New Learning

Those of you who are my age may remember something called 'new math'. The idea was to replace fixed-value mathematics, which is characterized with an emphasis on rote learning, with variable-value mathematics, which emphasized an understanding of equations, inequalities, and ranges.

As Richard Feynman wrote in the essay "New Textbooks for the 'New Mathematics" (via Wikipedia):
"If we would like to, we can and do say, 'The answer is a whole number less than 9 and bigger than 6,'  ... In the 'new' mathematics, then, first there must be freedom of thought; second, we do not want to teach just words; and third, subjects should not be introduced without explaining the purpose or reason, or without giving any way in which the material could be really used to discover something interesting."
New math was hard, and it was hard for those of us living through that transition to wrap our minds around the ideas. But it was better, because it was more real, more practical, and embedded in experience.

It was also hard for our parents, who were no longer able to help us with out homework. The world had changed beyond their comprehension, and there was and is a reaction to that, an emphatic 'back to basics' movement, which means 'back to the way we learned it', even though there is and was mounting evidence that they were no longer prepared to meet a complex, dynamic and changing world with the knowledge they had.

Why do I bring this up? Well there's a post out today, YALA (Yet Another List Article), which describes "8 Ideas That Will Permanently Break Education As We Know It," by Terry Heick in TeachThought. The author means well, and actually talks about the new learning being difficult for our parents to understand. It's a good overview of the ways education is changing, but it subtly misses the point item by item.

So call this a SOYALA (Son of Yet Another List Article) wherein I explain, point by point, how New Learning is different from the way our parents did it (indented quotes are from the original Heick article).

New Knowledge

"Connectivity is replacing knowledge," writes Heick. "Or rather usurping it in terms of sheer credibility. Businesses, education institutes, groups, organizations, people—everyone wants visibility and access. These occur through connectivity."

This of course is the core idea of connectivism, or what I have in the past called 'naive connectivism', which is the idea that our need to remember things is being replaced by our need to find things on the internet.

But what is more fundamental is the change to our understanding of knowledge itself. We are shifting from knowledge as remembering to knowledge as recognizing. The difference is that we understand knowing, not as an accumulation of facts, but rather, as a development of the self, of the creation of a 'mental muscle', which is in essence a set of reactions and instincts.

Sometimes, new knowledge looks like remembering, especially then the knowledge being applied is simple and straightforward. Sometimes it looks like a performance or skill, as when we perform a complex and adaptive task. Somethings it looks like mastery of the tools, as when we know exactly what and where to look up the information we need.

New Students

"Student are clients," writes Heick. "There are new options for learning, and the most innovative don’t have the word 'school' in them. Charter schools and eLearning have been about as brazen as education can bring itself to be."

Not quite. Although it is tempting to describe learning and students in the new language of business, it's inaccurate, because the new language of business is old thinking. Business itself if changing. The concept of the 'customer' is being undermined.

Instead, it is more accurate to say students are prosumers. They both produce and consume their own education. They access experts and learning resources directly, and organize these themselves. They form their own communities, work at their own pace, and share extensively with each other.

And students are learning informally. What this means is that they are not learning to acquire a body of knowledge leading to a credential, but rather, they are learning on an as-needed basis in order to address some immediate problem or objective that lets them complete some task or project.

New Software

"Adaptive software can replace 75% of what a teacher does," writes Heick. "No, apps can’t replace teachers, but in terms of the way teachers spend their time, adaptive software—whether minor (like Knowji) or major (like Knewton) in scale—can automate the bulk of these tasks."

Again, this misses the point in an interesting way. First, software isn't simply replacing what a teacher does - it's not just delivering content and marking tests and recording grades (though of course it can do all of that). But more, second,new software isn't simply adaptive. Software becomes intelligent the way students become intelligent, by associating data, recognizing patterns, and making inferences.

The concept of software as a list of instructions that computers simply follow is gradually being replaced. Yes, at a basic level, computers must be told what to do (just as, at a basic level, human brains follow the laws of chemistry and physics). But the organization of software allows it to develop an artificial intelligence.

This intelligence, rather than a more basic set of instructions, is what enables software to respond to learning needs. Adaptive software, traditionally construed, measures performance on tests and assigns new learning materials according to predefined outcomes. Intelligent software identifies patterns and regularities in the world as a whole, extracts outcomes, and associates these with learning materials, activities and resources that might not have existed when the software was written.

New Media

"YouTube is way, way more engaging than reading and writing," says Heick. YouTube is packaged for consumption. It’s visual, social, diverse, mobile, and 'chunked' in ways that promote (often reckless) consumption. Always-on learning must compete with this—which means reading and writing must compete with this as well."

Not quite. Video becomes one of many media that are being used simultaneously. New media is interactive multimedia offered through multiple screens and multiple channels, all at once. Try to imagine new media as stereo (and even quad) emerging in a world that has always been mono.

The phenomenon of the 'second screen' is already well-known and measured. Today people may be using a television or video feed at the same time they are using a mobile device, perhaps even while attending a live event (this is exactly what I was doing yesterday).

