Modern Educator Will Richardson: Why Learning Must Adapt

Will RichardsonA generation ago, some students complained they didn’t need to memorize geometry formulas or history dates because they’d never need to use or apply that knowledge outside the classroom. Today, the argument has shifted: Those same facts are readily available to today’s kids within moments — just about everywhere except in the classroom, the one place where the information is required.

For Will Richardson, transforming education in the context of near-ubiquitous Internet access is not so much about new technology as it is educators — not just politicians and business people with other motivations — rethinking their roles.

“Schools by and large have not caught up with the idea that answers are everywhere,” says Richardson, who spent 22 years as a public school teacher and administrator. He began an ed-related blog 15 years ago, and today edits www.ModernLearners.com, a website geared toward a new era of education leadership, decision-making, and the new challenges of rethinking what learning and school can be.

Richardson takes advantage of new tech to forge new connections and conversations with other ed leaders, such as a TEDx video, and a digital book called “Why School?: How Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere.”

Why education needs to change

Social media and the Internet provide unprecedented access to knowledge as well as thought leaders around the world. For example, when Richardson’s class read “The Secret Life of Bees,” author Sue Monk Kidd interacted with his students via their class blog. Truly opening discussions and resources up in such a way changes perceptions about what teachers and students can do.

Once teachers were seen as holding the keys to content, and valued for their ability to disseminate information. Nostalgia for those days can be a block for educators. It’s not just veteran teachers who are still caught up in old modes of teaching. Young people coming out of pre-service teaching programs are trained in a 150-year-old model, he says, where learning is still largely evaluated on a student’s ability to perform well on tests that are unlike anything they’ll do outside of school. He adds that innovation isn’t really supported at most schools — funding may be part of it, but largely it’s a mind shift waiting to happen.

Richardson says there’s a huge and growing dissonance between how kids learn outside the classroom — which he adds is often more relevant and useful than how they learn inside school.

“What are the conditions for really good learning? Passion, interest, real audience. It’s not hard to create that list. How many of these conditions exist in school? Why is it that what we require for learning isn’t what we do in schools? All those conditions exist for kids outside of schools.”

Why tech learning is important for teachers

Richardson’s vision is for material to be learned in a modern context — and for that to happen, teachers have to understand modern technology for themselves.

“It’s hard to change practice in the classroom if you haven’t changed your personal practice,” he says. “You have to be a little subversive. Try different things with technology — don’t wait for permission.”

What education leaders need to fully understand, says Richardson, is that the transition that they’re in the midst of is going to feel more and more of a forward movement.

“In general, we’re moving away from institutions, and education is no different,” he says. “Educators, especially educational leaders, do not have a modern context for what learning looks like. Without that, it’s very hard to do anything progressive.”

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