The Heart of Modern Learning

Recently, I attended a three day conference focused on Deep Learning in a Digital World. Much of the discussion, by keynote speakers and attendees alike, was about Modern Learning. And much of what was shared carried a sense of urgency. This was a call to arms, a plea to throw out the rule book and completely reimagine education from the ground up. The consensus was that there is a dire need to re-engage students in authentic and purposeful learning. There was significant emphasis on the necessity of cultivating self-perpetuating learners; emphasis on learning how to learn rather than simply receiving a content-driven education. I think there were many in attendance with which this message strongly resonated, myself included. From there the conversation turned to more practical matters. How might this fundamental shift be brought about? It was here that I noticed a significant divide in opinion. For at this point in the discourse, a debate began regarding the role of technology within and in support of Modern Learning.

On one side of the argument I heard that we should embrace technology in the classroom and by doing so, meet our students where the learning is already happening. Furthermore, fostering technological adaptability in teachers and students is fundamental to student success beyond the walls of the classroom. For our current reality is that technology is seamlessly integrated into just about every facet of our society but the classroom.

Yet, on the other side of this debate, it was argued that technology in the classroom mainly serves as a distraction, especially so when technology itself is the focus of the learning. Others cautioned against the rapid adoption of technology out of concern for student privacy and online safety. The challenge of ensuring equitable access across the system added to the reluctance to embrace technology.

All of the arguments above are legitimate and deserve our time and attention. However, when considering practical strategies for implementing a Modern Learning framework in our schools, I can’t help but feel we are asking the wrong question. Why is it that following an exploration of the intangible thinking behind Modern Learning, the conversation usually turns towards the use of technology as the sole means of practical implementation? Technology most certainly warrants serious consideration but I believe it should be in service of a larger, more worthy goal. And that goal is the modernization of the relationship between student and teacher. If we revisit the question “tech or no tech” from this perspective, the issue becomes much less polarized. When our primary focus is the establishment and development of truly personal relationships between student and teacher, then technology becomes a resource that may (or may not) be necessary to support the learning happening in the moment - for that student, at that time, in that context.

For me, this means establishing learning partnerships between myself and each of my students. Genuine, personal relationships that go beyond merely differentiating or personalizing instruction and assessment. Relationships built on trust, risk-taking, and mutual recognition of each other as learners, each of us capable of teaching the other. Partnership is a loaded word. It implies a certain degree of cooperation, compromise, and release of control. And all of the above are necessary if we hope to foster self-advocating, autonomous learners.

It is perhaps with our marginalized students that this matters most. When technology dominates the conversation, we risk isolating these students. Yes, a device or digital tool can support learning and engage students in powerful and unique ways, but knowing which tool to use, when, and how is dependent upon establishing a meaningful relationship first.  Want to truly modernize a child’s learning experience? As good friend and colleague Wahid Khan says it, “begin by caring about who they are and where they’re coming from.”

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