This isn't quite the 'multitasking' that was envisioned by Tapscott and others; our attention can and does shift from one to the other. But there's an element of multitasking - we are processing information from multiple channels and communicating our reactions in various ways.

New Writing

"Reading and writing should be social," says Heick. This doesn’t mean they always have to be social, but they need that potential built-in from the ground up."

It's not simply that they are social. New writing often isn't even writing any more. New writing might be the creation of a lip-sync video in an empty airport, a droll LOLcat, a cartoon or animated gig, or any of a wide variety of media.

Being social is just a part of it. New writing is expressive in a way that old writing was not. Writers don't follow the rules the way their parents did. They make the rules.

Old writing followed rules and formulae, from the standard 'five paragraph essay' to form letters to the traditional academic publication. Rules of grammar were strict, and a common and limited vocabulary was understood by all.

New writing is purpose-built. It doesn't follow rules but does employ conventions, memes, or archetypes - any sort of pattern or regularity. These communicative tropes are no longer universal or culture-wide, but are often focused to the needs, perspectives and understandings or a particular community.

New Internet

Heick writes, "The disruption of mobile technology will be complete... Companies like Microsoft, Apple, Google, Honda, Amazon, and well just about every other forward thinking company on earth are scrambling to adjust for a mobile culture that is cloud-based and social."

It's more than that - mobile technology is just one aspect. New technology is ubiquitous and connected. The reason mobile devices work at all is that they are carried in a technology-rich environment.

The new internet is not just the mobile internet, not just the internet of things, but rather, rather is being called the 'internet of everything' (IOE) that connects objects and sensors.

The effect of this is that knowledge, information and learning resources are all available 'on demand', in much the same way we find water or electricity in our environments today. It will be in products and devices, local and specific, and available from the air itself.

This changes the nature of these resources. People learn by doing in authentic environments, and learning support changes as the person demonstrates greater skills and more adept responses. It is also context-aware - sensitive to and responsive to the needs of the situation.

New Parents

"Parents don’t understand teaching and learning," writes Heick. "Parents speak in the language of terms and compliance because that’s how we speak to them." But also, "Parents are the sleeping giants in education. Think of them as students with 25 years of life experience added on."

Indeed, parents should now be thought of as co-learners. They can't simply transfer their knowledge and wisdom to their children, and even if they could, much of that knowledge wisdom is outdated, wrong, and sometimes dangerous.

The way parents will teach their children in the future will not be through telling, but through example. The things they learn - new economy, new operating system, new work, new social order - will be learned at the same time their children learn them, but they will model and demonstrate how to adapt to this new world.

This extends beyond learning itself. We are entering an era where meaning, value and success are being defined differently. Parents have to adapt - today, it isn't about earning more money than your parents did, nor about having more stuff, but rather, in having good experiences, supporting community, and being environmentally responsible.

It was perhaps always thus, because children have always learned more through example than through dictation. But in the future, parents will be increasingly aware that they the way they teach is the way the walk.

New Universities

Finally, Heick writes that "Universities are decaying. At least in their current form.... They simply cannot survive as they now exist—an awkward kind of hybrid of career prep and highbrow intellectualism."

There is this tendency to suggest that the number of universities will dwindle to a very few. But in fact, universities, if viewed as institutions of higher learning, will proliferate. They will be accessible and available, and number in the hundreds of thousands, not in the dozens.

What will change is that universities will no longer be bastions of privilege and elitism. That responsibility (as it were) will be taken up by a new kind of institution - and the elite universities are struggling to find out what that will be.

The learning offered by universities has always been incidental. Their primary purpose has been to create the sort of social markers, institutions and networks that would serve the next generation ruling class. They would be able to recognize each other in the future by distinctive knowledge, distinctive behaviours and mannerisms, even distinctive language and accents.

Now mutual support networks belong to everyone, and different communities can form their own sets of knowledge, values, languages and accents. No one community will rule (though there will be a concerted effort by existing elites, and their institutions, to preserve the status quo).

It's not just learning that helps people advance. It's the entire social network of social support, expectations and values. That's why today's learning outcomes are predicted by socio-economic standing (SES). As the trappings of privilege, widely construed, accrue to the rest of us, the social balance will with any luck be restored, and the people will prosper.


  1. I am really glad I caught your responses to the 8 ideas from that post. I had posted about the same, but I only responded to the parent part. I invited others to respond to the other ideas as well. I will link this post to my post comments, so I can find it again. Here is mine, if you are interested

  2. Long-time subscriber, infrequent Commenter ... your ending on this one was inspiring; the rest of it, to me, was an unusual combination of critique, striking new phrasemaking, and stuff you've been saying for years. It had a different feel. A little more polemical than usual perhaps. Thanks for all your contributions. You have been my most consistently valuable and thought-provoking professional resource since 2001.

  3. I wonder if this parent's teaching were outdated and dangerous.

  4. Well we just had our city shot up, and three policemen killed, by a homeschooled individual who was maladapted to society. So this isn't the time to tell me that the wisdom of parents is unassailable. It is, indeed, often wrong, and as we learned this week, sometimes dangerous.


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