of environmentalist, there were many pieces before the specialists, looking at the environment as a whole, stepped forward. We are not there yet in education. "My father was a scientist," said Papert, "but he never gave two thoughts to my learning math - it wasn't his business, it was the school's business." It wasn't that he had rejected the idea, it was that it never came up. But today, thousands of parents are thinking about this, and trying to think of new ways to tech math. "Such parents are wonderful people, but they are not qualified to make that decision." But again, "Who is qualified?"

Another example: kids are learning to despise schools. They are learning that the way schools do things is not the best way - and they have many other examples to learn from. Society is changing, and the kids can see that, but the schools are not changing, and the gap is growing perceptably larger.

"Maybe they were happy eating suet until they learned there was something else."

But what is this something else? The laptop program is part of the answer, but "don't mistake that for really deep change - we need deeper change." A study of one of the older programs, for example, showed that after the initial excitement, the results weren't nearly as striking - the kids weren't looking after the machines. "The kids had high expectations but they soon learned it's the same stuff in a new bottle."

Consider, by analogy, the Soviet Union. What made the difference between that system and our own? In a word: centralized planning. Such a system can't work, because you can't innovate. But you need innovation - "something like Darwin's evolution." As Dennett says, in Darwin's Dangerous Idea, that dissolves away prejudices. "Our school system is the closest we have to the Soviet structure. I think it will collapse."

The question we face today is not whether we can save the school system - we can. It's now a question of what we can build in it's stead. Think about how unchangeable the Soviet system looked in the 1980s. We need to think about what comes after the collapse.

To save the schools, we have to break them. The current move toward standardization is a last gasp, "the last twitch of the dragon's tail" as the old system dies. It is natural, in such a time, for the bureaucracy to close ranks, to centrally impose something like standardization "instead of its direct opposite, higher standards." We're losing the chance no have better learning, he argued, but not only that, because trying to be static will lead only to decline.

Papert with students from the Institut St-Joseph, who attended the conference and were posting on their weblog what they saw and heard.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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