Europe Tour 2015, First city: Gothenburg, Sweden

Gothenburg is a charming city in the South of Sweden, and to me it’s famous because it has the University of Gothenburg. I was last here to give an invited lecture in Fall 2009. Now I’m back for one of the big annual learning sciences conferences: Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL).

I’m giving a three-hour workshop, tomorrow morning, titled “The learning sciences and CSCL: Past, present, and future.” In the workshop, I’ll be building on what I learned while editing The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (2nd Edition), to lead the group in a discussion about what the learning sciences is, how it came to be, how it relates to CSCL research, and challenges and opportunities we might face in the future. I’ll also draw on a second book that I’ve co-edited (with Michael Evans and Martin Packer) called Reflections on the learning sciences. That book should be published within the year; the chapters are all finished, and that gives me a chance to give a bit of a sneak preview about what the leaders in the field are thinking.

It took me 24 hours and three flights to get here, with multiple travel problems at each step of the way…for example I still don’t have my checked bag from my New York to London flight, although it’s been located and is promised to appear at my hotel here within 24 hours–long after my workshop ends. So I had to re-print all of my workshop materials for tomorrow, besides running to the store for razors and toothpaste (I learned my lesson: Never assume you’ll get your checked bag and keep critical items with you on board).

I’ll keep posting about my next stops, beginning with a really cool music improvisation conference in Stord, Norway, that I’ll fly to on Tuesday.

The Future of Educational Technology

It’s my job to stay on top of educational technology. In the last two months alone, I’ve attended huge ed tech conferences like and ASU+GSV, each with hundreds of well-funded new ed tech ventures. But I’ve been constantly disappointed, because almost none of this ed tech innovation is grounded in the science of how people learn. Of the 2,500 people at ASU+GSV, less than ten of them were learning scientists, and only two of the speakers on the program had any claim to such expertise. (Less than 50 people showed up to hear what they had to say.)

Just a few days ago, Bror Saxberg, the Chief Learning Officer at Kaplan, published an important article noting this same problem, and making a strong claim: technology will not help people learn, until ed tech developers start to work closely with learning scientists.

This is a key problem: Almost no one who is involved in creating learning materials or large-scale educational experiences relies on the evidence from learning science.

Saxberg says what we need are learning engineers–professionals who can apply learning sciences research. And ed tech companies don’t have them; instead, ed tech developers “are essentially using their intuition and personal experience with learning rather than apply existing science.”

I agree with Saxberg, and that’s why I’m creating a new master’s degree program, at the University of North Carolina, in educational innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship–to create this new generation of “learning engineers”.

This morning, Daphne Koller, the President of Coursera, published an article in the Wall Street Journal that makes an important point:

The “sage on the stage” at a university will no longer be a common mode of delivery. In the classroom–whether physical or virtual–we will see more attention given to group projects, conversations and applied learning, with lecture content going the way of textbooks as something experienced in preparing for class. At the same time, universities will devote considerably more effort to activities that occur outside the classroom, be it research, individual mentoring by faculty or senior students, team activities, volunteering, internships, study abroad…

I predict that in two decades, lecture halls will no longer be used. Not because of cost, or technology, or student preference, or high professor salaries, or because “they don’t scale”–but because the science of learning shows that lecture is an ineffective pedagogical technique. But this doesn’t mean the future of college is online, because the same learning sciences research shows that MOOCs are ineffective. Let’s hope that ed tech innovators increasingly work with learning sciences researchers: that’s the future of educational technology.

The Problem With School Testing

In a recent post, I argued:

Tests are horrible measures of whether students are mastering valuable 21st century skills, the skills that really matter.

Just published is a new book by education writer Anya Kamenetz that attacks the standardized tests that are used today in the United States. The TIME Magazine review quotes from it:

The research against these tests is fairly damning. “MIT neuroscientists found that improving the math scores of a group of eight grade students in Boston has little influence on their…ability to apply reasoning,” the author writes. Most standardized tests aren’t objective, don’t measure a student’s ability to think, and don’t reliably predict how well a kid will do in the workplace. So what’s good about them? They’re relatively cheap to create, easy to administer, and they yield data.

