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 del.icio.us 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.