“Content is just the context for participating”…
This thought-provoking interview with Connie Yowell, is addressing essential questions about learning, especially meaningful in the middle school years, still vibrant with passion, curiosity and creativity. See interview transcript below:
“Content is just the context for participating. It’s the context for solving broader problems. It’s the context for being engaged with peers. And that’s – and this is an academic word – but that’s one of the big paradigm shifts that we have to make in education today, is to not think about that content as an outcome of learning, but as the context of learning, and instead, think much more about, Well, what do we want kids participating in, that that content is at the core of it? And that’s a much harder thing to design and to think about.”
“We really think that part of what’s wrong with the current educational system, and why people talk about it as ‘broken’ is that it’s fundamentally starting with the wrong question. The educational system often now starts with the question of out- comes. It starts with, “What do we want kids to learn?What are the goals and what’s the content? What’s the material they need to cover?”
Then everything [we do] is defined by that. It doesn’t almost matter who the kid is so long as we’re going on pace through the material and the content, and reaching those educational standards, and those outcomes – because that’s our starting point.
Our core question is, “What’s the experience we want kids to have?” So, the core question is around engagement. And as soon as you start with,“Is the kid engaged? What is the learning experience we want the kid to have,” you have to pay attention to the kid. In the design world, you have to start with the user. You have to start with the experience of the young person – of the learner. So instead of starting with the outcomes, which is, for most educational systems, a math problem, or a math fact, or a literacy fact – which is not particularly [useful]… it’s decontextual- ized – it has no relevance to the learner, we instead start with, “What is the experience? Really, what do we want them discovering?”
In our traditional school system, where we’re driving home facts and discreet knowledge, we don’t make room for curiosity. We don’t create the opportunity for kids to take things apart anymore,
to look inside, to see how they’re made, to put them back together again. You know, we used to do it with our old chemistry sets. We used to just play and see what would happen, and wonder about it. And that engages the imagination, and can trigger the imagination. As we get more and more serious about test scores in our kids’ future, we move further and further away from those little opportunities to constantly fail and to iterate. We forget that those are also opportunities to iterate with one’s identity, and to play around, and to mess around. It’s so important to do that when you’re at the middle school age and early and middle adolescence. Even as adults, we’ve got to have these opportunities to be curious about who we are in the world, and about how the world works, and to fail and not be embarrassed by it, and to come back to those failures and do things over and over again.
We all understand what a page turner is. You can’t wait to turn the page to find out what’s on the next page, and what’s happening. You feel it viscerally. It’s not just in your head. You don’tjust have an intellectual curiosity. You really have a desire, a physical desire, to find out what’s happening next. In fact, sometimes you can’t go to sleep because you just want to keep reading the book. That’s a need to know. In school, we so decontextualize what they’re learning. We take it out of context and just teach them discreet facts. Because we’re so focused on these outcomes we’ve forgotten the learner, and we’ve forgotten that we actually have a passion for learning.
But how do you create a need to know in a kid? That’s an emotional question. That’s an intellectual question. That’s an identity question. When you start designing learning experiences around that, then getting to the content and getting kids to engage in core questions related to academic core, that’s actually the easy part. How do we design an experience where kids have a need to know fractions? What in the world would that look like? If I really wanted to design an experience for a 9 year old – a nine year old boy – a nine year old girl – to want to know what a fraction is? And often, that’s one of the reasons in our grant making we’ve turned to games. So games create an incredible narrative and a wrapper of meaning that you can put discreet skills or competencies within, that you might want to desperately know how to do a fraction in order to solve a broader complex problem that’s wrapped inside a game, [or] the narrative of a game. I can tell you that my son just jumps at stuff like that. But in school, he could care less about knowing what a fraction is. If it’s in the middle of game play, where he’s really working with a set of peers around solving some complex problem, he’ll demand that somebody teach him how to solve a fraction so that he can move on to the next thing.
Content is just the context for participating. It’s the context for solving broader problems. It’s the context for being engaged with peers. And that’s – and this is an academic word – but that’s one of the big paradigm shifts that we have to make in education today, is to not think about that content as an outcome of learning, but as the context of learning, and instead, think much more about, “Well, what do we want kids participating in, that that content is at the core of it?” And that’s a much harder thing to design and to think about. And so one of the challenges for education is for us to actually step back and say, “We’ve got content over here. This is one of the things that is so disconnected in our educational world. We put content over here on one hand, and then we think about what kids are doing on the other hand. And they stay discconnected in our educational world. We put content over here on one hand, and then we think about what kids are doing on the other hand. And they stay disconnected.We have to deeply connect those for kids. Otherwise, the learning has no meaning.”