Stephen Heppell's Weblog

Created with Mac OS X Server

Title: Wait a minute, didn't we already know something about learning?
Category: /other writing
Posted by:
Previous: Angry of.... What's on earth is wrong with Question of Sport?
Next: UNESCO on-line seminar contribution

At the end of the eighties and indeed into the early 90s Western Autralia had a whole gang of excellent poeple pushing things forward with multimedia in learning. A string of conferences confirmed their commitment and indeed their lead. It all wobbled a bi when WA decided to 'standardise' things and and, as is so often the case, that led to a bit of ossification and much of the lead was lost... Autralia's great strength of course is that then another state, and another, and yet another took up the baton.... 
 
I rather like this piece... and i hugely enjoyed the "Australian Computers in Education Conference" that begat it, so to speak.... 
 
 
Introduction 
 
Addressing a conference of risk capital entrepreneurs I was surprised to hear one of them suggest that learning is "Simply, one helluva great new market". "No", I protested, "It's one helluva great old process"... 
 
And so it is. Even Egyptian mythology had a God of Learning, Thoth. The years have rather clouded Thoth's role, but in various incarnations he was patron and inventor of science and literature, inventor of geometry, magic, medicine, instruments and above all hieroglyphics (writing). Thoth was the scribe of the gods and as such was keeper of the archives. The sound of Thoth's voice was important; from that first spoken sound came all the works of creation, apparently. You don't need a PhD in Egyptology to see that this put Learning toward the centre stage for pyramid builders. Sadly, in a world where home learning and learning technology is similarly centre stage we struggle to find any clear evidence that the accumulated wisdom of centuries about what makes good learning has been incorporated in any way into the current crop of multimediocre products. 
 
A helluva process 
 
From Vygotsky (1962) through Papert (1980), Bruner (1975) and Wood (1988) we can see a reasonable consensus that Learning is Doing, and Doing Socially. Indeed from Plato through Locke to your grandparents this unstartling view of successful learning has had common currency. It might be described as constructivist; understanding built through conversation and critical friendship, through constructing artifacts and reflecting on them. At Ultralab we characterise this as an iterative cycle of Select, Collect, Annotate and Present. Parents and teachers have a key mediating role; setting a meaningful task which engages the learner with diversity and passion, whilst rewarding them with some feeling of ipsative progress and delight, is what separates great learning experiences from mundane. 
 
These are simple ideas and hardly controversial. Yet if we were to construct our theory from much of what we see advertised for home and school learning it would be reasonable to think that perceived wisdom places us in another world where learning follows very different rules: seeing is believing, searching and finding equates to understanding, all learners' needs are identical and progression is subversive. `Join us with your family on our multimedia magic carpet as we take your on a helter-skelter trip through the worlds wonders. Log your progress with our Knowledge Retention Award Programme' is already plausible advertising copy. In the early days of educational computing the question was often asked `Will computers replace teachers?'. The more immediate danger is whether they will redefine learning. This makes now a very good time for education to speak out and offer a broader contribution. 
 
It is not necessarily a conflict situation. In many cases software developers simply don't know enough about learning because, like so many industries before, education has kept its innermost secrets to itself relying on saying "Trust us, we're professionals". But, as lifelong learning and the learning society emerge this simply won't do. For example, parents sitting reading books with their young children typically don't know whether to point at words as they read, to pause after each page and discuss the narrative, to ask the children to sound out words they know... or what? And when helping a 7 year old with mathematics being told "No, no we don't do it like that, I'll be in trouble" leads most parents to step rapidly back from learning support. Parents don't know because they haven't been told and typically they have no idea where to find out. Do you? Is it any surprise that with learning software too, they are uncritical and unknowing consumers and developers work in a vacuum? 
 
To move the situation forward requires learning professionals to speak loud and clear in support of learner centred software, and to advocate software that also delivers on the metacognitive task of helping learners and their mentors to understand better the processes of learning. 
 
How might that software look? It will need to offer an interface that clearly points to Tools, Tasks and Purposes (what is the purpose of this software environment? What tasks might I engage in with it? What tools are here to help me?). It must assume diversity - many classrooms around the world assume that a group of children born between two calendar dates are an appropriate learning community, yet we know from observing learning in the home and the community that children work well in diverse groups, younger drawn forward by role model of older, older reinforcing concepts by tutoring younger, with mixes of gender and culture occurring easily and naturally. Software will need to support critical friendship and peer presentation (how can I show my friends the activities I engaged in on the way to this outcome? How can I pass on the strategies I adopted, show the drafts I abandoned?). Where software evolves new creative opportunities it needs to offer critical awareness through a body of comparative electronic `literature' (where is the body of comparative children's graphic art for example to help us weight the outcomes of the creativity against the wealth of pre- scanned clip art?). Learners will need to be made aware of their progress through the increasing evolution of their interface, through ipsative referencing (`I'm better at this than I was'). And of course the cycle of select, collect, annotate and present that characterises so much of our learning environments will need to be overtly supported. This is only an advance from the user centred design originally advocated by many, for example Norman and Draper (1986), in that the user is always and everywhere a learner, in a culture of learning. 
 
It is interesting to reflect on how very nearly the revolution started by authoring tools, specifically HyperCard (in 1987), came to delivering learner centred software. At that time, emersing teachers and learners in the process of software authoring led to an avalanche of `comparative literature' as creative work poured into the public domain; to established developers it looked like anarchy, to authors/users it felt like democracy. The tools were clear, usable and palpably progressing, the tasks and purposes defined by context (often, of course, by teachers and parents). Critical friendship and peer support was reported in a weight of anecdotal evidence from classrooms. However, the progress of authoring environments has been disappointingly slow (think of the advances made by painting or communications applications over the same time period) and the creative outcomes they engendered have begun to look jaded alongside other computer based learning material with a resultant self esteem hit which dampened the enthusiasm of many. In 1995 however it may be that HTML and the authoring tools it evolves will deliver the potential that HyperCard promised. Certainly on the World Wide Web we see once again the anarchic spectacle of learners presenting their work to the world for criticism and review. Once again much of it is imperfect but the dialogue surrounding it is of producers not consumers and is participative not passive. 
 
In `Some Thoughts Concerning Education' (1693), Locke advocated an emphasis on doing instead of reading. Locke advised the student to study a tree rather than a book about trees. If our learners are to develop metacognitive awareness of the process of learning they will find no better way than to be active learners and active in the support of others' learning. If this requires learner centred software and authoring tools then education should say so, loudly, now. We should not be surprised to find a lot of people prepared to listen, education is after all a helluva big market too. 
 
References 
 
Norman, D., & Draper, S. (1966). User centred system design. Hillsdale New Jersey: Erlbaum and Associates. 
 
Papert. S. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, computers and powerful ideas. New York: Harvester Press. 
 
Vygotsky. L.S. (1962). Thought and language. Cambridge MA: MIT Press. 
 
Wood. D. (1988). How children think and learn. Oxford: Blackwell. 
 

© Stephen Heppell 1995  
 
 

Login Information
Username:
Password: