Learning is a two-way street
Today's youngsters, accustomed to fast and exciting audio-visual images, describe school as boring, out-of-touch and irrelevant. So how can we engage them with formal education? It's often argued that we need to "make learning fun", and in this cause the technology of children's digital cultures has been appropriated. However, I think this approach misunderstands the problem and does a disservice to both children and the potential of digital technologies to support learning.
First, because their use fundamentally changes how we interact with knowledge, it opens up ways of thinking about the world that are radically different. As a result, we can't simply "layer" it on top of existing approaches, we need to ask fundamental questions about what and how we need to learn in future. But more importantly, it fails to acknowledge that the gap between children's in-school and out-of-school experiences is characterised and created by more profound differences than the question of access to technology.
A few years ago I was interviewing three teenage boys described by their school as regular truants and by themselves as "losers". Surprisingly, they said that they hated using computers, either in-school or out. We talked for a while about their interests and they finally described, in detail, how they had pulled a computer to pieces for a laugh, destroying it completely. After this admisison, they recounted how they had taken the battered components and used them to supplement the systems for the remote-controlled cars they raced outside school. It was clear that they didn't consider this activity as having anything to do with computers or computing and had never talked about their interests in school with any of their teachers. The in-schoolout-of-school divide is clearly not solely to do with access to technology, but reflects a school culture that sees only certain activities as valuable .
The significance of this for learning was brought home to me when my organisation, Futurelab, was creating an installation for a city street designed to enable exploration of space and science (the Welcome to the Neighbourhood project). We interviewed people about their understanding of space, and noticed that those who felt confident in one area of knowledge were those most likely to take risks, make guesses and be interested in learning in a new knowledge domain, even about something as esoteric as the distance of Pluto from the Sun.
If we are to create educational approaches that engage young people, we need to move beyond the relatively superficial question of how to make learning "fun" (although there's no law to say it should be otherwise) and ask how we can acknowledge and draw on the expertise and interests of young people's out-of- school realities. We need to figure out how we can acknowledge "different" sorts of expertise and interest in order to encourage the confidence to explore, take risks and play in new areas of knowledge. And we need to find ways of doing this that go beyond what the best teachers already do, to the creation of structural and cultural changes in schooling that validate these activities at the highest levels.
There are numerous examples of how we might begin to achieve this. (See Tearing Down the Walls, below). All these projects acknowledge that young people and their communities can also act as experts and teachers if the cultural and physical barriers between schools and communities become more porous. They envisage a future education system as a two-way street, not only "pushing out" and extending educational opportunities, but creating space for and acknowledging the learning and expertise that develops through the myriad mundane and passionate experiences of our everyday lives and the lives of our children.
Keri Facer is director of learning research at Nesta Futurelab tearing down the walls Mudlarking in Deptford www.nesta futurelab.orgshowcaseshow.htm
Welcome to the Neighbourhood www.nestafuturelab.orgresearch projects wttn_ report _01.htm
Not School www.notschool.net Home-School Knowledge Exchange www.tlrp.orgproject%20sitesHomeSchool index.htm