Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Power Shift

Maybe yesterday's post was a mistake: Snap's "I've Got the Power" has been running through my head for a full 24 hours now (yes, I am certain the song entered my dreams) since my post on power yesterday. It's all fine and well for me to smugly proclaim I've got power over my learning, as I go through my days with hot showers, a job, and a couple computers in my heated house. This morning, I woke up thinking about those who are powerless. Power is unevenly distributed in our world. Freire once said:

I didn't understand anything because of my hunger. I wasn't dumb. It wasn't lack of interest. My social condition didn't allow me to have an education. Experience showed me once again the relationship between social class and knowledge (Freire).

I once heard Sugata Mitra speak at a conference I was attending. As an education scientist, he wanted to see if those lacking in traditional schooling could learn through computer-assisted self-organization so he started his Hole in the Wall experiment. He planted a computer with high-speed internet in the middle of a slum in New Delhi and left the village children to navigate their own learning. These children had almost no command of English, and it was their first time seeing a computer. However, when he returned just a few months later, he was amazed by all they had learned. By handing over the power by offering the equipment and then letting them work unsupervised, he learned that groups of children will learn if simply given the opportunity; that is, by having the tools and open, free access to information.

This is in contrast to what critics are saying; that is, that skills such as critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving cannot be learned without first having a knowledge base. They state that "cognitive science teaches us that skills and knowledge are interdependent and that possessing a base of knowledge is necessary to the acquisition not only of more knowledge, but also of skills. Skills can neither be taught nor applied effectively without prior knowledge of a wide array of subjects." Hmm.

Does anyone want to chip in and buy them a flight to India's slums to see for themselves what skills can be learned without a prior base of knowledge? By trying, failing, choosing, collaborating, and controlling their own learning, India's poorest of the poor, given the right tools, gained not only knowledge but also the empowerment to say what Stuart Smalley has known all along:

"How we think about ourselves is as much a matter of learning as anything else." (Downes)


1 comment:

  1. I think you've captured the current tension in power quite nicely. Yes, we do have access to power (though I prefer the more neutral term force) when we access Web 2.0 tools and MOOCs and build our own PLNs; but no, we are not yet free from the centers of power that have dominated us for ages. And those centers are not likely to give up their power in favor of us exerting force. We are in a transition, perhaps a long transition, and the outcome is not certain. Still, I have real hopes in the examples of Mitra and Freire and others, and blogs such as this one, that suggests the freed force of millions will win out over the focused power of the few. Thanks for the post.