Do you like change? If you do, then living in the present is an exhilarating experience. For those who don’t, buckle up as we are only going to see unprecedented innovations at exponential rates involving technology. You can’t run or hide from it. The revolution, or evolution depending on your respective lens, of our world, will transform everything as we know it. We must adapt, but more importantly, prepare our learners for a bold new world that is totally unpredictable. Welcome to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
In Learning Transformed, my co-author Tom Murray and I looked in detail at the disruptive changes we are all seeing currently, but also those that are yet to come. Below provides a synopsis of the book:
Today’s pace of technological change is staggering, and the speed of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent. Consumers may seem well-versed with the latest personal gadgets, yet growth in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, autonomous vehicles, the Internet of Things (IoT), and nanotechnology remains hardly known except to technology gurus who live and breathe ones and zeros. The coming interplay of such technologies from both physical and virtual worlds will make the once unthinkable, possible.
We believe that we are in the first few days of the next Industrial Revolution and that the coming age will systematically shift the way we live, work, and connect to and with one another. It will affect the very essence of the way humans experience the world. Although the 2000s brought with them significant change in how we utilize technology to interact with the world around us, the coming transformational change will be unlike anything mankind has ever experienced (Schwab, 2016).
The Fourth Industrial Revolution, toward which we are facing as a society, is still in its infancy but growing exponentially. Advances in technology are disrupting almost every industry and in almost every country. No longer do natural or political borders significantly reduce the acceleration of change.
Today, we are taking our first steps into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, created by the fusion of technologies that overlap physical, biological, and digital ecosystems. Known to some as Industry 4.0, these possibilities have been defined as “the next phase in the digitization of the manufacturing sector, driven by four disruptions: the astonishing rise in data volumes, computational power, and connectivity; the emergence of analytics and business-intelligence capabilities; new forms of human-machine interaction such as touch interfaces and augmented-reality systems; and improvements in transferring digital instructions to the physical world, such as advanced robotics and 3-D printing” (Baur & Wee, 2015). Such systems of automation enable intelligence to monitor the physical world, replicate it virtually, and make decisions about the process moving forward. In essence, machines now have the ability to think, problem solve, and make critical decisions. In this era, the notion of big data and data analytics will drive decision-making.
To prepare learners for success during the fourth, or even fifth, industrial revolution the notion of education has to change at scale. If all of the change we are seeing has taught us one major lesson it is that schools must prepare kids to do anything, not something. Having current and future generations go through the motions and “do” school just won’t cut it. Just because it worked for us as adults, does not mean it works or even serves, well for our learners. The transition to the Fourth Industrial Revolution does not spell doom and gloom for society as we know it. The idea here is to be proactive, not reactive, and to understand where opportunities lie for growth and improvement in education systems across the globe.
There are two images that come to mind that represent the need to reflect on where education is at in order to move to where it needs to be. The first one below pulled from an article titled Automate This: Building the Perfect 21st-Century Worker, represents the skills our learners will need to compete in a more automated world.
The second image comes courtesy of futurist Gerd Leonhard. This image is a simple, yet powerful reminder of the critical role soft skills and qualities that cannot be measured with traditional metrics will play in preparing learners for success during the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
As Tom and I state in Learning Transformed, “To prepare students for their world of work tomorrow, we must transform their learning today.” Skills are important, but we need to nurture competent learners who can think divergently, exhibit empathy, ask more questions than seek answers, and empower them to own their learning. It begins with taking a critical lens to our work followed by active reflection to determine if we are on the right path. However, it is important to understand that paths can and should readily change and that there might be multiple paths taken to get our kids to where they need to be. Are your learners prepared for the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
A few years back the World Economic Forum came out with an article titled The 10 skills you need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The opening two paragraphs sum up the point of the piece nicely:
By 2020, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will have brought us advanced robotics and autonomous transport, artificial intelligence and machine learning, advanced materials, biotechnology, and genomics.
These developments will transform the way we live, and the way we work. Some jobs will disappear, others will grow and jobs that don’t even exist today will become commonplace. What is certain is that the future workforce will need to align its skillset to keep pace.
The image above shows the skills that will be most in demand in 2020 and probably well beyond. After reading this article I was extremely interested in how schools and educators provide opportunities for learners to not only acquire these skills but also illustrate competence in how they are applied. Some of the skills and how leaners can demonstrate competency are self-explanatory. Others are not. This led me to focus on one skill in particular that crept onto the list at number 10 – cognitive flexibility. What does this skill entail? Below is a good definition from the University of Miami:
Cognitive flexibility is the ability to shift our thoughts and adapt our behavior to the changing environment. In other words, it’s one’s ability to disengage from a previous task and respond effectively to a new one. It’s a faculty that most of us take for granted, yet an essential skill to navigate life.
Spiro & Jehn (1990, P. 65) provide another look at the skill:
By cognitive flexibility, we mean the ability to spontaneously restructure one’s knowledge, in many ways, in adaptive response to radically changing situational demands.
Both definitions seamlessly align with Quad D learning based on the Rigor Relevance Framework as described below:
Students have the competence to think in complex ways and to apply their knowledge and skills they have acquired. Even when confronted with perplexing unknowns, students are able to use extensive knowledge and skill to create solutions and take action that further develops their skills and knowledge.
In my mind, cognitive flexibility might be the most important skill on the list as it incorporates so many of the others in some form or another. Below are a few ideas and strategies on how to help learners develop this important skill:
How we prepare our learners for the new world of work has to be a uniform focus for all schools. The key to future-proofing education and learning is to get kids to think by engaging them in tasks that develop cognitive flexibility.
- Design learning activities the support divergent thinking where learners demonstrate understanding in creative and non-conventional ways.
- Empower students to identify a solution and then come up with a workable solution in a makerspace.
- Allow students to explore a topic of interest in OpenCourseware and then demonstrate what they have learned in non-traditional ways (see IOCS).
- Implement personalized learning opportunities where students think critically, openly explore, and then do using their own intuitive ideas to learn in powerful ways.
- Engage students in a real-world application in unanticipated situations where they use their knowledge to tackle problems that have more than one solution.
- Provide pathways for students to transfer learning to a new context.
“Nothing could be more absurd than an experiment in which computers are placed in a classroom where nothing else is changed.” - Seymour Papert
When it comes to improving outcomes in the digital age, efficacy matters more than ever. Billions of dollars are spent across the world on technology with the hopes that it will lead to better results. Tom Murray and I shared this thought in Learning Transformed:
Educational technology is not a silver bullet. Yet year after year, districts purchase large quantities of devices, deploy them on a large scale, and are left hoping the technology will have an impact. Quite often, they’re left wondering why there was no change in student engagement or achievement after large financial investments in devices. Today’s devices are powerful tools. At the cost of only a few hundred dollars, it’s almost possible to get more technological capacity than was required to put people on the moon. Nevertheless, the devices in tomorrow’s schools will be even more robust. With that in mind, it’s important to understand that the technology our students are currently using in their classrooms is the worst technology they will ever use moving forward. As the technology continues to evolve, the conversation must remain focused on learning and pedagogy—not on devices.
Unfortunately, technology is not a magic wand that will automatically empower learners to think critically, solve complex problems, or close achievement gaps. These outcomes rely on taking a critical lens to pedagogical techniques to ensure that they evolve so that technology can begin to support and ultimately enhance instruction. If the former (pedagogy) isn’t solid, then all the technology in the world won’t make a difference. As William Horton states, “Unless you get the instructional design right, technology can only increase the speed and certainty of failure.”
As I have said for years, pedagogy trumps technology. This simple concept can be readily applied to how devices are being used in classrooms. In Learning Transformed my co-author Tom Murray and I discussed in detail how technology can be an accelerant for learning. There was a specific reason that this was a focus near the end of our book and not in the beginning. Going back to the sage advice of William Horton we stressed the need to improve pedagogy first and foremost. Improvement lies in our ability as schools and educators to move away from broad claims and opinions to showing actual evidence aligned to good research. This is why efficacy through a Return on Instruction (ROI) is equally as important.
As technology continues to change so must instructional techniques, especially assessment. A robust pedagogical foundation compels us to ensure there is a shift from passive to active learning when it comes to devices in the classroom. Passive learning with devices involves the consumption of information and low-level and engagement instructional techniques such as taking notes, reading, and digital worksheets. On the other hand, active learning empowers students through meaningful activities where they actively apply what has been learned in authentic ways. Are learners in your school(s) using devices passively or actively?
There is a vast amount of research to support why learners should actively use devices. Below is a summary curated by Jay Lynch:
Robust research has found that learning is more durable and lasting when students are cognitively engaged in the learning process. Long-term retention, understanding, and transfer are the result of mental work on the part of learners who are engaged in active sense-making and knowledge construction. Accordingly, learning environments are most effective when they elicit effortful cognitive processing from learners and guide them in constructing meaningful relationships between ideas rather than encouraging passive recording of information (deWinstanley et al., 2003; Clark & Mayer, 2008; Mayer, 2011).
Researchers have consistently found that higher student achievement and engagement are associated with instructional methods involving active learning techniques (Freeman et al., 2004 and McDermott et al., 2014).
The primary takeaway from research on active learning is that student learning success depends much less on what instructors do than what they ask their students to do (Halpern & Hakel, 2003).
The natural shift when it comes to device use by students is more active than passive learning. Here is a great guiding question - How are students empowered to learn with technology in ways that they couldn’t without it? It is really about how students use devices to create artifacts of learning that demonstrate conceptual mastery through relevant application and evaluation. What might this look like you ask? Give kids challenging problems to solve that have more than one right answer and let them use technology to show that they understand. When doing so let them select the right tool for the task at hand. This is the epitome of active learning in my opinion.
Passive learning, as well as digital drill and kill, will not improve outcomes. Additionally, our learners need opportunities to develop digital competencies to thrive in a rapidly changing world. Investing in devices only matters if they are used in powerful ways that represent an improvement on what has been done in the past. Knowing is important, but being able to show understanding is what we need to empower our learners to do, especially when it comes to technology.
In a previous blog post, I wrote about the importance of focusing on the why as it relates to learning. Here is a piece of my thinking that I shared:
The why matters more than ever in the context of schools and education. What all one must do is step into the shoes of a student. If he or she does not truly understand why they are learning what is being taught, the chances of improving outcomes and success diminish significantly. Each lesson should squarely address the why. What and how we assess carries little to no weight in the eyes of our students if they don’t understand and appreciate the value of the learning experience.
The paragraph above represents the importance of making the educational experience relevant. In a nutshell, relevance is the purpose of learning. If it is absent from any activity or lesson, many, if not all, students are less motivated to learn and ultimately achieve. Research on the underlying elements that drive student motivation validates how essential it is to establish relevant contexts. Kember et al. (2008) conducted a study where 36 students were interviewed about aspects of the teaching and learning environment that motivated or demotivated their learning. They found the following:
"One of the most important means of motivating student learning was to establish relevance. It was a critical factor in providing a learning context in which students construct their understanding of the course material. The interviewees found that teaching abstract theory alone was demotivating. Relevance could be established through showing how theory can be applied in practice, creating relevance to local cases, relating the material to everyday applications, or finding applications in current newsworthy issues."
Getting kids to think is excellent, but if they don’t truly understand how this thinking will help them, do they value learning? The obvious answer is no. However, not much legwork is needed to add meaning to any lesson, project, or assignment. Relevance begins with students acquiring knowledge and applying it to multiple disciplines to see how it connects to the bigger picture. It becomes even more embedded in the learning process when students apply what has been learned to real-world predictable and ultimately unpredictable situations, resulting in the construction of new knowledge. Thus, a relevant lesson or task empowers learners to use their knowledge to tackle real-world problems that have more than one solution.
Diverse Learners respond well to relevant and contextual learning. This improves memory, both short-term, and long-term, which is all backed by science. Sara Briggs sums it up nicely:
"Research shows that relevant learning means effective learning and that alone should be enough to get us rethinking our lesson plans (and school culture for that matter). The old drill-and-kill method is neurologically useless, as it turns out. Relevant, meaningful activities that both engage students emotionally and connect with what they already know are what help build neural connections and long-term memory storage."
In the words of Will Durant based on Aristotle’s work,” “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” The point here is that consistent efforts must be made to integrate interdisciplinary connections and authentic contexts to impart value to our learners. Relevance must be student based: the student’s life, the student’s family, and friends, the student’s community, the world today, current events, etc.
