I just finished reading the article “Models of growth – towards fundamental change in learning environments” by David Cavallo (BT Technology Journal * Vol 22 No4) – with thanks to Gardner Campbell for bringing it to my attention. A very good read with many intriguing ideas. In order to process the ideas for myself, I thought I’d blog about it here.
David Cavallo is a really interesting guy. He’s the co-head of the the MIT Media Lab’s Future of Learning group which focuses on the design and implementation of new learning environments. He collaborated with Seymour Papert at the MIT Media Lab and is the VP Learning for the One Laptop Per Child organization. He also led the design and implementation of medical informatics at Harvard University Health Services prior to his work at the Lab.
Based on Cavallo’s experience implementing new learning environments in Brazil, he proposes new models for growth and change in education. You’ll have to read the article for the juicy details on his Brazil project. What I hope to chew on here, are his take-home lessons for our own use in thinking about transformational process in schools and colleges.
First off, Cavallo talks about existing models for growth and change in schools. As he puts it, we either try to replicate change – that is, enforce the execution a predetermined, formulated design in every location according to prescribed steps. Or we try to take it to scale – that is, test the reform in a small, controlled setting and then attempt to spread it through the system. Both models, according to Cavallo, are flawed and he laments the lack of alternative models. And then, of course, goes on to propose new ways of thinking about it.
The way Cavallo sees change is as a kind of learning. He very articulately makes the parallel between the process when a school system undergoes change and the changes that happen in an individual learner when they encounter new concepts. Just as we know that simple information transfer doesn’t work for the individual learner, so it goes for a school system. In addition to that, just as with an individual learner, we have to consider the sociological, cultural, and environmental context in which the learning (the change) takes place. And when they’re working, they need to work on problems that are significant to them. This way of reframing systemic change, gives us all sorts of insights based on experience with students.
Cavallo explains that copying best practices doesn’t work (he uses the auto industry in post-war Japan as a example to illustrate this). Substantive change requires the learner to study the underlying principles of the information so that they can apply and fit the new ideas to their local culture and specific situation. And so it goes with educational change. It is the mindset around the change, rather than the sum of the steps or practices, that need to be developed.
And that leads to his description of what constitutes a “fertile environment for growth”. Here’s a list of what Cavallo sees as felicitous conditions for educational change:
Volition: teachers have got to want it
Appropriation and experimentation: teachers need to be able to try it out in their own setting
Concrete exemplars: real-life examples that are meaningful to the teachers
Community and communication: peer-to-peer interchange of ideas, questions, doubts, and considerations
Feedback: teachers need to see everyone’s results and get feedback on their own results
Debugging: make mistakes and discuss them
Materials: you need the things to work with
Language: either re-appropriating old terms for new meanings or inventing new terms to describe what’s going on
Bottom-up and emergent: many little contributions (not top down)
Time: major changes do not happen over night
Hope and expectation: teachers must come to believe that improvement is desirable and possible
Sounds like a pretty good list, doesn’t it? I’m thinking this could be used as a check list – as in, before we get started, are these conditions in place? If not, why not? And what could we do about it?
The article goes on to describe the specifics of a summer institute they designed (alternating between talks, project work, and discussion groups) and the resulting implementation in the various schools. He explains that the central focus of the workshops was to reflect on the learning process itself and how they spark an ongoing process of reflection and improvement. And how often does that happen? How often are we able to take the time to reflect on our teaching? On our own learning? And on better ways to learn?
In the end, Cavallo concludes that large-scale educational change emerges from a number of small-scale changes and that the most lasting improvements come from modeling, testing, debugging and adapting to local conditions. Throughout their experiences in Brazil, they seemed to create deliberate variation – each classroom, each school turned out differently and there were always unexpected results. I really appreciated his welcome attitude toward the diversity of solutions. It’s a good reminder that your implementation will probably look nothing like my solution – and that’s not only ok, it’s a good thing. As Cavallo puts it, “meaningful changes must proceed form local concerns, and no one knows the right answers in advance.”
I have to say that one of my most valuable take-aways from reading this article is to remind myself that patience is required. “This is not the work of a day, or a week, or a workshop…this is a process where the chance to experience a new practice of learning leads to a fundamental re-thinking of what might be possible.” Patience.