By coincidence, this week I also attended a compelling keynote talk by Harvard’s Tony Wagner, education researcher and author of five books on educational change and reform. He emphasized the same points, noting that we actually DO have tests today that in fact CAN measure valuable 21st century skills. So why aren’t they used? They’re expensive and time-consuming to administer–too expensive for every student to take. So we keep using tests that everyone knows are lousy, just because politically, we need SOMETHING and we can’t afford anything that’s actually based in research. (Well, not without increasing school funding…)

We know how to improve schools. And it’s NOT by doing the same thing we’re doing now, just incrementally better. (Which is the only possible outcome of today’s tests.) To learn more, read this new article, available for free: “The future of learning.”

Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences: Second Edition Just Published!

WP_20141105_002Look at what arrived in the mail today! The newly published second edition of The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences. Here I am, holding the first copy, in front of my creativity toy bookshelf. Available from now!

Here are the early reviews:

“The first edition of this handbook was outstanding. The second edition is even more inclusive and up to date, with a choice of chapters that nicely complement one another and are written with unusual clarity. This is a must-read for everyone who cares about education and learning.” John Bransford, Professor of the Learning Sciences, University of Washington

“The learning sciences is well exemplified in this very well-put-together book. There are excellent articles here about learning by argumentation, by collaboration, through projects, through cognitive apprenticeship, and in virtual worlds. This book demonstrates that learning scientists continue to make great progress on how learning works.” Roger Schank, Northwestern University

“Too often, we educators teach in the ways that we have been taught, without regard to the research about how learning actually happens. This anthology is an invaluable contribution to a long overdue discussion about how best to ‘reinvent’ education for the 21st century.”  Tony Wagner, Harvard University; Author of The Global Achievement Gap and Creating Innovators

“In an academic landscape characterized by increasing specialization, the learning sciences stands out for its broad and interdisciplinary approach. In this highly readable and useful overview of the field, this outstanding group of authors demonstrates the power and promise of a field motivated not by the advance of a particular theory or paradigm but by a desire to understand and solve some of the most significant issues of our day – issues of education and learning in a socially and technologically complex world.” James W. Stigler, UCLA, co-author of The Teaching Gap

 “This is a deeply rich, comprehensive handbook of the learning sciences. The volume covers an impressive array of topics—from theoretical approaches to methodologies to concrete, implementable instructional techniques. I found it to be extremely informative and accessible. Without a doubt this handbook will be an indispensable and satisfying resource for students, researchers, teachers, and experts.” Mark McDaniel, Washington University in St. Louis, co-author of Make It Stick

Learning How To Do Architectural Design

The research field I work in, the learning sciences, has been heavily influenced by studies of learning both inside and outside of schools. Outside of schools, learning environments are structured very differently from traditional classrooms. Many learning scientists have studied what have come to be called apprenticeship learning environments; this is how people learn on the job, for example. Here are the central steps in apprenticeship learning:

  1. The apprentice watches the master execute a skill.
  2. The apprentice attempts to replicate that skill.
  3. The apprentice reflects on her performance, and examines how it is similar and different to what she saw the master do.
  4. The apprentice “internalizes the performance” and “makes it her own” by repeating the cycle.

These four steps were first studied and documented by a lost hero of the learning sciences, MIT Professor Donald Schon, on pages 74 and 75 of his long out-of-print 1985 book The Design Studio. He called these four steps “the ladder of reflection” and he first observed them in an architecture studio class, as a researcher in the definitive and influential 1981 Architecture Education Study (two volumes, and also long out of print).

I’ve been teaching Schon’s book as part of an advanced research seminar this Fall, titled “Learning How to Create,” and the more closely I read his writings, the more I wish that learning scientists would study his analyses of apprenticeship learning. Instead, we’re more likely to cite Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger’s 1991 book Situated Learning, or Barbara Rogoff’s 1990 book Apprenticeship in Thinking (both of which are very impressive, in extending our understanding of how people learn, but neither of them cite Schon’s writings). Through informal conversations, I know that many of the early founders of the learning sciences were influenced by Dr. Schon’s work. In the cognitive sciences, his research was an early salvo in the now-completed attack on 1970s-era cognitive psychology, with its now-rejected assumption that learning, performance, and expertise are best thought of as internal mental structures and processes, that can be captured and represented in a disembodied computer program. Instead, today we realize that expertise is better conceived of a repertoire of situated social practices.

