vinay's blog

Understanding humanity through education, technology, entrepreneurship and more

Tag: education

In need of a common language

Those of you that have taken the time to read my first few posts have probably gathered that one of the books I am knee deep in right now is Disrupting Class by Clayton Christensen. As a fan of his previous work and also the work that his consulting company Innosight does, I was excited to see how Christensen would apply his theory on disruptive innovation to the field of education.

You say tomato; I say virtual learning

One of the key points Christensen raises in the book is in order to create movement or change within an organization or industry, there must be the development of a “common language and a common way to frame the problem.” Christensen argues that although the creation of a common language will not solve the problems, it is a prerequisite to discovering solutions. In his opinion, education currently suffers from a lack of standard frameworks to communicate across parties the challenges facing education today, and that part of the book’s goal is to help bridge that divide.

Moreover, I believe that identifying and building a common language is a necessary step for the professionalization of any industry. Lawyers, doctors, engineers, scientists, etc. have all developed entire lexicons specific to their own professions, and as annoying as these terminologies may seem to outsiders the vocabulary actually increases the opportunity for efficient and effective communication within each community. This in turn results in a stronger, healthier community dynamic amongst the language’s users.

This pursuit for establishing a common language can be seen beyond the conventional. For example, one paper I discovered discussed the need to develop a common framework in the field of dance therapy. The paper’s second paragraph states:

Dance  therapy  lacks a common understanding  of words  that describe and interpret movement. Effective communication depends  upon  the comprehension of words for achieving patient-treatment goals. Effective teamwork emerges as members understand each other’s roles and functions, as well as their different language systems.

While education has been regarded as an integral part of society for that past century, the field’s lexicon is relatively undeveloped. Much of this disconnect can be attributed to the number of stakeholders invested in defining eduction and its components, each of whom have differing and often times conflicting priorities. Education also suffers from its ubiquity, especially with regard to the fact that anything can effectively be described as learning or an educational lesson. Despite these hurdles, attempts to develop shared frameworks emerge constantly. One example is New Jersey’s Professional Development Standards for Educators, which focuses on developing a common language for professional learning communities. This framework identifies issues like,

  • What is essential for students to know?
  • How will we know when they have learned it?
  • What interventions will we put in place when they don’t learn it?
  • What do teachers need to know and be able to do to support the student learning?
  • What professional learning must the team engage in for student learning?

and also attempts to define the criteria for what a professional learning community would look like. More informal communities are also springing up everywhere. A few weeks ago I attended the NY EdTech Meetup and met a number of people trying to understand the intersection of education and technology, the effective business strategies to meld them.

Two steps forward, few steps back

Professional learning communities while important still result in a piecemeal approach to identifying answers to these critical questions. Conversations across the social graph, including Twitter, blogs and other sources are also contributing to this dialogue in a decentralized way. For education to reach its next stage of reform and innovation, we must continue to germinate these homegrown discussions into a national and eventually global discussion. In doing so, we must also be willing to accept at the core that education itself is a multi-faceted concept that serves multiple roles in society and thus the language used needs to be sensitive to that.

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My philosophy on education

While visiting the MoMA here in New York City, I came across Jackson Pollock’s Echo: Number 25, 1951 that particularly caught my attention. At first glance, the piece appeared to be overwhelmingly complex, one without any decipherable pattern. The numerous lines, shapes and other effects defied organization. However, upon staring at the painting further, I began to observe patterns amidst its chaos — systematic building blocks which when combined created this immensely complex work.

The field of education is similar, with numerous stakeholders interacting across a field that affects every corner of the economy. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the complexity and magnitude of it all. In fact, it would seem that education’s new charge is to enable its constituents to appreciate complexity in the world. To realize transformational change in an industry, one must be able to systematically decipher those factors which are most critical, and then identify the relationships among them.

I believe that the majority of education’s challenges can be analyzed using the following formula:

Successfully cultivating engagement, is the most important factor in education. Sir Ken Robinson’s now famous talk “Changing Education Paradigms” refers to this as an aesthetic experience, one where all of the senses are alive. It is at this moment, where learning can occur at its best. Engagement is fleeting, however, occurs in short bursts, and can occur anywhere. It can occur over coffee with a mentor, during a game, when re-reading a favorite novel, and so on. Achieving these moments are never easy, and often prove to be unpredictable. However, the purpose of education is to maximize the frequency that such moments of engagement actually occur. To increase the frequency, we must look to two key factors: motivation and relevancy.

  • Motivation: Clayton Christensen explains in the book Disrupting Class that two types of motivation exist — extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic factors and intrinsic factors can be used together or separately to elicit desired behaviors. Competition is a perfect example of how extrinsic factors can help stimulate engagement. Likewise, clearly showing how a specific lesson or tool can help in one’s career search would be an excellent use of intrinsic motivation.
  • Relevancy: The more apparent the value of the knowledge or skills the more easily it will be embraced. Relevancy also operates at two basic levels — what the receiver believes is relevant and what the giver believes should be relevant. Ideally, these two priorities will be aligned, but more often than not there will be a discrepancy between what the receiver and giver consider relevant.

Both motivation and relevancy interact with each other, and depending on how well they combine in a specific case will determine the level of engagement that someone will have on that subject. Depending on the type of engagement that is desired, different aspects of the two will need to be employed. For example, in situations where the recipient may not find the material relevant, the use of extrinsic motivators may be needed to accomplish the goal.

In the end, this approach to education can be applied to any of the stakeholders, not just traditional students. Everyone involved must experience some level of engagement in order for true innovation to occur, and each stakeholder has their own motivations and relevant interests in the game. I intend to refer back to this formula going forward and improve on it over time. This blog is an effort to better understand the field of education, and it like anything else is a continuous work in progress.

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