Technology That Gives Students Agency, Not Instruction

When technology is used in educational settings it arrives filled with the purposes and assumptions about how the machine or software will be used by students. This results in all sorts of ways to instruct students by coding the curriculum into digital forms, though technology seems not to be changing the nature of schooling for most children and could be exacerbating socioeconomic inequality. Sitting in a classroom or at home in front of a teaching machine is hardly a major advancement for a child’s social, physical, and mental growth; the 19th century school assumptions about how learning happens bind us to their industrial model of the school as a knowledge factory.

Further, the way technology currently helps self-directed learners is to provide access to conventional school lessons, practices, and materials for home use. But what is really new and exciting about learning at home is that it does not have to be like a school, so here are some overlooked ideas regarding public education for self-directed learners in and out of school.

John Holt suggested we do something that seems like taking a page from a children’s book by Richard Scarry: We clearly label public property so children can easily see the words for these things, such as buildings (court house) and objects (stop light; mail box). Since children and others learning to read often start by recognizing the shapes and sounds of letters from the words they see every day, such as Stop and Exit, this can increase both groups’ reading proficiency without great expense.

Take it a step further with QR codes. These are used for self-guided tours in museums and other sites—you point your cellphone or device to the QR code and you are linked to an audiovisual presentation about what you’re looking at. These codes can be placed on electric substations, water resources, monuments, public transportation, and other public facilities. The presentations provide explanations of what’s inside these facilities and how they work. This could greatly enhance the public’s understanding of the value of these facilities and provide them with a general understanding of how all the pieces of a big public system fit together—plus it demystifies the science and funding behind it all, helping us grasp the practical value of the engineering that creates public works and infrastructure.

Words can often get in the way of imparting knowledge to others; this can be a communication issue, but it can also be that students just don’t get the concept the teacher is trying to transfer to them. Dr. Pat Montgomery, founder of the Clonlara School, noted this happened to her in graduate school: “I remember taking classes in new math, for my master’s, from one of the foremost mathematicians in the country, Dr. Joe Payne. I recognized that he loved math and that he thought mathematically. But I didn’t think that way, and I had trouble with it. Even though he loved it, he couldn’t simply transfer that way of thinking to me.” People move in and out of fluency with new concepts until the concepts make genuine sense to them, so just hearing something doesn’t mean you understand it, and many concepts require more than just verbal instructions to be properly understood.

While researching how we learn concepts I discovered the blog Primitive Technology. The videos show the blogger making tools and buildings using only materials he finds in his natural environment and he doesn’t speak about what he is doing, he just shows. Seeing how stone axes, a natural draft furnace, mud bricks, or a water-powered hammer are created and used successfully is not just interesting but instructive for understanding the concepts that underlie their modern heirs. Another interesting thing is that these videos are aimed at teens and adults and use closed captions to describe what they are watching, but I’ll bet many children who are interested in them will be able to grasp what’s going without the captions. If it interests you, a set of materials that connect primitive technologies to their modern equivalents could be gathered or created as a project.

I’m particularly struck by how so much of the discussion about education technology is about using it to make children more interested in staying in school to learn, rather than using technology to get children more involved in the world around them. Driverless cars are not there yet, but I can see how they can be used to get children to play dates, museums, or classes without their parents driving them everywhere. Carschooling takes on a whole new meaning with this development.

With GPS and cellphones there can be opportunities for teenagers to learn and explore on their own, or in groups, all while being in touch verbally and on a map with a supervisor keeping track of them electronically. This could happen today if there were a will to do so, but the will to put learning in the hands of learners and for adults to support them in their self-paced efforts is something no technology can do. That’s a human problem, and one with no clear solution. If we trusted our children and our neighbors more we wouldn’t need to use GPS tethers to keep track of our children, but people are more anxious than ever—even about children playing in their own backyards—so perhaps this could be a way to make them more comfortable about teenagers learning in and from the world around them.

Do you have any ideas about how technology can help you and your children with self-directed education? Please share them here with us.