Power to the Edge

Public charters that assume any part of the traditional educational system into their daily operations are a missed opportunity, and the educational approach is no exception.

Power to the Edge is a text that suggests pushing much of the traditional tasks of leader to the literal troops on the ground.  It is a 2003 Department of Defense (DoD) publication that is part of the Command and Control Research Program (CCRP) which seeks specifically to understand the security issues inherent in the Information Age and how the military can embrace emerging technologies to maintain safety and security.  In the Foreword, however, John Stenbit almost suggests it be given a discipline-specific close reading:

This book explores a leap now in progress, one that will transform not only the U.S. military but all human interactions and collaborative endeavors.  Power to the edge is a results of technological advances that will… free us from the need to know a lot in order to share a lot, unfetter us from the requirement to be synchronous in time and space, and remove the last remaining technical barriers to information sharing and collaboration.

We would be smart to consider these issues when reimagining public education.  An educational interpretation of the text is fruitful to explore.  In the Foreword, Stenbit describes the benefits of shifting from a smart smart push to a smart pull approach in information dissemination, a topic very relevant to educators seeking to shift the heavy lifting of learning from the teacher to the student, moving from an educational approach in which content is pushed to (at?) students by teachers to one in which relevant information is pulled to students based on their interests, understanding of content, and preferred delivery method.

In our modern age, it has become very cheap and easy for any one individual to connect with many other individuals, to allow individuals to select and process information as they – individually or collectively – see fit, to have simultaneous access to information and to each other.   Additionally, this increased connectivity results in “richer interactions between and among individuals.”  It is this new ease with which information can be transferred that should compel us to make the shift from the smart smart push past the alluring smart push approach to the smart pull approach. Stenbit explains the smart smart push approach as follows:

We began the Information Age by pushing information to those deemed to have a need for it.  Of course, the owners of the information needed to be smart both with respect to knowing what information was important to whom, and … they also needed to be smart about how to reach them.  Hence, smart smart push.  This approach to information sharing saved on the scarce resources of its age: processing, storage, and bandwidth.

Reinterpreted in an educational setting his statement reflects what used to be best practices educationally.  Teachers, assessment writers, and curriculum writers are the “owners of information” in a traditional educational system.  And have we not been asked to be dually smart?  “Knowing what information was important to whom” can easily mean knowing each student’s present levels of performance against pre-established curriculum standards.  Teachers gain this knowledge through frequent formative assessments of student learning, and systems such as the Response to Intervention (RtI) method for remediation are built upon such intimate teacher-knowledge of individual students progress toward objectives.

Teachers know all about being “smart about how to reach them” too:  we just refer to this as differentiation of instruction.  Good teachers vary the delivery method based on their understanding of key educational theories such as Gardner’s (1963) theory of multiple intelligences and Bloom’s (2000) revised taxonomy: suffice it to say, teachers need to know who will learn best through a conversation, who will learn best through visuals, who will only learn through hands-on activities, who can’t handle small group work, and so on.  As in a military context, this leader-as-gatekeeper-to-knowledge model may have been appropriate when resources were scarce, but in the Information Age, there is no need for teachers to act as sole sources of knowledge in the classroom.

Many forward-thinking educators and college-level programs have transitioned to a model that looks more like the smart push approach.  Stenbit explains:

The move to broadcast (smart push) removed one of the “smarts,” the requirement for the sender to know everyone who needed the information and allowed (with mobile listening devices) the receiver to be asynchronous in space.

Flipped instruction, MOOCs, Khan Academy, and even more traditional online pay-for-credit college courses are examples of a smart push approach to education.  For teachers in a traditional public K-12 classroom who see 20-30 students as a group a few times a week for about 40 weeks, being able to differentiate instruction by suggesting students access these sites has been a step in the right direction.  But, as Stenbit points out, the smart push still has missed opportunities:

It did not remove the need to know what information was of interest nor the constraint that the parties needed to be synchronous in time.

