Personally significant learning

Why our kids need a powerful disposition to be self-managing learners when they finish their schooling, why they are unlikely to have it, and what we can do about it.

For some time now it has been obvious that middle class kids are becoming more vulnerable. This is so despite the fact that they may be living in nice homes with supportive parents and attending well resourced schools and having comforts that their Third World counterparts can only dream of. They are vulnerable because learning is not personally significant to them. Kids who learn to avoid the discomfort of unfamiliar ideas, who do not welcome the instructive complications of error, who think learning is a boring necessity because it is basically about preparing for tests, who are reliant on parents and teachers to tell them what to do, or to do it for them, who expect university degrees to be passports to employability and financial security – such kids are now in real trouble.

We are not suggesting that there is any intention on the part of the caring adults in their lives to do kids out of a rich and rewarding future – indeed, the contrary is much more likely to be true. The problem is that global transformations have made a nonsense of the scripts we still invest in to prepare young people for their living, learning and earning futures. There is no point in preparing them for a twentieth century future by relying on the rules for social advancement that worked for us back then. Put bluntly, it is not just unhelpful – it is downright dangerous.

The Ten Propositions we set out below are intended to help us all unlearn what counts as the best educational experience we can provide for our kids and their teachers, and work towards more relevant schooling.

Proposition 1: The future isn’t what it used to be

It is not so long ago that we thought the future would be about a much higher visibility for Big Technology – that, in a world congested with machines, we would be wearing metallic spacesuits and being served by humanoid robots with metallic voices. This was before the advent of the internet and its affordances for living, learning and earning. Now, in this second decade of a new century, we are coming to understand that the key marker of new times is the way in which the data we use to live, learn and earn is being transformed.

Data transformation, in turn, is making for massive cultural transformations. Both Facebook and Twitter are technologies that have transformed who we connect with, where and how. According to IBM’s Norbert Ender, speaker at the recent ZISInnovate ThinkTank[i], we are seeing vast changes to our world as a result of the 15 peta-bytes[ii] of information per day being generated in and through online data systems. For instance, with more people on Facebook now than living on earth at turn of twentieth century, and with over two billion people now connected by the web, we have unprecedented ways of connecting and engaging with each other, with work, with government and with organisational systems. Commercial operations whose business once relied on vertical hierarchies of management and vertical supply and demand chains have been transformed into horizontal networks in which the flow of data is unprecedented and in which any node that does not add value can and will be by-passed. Digital tools are affordances that baby boomers have adapted to, but young people take them for granted – not technologies, just living. So it is no miracle, for our young people, that it is now possible to search 100 billion pages in fifteen seconds – indeed, they are increasing frustrated by what they perceive as delay or slowness of access or delivery.

Yet the digital revolution is just beginning. If, as futurist Ray Kurzweil argues, ‘the Singularity is near'[iii], then the current capacities of computers will soon allow computing intelligence to become more pervasive, merging with human consciousness to change our very ontology as human beings. And all of this at a time when global crises of one sort or another – environmental, financial, social, moral and ethical – threaten the planet’s very survival.

Those young people who grew up with the web as a constant in their lives – the digital natives – are no longer future managers – they are already in the workforce and in management in large numbers, challenging a more techno-fearful generation of baby boomer managers who have had to adapt to unique cultural transformations in the home and the workplace. Like their peers elsewhere, the under thirty-five year olds have arrived with the understanding that being lied to is a constant condition of their lives. Every automated message that tells them ‘your call is important to us’, every bit of spam promising massive lottery wins or inherited millions, every packaged deal of ‘unbeatable’ offers, adds to their mistrust of all but perhaps a handful of their closest peers.

The disposition to mistrust can be a useful one, as all good scientists know, as long as it can be harnessed as scepticism rather than hardening into cynicism. The world-weary ‘whatever’ shoulder shrug, satirised so often as typical of our kids’ response to the pushes and pulls they experience in their lives, may well be symptomatic of the latter. So those who promise to prepare young people to meet the unparalleled challenges they face in the future – and most schools make just that promise in their glossy brochures and mission statements – really have their work cut out to deliver on that promise.

