12 September 2012

How to talk about what we don't have words for...

Language limits us. Surely, written and spoken language limits us, written, perhaps, most of all.

That isn't a knock on language, an incredible tool - technology if you will, which has enriched the lives of humans in remarkable ways. But every tool has its limits, has things it cannot do. Even my "Sawzall" really isn't even that, and its a crappy hammer by any measure.

So, at times, we must reach beyond language, with ourselves, surely with our students, and see if we might liberate our brains.

2001 A Space Odyssey - Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick don't use "language" to
describe their tablet computer device, well, not word-based language
Next week we're going to attempt a charrette on the future idea of school with an elementary school in Virginia. A charrette including all students from age 5 to age 11, with a mission to imagine far beyond the concepts of "school" we all know.

our imagination can look a lot like the past,
a 1958 TV version of 2050
But how do we free these kids from what they know? That's not an easy thing. In all the science fiction I have seen from before 1980 only two authors, Arthur C. Clarke and Douglas Adams imagined anything like the computers which have come to be. Everywhere else we see analog dials, old radio-style tuners, and 1950s shaped TV screens. Yes, Star Trek had slide controls, an idea which came from theatre lighting controls, but its pretty much like today in education, where people speak of "the iPad (2010) as the future," because they have no words for what is coming next.

So, if we say, "a place for education ten years from now," how do we avoid the deeply constructed definitions we now have about "school," the "school day," the "classroom," and everything else?

We all know what a trap these definitions are. Lots of supposedly intelligent adults moan and groan in whatever forum will give them space about "kids today not reading" because they cannot comprehend "reading" as anything not associated with the Gutenberg-Era definition of a book. Many school librarians still think that if "it" is not traditionally edited - if it might contain contributions from the 'academically unwashed' - "it" is not valid. Many teachers - most state legislatures - the US Department of Education - believe that a report must be "written" to have real value, and that "knowledge" is not "knowledge" unless it can be expressed via a multiple-choice exam. Plenty still believe that I cannot read because I listen to books.

The library at the College of William and Mary is still fighting Wikipedia,
which, is not a "book."
And let's face it, if you really can't understand crowdsourcing (the present), how are you going to imagine the next thing? If you can't imagine the classroom without student (or teacher) desks, how do you imagine - or even understand a description of - what the students of 2020 will need? If you still think "tardiness" or "late assignments" are a problem, how can you comprehend the evolution of continuous learning?

Always a problem: In 1900 the French imagined some radical changes,
but the classroom looks suspiciously similar (now and then).
Thus, I hope we can get these kids up and moving, talking, writing, drawing, moving blocks, moving furniture, making, playing, drawing in the dirt - a sandbox? really... - singing, dancing, doing whatever they can to give understanding to their imaginations, so we will not be limited to the ideas we already have words for. For if we already have the words, the ideas are not really new, right?

This is our challenge. Imagination without the limitations of our experience might be the single most difficult thing a human can do. But if we can help our kids do it, their school experience will be worth the time they've invested in it.

- Ira Socol


andrew said...

I like your take on how we talk about the future with today's technology. We sit through pre-school meetings and without fail the year of when the incoming class of kindergartners will graduate high school always pops up. And then we are reminded that we are trying to prepare them for jobs that haven't been created yet. But what I always wondered was how do you prepare someone for something that hasn't been conceived yet? It does take some very forward thinking and imagination to teach this way, but my guess is that companies who are radical in this way of producing skills for the future don't get the bids that traditional, old school supervisors and legislators think are germane to learning. Those bids are saved for data management companies and companies who offer products that teach skills that leaders (most likely previous generation) remember when they were in school (because not much has changed in 30-40 years you know) Like you said, many people think the iPad is the future.... the future is already outdated!

diemerp said...

I did an assignment like this in class last year, you 'hung out' with one of my classes, and I was amazed at how many kids were stuck with the ideas of what school is like now. Trying to 'free' some of those students was almost impossible. I hope your project goes well and would love to see some of the results of it.

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