Constructing Modern Knowledge 2009
I spent four days last week in Manchester, New Hampshire at the Constructing Modern Knowledge Institute. As I sit here one week after returning, I’m still left to wonder how in the world I can possibly capture all that is rattling around in my mind as a direct cause of attending the institute.
I’m going to try and give a general overview of what I observed, and then follow up as necessary in subsequent posts about each topic that requires follow up. I will say from the outset, the experience was the singularly most unique conference type experience I’ve ever had. There were things that left me in a state of pure awe and wonder, and there were things that equally frustrated me.
You will likely find it an impossibility to experience a better list of speakers or minds available to offer their insights at any other conference. Having the distinct honor of hearing directly from Deborah Meier, Lella Gandini, Brian Silverman, Lesa Snider, Peter Reynolds, Sylvia Martinez, Gary Stager, and Marvin Minsky was simply astounding. I’m still rather reeling from the collective wealth of knowledge that list represents. And though I certainly didn’t agree with everything that was spoken about, the conference was worth attending if just to hear what those individuals discussed and the way they can challenge a person to think.
The opportunity to engage and observe other educators organically learn was also a fascinating experience. I watched as the triumphs and frustrations of learning collectively bubbled over from group to group. I witnessed the authentic excitement that learning through inquiry can generate, and I watched as challenges served to nearly break and equally make learners out of leaders. It reminded me of what I have forgotten about being a learner in any kind of structured environment. Those lessons should be remembered much more often by all educators who find themselves forgetting what it is like to be in the seat as a student.
And along with those things that I agreed with, there were others I didn’t.
Throughout the conference there was a clear emphasis not only on the general theory of constructivism, but specifically, constructivism through computer science and programming. At several points throughout the week, the statement was issued that all students should be mandated to learn computer programming. This idea was explicitly stated, and I implicitly disagree with it. I certainly see the potential for learning through the act, but given the ever changing nature of specific programming languages and the fact that the vast majority of students will never use the skill beyond the duration of time they would be required to take the unit of study, I believe such an experience should be left to student choice.
At one point, one of the presenters said that we should not offer students choice on this issue as students don’t know better and aren’t in a position to know that they really have no other logical choice but to choose such study. The statement deeply troubled me at the time, and continues to do so now. I agree that when we were young, all of us lacked the clarity and wisdom that comes with time and experience, but we also knew things that interested us. If we’re willing to allow students to participate in organic learning experiences through constructivism by self-selecting that which we study, why then would we think learning a specific skill such as programming should be any different? I truly appreciated Brian Silverman’s take on it as he expressed that programming is certainly not for all kids. I absolutely believe that students should be given the choice to learn computer programming as the process is replete with problem solving and math function learning, but I don’t think it should be mandated. This is very likely an issue that I will return to at some point in the near future.
The other issue that I find myself continuing to fail at digesting is the idea of community as Gary spoke of it the first day. I heard him speak about PLNs in a similar fashion at NECC, and on both occasions, he spoke about how the level of connectedness we all are presently experiencing has given voice to too many people. That is a paraphrase, but he did say specifically that the problem now is that any “newbie” has a voice and can be perceived as an expert without doing anything. He stated that someone who hasn’t “done anything” can be asked to keynote a conference, when in fact, it should be he himself who gets asked based on his experience and the work he’s done.
This seems, to me, to be the very nature of the old, exclusive vanguard of knowledge concept we’ve been speeding away from as information frees us to capitalize on collective thinking. We don’t need the keeper of the keys to tell us what is worth knowing and keep us from that which we lack the understanding to know is not good for us.
We all now realize we have the right to know. Or at least we have the right to choose.
The idea that we have to have an “expert” in our network otherwise our network is, in effect, proven defunct, is rife with complication. I think I’ll leave it at that for now and allow Gary, or any other believer in this philosophy to expand on the idea if they so choose.
In the end, I find myself walking away with a great bundle of mental firewood to turn over and burn for quite some time, and I realize I’m an advocate for the theory of constructivism. I’m not convinced it requires the use of computer science/programming, but utilizing computer technology with constructivism can absolutely be a strong alliance.
And I have no doubt how much students benefit from pursuing organic learning based on personal choice. And it’s okay if sometimes they do that without a computer.