Proposition 2: We cannot teach kids what they need to know

This is so because of the way data itself, and the way we engage with it, is being transformed. As digital guru Moshe Rappoport explains[iv], the four ‘V’s: the Volume, Variety, Velocity and Veracity of online data make it impossible for educators to create a knowledge base that will prepare young people for their post-schooling life. Volume matters because the current rate of data generation will continue to grow exponentially. Variety will matter, because, of the two broad types of data we currently engage with, Data at Rest and Data in Motion, the latter is exploding as more smart objects are developed (e.g. storage spaces that make business decisions) and as computers become better at deep analytics (e.g. for the first time, the Jeopardy game is better done by a machine than a person – computers are starting to get nuance). The Velocity or speed at which data moves is also growing exponentially; it is predicted to be 10,000 times faster than today if it is to meet the needs of entrepreneurial businesses in the next decade. In other words, the speed of light is now too slow.

With so much data being generated so fast and for so many purposes, how to make decisions about whether and how to trust data, will be a key factor in whether and how young people can live optimally in their future world. If at least eighty per cent of data is likely, as Rappoport claims, to be misleading or unreliable, (e.g. ‘averages’, or aggregates are often ‘true’ but misleading), then the capacity to judge data Veracity will need constantly to be the subject of updating, unlearning and re-learning.

It follows that asking kids to spend a great deal of their time memorising bits of data (for example, those needed to perform well on standardised pencil and paper tests of static disciplinary knowledge), becomes a ludicrously dated activity in the context of this data explosion. This does not mean that there should be no curriculum content in programs of learning in schools and universities, but it does mean that the ‘coverage’ culture of the twentieth century classroom – the idea that we can and should educate young people by asking them to remember lots of discipline-bound ‘stuff’ – is a side issue when it comes to building capacity to thrive in a very different world of knowledge production.

Proposition 3. Learning matters more than knowing

The cultural transformations that are being produced by the online data explosion are a sign that the bottom has fallen out of the predictable social world for which we educate. Put another way, capacity and competence cannot be extrapolated from success in discipline-based exams or the ability to imitate low level knowledge transactions. The best we can do is to ensure that our young people develop a high functioning disposition to learn and to make smart choices about what, how, where and when they learn. This disposition would be evident in their relentless curiosity, their agility with a wide variety of knowledge systems, and their ability to unlearn, to put scepticism to work in their own interests and the interests of others. And all this without having their hand held by teachers or parents.

When their learning matters more than their knowing, then young people get to practise what Charlie Leadbeater calls useful ignorance[v]. It is our knowledge, he insists, that prevents us from taking risks, not our ignorance. This is as true for teachers and parents as it is for kids. When we are sure that we ‘know’ what effective teaching or parenting is, we are less likely to move away from these certainties, to take risks or experiment in ways that appear to deviate from what we know to be true.

In schools, we generally mandate content, ‘cover’ it, and test it as fixed and immutable knowledge. Meanwhile, the speed at which new knowledge can be acquired and the speed with which that knowledge is being displaced is increasing at an exponential rate. This is true not only in the professions, but at all levels of economic and social life. According to the Tough Choices or Tough Times Report of the US National Center on Education and Economy:

Line workers who cannot contribute to the design of the products they are fabricating may be as obsolete as the last model of that product … auto mechanics will have to figure out what to do when many of the computers in the cars they are working on do not function as they were designed to function…, software engineers who are also musicians and artists will have an edge over those who are not as the entertainment industry evolves …[and] it will pay architects to know something about nanotechnology and small business people who build custom yachts and fishing boats will be able to survive only if they quickly learn a lot about the scientific foundations of carbon fiber composites[vi].

In this scenario, the capacity to learn, unlearn and re-learn fast will beat knowing every time.

Proposition 4. To choose to learn means choosing the discomfort of the unfamiliar and the not yet

Lifelong learning, like ageing, is not for sissies. Those young people who have been given to understand that comfort, security, and easy success are their birthright, who are used to doing low level clerical work in low challenge classrooms, will find that the confusions and complications of actual learning to be a real eye-opener. No-one can blame our kids for expecting to be affirmed for their efforts, no matter how insignificant, or their opinions, no matter how uninformed, given the therapeutic idiom of schooling in recent times. What will count for future living learning and earning, however, is the ability to stay in the grey of not knowing and not yet, to tolerate the discomfort of unfamiliar concepts, to imagine strategies for engaging multifarious methods to generate new ways of thinking and doing. Kids who have only known comfort are unlikely to choose to move away from it.

