Reimagining Environments for Learning

In the movie Contact, based on Carl Sagan’s novel of the same name, we make contact with aliens and are given instructions on how to construct a space-traveling pod, presumably to be able to travel to visit this alien world. After a series of mishaps, the main character, Dr. Arroway (played by Jodie Foster), is strapped into a chair inside the pod to set out on the journey.

The interesting thing about this space pod is that the aliens did not include a chair of any kind in the plans for the space pod. The engineers felt it was critical for the safety of the person traveling in the pod to be in some kind of chair.  It was the way things had always been done in Earth’s space travel experience.

Shortly after the journey begins, and she is shown to be traveling through a series of wormholes, the chair begins vibrating intensely, and it is obvious that this is causing some distress and discomfort to Dr. Arroway.  When she notices her necklace break loose and that it floats effortlessly inside the pod, she releases herself from the chair. Almost immediately after Dr. Arroway releases herself from the chair, it breaks off its pedestal and violently crashes into the ceiling.

This scene reminds me of our current educational practices: students all learning the same thing at the same time, in the same space, using the same textbook.   It worked for previous generations, so it should be good enough for present and future students, right?  Students are in effect, strapped into a chair, and given very little wiggle room to really explore things in-depth, follow their path of interest, creatively problem solve, or practice other vital learning skills.  We seem to lack the imagination or ability to break free from the environments that we have always built for learning.

It is said that it is more difficult to unlearn old ways of doing things than to learn something new. So many people are weighing in on the need for educational reform, but with such limited visions of how to go about preparing today’s students for the world in which they will be living, with its profound technological advances and ability to access unlimited information, communicate globally, create, and share new information and ideas. How can we structure learning to allow students time to practice these skills, while still assuring students receive the needed base of knowledge to actually do something with the information they acquire?

While we are seeing more and more use of technology in classrooms, it is not often in transformational ways .  Technology has the potential  to personalize the learning experience for each student – yet as long as teachers feel the pressure to “cover content” – they are wary of using valuable class time or taking the risk of letting students use technology to explore and learn things that they are passionate about.

Let’s reimagine what learning looks like through the power of technology. If the structures we have in place such as traditional classrooms, schedules, seat time requirements are holding us back- then we need to open our minds to new possibilities.

Author: Nancy White

Learner, Curator, Innovator, Teacher, Librarian, and Collaborator. Passionate about designing learning that is engaging, relevant & sticks. 20+ years in education.

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