This is very true in the Prussian paradigm: teachers see students at regularly scheduled intervals broken up either by student age or by content area or some combination thereof.  Teachers are still in the role of interpreting assessment and performance data of 20-30 students to determine who should start trig and who needs more work at basic algebra.  The system itself, not teachers or students, determines when and for how long students will study math: something like 3.5 – 5 hours a week for four ten-week semesters, in schools that use the Carnegie unit.  The looming deadlines of post-assessments and the high stakes that tie them to a teacher’s Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) means the pace set by the curriculum must be kept, whether or not students have actually mastered material.  It seems as though moving to a smart push approach supported by a flipped/mastery instructional method that utilizes technology to individualize instruction is the best a teacher can do within the traditional public educational system.  Much like the DoD, traditional public education has not fully embraced the availability of technology to revolutionize instruction or move to a smart pull approach of information sharing, leaving the teacher — not the student — at the center of the learning.

A smart pull approach no longer requires the “owners of information” – the teachers – to know what is important to whom and how to get in touch with them.  Students pull the information they need, presented in the manner in which they can best process it, to themselves through access to a “ubiquitous, secure, robust, trusted, protected, and routinely used wide-bandwidth net that is populated with the information and information services that [students]  need.”

We want all learners to be “empowered by access to quality information and unconstrained by artificial boundaries and stovepipes,” not paralyzed by the endless possibilities.  Schools seeking to transition to a smart pull approach, in addition to the “entry fee” of access to such a network,  will need to specifically indoctrinate both students and teachers into this new approach to learning as well as address education-specific concerns.

Moving from a push to a pull approach of education requires first a complete shift in thinking about both information and relationships.

Our future success requires that we think about information and relationships differently.  We need to move from a set of monopoly suppliers of information [teachers] to an information marketplace.  Only by doing this will we be able to ensure that our [students] will have the variety of views and perspectives necessary to make sense out of the complex situations they will face.    And only by moving to marketplaces can we ensure that our information collection and analysis capabilities will dynamically evolve to changing circumstances. … This is the only way to satisfy the needs of a heterogeneous population of information users.

Changing one’s mindset and truly putting students at the center of the learning experience in a way that mimics “real world” adult learning is key to making this transition.  Only then can educators begin to focus on actually moving to a smart pull approach.  First, educators will want to constrain student access to information in a misguided (and somewhat legally mandated through CIPA) attempt to protect them from the “real world”.  Schools and communities will need to establish systems by which students and teachers can be  guided to appropriate usage of this powerful tool.  One might look to the New Technology High School for advice on building a school culture that includes no restrictions to the Internet.  Second, when students have access to all of human knowledge in an instant at their fingertips, it seems inappropriate to ask questions that Google can answer: many teachers will need to be coached on how to use technology with students to support the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy so as to clear class time to support the higher application, analysis, evaluation, and creation levels.  New questioning techniques are needed in this Information Age, and educators will need access to each other and to information while they develop these techniques.  Third, rather than fearing and limiting student use of the Internet, teachers will need to provide students with direct instruction on how to use the Internet to support their learning without relying on it as a crutch.  

Deliberately shifting from a push to a pull approach of education is key in the founding of the KnowledgeCraft public charter makerspace and is easily supported by multi-age groupings of students who, supported by a team of content-area experts, attempt to solve an authentic problem facing their immediate community using the resources abundant in their specific community.  Basic knowledge can be built by students pulling information from databases and experts to themselves as they need it; the teachers’ roles now shift to assisting with synthesis of this information and nudging students to examine nuances of complex situations that cast new light on analyses of problems or possible solutions.  Information and knowledge need not be segmented into grade levels and content areas, separating purpose from application, held from individuals until they are the “right” age or in the “right” grade.  Students build knowledge from information collaboratively, with the assistance of a plethora of varying specialists who consider information through the lenses of many different disciplines.  Content areas blend together, so that the STEM/STEAM conversation becomes mute: appreciation for the art inherent in math, design, science, or even a well-constructed sentence is genuinely communicated to students by real domain experts who are passionate about such things.

Young people who learn to pull the right information to themselves, at the right time, from the right sources are developing the kind of skills that allow them to adapt to the ever-changing Information Age, and are well prepared for the world of colleges and careers.

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