There are, however, some lessons we can learn from history about the importance of tolerating discomfort. One of the great strengths demonstrated by those Chinese who left their homeland in the nineteenth century to seek and find prosperity in very distant and different parts of the world was their ability to ‘sleep anywhere and eat anything’, to tolerate short-term discomforts in the pursuit of long-term reward. This is not, in general, a disposition that we have encouraged in our young people. Instead, we are more likely to see teachers disseminating worksheets that ask little in terms of creative thinking, and parents taking over homework tasks or worrying about any task set for their child that might initially be confusing or complex.

Put simply, if our young people are to take their rightful place as active and ethical participants in this fast-changing world, they need more than low level clerical skills, or even traditional disciplinary knowledge and high levels of literacy and numeracy. They need a broad set of creative capabilities that heighten their ability to select, shuffle, re-combine, or synthesise existing facts, ideas, faculties and skills in original ways. Most important among these capacities is a disposition to welcome the instructive complications of error-making, rather than simply ‘playing safe’ through passive imitation and memorisation.

Proposition 5. Schooling needs to provide kids with low threat, high challenge experiences

Educators learned some time ago that all kids learn best when they feel supported, not made to feel inferior or restricted or afraid. So it is not a matter of going back to a time when schooling meant sitting silently with hands behind backs in individual desks in rows, nor to the sort of punitive culture that measured each child’s worth in terms of their latest test result. The way forward for schools is to maintain the high level of learning support we now know to be appropriate, but to increase our expectations of kids in terms of risk-taking and innovativeness. This means, among other things, designing tasks that allow kids to ask better questions, not just give correct answers. It also means that high praise is not easily or quickly won, because complex task design militates against instant or easy success. Support is high, but so too are expectations and challenges. In his manifesto Stop Stealing Dreams, writer Seth Godin argues that the lowering of expectations in relation to high-powered learning that maps on to real living is tantamount to stealing from kids the opportunities they might otherwise have had to know confusion and come out the other end. He says:

The puzzles of math and physics are among the most perfect in the world. They are golden opportunities to start young adults down the path of lifelong learning. The act of actually figuring something out, of taking responsibility for finding an answer and then proving that you are right—this is at the heart of what it means to be educated in a technical society. But we don’t do that any longer. There’s no time and there’s no support. Parents don’t ask their kids, ‘What did you figure out today?’ They don’t wonder about which frustrating problem is no longer frustrating. No, parents have been sold on the notion that a two-digit number on a progress report is the goal—if it begins with a ‘9’[vii].

If low threat, high challenge teaching is confronting for parents who are test-driven, it is also confronting for those teachers convinced that challenge new technologies are making young people too distractible to learn in any sustained and meaningful way. Distractibility is not, however, a mental illness – it can and should be harnessed for learning by ensuring that learning intentions remain clear. This is the same logic used by a writer who jumps to the thesaurus or checks a reference or a statistic or investigates a new angle or simply stops and stares out of a window. While it is highly likely that today’s young people will be turned off by lectures and long-windedness on the part of their teachers or parents, it is not enough that they are simply kept busy doing low-level tasks to stop them from being distracted. More than ever, the learning intention of a task or activity needs to be clearly articulated and ‘owned’ by all who are engaged in it. In an ecology of constant interruption such as the Web world, the teacher who is most effective in helping kids learn to learn is the one who works at the intersection of intentionality and distractibility.

Proposition 6. Teachers have new responsibilities as co-learners in this scenario

If teachers are to build the skills needed to work at the intersection of intentionality and distractibility, then they will have to unlearn many of the mental models that frame what counts as good teaching. Most baby boomers know that the ability to a teacher to ensure ‘every eye on me’ was the hallmark of the effective post-war teacher, the Sage on the Stage. The teacher’s job was to instruct, inspire, scold, cajole. A ‘pupil’s’ job was to listen, attend, absorb, regurgitate. The predominance of that style of teaching is supposed to have been overturned, and in many schools it has. Child-centered education has for some time now been the high ground of pedagogical work, and a great deal more attention has been paid, in turn, to the needs of kids as individuals with differing backgrounds, interests and learning preferences. The focus on the uniqueness of the child rather than the personality of the teacher changed what counted as effective teaching. Programmes of teacher education shifted to ‘the child-as-learner’ and to teachers as ‘facilitators of learning’. For the professional teacher, this meant a shift from ‘Sage on the Stage’ to ‘Guide on the Side’.