Here are some of my favorite quotations from Schon’s 1985 book:

Initially, the student does not and cannot understand what designing means. He finds the artistry…to be elusive, obscure, alien and mysterious. Conversely, the studio master realizes that the students do not initially understand the essential things and cannot be told those things at the outset, because the fundamental concepts of designing can be grasped only in the context of the doing….The student does not yet know what he needs to know, yet knows that he needs to look for it. His instructor cannot tell him what he needs to know, even if he has words for it, because the student would not understand him. (pp. 54-56)

Schön imagines what the teacher might say to the student:

I can tell you there is something you need to know, and I can tell you that with my help you can probably learn it. But I cannot tell you what it is in a way that you can now understand. You must be willing, therefore, to undergo certain experiences as I direct you to undergo them so that you can learn what it is you need to know and what I mean by the words I use. Then and only then can you make an informed choice about whether you wish to learn this new competence. If you are unwilling to step into this new experience without knowing ahead of time what it will be like, then I cannot help you. You must trust me. (p. 57)

I agree with Schon that studio practice has many important lessons for educators in other fields, including science, engineering, and math. Schon was influenced by the improvisationality of jazz, and he argued that learning was an essentially improvisational process.

Schon’s research was published almost 30 years ago; today, learning scientists continue down the path that he first mapped out.

Educational Technology and Venture Capital in Arizona

Central networking hub at ASU GSV

I’ve spent the last two days here in Scottsdale, Arizona, at the fifth annual ASU GSV summit, which likes to call itself “Davos in the Desert.” It brings together ed tech entrepreneurs looking for funding, and venture capitalists looking for the next new thing. Quite often, they meet and do deals. Based on my experience here, I would say the organizers have accomplished their goal of “bringing together the world’s most visionary, passionate, and energetic players in the education innovation space”. I’m a bit fuzzier on their mission statement, which is “to become the fulcrum of activity and influence on the current and future states of global education. We’re creating a platform for advancement.” That’s a bit too mission-speak to mean much.

So what really happens here in Scottsdale?

What I saw was a lot of very serious people primarily interested in making money. They are all super-smart, connected, and knowledgeable. Michael Lewis would call them “the smartest guys in the room.” Five years ago the event began as an investor gathering with about 40 venture capitalists. The GSV in the title refers to Global Silicon Valley Advisors, a VC firm playing in the education space. In subsequent years, entrepreneurs followed the money and started to come here to pitch their new venture ideas.

Since taking my new professorship in educational innovation at UNC Chapel Hill in August 2013, I’ve seen a lot of ed tech startups and nonprofits, and I can attest that the organizations pitching here are working at the very highest level. They know their target market, they can tell you their value proposition in their sleep, their founders are connected and experienced. I have no doubt that millions of dollars of deals took place in the last two days. It is wonderful to be surrounded by people who share my mission: to improve education and learning.

L to R: Dan Greenstein, Andrew Ng, Arthur Levine, Ben Nelson, Nicholas Zeppos

But. As a learning scientist–an expert in the science of how people learn–I was disappointed at how little of what I saw here is grounded in the science of learning. I only saw one presentation that made any reference to this forty-year body of research–by Professor Jim Stigler of UCLA (who has done very important research, and also founded multiple ed tech startups, and worked for Pearson for 4 years during a leave of absence from UCLA). At the many reception events, when I described my own mission at UNC Chapel Hill–to create new programs that will help educational innovators understand how to ground their ideas in the science of learning–a few people got it right away, but many people seemed confused about why they would need to know anything about the science of learning. And these are really smart people. So I’m trying to figure this out: Why wouldn’t educational innovators want to ground their ventures in the science of learning? Why wouldn’t venture capitalists want to be assured that what they’re funding is based on solid science?

Here’s my tentative answer, and I’d be interested to hear what you think in the comments on this post.

