If we’ve been around education for any length of time, we’ve all heard it. Perhaps we’ve even asked it ourselves. It’s the perennial question: how can teachers know their students are actually learning the information they receive?
But perhaps because it’s so common, a question that keeps popping up, we should take a step back to think about the question itself before we set out to answer it. If we step back to examine its form and structure, we might find something that’s been missing — the reason behind this question’s persistence, despite all our best collective efforts.
When we pause to consider it, two features of this question become clear. The first is that its structure lays down a narrow track that only allows a single kind of result. The reason we have to keep asking it again and again is not that we don’t find seemingly valid answers. It’s that those answers remain naggingly unsatisfying.
Because this question presupposes a need to assess the efficient transfer of information — not its creation, not its implementation, but its transfer — we often can’t get to more meaningful or satisfying forms of learning or assessment. Moreover, this question posits learning as the transfer of a particular kind of information: data, facts, numbers … material that can be easily packaged by teachers and delivered to students. Such semantic information, recent neuroscience tells us, is surprisingly difficult to internalise and learn. So we find ourselves compelled to assess the efficiency of forms of learning and knowledge that are inherently inefficient, a conundrum that keeps driving us back for another go. This question traps us in a loop that we can’t seem to escape.
How did we get here in the first place? Largely because of technological limitations that characterised education for generations. Locked in the four walls of our classrooms, we were compelled to package the information into manageable, discrete, semantic blocks. The classroom itself was a neutral space, devoid of any indigenous content, so like mountaineers climbing the barren heights, we had to pack in everything meaningful we would need and could only pack out lightweight samples of what we discovered or encountered. Lacking technologies that allowed us to create or implement productively within the walls of that room, the sole process we could complete and measure with confidence was transfer.
This limitation points to the second problem with the question: not only that it delivers limited answers, but that it does so using artificially limited parameters. When we learn outside of the classroom, we engage with dimensions that have heretofore been surprisingly difficult to create inside. When we learn ‘in the wild,’ we certainly have to master content: information, concepts, structures, tools, and skills. But we do so by engaging richly with the dimensions of community — all of the people involved in and surrounding our learning — and context, the physical and intangible spaces in which we learn — our material, historical, cultural, and social surroundings. Recent research shows that when we engage these other dimensions, learning changes fundamentally, becoming more meaningful and robust.
So the second problem with the question is that, taking its shape from the limited bounds of the classroom’s walled isolation rather than from the nature of learning itself, it’s built from inception to ignore these vital learning dimensions. It doesn’t ask about the ‘who’ or the ‘why’ of learning; only the ‘how’ and the ‘what.’ These other questions simply haven’t been feasible to ask before. Now, in a world saturated by technologies that connect and empower us in ways previously unimaginable, we can no longer afford to ignore them.
So at the Bett Show, we want to do much more than ask and answer the same old question. To transform education and create a better future, we need to ask new sorts of questions and seek new kinds of answers. And in a world where technology now enables us to reach far beyond the classroom walls, putting the facilities for robust creation — the movie studio, the printing press, and the recording studio — in our pockets, we can explore much more varied forms of learning than the simple transfer of information.
Now is the time to try something new.
If we’re going to transform education in the classroom, however, we recognise that we also have to transform it at the Bett Show. As part of Bett’s new content programme, we’re designing three experimental sessions that seek to move beyond the old question, exploring content more deeply and engaging the dimensions of community and context in new ways to make your Bett learning experience more relevant and significant than ever before.
Using principles derived from recent research in learning, these sessions are designed to enable you to accomplish four critical tasks:
Explore your own preconceptions, understandings, and ideas about the topics;
Connect with those in your broader learning community, bringing them into the conversation about what you’re seeing and learning;
Envision how the materials, concepts, and tools you encounter could integrate productively into your learning environments; and
Build plans, connections, and implementations that extend beyond the conference, carrying you forward to make productive changes at your school or institution.
We want you to engage all three of learning’s vital dimensions, challenging and being challenged by content, collaborating with diverse communities of practitioners and explorers, and creating in rich and meaningful contexts. We want to lead the way in moving from one-dimensional transfer and consumption of content to a multidimensional learning model that equips you to make the important decisions and changes your school needs.
We’re excited to embark on this new journey of discovery with you, enlisting your help in transforming education around the world and in discovering the new questions — and new answers — that will characterise the future of learning.