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Sandpits and scorpions


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I’m using the image of Maiya as she’s a schoolteacher meerkat (and ex-secret agent but that’s another story). The point is that meerkats have been found to teach their offspring. They create a sandpit and incrementally teach little meerkats to kill scorpions. They first put a dead scorpion in the pit, and once the young meerkat pup can deal with that, they’ll put a live scorpion in there with its sting removed, and if they can kill the scorpion they’ll then put one in with its sting intact. Once they can kill that the pup has graduated from scorpion academy.



Basically all the elements of learning design are in there: there’s cognitive apprenticeship, experiential learning, zone of proximal development, learning pathway, teacher intervention, assessment, and peer support (other meerkits are watching). The students have their tools (OK claws) to attack the scorpion with. And if occasionally a scorpion kills a meerkit, well that just means your retention rates take a hit.

There’s no way to tell if any of our ancestors applied similar techniques, but assuming they did, it means we probably perfected learning design 10s of millions of years ago.

If anything all we’ve added are the ability to do teaching at a larger scale (lecture halls and MOOCs) so more economically, and add a metacognitive element (learners identify their own learning needs, they learn how to apply their skills to new challenges, like killing invasive species) so more flexibility. But that’s about it.

So what do we need educational research for?

Well for one, it’s good to know why it works, even if that’s just a matter of coming up with a name for things. But in a period of rapid technological change, there’s the fact that the sandpit changes, and the scorpions. All the time. But the claws get an update too. Technological changes and social change also mean that the only way to ensure your pups are always going to be able to adapt to those changes is by teaching them how to continue learning.

The scorpion/sandpit thing came to mind this week because I was at the Telford Schools Conference http://www.telfordeducationshowcase.co.uk/. I was talking about Educational Social Media, and I’ve been presenting stuff on this for schools since Coventry in 2009 where I held a workshop titled “Wikis and twitters and blogs? Oh my!” Is web 2.0 a road schools should be going down?

The answer then was a bit equivocal. This time though there was no difficulty selling the concept to the teachers. In fact a good proportion of them had already used some form of social media in their teaching. The barrier now is the institutions. There is a reticence to allow children to access their mobile phones in school, in case it leads to them using them all the time, and outside the class there’s still not a guarantee children will have access to the technology. Some schools are on systems that block access to twitter.

The fear is that social media are such a can of worms that introducing them is just asking for trouble. And since a lot of social media only allow registration if you’re above a certain age, often the children don’t want to admit to being on it.

The thing is, there really are some problems with social media usage. There’s exposure, by making social activities public, there’s stalking and cyberbullying and loads of other ways of being stung. Like sex ed classes, it’s a good idea to raise the ideas early, before there’s a chance of the damage occurring. And doing that in a safe sandpit like social media in a closed school system seems like a good idea. If bullying and inappropriate posts do occur, then the negative way of looking at this is that the school has facilitated this by putting up the social media system in the first place, but the positive response is to look at it as a teaching opportunity, to provide children with an opportunity to see why it’s wrong.

Unfortunately, although schools are now on board with this as a concept, it looks like local authorities are still shying away from it. Many actually ban teachers from being on FB for example. For them social media are just too dangerous to play with. Which is a bit of a step back from where the meerkats are at. At least they acknowledge they have a responsibility to teach their pups about the stuff that can sting you.



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