Networked Diversity and “Standards” in Education

25 09 2009

After reading the resources on networks following session 2 of CCK09, I am thinking today about the implications of a networked view of learning and knowledge for systems of education.

If knowledge lies in the connections within and among people, then it seems to me that part of the strategy for making smart people has to involve a couple of things we don’t focus much on in our education systems.  (I am in the U.S., but if you’re not, I’d be curious to hear thoughts about whether the following two points are true for your system as well.)

Network Building

First, the education system has to encourage the development of valuable connections between people.  Students should be encouraged to explore ways of working and learning collaboratively.

Unfortunately, despite paying occasional lip service to the value of sharing in kindergarten, our schools seem to look at learning as something that happens within an individual and structures itself accordingly.  (For example, when we want to assess learning, the very first thing we do is isolate students.  We tell them to “clear their desks,” turn off their phones, and get as far away from their “neighbors” as the classroom will allow.  We remind them to put away their own books and notes.  Finally, we tell them not to speak to anyone until the assessment is over.  The message they get is mixed: share your toys, share your cupcakes, but don’t you dare try to  share knowledge.)

We also know that having access to mentors and supportive peers are critical to student success.  Probably everyone reading this who is successful in a profession can think of a few teachers, professors, and mentors who, at critical points, took a moment to provide a key piece of advice on how to enter a new community. (e.g. “These are the kinds of courses admissions officers look for.” “Here is a group who can help you with a scholarship.” “These are some good models to look at on how to write and speak for people in this field.” “Here is an organization that has been helpful to me.  Let me introduce you to a couple of people.” etc.)  We know that this is especially critical for students coming from families in poverty or students who would be first-generation college goers.  Very often, very bright young people slip through the cracks not because they’re lacking in cognitive ability, motivation, or values, but because they don’t have access to sources of knowledgeable support when they need it.  However, we do very little to help students cultivate the networks they will need in the future, and do much to inhibit them.  For example, most schools block access to websites with social elements.  We put in place policies that make it very difficult for students to earn credit outside of traditional classrooms.  In the interests of safety, we do everything possible to limit contact between students and adults and create airtight seals between schools and the communities in which they are situated.

Knowledge Network Diversity

The second issue that we would need to address in our education system under a connectivist construct would be the diversity of the network to which an individual student connects.  Being able to draw on the insights and experiences of others in a network is an essential piece of the puzzle, but it doesn’t get us very far if we can only connect to people only know what we already know and who have had experiences that are almost exactly the same as our own.  We are smarter together if each new person we connect with brings something new to our network.

However, in our education system, we are working toward homogeneity rather than diversity by focusing enormous effort on standardizing learning goals, curriculum, and assessment so as to ensure that all students learn the same things at the same time and are assessed in the same way as everybody else.  This approach would make sense if, at the end of formal schooling, we were sending students off to live and work in isolation.  If, though, our goal is to help students find satisfying places in a society where they will form institutions (colleges, businesses, military service) where they will have to add unique value to a community or organization trying to accomplish things through collective effort, this approach is counterproductive — both for the students as individuals and for the progress of the society as a whole.

Rethinking “Standards” in Education

If we start from the assumption that students are entering a society/community, and that, with globalization and the proliferation of communications technology, that they will be involved in more, larger, and more diverse groups than ever before in history, it would make much more sense to focus educational efforts on (A) making sure that each student can bring unique expertise into the economy and culture, (B) making sure that students knew how to access and derive optimal benefit from networks (this would involve both technological fluency and cultural awareness) and, (C) cultivating values and policies that encourage people to share knowledge, provide mentorship, and extend access to learning networks to the disenfranchised and isolated.

Maybe it is time to reframe the notion of “standards” in education, and move away from the definition of standards as, “discrete things kids should know and be able to do,” to a definition more akin to the one used when we talk about “standards” for the Internet, where “standards” refer to frameworks for facilitating interoperability and sharing across a decentralized, non-hierarchical network.  In other words, rather than focusing on making sure everybody knows the same set of stuff, focus on making sure everybody is able to participate and contribute so that the network itself grows in value and so every individual can benefit from membership while at the same time pursuing personal interests and talents to a degree not possible under the current view of “standards based” reform.

If “none of us is as smart as all of us,” maybe it is time to start thinking about developing the “network” as well as the “nodes” in K-12 education and start actively cultivating diversity in the ecosystem of knowledge.