You say that like it’s a bad thing

Last Friday I had a fabulous day at the Why 2 of Web 2.0 seminar in Sydney, where the special guest speaker was Wil Richardson.  Wil was also ably supported by other speakers including Australians Judy O’Connell and Westley Field.

I was very keen to hear Wil speak, after having read his blog for a while now and also having met in the occasional UStream backchannel.  He had lots of good things to say (which he kindly allowed me to record with my iPod so I may post up some audio snippets.)   I was fortunate to get a seat right at the front, thanks to Judy offering to let me share the powerboard at the front table so I could plug in my Mac.  I was also able to piggyback on the wifi service and browse the various sites that Will was referring to as he told the audience about them… quite a few really interesting sites in his list , most of which are now in my feed.

One of my colleagues from school also attend the event, and when I got back to school the next day I asked how he enjoyed it.  His reply was fairly lukewarm, with the comment that he thought a lot of the things Wil was saying made him sound like a zealot.  Google says that a zealot is a “fanatically committed person“, or “one who espouses a cause… in an immoderately partisan manner“.

I don’t think my colleague used the term zealot in a particularly positive sense – I’m sure it wasn’t meant as a compliment.  Personally, if a zealot is a fanatically committed person then I think we need more zealots in education.  I also have strong beliefs about the nature of school and learning and think that we need to act quickly and radically if schools are to maintain any sort of relevance in today’s world.  I also think we need to be fairly drastic about making these changes, so I guess that makes me a zealot too.

Wil gave a number of (what I thought were) powerful examples of how the world is changing.  He used some great examples from Friedman’s The World is Flat and Tapscott’s Wikinomics; examples that clearly show how much our schools are out of sync with the world we say we are preparing our children for.  In  particular, one of the stories that seemed to rankle a few listeners, including my colleague, was the one about a student who was given a research task by his teacher and how he approached this task.

The student found very little information about the topic, not even on Wikipedia. What would you do if you were this student?

Here’s what he did.  He created a Wikipedia entry using the limited information that he did know.  Over the next few days and weeks, the Wikipedia entry on the topic was edited, amended, added-to and improved by many other people.  All of their individual little bits of knowledge gradually built up the topic until there was quite a comprehensive article written about it.  The student then used this article to submit for his research project.

Apparently, the student’s teacher discovered what had happened and the student was awarded an F – a failing grade.  Being the zealot that he is, Will suggested that the student should have received an A grade.  This suggestion raised a few eyebrows…  in the afternoon discussion panel the suggestion that this kid would get an A for doing something like this was questioned by a number of people.  They suggested that the kid had cheated, had acted dishonestly, had not done the task, had rorted the system, etc, and therefore should have failed the task.  I think they are missing the point.

While I can see both sides of the situation, there is no way I would have failed the kid for doing this.  There may be more to the story than I’m  privy to, but on the face of it, failing a student for using their initiative in this manner makes no sense to me.    If I were an employer, I’d much rather give a job to a kid like this who knows how to find a solution in an innovative way, rather than a “rule follower” that just accepts that very little information is available.

It’s interesting that the teachers I’ve told this story to say “Oh, you can’t do that! That’s cheating!”, but the business people I’ve told the story to usually respond with a laugh and say “I want that kid working for me!”.  And really, this is the gap that the education world is struggling with so much.   The “real world” wants people who can find solutions in creative ways, who can innovate and work with teams to collaboratively find solutions to difficult problems.  The “education world” still seems focussed on measuring individual effort, rewarding those who follow the rules and stay inside the lines, those who rehash existing information rather than finding ways of creating new information.

Wil spoke about many things, but I think this story was the most powerful example of the chasm between what the world expects of our children and what most school are prepared to deliver.  One wants to award an F, the other wants to award an A.

One of us is completely screwed up, and I’m pretty sure it’s not the zealots.

You can find the UStream recording from Will’s talk here, and his conference wiki here.

CC BY-SA 4.0 You say that like it’s a bad thing by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

13 Replies to “You say that like it’s a bad thing”

  1. Hi Chris, love your post. I have been following Will round the coast of Australia, watching and listening to various presentations on ustream and on his wiki. And today I got to meet him. It was so good to hear this live, and to be once again renewed by his enthusiasm. It is so hard to keep it up in the face of people who cynically dismiss this as zealotry. Unfortunately your colleague is not alone. And yet Will backs up his points with evidence and speaks from a position of credibility and experience. Thanks for your post and one day I hope we can meet face to face as well.

  2. Chris, I also attended the conference and I have told staff that same story about the boy and his assignment on wikipedia. It is funny some teachers responses. I found that the teachers who are more conservative about change and where education is heading thought that the boy had cheated and were disgusted. They outline that once again misuse of the Internet. However, teachers who are willing to change have found the story interesting. This is because the boy has used great skill in collaboration and access to information. In the end are the students who wrote the essay by themselves going to remember more in 3 – 5 years? Probably not but I bet that student will always remember completing that assignment.

  3. I hope there is more to the story of the kid and the research/Wikipedia snafu. Just based on what you wrote here, I’d say both the student and teacher are wrong. The student should have approached the teacher with the lack of resources problem and explained what he wanted to do. As a teacher, I’d have been thrilled that the student was problem solving and want to see the results of his “experiment.” I’d want to compare the results of the Wikipedia edit to what I expected to receive from the student had he only used traditional sources. If the student hadn’t initially come to me, I’d still not have given him a failing grade. I’d have made him redo the assignment along with telling me what he learned from the experience. The only reason I could see for failing the student would have been if he hadn’t properly cited his resources (Wikipedia) and tried to pass off the information as his own work.

