Monday, June 19, 2006

Subversive Use and Volatile Design

Papers from 1999 are starting to sound like old news, but it's a shame when gems like this one are overlooked -- Educational Software and Learning: Subversive Use and Volatile Design (pdf) by the late David Squires. It charts the movement toward learner-centred constructivist experiences and environments and the inherent contradictions in trying to create them for a system which dictates what, when and how things should be learned in education:
"The focus of constructivism is on learner control, with learner’s making decisions which match their own cognitive state and their own needs. Thus we are left with a paradox if a we accept a constructivist view of learning: In trying to design effective learning environments we may at the same time constrain the levels of freedom necessary for learners to make decisions about their own learning."
As I read this, I envisioned a scenario where an enthusiastic, progressive instructor opens a course by saying, "I know this course was required (you didn't choose it), was scheduled according to the school's timetable (not yours), the curriculum and assessment standards were pre-determined (without your involvement) and my teaching is being assessed based on your scores on a standardized test at the end of the course. Within those constraints, I'm going to try to make the course as learner-centred as possible." Good luck with that. This is certainly what I was trying to get at in my post about personal learning environments:
"I'm not even sure that it can be created or designed by someone for someone else. Just as each person's desires, abilities and past experiences are different, each person's personal learning environment should be their own unique combination of tools, networks and methods that help them accomplish their goals."
Can an instructional designer, curriculum developer or instructor actually create learning environments for someone else that are truly personal? Back to Squires' paper, where he proposes two solutions to the paradox of constructivist learning in top-down education systems:
"First, educational users of ICT can subvert the design of software to meet their own needs, i.e. through the way in which they use software, teachers and learners can recast the designer’s intentions."
And the next:
"The second solution is to recognise the essentially subversive nature of the educational use of ICT and deliberately design for such use. Rather than design with constraint in mind, design with freedom and flexibility in mind. From a design perspective I call this ‘incorporated subversion’."
Most people in circles will recognize that nifty phrase as the name of James Farmer's online home, which was was inspired by the paper. Ever practical, he referenced this ethos again three years ago and concluded: "Quite simply until the prevailing approach of online education steps away from passivity, control and the figures, simply providing the tools won’t work." I think James nailed it here.

Although I love the spirit of Squires' paper and feel that the paradox he identifies is perhaps The Big One in education, I wish he had been able to take his prescriptions a few steps further into the realm of true learner-centred experiences and environments; ones where individual learners chose their topics, learning peers, resources and schedules that reflected their personal goals, needs, interests and limitations.

Via Mark van Harmelen's PLE wiki.


Tuur Demeester said...

Actually, schools where children have the freedom and responsability to choose their own goals exist.

they are called Sudbury schools, part of the 'democratic schools'. You can find more information about them at (Sudbury Valley being the first school that used this educational model) The site has a list with similar schools around the world.

You might find this video interesting as well:
It's the trailer of a documentary filmed in Fairhaven school in Washington.

Jeremy said...

Thanks Tuur. I've seen the Fairhaven video and thought it was fascinating -- heard of the Sudbury schools, but haven't really looked into them. I'll check it out.