Education in all its aspects is in a moment of change, or transition. The idea of ‘New Learning’ contrasts what education has been like in the past with the changes we are experiencing today, and an imaginative view of the possible features of learning environments in the near future. What will learning be like, and what will teachers’ jobs be like?
In order to build a view of what’s happening in education today, we need a broader view of learning – of what people need to know and do in the contemporary world outside the walls of formal educational institutions.
Here are eight dimensions of learning today that may prompt us to formulate a theory and practice of New Learning.
Dimension 1: The social significance of education
Knowledge is now a key factor of production: an economic and thus social fundamental. All the talk of the ‘knowledge economy’ moves education to the heart of the system, as a crucial part of the fabric of economic and social progress. This applies to individuals as much as it does to economic and political society – more than ever, education serves as an essential ingredient of personal ambition and success, even a key determinant of one’s earning capacity. It is also presented by political and community leaders as a mechanism for ensuring social equity, so the ‘have-nots’ get a chance to achieve the success that was previously limited to the ‘haves’.
Dimension 2: The institutional locations of learning
More and more learning is happening outside of traditional educational institutions – on the job, at play, through the media, on the World Wide Web. This produces a crisis of relevance for schools, colleges and universities. In order to become relevant once more, educational institutions should reappraise the traditional boundaries of discipline content, perhaps moving to teach through new modes and subject configurations, recognise and accredit things that have been learnt outside of the program and classroom, and take their teaching mission outside the comfort zones and habits of their institutions.
Dimension 3: The tools of learning
The new media that have transformed so much of our personal, community and working lives require a change in the tools of the teaching trade. In the past, education systems have been relatively slow to respond to the new media, let alone to lead the way in their development and the development of innovations in teaching and learning. Since the turn of the new century there has been a flurry of activity around the role of ‘ICT’ (information and communications technology) in schools, but not yet to the extent that the new media are being used to promote discernible changes in the mainstream schooling experience. Distance learning, learning at home and work, community integrated learning, learning with other learners who are not sitting in the same classroom – the new media allow us to blur the boundaries that neatly enclosed traditional classrooms and learning institutions. Amongst the new tools, the digital learning media loom large, presaging a change that could be as large and as revolutionary as the mass application of the classroom in earlier modern times.
Dimension 4: The outcomes of learning
What kinds of capacity will the New Learning promote? Compared to the form of learning that is characteristic of our recent past, the New Learning is about learning by doing as well as learning by thinking: about the capacity to be productive in the world as well as knowing that world; about action as well as cognition. If the older learning tended to be individualised and cognitive (with educational performance measured by the stuff in one’s head that gives one a competitive advantage, in exams, then jobs, then life), the New Learning adds the dimensions of practical capability and collaborative social learning so that thinking is also connected with an ability to act and to be adaptable, responsive and flexible in a world of diversity and change.
Dimension 5: The balance of agency
The ‘balance of agency’ refers to the mix of teacher and learner subjectivities in the learning process. In the learning of the earlier modern past, teachers told and asked, and learners listened and answered. Syllabuses and textbooks presented the contents of the disciplines, which learners recounted in tests – getting it ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. The balance of agency was heavily skewed towards the knowledge authorities of teacher, curriculum designer and textbook writer. The teacher’s subjectivity was dominant; the learner’s was subservient. This seemed right for a world in which bosses were bossy, political and military heroes led, the mass media propagandised, we consumed mass-produced commodities supposed to be good for us, cultural icons were revered and narratives were to be listened to and appreciated. It no longer seems so right in a world in which agency rather than obedience is becoming regarded as a key to economic and social achievement.
The New Learning affords a shift in the balance of agency in the same direction that is evident in the world at large. This is an evening-up of balance, so that learners are as much makers of their own knowledge as the receivers of it, and teachers are designers of learning as much as they are knowledge experts. In fact, what teachers do in the New Learning is to ‘design-in’ a greater share of learner responsibility for learning and learners for each other in the learning process. As the balance of agency shifts within the broader society, schools and their teachers need to transform the most basic terms of pedagogical engagement to make a useful contribution to the emerging social world.
