John Danner’s take on Sugata Mitra’s TED Prize wish

John Danner, one of our favorite thought leaders, has a great Huffpo piece up reacting to Sugata Mitra’s TED Prize wish. Like John, we were very excited to see TED draw outside the lines on education with this one by supporting Mitra’s pioneering work and thinking. And more than that, TED is helping spotlight creative ideas for kids in developing countries shut out of high-quality school options.

John’s reactions are spot on, helping point the way toward a middle ground that resonates with our thinking. Without the inspiring Sugata Mitras of the world, you don’t define the radical alternative to the status quo, so you don’t find the middle ground. But you need to find the middle ground. The polarized perspectives only get you so far — as I tried to argue in my comment on the Clay Shirky – Aaron Bady blog debate a couple months ago.

Restating John’s arguments on three claims Sugata makes:

1) Instead of saying formal schooling is obsolete and outdated, we agree that the right take is that schools and universities need some fairly thorough re-imagining: to turn students into active learners, to individualize the process of coaching on deliberate practice, and more.

2) Instead of cutting students loose to tackle problems on their own, John’s right that active learning and deliberate practice are most effective when there’s a teacher/coach involved. This gets to the heart of why we’re pursuing a blended model with Kepler from the get-go. Purely online learning risks isolation, and isolated learners aren’t the quickest learners. Some forms of coaching and support are much more easily delivered offline.

3) Knowledge isn’t obsolete; instead, schools and universities need to focus more on what most people think of as skill acquisition relative to what we traditionally think of as knowledge (ie, content) acquisition. But that’s only because many schools over-focus on knowledge or content, not because it isn’t critical. John makes the beginnings of the case, and maybe we’ll have the chance to elaborate on our thinking on this point down the road. It’s something we’ve been batting around a lot. Yes, you can look up lots on Google these days; but a nurse who has to look up the basics of the circulatory system on Google isn’t a nurse.

So much of what the world is talking about in K12 applies to higher ed as well. We’ve got tons of academically qualified non-consumers of higher ed all around the world, and we need to radically re-think. Their numbers aren’t as high as the numbers in K12. But if we don’t get the higher ed non-consumers into knowledge jobs and thought leadership roles in their countries, their countries won’t solve the K12 problem. Or better yet, reinvent the system to a point where it rolls smoothly from pre-K all the way through an appropriate terminal degree without artificial path-dependent boundaries.

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