How will learning work in the future?

pdf icon future_of_reading-1.pdf
Some things are easy to learn. Some are hard. For the latter, we need education. How will that work in the future?

Alan Kay, the great inventor from XEROX PARC, on the future of reading and the future of learning things that are hard to learn.

The higher mission of schools themselves these days is the hard-to-learn, not the rote technical skills. So this matters for primary school thinking.

And entrepreneurship as a skill, art, practice and process is hard to learn, and indeed and area with inadequate academic-style content — an area where just reading can’t get you there.

In fact this is what Kay’s paper is about: that the way we best learn reading is by writing, and that this insight opens the idea that a computer could play a crucial role in the learn-by-doing process required for learning things that are hard to learn.

Consider how strange and hard literacy are, and how quickly humanity has moved away from its richness through the age of telecommunication and telemedia. Quote:
// A simple one is that in the 19th century people read and wrote for all purposes when they had to transcend distance and time. As Neil Postman has pointed out, there were no competitors. This meant that when it came time to read and write for important purpose, a goodly percentage had the skills. In the 140 years since the invention of the telephone, many technologies have been invented that allow our more built-­‐‑in propensities for oral communication to be extended over time and space electronically. Simple news and ex-­‐‑ changes about the world and one’s social acquaintances no longer require the deeper skills of writing and reading. That 22 minutes of news on television (it is like reading half a column in a newspaper) does not communicate much of importance has been ignored.

It is hard to learn to read actually, and proficient literacy rates even in the U.S. among college grads are 30%ish. Part of why it is hard is why all hard learning is hard — absorbing aliens concepts, at the right pacing, with some opportunity for making/experimenting in the environment, guided by experts. Think of digital literacy on this point. Quote:
// In many respects, the main reason for structured education is to help people learn difficult to learn things. But many current educational systems miss understanding the actual states of “learners of new”. Put simply: we are effectively blind, deaf, paralyzed, and without speech. As usual, McLuhan put it well: “Until I believe it, I can’t see it”. In other words new is by definition “some-­‐‑ thing not encountered before”, and what we can perceive, we do so because our minds have learned to see and hear and touch. And we can’t talk about it well for a number of reasons. As master teacher Tim Gallweyvii has said, “One of the big problems with standard teaching is that most parts of the body and mind that need to do the learning can’t understand English!”.

//There are issues of capacity—e.g. George Miller’s 7±2 chunksviii. When we start to learn some-­‐‑ thing new we have very weak representations and are quickly overwhelmed. The pace of creation, consolidation and growth of chunks has to be careful managed.
//Cesare Pavese said “To know the world, one must construct it”. He meant both mentally and, in many cases, physically. The great 20th century composer Paul Hindemith explained the relations between music and human participants as “cocreation”. That is, what is actually going on in Art, and learning in general, is not simple “white rat reflexes” but the making in one’s mind of our own version of what we are trying to perceive and do.

How amazing that the lecture-format teaching is considered the main one; contrast to the mostly-practice weekly-music-lesson model that steers a different type of mastery in development. Think here of whether entrepreneurship fits the lecture format mold. Quote:

//Combining these two, it is not hard to imagine at least 15 to 25 “kinds” of learners which educational processes need to deal with. Despite this, most educational systems have just one curriculum and process for all. Part of this stems from an ironic kind of ignorance, but much of it are consequences of both tradition and economics: the tradition of having one teacher for a subject many days in a row, accompanied by economic and “economies of scale” arguments.
//In a very different approach, most music and sports learning only has contact with a one-­‐‑on-­‐‑one expert once or twice a week, lots of individual practice, group experiences where “playing” is done, and many years of effort. This works because most learners really have difficulty absorb-­‐‑ ing hours of expert instruction every week that may or may not fit their capacities, styles, or rhythms. They are generally much better off spending a few hours every day learning on their own and seeing the expert for assessment and advice and play a few times a week.

//A few universities use a process like this for academics—sometimes called the “tutorial system”, they include Oxford and Cambridge Universities in the UK.

//This “more private work but with weekly expert critiques and advice” process is quite important.

We rely for self-directed learning either on “books” or “Socrates”. But what about a new kind of thing? Quote:
//But what about “Socrates in a computer”? Something more than “Socrates in a book” should be possible here, because the computer is active
Vygotsky, Bruner, Montessori, Moore — autotelic, self-directed, self-paced, in-contrext, immediate feedback learning. These are the 20th century ideas that are awaiting implementation in wider learning contexts.

(An aside. Commitment mechanisms in self-directed settings matter. Think of MOOCs. Quote:

//One of the interesting rules of the environment is that children can leave any time they want, but they then cannot come back until the next day (this is very similar to one of Montessori’s principles about choice of toys).

OK so a final conjectural idea — Quote:
// The future of learning difficult to learn things is the future of learning to make difficult to make things—in other words, the future of “reading” depends on the future of “writing”.

From here Kay posits a wish list of features the iPad needs to be a little digital Socrates.

Here are my Ahas:
1. Digital literacy is like literacy – hard to learn, vital, alien at first, requiring steady engagement.
2. Learning hard stuff requires structured education – hopefully someday one that is purely digital.
3. Self-directed learning requires mechanisms of engagement, commitment, progress, feedback.
4. Without a framework, learn-by-doing can be nearly useless, like teaching yourself Arabic without a book/tutor.