Dimension 6: The significance of difference
One of the most striking aspects of this shift in the balance of agency is the increasing significance of differences amongst learners to the process of learning. By collectivising individual learner subjectivities under the label of ‘pupil’ and having all ‘pupils’ move through the curriculum at the same pace, all doing the same things, and forcing pupils to move towards a norm or standard, earlier modern schooling tried to maintain a veneer of sameness. To a large extent, however, and somewhat ironically, it achieved this veneer by creating a form of difference; by ranking learners against an average or norm, such that many learners – those who fell ‘below’ the ‘norm’ – literally failed. When we take subjectivity and agency into account, we encounter a panoply of human differences that cannot be ignored in the configuration of educational experiences – material (class, locale), corporeal (age, race, sex and sexuality, physical and mental characteristics) and symbolic (culture, language, gender, family, affinity, persona). In fact, not dealing with difference means excluding those who don’t fit the norm. It means ineffectiveness, inefficiencies and thus wasted resources in a form of teaching that does not engage with each and every learner in a way that optimises his or her performance outcomes. It also cheats the learners who happen to do well: those whose learning styles and habits happen to be accommodated in the one-size-suits-all curriculum, by limiting their exposure to the intellectual and personal experience of cultural differences and different ways of knowing so integral to the contemporary world.
Dimension 7: The relation of the new to the old
Notwithstanding the trajectory of change, one of the peculiar things about the New Learning is that none of the old has gone away. Didactic teaching of subjects-in-themselves is alive and well today in the form of ‘back to basics’ curriculum, teaching to standardised tests, stimulus–response approaches to e-learning, and in teaching fundamentalist religious doctrine: a ‘back to the future’ view of what we need to do to address the difficulties of our times and the uncertainties of our future. These are as much features of education today, indeed are more dominant in many educational systems, as is the New Learning. Sometimes, what is presented as new is in fact old; and sometimes what is presented as traditional is new insofar as it is a reaction to contemporary social anxieties. Didactic teaching may at times even still have a place. There may be moments when it is appropriate. Rote learning, for instance, may still work, at least in part, at certain times and in certain places for certain kinds of knowledge. Moreover, insofar as didactic teaching may be connected with some traditional cultures, in a society that values social pluralism, we are obliged to respect it, so long as it does not disadvantage learners or produce outcomes that are incompatible with democratic pluralism itself. Moments of older learning are, in other words, an integral part of the world of the New Learning.
Dimension 8: The professional role of the teacher
To juggle all these relations – of agency, diversity, learning outcomes, institutional locations – this is the challenge for the new teaching professional. And ‘professional’ is the operative word. The ‘old’ teacher was constructed as a person who habitually took and followed orders, whether as a public servant or member of a religious order. The new teacher is an autonomous, highly skilled, responsible manager of student learning. The old teacher shut the door of the classroom and, apart from the periodic visit from an ‘inspector’, this was his or her private fiefdom. The new teacher is both grounded in the community and a corporate player, a collaborator and a member of a self-regulating profession. The old teacher was an instrument in a bureaucratic system or religious hierarchy. The new teacher is not simply a public servant or someone bound by bureaucratic accountabilities, but a learner – a designer of learning environments, an evaluator of their effectiveness, a researcher, a social scientist and an intellectual in their own right.
The New Learning we are proposing is not a destination, but a challenging journey. The debate about our educational futures is so volatile and stoops at times to such populist depths, that we can’t be sure how the coming revolution in education will unfold and what shape the New Learning will take. The consequence is that the New Learning is not an agenda that can be clearly formulated; still less a specific prescription. Rather, our New Learning is an open call to read the transformations going on in the world, to imagine the corresponding transformations that may need to go on in education, and to plan ways in which educators might lead these transformations rather than fall victim to changes over which they feel they have little or no control.
Professor Mary Kalantzis is Dean of the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a former Dean at RMIT University. Dr Bill Cope is a Research Professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has also worked in a number of Australian universities and is a former First Assistant Secretary in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in the Australian Government.
Subject HeadingsTeaching and learning
Education aims and objectives