New Paradigms for Learning in the Digital Age

A Presentation by Connie Yowell at the First Annual Symposium of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center

May 9, 2008

Connie Yowell of the MacArthur Foundation photo [Background: The presentation that left the strongest impression on me during the Joan Ganz Cooney Center’s Symposium was the four minute speech delivered by Connie Yowell, the Director of Education for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Before Connie Yowell spoke, the symposium’s keynote speaker Bing Gordon, the Chief Creative Officer of Electronic Arts, discussed his experience developing video games for EA. He gave an enlightening presentation about the successful video game franchise Madden Football. What was most impressive about Bing’s presentation was the amount of mathematics, statistics and probability that are an integral part of the game’s experience. To hear the recording of Bing Gordon or Connie Yowell’s presentation, please refer to my prior blog post.]

“Good afternoon everyone. I’m Connie Yowell, the Director of Education at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. I want to start off by saying that we do a lot more than give out “genius awards” even though that’s how Bing Gordon of EA referred to us in his introduction. One of the things we do at the Foundation is award a fair amount of education grants.

Two years ago the MacArthur Foundation began to question how effective our grant making was. We were really focused on district reform, school reform, and instructional improvement. It was suggested to me that I begin to look at the digital world. I did so kicking and screaming. My heart has always been in social justice and in civil rights. I understand that education is the pathway to that result.

I had a lucky opportunity one morning to meet with Will Wright, the video game visionary behind The Sims, SimCity and SimEarth. Will was kind enough to have breakfast with me and I spent two and a half hours listening to him talk about how he creates a game. I distinctly remember leaving that meeting and emailing my boss immediately thereafter to say “I just met John Dewey.” There was no question in my mind that game developers and the folks who are working on some of these new technologies are the pedagogical theorists of the 21st century. They are the folks who are developing curriculum for our young people.

I have just one point to make and that being my greatest concern is with who we are as adults. My concern is with the paradigms we bring to this work. My concern is that we are at a time where we need dramatic changes and shifts in how we think about learning. My concern is the paradigms we bring to this conversation.

I’m curious, of those of you here in the room, how many of you, prior to or even after seeing Bing Gordon’s presentation, could watch somebody play a Madden Football video game and recognize where learning is happening in that game? [About 12 hands go up in the crowded room of more than 150 people.] I see a few of you could. If you can’t understand where learning is happening through the Madden game, then we’re in the wrong paradigm. If you’re stuck in conversations about whether or not the Encyclopedia Britannica is better than Wikipedia, then we’re in the old paradigm.

What matters dramatically at this moment, for me and for the Foundation, is that we ask the right questions. You can’t get to the solution and you can’t understand what direction to move in unless you’re asking the right questions. So if you look at Encyclopedia Britannica and you look at Wikipedia and your questions are about credibility, then you’re probably more concerned about something from the 20th century. If you look at Wikipedia and you say “Oh my God, this is going to teach my kid how to be a historian!” it’s then that you’ll see this is an incredibly different kind of learning opportunity and a fundamentally different kind of reading practice that our young kids are engaged in when they’re looking at Wikis and blogs and other things on the Internet. We cannot measure what they’re doing or understand the learning that is happening in context with our old measures – our old paradigms for learning, and frankly, our old understandings of learning that are based on models of consumption.

We’re in a time of participation. We’re in a time of production. And as important as participation and production are, we’re in a time of networked learning. I want to say that over and over again; We’re in a time of networked learning, – where kids are communicating and collaborating with each other in ways that fundamentally shift the role of the teacher and fundamentally shift the role of the adult. If anyone thinks a classroom of 25 kids with a teacher at the front is the paradigm that will result in the most effective use of digital media, that result is not going to happen. We can’t be using the same kinds of standards and measures or think that we’re simply going to move digital media into schools as they currently exist. We will only find that they have no impact. And then we’ll miss one of the most important opportunities for advancing our kids’ learning that we have had in over a century. I can’t express this with enough emotion and importance; we are in a moment, and if we ask the wrong questions, if we stick with our questions from the 20th century, and hold the new digital media accountable to things we’ve been holding accountable in the same ways for decades, we’re going to miss this opportunity.

I would also like to point out that commercial industry is driving learning. They are fundamentally driving learning. They have outstripped anything the textbook industry is doing or anyone else. What has to shift in a significant way is the relationship with and our understanding of the relationship between public and private, and I think that’s a good thing. Thank you.”

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