  • First: Everyone here is in a big hurry. They want to be first to market, they want to get to Series A, B, and C funding, they want their exit strategy (e.g. selling out to a big corporation like Pearson) to repay their investors. The problem with learning sciences research is that we know it takes time, two to three years minimum, to develop an innovation that works. The entrepreneurs and investors here don’t want to hear that.
  • Second: People here think we don’t need research, because they think markets will naturally work towards the optimal solution. Their belief in markets is so strong that they think markets essentially remove the need for scientific education research. Of course, no one would make this argument when it comes to medical innovations. You don’t start selling a bunch of new heart valves, and then wait to see which people die and which people live, to figure out which heart valve works best. We have a body of research, and a community of researchers, who can tell you that BEFORE you put the heart valve on the market. The analogy with learning sciences research is fairly direct: We have a large body of scientific knowledge that can guide the development of more effective educational innovations. So why wouldn’t you want to know about that BEFORE you go and design an ineffective app or curriculum?
  • Third: Learning sciences researchers largely stay inside the Ivory Tower, and do academic research. They generally don’t know how to commercialize their innovations, and the incentive systems at universities don’t reward that anyway. They don’t have backgrounds in business and they don’t have the skills to create entrepreneurial ventures. There are exceptions, of course, but overall the learning sciences community hasn’t done an effective job of making the case for the value and relevance of this research.
  • Fourth: People in the finance and technology space generally think they are smarter than people who work in education. I can say this because I used to be one of them: My undergrad degree is in computer science, and I worked in two high-tech startups back in the 1980s. We always referred to squishy social scientists as making “hand wavy” arguments (that’s pejorative and means “arguments full of holes with no scientific backing”). But after editing two editions of the Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences, I can attest that this body of research is solid and rigorous and has powerful implications for how to design educational innovations. Smart people generally are good at paying attention to solid scientific evidence, but I think there’s a cultural blindness among the finance and technology people here that makes them tend to discount education research.

The good news is that lots of people get it right away. Among them are my colleagues, working at several top universities, who are also creating programs for educational leaders, including at Johns Hopkins, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Southern California. And of course, there’s my own new MA program at UNC in educational innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship. I’m confident we’ll get there eventually, to a cross-fertilization of learning sciences research with the innovative energy of the entrepreneurship and VC community. Then we’ll move more quickly toward the goal we all share: to improve education for everyone.

Educational Innovation, Technology, and Entrepreneurship at UNC

I have some exciting news: I’m moving to a new faculty position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I will be the Morgan Distinguished Professor of Educational Innovation, in the School of Education. Readers of this blog know that “educational innovation” is exactly what I study, so this new position is a wonderful match!

In addition to joining the learning sciences program, my first responsibility will be to create a new master’s degree program in Educational Innovation, Technology, and Entrepreneurship. Here’s an excerpt from the job description:

The new professor will provide leadership in studying, designing, and developing new innovations. He or she will work with students, faculty, and the School and University leadership to create programs of study and forge collaborative partnerships among the academy, industry, government, and the schools.

In particular, the successful applicant will lead an interdisciplinary graduate program designed to help transform education by creating synergies among three elements: innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship. Goals of this program include creating a new generation of educational innovators and entrepreneurs and encouraging designs of sustainable organizational forms that promote educational renewal and change.

There’s no existing program like the one envisioned here, and I’m really excited about this opportunity to make a difference in education, both in North Carolina and at a national level.  If you work in educational innovation, technology, or entrepreneurship, please contact me, I’d love to hear your thoughts. And stay tuned to this blog…I may take a break for a couple of months this summer while I move to North Carolina and get settled, but starting in September things will begin to move fast.

SXSW Interactive: The Future of Education

In the United States this last week, it’s been hard to avoid the gushing news coverage of the annual South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) conference that just ended (March 9-13, 2012). Many U.S. media outlets had reporters in Austin, Texas to cover the event: National Public Radio, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and of course Wired Magazine, Bloomberg Business Week, etc. Reporters love the sexy combination of technology, futurism, social media, and camera-ready intellectuals and young corporate leaders. It’s a sort of hybrid of Davos and TEDx.

But I didn’t hear anything in the media about the many presenters who talked about education and the future of schools. When I visited the web site, I found 21 education-and-technology presentations including:

I highly recommend clicking on some of the above links and reading the panel descriptions; you’ll feel as if you are looking into the future of education. I wish I had been there!

However, I noticed something else: there are no learning science researchers on any of the panels! Colleagues that I think of as the leading experts in mobile learning, learning in virtual worlds, and games and learning–none of them were there. Instead, the names you see above are almost exclusively people working in the private sector or at various nonprofits. (There are a few exceptions: Gary Natriello, Professor at Teacher’s College and founder of EdLab; Paul Resta, Director of the Learning Technology Center at UT Austin; and Michael Mayrath has a loose connection: he studied for his doctorate with Chris Dede at Harvard before founding his own private education-related company. Still, none of them are known as learning scientists.)

