Book Review: Don’t Go Back To School (Kio Stark)
Online learning is changing fast and it can be hard to keep up, but luckily there are some bright sparks out there who are developing great ideas about the technology, the methods, and the whole approach to education and technology.
Kio Stark is a good example, so I was keen to get hold of her latest book which has a lot to say about an important aspect of our work at Coracle - unstructured and self-directed learning.
A first read of Don’t Go Back To School certainly met my expectations. It gives a useful overview of how people are changing the way they learn today, then hands over to a series of people who have turned self-directed learning into a way of life.
If a knowledge worker is “somebody who thinks for a living”, then the dozens of interviewees quoted in Don’t Go Back To School are perhaps hyper-knowledge workers.
Pablos Holman is “a futurist, inventor, and notorious hacker” who helps firms use innovative technology effectively and is working on ways to mitigate or eradicate malaria. Simone Davalos runs a business educating and entertaining by means of combat robots. Dan Sinker is in charge of the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project, which is meeting the challenges of digital journalism head on.
These are not your grandfather’s businessmen. And they’ve probably done more than you. But Don’t Go Back To School isn’t meant to make you feel bad like some business books are. It’s more an opportunity to listen to some free minds thinking out loud about how they’ve reached the point they have. As they talk, they throw out insights nine to the dozen about how we learn, how we think, the role of experts and the importance of mistakes made.
Indeed there’s too much thought-provoking material in Kio’s book for this brief overview. I’ll focus only on two or three ideas that are most relevant to what Coracle does.
The first is the importance of learning on the job. Time after time these enterprising souls mention how they dive head first into a challenge without knowing exactly how they’re going to achieve it. This is valuable, says David Mason of New Kind, an organisation that helps other organisations create community. “He asked me if I knew anything about XML (a structure for ordering and presenting information). I knew something about SGML but not really about XML yet. But I told him , “Yes, sure I do” because I knew that I could find out whatever I needed to know. I knew I could learn it… It always felt a little disingenuous, but I was right. I could learn it and did.”
The second is that learning is collaborative. Early in her introduction, Kio points out that learning is “a social act. Learning is something we do together. Independent learners are interdependent learners”. Dan Sinker confirms this, saying that “learning outside school is unimaginable to me without engaging with other people”. Kio rightly questions whether MOOCs can deliver the social aspects of learning, since they have, until now, concentrated on putting the lecture theatre experience online.
At Coracle, we’ve taken a slightly different tack, because we think people learn from their peers, learn from experts, and learn by teaching. And that’s why we built the Learning Line. The Learning Line lets you record your progress but also lets you comment on the structured and unstructured content you’ve experienced, ask your tutor questions, discuss tricky ideas with your fellow students and share useful material you’ve come across online.
Don’t Go Back To School is endlessly quotable. Here’s Zack Booth Simpson on why quizzing experts is helpful both to you and the expert:
What’s surprising is how much people get out of just talking with somebody who asks good questions. Even a professor whose work you don’t understand in detail, if you’re excited about it and you’re interested enough to ask good questions, then you’re actually contributing to their work because you’re making them think about what they’re doing. You’re making them answer basic questions without resorting to jargon.
And here’s Jeremy Cohen on the value of failing:
I tend to do first, then ask questions and learn from my mistakes. I’m okay making mistakes and picking up the pieces even when that’s unpleasant. I made a lot of mistakes in time as well as money.
As online and offline learning changes, Don’t Go Back To School raises many interesting and useful questions about what direction educators should be going in. And it will prompt learners to question their own habits.
Because one of the questions a self-directed learner must ask themselves is what to learn and what to ignore. For those happy individuals with endless curiosity, everything looks like gold and there’s a temptation to pursue every promising avenue. Jeremy Cohen sums it up well: “I approached everything as though I was reinventing the wheel … I don’t think that the way I did things was the most efficient way or the way I would do them again”.
Dan Sinker’s approach looks similar: “Here’s how I start: Run at 100mph in one direction, get pretty far and realize I’m in the wrong place, turn around and run 100mph in another direction. It’s not a great way to learn quickly”
But several of Kio’s interviewees give us hints about how they tackle this problem and I believe they show how we, as learners, should approach our own journey. There’s the willingness to use experts as guides, and there are insights into how they organise their thinking about learning and plan their way to an outcome. So perhaps once the current controversies about online and self-directed learning have died down, we’ll start thinking about the challenge of learning how to learn.