When it is all said and done, if a lesson or project is relevant students will be able to tell you:
Without relevance, learning many concepts don’t make sense to students. The many benefits speak for themselves, which compels all of us to ensure that this becomes a mainstay in daily pedagogy.
- What they learned
- Why they learned it
- How they will use it
As a child, I was enamored by nature. My twin brother and I were always observing and collecting any and all types of critters we could get our hands on. Growing up in a rural area of Northwestern New Jersey made it quite easy to seek out and find different plants and animals on a daily basis. We would spend countless hours roaming around the woods, corn fields, ponds, and streams in our quest to study as much local life as possible. It’s no wonder that I eventually became a science teacher as my surroundings growing up played a major role in my eventual decision to go into the field of education.
To this day I still can’t believe how my mother tolerated us bringing an array of animals into the house. For years my brother and I were particularly interested in caterpillars. We would use encyclopedias and field guides to identify certain species that were native to our area. Through our research, we determined what each caterpillar ate and subsequently scoured trees, bushes, and other plants in our quest to collect, observe, and compare the differences between different species. We even kept journals with notes and sketches. When we were successful in locating these insects we then collected them in jars. Our research ensured that each species had the correct type of food as well as appropriate physical requirements to either make a chrysalis (butterflies) or cocoon (moths).
In the case of moths, some were in their cocoons for months. Hence, my brother and I stored these jars under our beds. At times we forgot that we had these living creatures under our beds until at night we heard sounds of them flapping their wings and moving around the jars after emerging from their cocoons. I can only imagine what my parents thought of this but am so thankful that they supported our inquiry in many ways from having encyclopedias available for research to providing us with the autonomy to harness our intrinsic motivation to learn. Through it all our observations led to questions and together with my brother and I worked to find answers. Even though we were not always successful in this endeavor, the journey was worth it. Questions and even more questions drove the inquiry process for both of us and from there we leveraged available resources and synthesized what we had learned.
The story above is a great example of how my brother and I embarked on an informal learning process driven by inquiry. We owned the process from start to finish and our parents acted as indirect facilities through their support and encouragement. Both inquiry and ownership of learning are not new concepts, although they are both thrown around interchangeably as of late, especially ownership. Deborah Voltz and Margaret Damiano-Lantz came up with this description in 1993:
Ownership of learning refers to the development of a sense of connectedness, active involvement, and personal investment in the learning process. This is important for all learners in that it facilitates understanding and retention and promotes a desire to learn.
After reading this description I can’t help but see the alignment to the story I shared above. We learned not because we had to, but because we wanted to. Herein lies a potential issue in schools. Are kids learning because they are intrinsically empowered to or are they compelled to through compliance and conformity? The former results when learners have a real sense of ownership. There are many ways to empower kids to own their learning. All the rage as of late is how technology can be such a catalyst. In many cases this is true, but ownership can result if the conditions are established where kids inquire by way of their own observations and questions. WNET Education describes inquiry as follows:
"Inquiry" is defined as "a seeking for truth, information, or knowledge -- seeking information by questioning." Individuals carry on the process of inquiry from the time they are born until they die. Through the process of inquiry, individuals construct much of their understanding of the natural and human-designed worlds. Inquiry implies a "need or wants to know" premise. Inquiry is not so much seeking the right answer -- because often there is none -- but rather seeking appropriate resolutions to questions and issues.
The first sentence ties in directly to the concept of ownership, but we also see how important are questions. This is why empowering learners to develop their own questions and then use an array of resources to process and share new knowledge or demonstrating an understanding of concepts are critical if ownership is the goal. The article from WNET explains why this is so important:
Effective inquiry is more than just asking questions. A complex process is involved when individuals attempt to convert information and data into useful knowledge. A useful application of inquiry learning involves several factors: a context for questions, a framework for questions, a focus on questions, and different levels of questions. Well-designed inquiry learning produces knowledge formation that can be widely applied.
Ownership through inquiry is not as difficult as you might think if there is a common vision, language, expectation, and a commitment to student agency. The Rigor Relevance Framework represents a simple process to help educators and learners scaffold questions as part of the inquiry process while empowering kids to demonstrate understanding aligned with relevant contexts. By taking a critical lens to instructional design, improvement can happen now. Curiosity and passion reside in all learners. Inquiry can be used to tap into both of these elements and in the process, students will be empowered to own their learning.