  4. That was an awesome post and I thank you for sharing the anecdote of the student doing research and created a wiki. I am definitely a promoter of change and often labeled a ‘non conformist’ and now, hopefully, a zealot. It would not have occurred to me to fail this student as I was applauding the student for thinking outside the box, or outside the known wikipedia, and created new avenues for research. The student still had to read, research/validate the comments and synthesize the information to complete the assignment – all of which are tasks that I want my students actively engaged and enhanced with web 2.0 tools. I am with you on this matter and wholeheartedly agree a major shift must occur in order for students to be better prepared for the new frontiers of the flat world.

  5. Personally, if a zealot is a fanatically committed person then I think we need more zealots in education.

    I’m with you Chris! Why aren’t we all passionately committed to pushing education forward? Isn’t this what teaching and learning is all about?

    Love the story. I find it ironic that schools use the excuse that we’re preparing students for the business world to suck all the creative energy out of them (this story comes around a lot when trying to switch from Windows to Mac in my experience), but yet it’s clear that businesses actually want those creative skills we’re stifling on a daily basis (Sir Ken Robinson, anyone?). Maybe we should try to be a little more informed about what the “business” world really wants before we try to prepare our students for something we clearly know very little about…

  6. Hey Chris,

    We are looking forward to hearing Will at ULearn08 in Christchurch, NZ, in October. Just finished watching his UStream.

    Well done to the kid who used all the resources he could to complete his assignment. Give credit where credit is due- he did exactly what I used to do at school- try and get a good mark. I got a text and dumbed down the big words so the teacher would think that I could have written the assignment myself. If I did a good job of changing the big words into smaller ones the teacher would give me a good mark. If I didn’t then I would get a poor mark. So much of what we learn at secondary school is total irrelevant rubbish any way.

    It would have been better to credit the work to the real authors and bring in a range of resources from a variety of sources.

    Knowledge is a illusive, diaphanous thing- better to give people the tools to find out what they want, when they want it than to fill learning time with out-of-date recalling of facts.

    I like it when my doctor goes to books or the internet to delve more deeply into a medical problem- I don’t expect him to everything about everything. I want him to find out the most up to date information- not solutions that were current when he went to medical school ten years ago.

    Now I will hop down off my soap box.

  7. Hi!

    Great post! In a situation like you described one has to ask: what was the teacher trying accomplish with the project? I’m assuming the main objective was to learn more about the subject, so I would have a hard time saying this student didn’t learn something, if not more somethings, than other students in the class. So many times these issues come down to figuring out just what it is we are trying to accomplish. For the teacher in this case, I would almost take issue with the whole idea of simply writing a report on a subject. How many other students simply copied content from their sources to compile their more “traditional” report? What else new and actually useful did they get from completing the assignment (how many of us remember the reports we wrote in elementary school??) Rather than writing typical reports, we need to start challenging students to DO something with the information they find: apply it, extend it, synthesize it. With so many sources that just give information how useful is it to just write a report about a famous person? Rather, let’s create a movie to show his life, write about what he might do about a current issue, or create a case for the person being a positive/negative influence to the future. Let’s have students create, not tell.

  8. THanks for the feedback everyone…

    @Jo, thanks. I’m looking forward to meeting up with you too. I was thinking of flying down on Wednesday night, but I’ll save it for the next time!

    @Gavin, You’re right. It’s all about the mindset. Another thing that Will mentioned was how surveys show some 75% of our students regularly use social networking sites. A show of hands from the educators in the room showed 10-15% of teachers use these things. Somewhat of a disconnect?! Until the teachers are familiar with and understand the use of social technologies, then they probably aren’t in any position to make any sort of judgment at all.

    @Heather, I agree that A vs F scenario is probably oversimplifying the entire situation. You’re right, that the truth lies somewhere in between… the teacher and the student (and probably the entire class) need to have a good discussion about the meanings and implications of the entire situation. Lots of good learning could take place from that. There very well may have been more to the story than I’m aware of, but it’s an interesting question to ponder regardless.

    @Kim C, Thanks for joining the Zealot Club! Welcome to the blogosphere!

    @Janet, thanks for the link!

    @Kim C aka Superkimbo, the “preparing students for the real world” argument is a complete furphy. For students, this IS the real world.

    @Alannah, I’m with you. I hope my doctor is connected and networked when I walk in with some symptom s/he hasn’t seen before. I don’t care if s/he doesn’t know the answer right then and there, but I sure as heck hope s/he knows where to find it!

    @Adam, Thanks. We need more educators that think like you! You’re totally right in saying that the real problem was in setting a task that was based on simple information foraging and rehashing. I like your examples… thanks for sharing them.

  9. Hi Chris,
    Sad really that teachers can’t see that we need to be thinking about how we teach our students and the skills they are going to be needing when they enter the workplace. Like you, I think the kid did well- reward them for their initiative and chide ourselves for the mindless tasks we set our students that aren’t going to help them cut it in this world. Not saying I’m perfect – I’ve set quite a few ordinary tasks in my time!

  10. Hi Chris,
    Love your post and all the responses. Great topic for discussion indeed! As I teach Years 5 to 12 students, when setting research tasks, I always help them to get through the first stage–surfing on-line(we have given up Library resources at this stage). I literally sit next to them to see how they start doing it, make sure they are on the right track, and then I checked the finished project before they submit them to give them final comments. I would have picked up their problems in the process and I always list “acknowledge your sources” as part of the tasks.
    I don’t mind them cutting and pasting info from the internet as long as they put them in the right order, re-write part of them in their own words, as well as thoroughly understand everything they used.
    That boy in your post would have got a good grade from me if he does know everything he submitted and acknowledge all the contributors.
    Do you agree?
    (By the way, this is my very belated 23 things homework… sorry)

That's all well and good, but what do YOU think?