Thursday, August 2, 2012

Life on Mars

Recently, thanks to Netflix and a few days of illness, I found the TV series “Life on Mars” – the UK version.  In the story, if you don’t know it, a police officer is in a car accident that puts him in a coma and he “awakens” in 1973.

I keep thinking about 1973 now.  It isn’t very long ago, yet our world today is massively different in so very many ways.  We know this, of course, and speak of the speed of change endlessly, it seems, but the backdrop of 1973 played against the expectations of a 21st century time-traveller makes it concrete.

Certainly my morning yesterday couldn’t have happened in 1973; undoubtedly it could scarcely be imagined even by the most imaginative.  Martians would have been easier to envision.  I woke a little late (I’m on holidays, after all) and quickly made coffee, turned on my computer and entered a live online session with two educators I admire: Will Richardson and Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach.  I talked with them, shared ideas, and listened to theirs along with a small group of educators.  We will spend the next five weeks exchanging ideas, building plans, chatting, sharing and meeting both synchronously and asynchronously.  One of us is in Cyprus, I’m in BC and the others are in the US.   We were all in our homes, able to take on other tasks as we participated (this is more and more possible now even when we meet face to face, of course).  One person posted in our chat window that UK had just won a gold medal.  I responded to a text from my daughter, read a friend’s Facebook invitation to coffee, and downloaded a book mentioned that I hadn’t read.  And if I missed anything while I was multi-tasking?  No worries.  The session will be archived.  

We were asked, at the beginning of this very 21st century learning session, to share the obstacles we face in leading a shift to 21st century learning in schools.  The most difficult hurtle identified: test results.  The question many are asking (even in Canada) is this: How can we still get good results in our traditional tests/curricula and still implement 21st century shifts?  When I think again of my glorious morning, about this extraordinary personal learning experience, it seems like the wrong question entirely.  But it isn’t a surprising one.  Our greatest challenge is always to reconcile our traditional understanding with new ideas vaguely understood and a future that is a mystery.  We should expect that we’ll drag our feet, become confused, frustrated, even angry as we ping-pong between what seem to be irreconcilable ideas.  We should expect, too, that we will always be “outdated” in education.  In 1954, philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote “The Crisis in Education” (we are also always in crisis in education, as a quick glance through history will affirm):
Basically we are always educating for a world that is or is becoming out of joint, for this is the basic human situation, in which the world is created by mortal hands to serve mortals for a limited time as home.  Because the world is made by mortals it wears out; and because it continuously changes its inhabitants it runs the risk of becoming as mortal as they.  To preserve the world against the mortality of its creators and inhabitants it must be constantly set right anew.  The problem is simply to educate in such a way that the setting-right remains actually possible, even though it can, of course, never be assured.  Our hope always hangs on the new which every generation brings; but precisely because we can base our hope only on this, we destroy everything if we so try to control the new that we, the old can dictate how it will look. 
How do we preserve the world for the new without dictating how it will look?  I’m not sure.  But I do know our tests are designed exactly to dictate the future.  I keep thinking about 1973.  What lessons could have been taught then that would have allowed us to set the world right in 2012?  Today, we have extraordinary learning tools and the wisdom of the globe at our fingertips.  Surely we can find a way.  If, through some strange accident, I were set down in 2043, will the children, educated today, have found a way to do what we have not yet done - live together in peace and in harmony with nature?  We hope so – and it is this hope that inspires our continued efforts, even when the task of ensuring beautiful learning for each child seems as distant as life on Mars.

Painting by Leslie Carr, based on a drawing by R.A. Smith in The Exploration of Space (1951) by Arthur C. Clarke. Via Paleofuture 

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