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Two Decades of Change

I am going to make a confession – soon. But first, a story.

I went to my high school class’s twentieth reunion. (No, that’s not the confession, just the start of a story. ) I hadn’t seen almost anyone for those 20 years. It was strange, exhilarating, interesting – a typical high school reunion. That night I had a dream. In it, I was at my 40th reunion, wondering how those last 20 years had flown by so quickly. How could that be? What had I accomplished?!

I panicked, waking up with my heart pounding, not sure what year it was. As I became more awake, I reassured myself it was only 20 years since I graduated, not 40. I still had time.

Well (confession time), the reunion, the dream – they took place 20 years ago. My class recently celebrated its 40th reunion. Twenty years go by very quickly….
It was 20 years ago that my good friend from Australia, Bruce Dixon, excitedly told me about how a school in Melbourne - Methodist Ladies College - and a group of teachers were trying something new, something truly revolutionary – providing each fifth grade student with her own laptop and a software program called LogoWriter. “You wouldn’t believe what those girls are doing! Creating, problem-solving, exploring ideas, reflecting on their thinking! It’s completely changed everything.”

Twenty years ago, I was working with Seymour Papert at LCSI (Logo Computer Systems Inc) the company that developed LogoWriter. Papert had for many years imagined a time when each student would have his or her own “children’s machine” that would be the “instrument” (to appropriate Alan Kay’s term) that made it possible for even young children to explore big ideas, ideas that most people thought too difficult, too complex, too advanced for children to grasp. That in so doing, children would construct a deeper understanding of the ideas that are the foundation of our knowledge (rather than a string of information “bites”) while retaining that passion for learning that we see in very young children. The computer itself was just part of this process – but an essential part. The tools one had to use and what one did with the computer were of even greater importance. And, although providing software tools that enabled these explorations was essential, these tools without ubiquitous access to the technology would not be enough. And providing universal access without rethinking what this made possible would also not be enough.

These ideas all came together at MLC twenty years ago, and it caused some people to rethink education and the role of school in this process. They began to talk to others about what they had seen in that classroom and the idea begin to spread.

In the history of the world, twenty years is a mere fraction of a sliver of a second, a wink of an eye. Twenty years is also the difference between one generation and the next. So, what has happened, what has changed in this time?

Slowly, slowly the idea of ubiquitous access to technology began to spread, with first a little patch here or there, then to larger districts, then whole states and even countries beginning to realize the necessity of providing universal access. In addition, we’ve added the internet and world wide web, new ways to communicate and collaborate, locally and globally, Web 2.0 tools, handheld devices that have morphed into total communication and entertainment units that fit in your pocket. We’ve had distractions such as whiteboards and clickers that made people feel there was universal technology access when actually these were just digitized versions of old classroom tools. While we discussed and debated the possibility of universal access in school, it’s been sneaking up on us outside the school walls so that most of our students (and us) are constantly connected to the giant web of humanity and information. Students have changed because of this and so have their expectations.
So much change in a fraction of a sliver of a second. It makes your head spin.

So on this anniversary, it’s good to reflect on where we are after twenty years and how far we’ve come (or have not come). At the same time, we should also look forward. Twenty years isn’t very long, but the speed of change seems to be accelerating. How will these new tools and the changed expectations of today’s youth – tomorrow’s parents – change our vision of what school should be? What can we – should we - do in this process of re-imagining the role of school and providing unlimited learning opportunities for all students? In twenty years, what will we accomplish?
March 23rd, 2010 @ 2:28PM