There are a few obvious differences between learning scientists and these SXSWi presentations. First, learning scientists don’t use technology just for technology’s sake; we use technology when and how the research suggests it can contribute. These SXSWi speakers are more of the breathless evangelist type. A lot of them work at private companies with technology and services to sell. Learning scientists are a bit more skeptical: we want to see the research first. And we generally believe that technology is only one component of a complex social system, with teachers, students, and cultural practices. Second, learning scientists look for underlying patterns and general explanations for how and why learning is taking place. We are focused on the science of learning, after all. I didn’t see anything like that at SXSWi. (I think all of these presenters should read the Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences.) 

Still, I wonder: Is the learning sciences research community missing something here? SXSWi shows that there’s a lot of activity in this space of technology and learning, and a lot of it taking place outside of traditional research universities. Shouldn’t we be at the table at SXSWi? Shouldn’t we be building partnerships with these other folks, working toward the same ends–transforming education for the 21st century?

The Digital Promise Initiative

On Friday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the Digital Promise Initiative, a high-profile research effort “to advance breakthrough technologies that transform teaching and learning in and out of the classroom, while creating a business environment that rewards innovation and entrepreneurship”.* The reason why classrooms and business innovation are in the same sentence is the belief that new education technology requires “a more efficient market” and support for software developers to reach customers “on an economically valuable scale.”

I’m excited that school reform and technology is receiving such attention. We have a long history where the promise of educational technology never delivers any real change. I’m sure that some of my education colleagues will be skeptical about the private sector involvement in the initiative; today’s Wall Street Journal article was co-authored by Duncan and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, and the program’s board includes John Morgridge, chairman emeritus of Cisco, and Irwin Jacobs, co-founder of Qualcomm. But to the contrary, I welcome the participation of leaders in information technology. After all, we’ll never have effective learning technologies in schools unless there are companies willing to invest in developing and marketing products to schools.

The key will be to get serious learning scientists involved with the initiative. Computers are wasted if their introduction to the classroom is not based on serious, substantial research about how children learn, both alone and in groups. Learning scientists are working to change that. The National Science Foundation is providing the Federal seed money (see their press release) of $15 million through its Cyberlearning program, and their web site shows that Janet Kolodner is the Program Officer; that’s promising, because Kolodner has been involved with learning sciences since its foundation, and was the editor of the field’s journal from 1991 to 2009. (And she was on the advisory board of a book I edited, The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences.)

Because of a history of failure, some skepticism about computers and schools is justified. But when systems are designed that are based in the sciences of how people learn, children learn better. The cutting edge of educational software doesn’t replace the teacher; it’s designed to facilitate more effective teaching. And in particular, the potential is that hybrid teacher-software curricula could align with what we know about how people learn deeper and more creatively: delivering connected knowledge, targeted to each learners’ developmental level, and bringing learners together through networked technologies to foster collaboration and communication.

As Duncan and Hastings say in today’s WSJ article, “this will happen. The only question is: Will the U.S. lead the effort or will we follow other countries?”

*Duncan and Hastings, “A Digital Promise to Our Nation’s Children.” WSJ Monday September 19, 2011, p. A15.

International Conference on Computers in Education

This week I am in Putrajaya, Malaysia, as an invited keynote speaker at the ICCE, the pre-eminent Asian conference on computers in education. I was invited to talk about my research on creativity and learning; creativity is recognized as an important educational issue in most Asian countries.

In recent years, I have been impressed with the national level initiatives proposed in several Asian countries, focused on transforming schools to be more creative learning environments. Singapore’s Ministry of Education took an early lead in this area, and has invested substantially in the Learning Sciences Lab at Nanyang Technological Institute. South Korea is perhaps the Asian country most centrally focused on creativity (my 2007 book Group Genius has been published in a Korean language edition).

The research presented at this conference is of very high quality; the scholarship of my Asian colleagues is near parity with the U.S. and Europe. But I have the same questions of Asia as I do of the United States: the learning sciences community has reached a consensus about how to design effective learning environments, but so far there hasn’t been much real-world impact on what actually happens in schools. My colleagues here tell me that in almost all Asian schools, classrooms continue to be based in outdated “instructionist” models of passive transmission and acquisition.

A key challenge for the learning sciences research community is: How can we best effect institutional change in schools, to help classroom design align with learning sciences research? Fortunately, many learning scientists are working in schools and with practicing teachers. We know that our findings cannot just stay in the laboratory, if we want schools to be more creative and effective learning environments. At conferences like this one, I am optimistic for the future of schooling.