There is a new video about educational technology and reform that is all over social media this week (see below). It’s a well-produced, nicely narrated, and basically says nothing that hasn’t been said for decades. It asserts that, essentially, ed tech’s potential to reform is limited to a small degree by the type of media and to a much bigger one by the way the teacher creates the learning environment. As Will Richardson points out in a comment after the video, this is Dewey, Papert, Montessori, etc. There are heavy influences of Mayer’s theories on multimedia and learning. All of which is fine, but the video’s creator stops there, and really offers nothing new or nearly radical enough to truly “revolutionize education,” as the title promises.

Same chapter, different verse. Reform will not come through social learning experiences, focused, concerted attention on curriculum, rigor, standards, data analysis, letting kids sit on yoga balls, etc. We’ve been doing that. It isn’t working, yet we keep trying harder.  The word “change” means “to make or become different.” This isn’t different–it’s re-labelled, louder. Will nails it when he asserts that different in education is for us to do something very uncomfortable and radical– to unclench our grips on the profession and our students. He comments, “The bigger issue I have here is that it says nothing about transferring the agency of learning to the learner.” This means handing control over, actually letting kids determine the course and style of their learning. Will rightly contends that meaningful, sticky learning occurs when students are actually self-driven learners, exploring things that interest and mean something to them. In his latest blog post, he shares a passage from Seymour Papert in which Dr. Papert describes education as it exists today as being unnatural and structured in a way that is nothing like native learning. He explains that teachers are constantly pulled between the rigid, technical structures imposed by the system of education and their desire to make learning meaningful and learner-centered, even natural. I often jokingly describe my job as “Director of Non-Compliance”, and I really do see a big part of my job as being to help teachers struggle against the limitations of the system. Back in 1994, when he wrote The Children’s Machine, Papert had the foresight to know that the technology tools I share had the potential to either complete the entrapment of our students in our expectations and structures or liberate them to take control of their own destinies. He was spot-on, and all one has to do is visit multiple campuses, classrooms, labs, etc. to see this played out to either extreme. The astounding intelligence and capacities of our technologies has the potential to free our students from our out-dated and limiting expectations. If we come to grips with the idea that there is no ideal curriculum, no checklist of state standards that will satisfactorily prepare our kids for their tomorrows, technology, books, the classroom, other learners–all can become tools for exploring, connecting, creating, inventing, imagining, and learning. This, by the way, has to become the school model, not just an activity tucked in an hour here or a day there. It begins with an examination of what we want from our schools and our kids’ learning. If, as many would assert, we want “21st Century Skills”, life skills, discipline skills, or whatever label we choose here in 2014, our kids need daily chances to actually DO them.

Here is a challenging but worthwhile exercise. Imagine your own ideal classroom, with no limits but your imagination. Try to envision something beyond the system you and I came up through. What does it look like? What are the kids doing and who decided what they would be doing? Where are you, and what role are you playing? What is technology used for in your class? If it’s hard for us as educators to go to a truly new place, it’s no small stretch to say it’s darned near impossible for educational policymakers to do so. If, however, we really want things to change for the better, this is what reform must become–education must “become different”.

One more thing occurred to me even as I wrote this. This applies to the hottest thing out there, the flipped classroom, in a big way. Flipped classrooms still most often dictate the what of learning, the when, and the how. While it may be a good strategy to maximize our instructional time, it is nowhere near the type of reform I’m talking about here and it is far from being about giving students power.