The unprecedented cultural transformations outlined briefly above pre-empt an end to this era because of its propensity to lower the bar on challenge as well as threat.  The speed and complexity of transactions in life, in business and in learning demand a new era of learning engagement in which teachers see themselves as Meddlers in the Middle, co-learning with kids, modelling how to take risks, do experiments, and how to be resilient when those experiments don’t come off.

Medding-in-the-middle challenges the Sage on the Stage and the Guide on the Side in a number of ways. Specifically, it means less time standing out front giving instructions and more time spent being a usefully ignorant team member in the thick of the action, less time spent testing for correct answers and more time spent on giving kids opportunities to ask better questions, less time spent being a custodial risk minimiser and more time spent being an experimenter, risk-taker and learner, less time spent being a forensic classroom auditor and more time spent being a designer, editor and assembler, less time spent being a counsellor and ‘best buddy’ and more time spent being a collaborative critic and authentic evaluator.

As Meddlers in the Middle, teachers focus on how students get to experience learning as personally significant. That is, they make thoughtful decisions about whether the kids they teach need a deep, prolonged engagement or a ‘just in time, just enough and just down the hall’ experience. They ensure that diagnostic learning strategies augment student performance strategies, in order to build their students’ capacity to self-manage. To do so, they devise and use new pedagogical routines, habits, norms, and they are proactive in using digital tools for self-selected learning purposes. Finally, they expect to be constantly updating and improving their pedagogical strategies, seeking out and evaluating formal and informal feedback from their students and their colleagues to do so.

Proposition 7. The challenge for teachers is to re-professionalise, not de-professionalise

Teachers have for some time now been expected to be learners too, but the tools their employers have used for this purpose have generally proven to be very blunt indeed.  In the last two decades, while so much has been happening to open up learning, much has been shut down in the name of cost-cutting and efficiency. We have seen in most western countries the unprecedented intrusion of national agendas into educational policy settings, as governments cut expenditure particularly in the high budget areas of education and health.  These intrusions have been accompanied by new initiatives to establish ‘professional standards’ of teaching and to set up bodies to oversee implementation and accountability in terms of those standards. In turn, professional teacher standards have turned a forensic spotlight on ‘teacher improvement’, evidenced by narrow, measurable indicators such as improved standardised test scores and higher school retention rates.

The implications of these centralising tendencies for teacher professionalism and learning are clear.  Teacher professionalism has been diminished. System-level agendas have moved decision-making to the centre, with schools seen merely as sites of implementation, not cultures of learning. As a result, teacher learning has become standardised, driven by those same agendas, and supported through centralised provision of resources and templates for teachers’ professional development. It is not as though there is nothing of worth in the generic models of professional development rolled out from central office. However, it is clear that packaged PD is not well received by many if not most teachers, nor is it regarded as responsive to local conditions. This latter point can be used as an excuse for changing nothing at all.

Personally significant learning is better served by significant ‘local’ adaptation of central initiatives, whether the learner is a teacher or a student.  If Helen Timperley, an academic with long experience of teachers’ professional learning, is correct when she argues that “adaptive expertise has professional learning at its core”[viii], then site-specific initiatives for adapting teacher practice to the changing local conditions are more valuable as strategies for teacher improvement than generic templates designed to serve everyone and no-one, everywhere and no-where.

When professional learning builds adaptive expertise at the local level, then there is the real possibility of re-professionalising teaching in ways that can complement central frameworks and standards. This requires school leaders to exercise deliberate initiative in facilitating adaptation, through supporting teachers to become more confident and competent professional decision-makers. It also promises a broader learning agenda than implied by calls for greater disciplinary expertise, most often aligned with the ‘coverage’ culture and mandated knowledge.  Re-professionalising means that attention can be given to the learning experiences associated with critical and creative thinking, ethical behaviour, personal and social competence, and the intercultural understandings that are also flagged in the educational policies of progressive nations.

Proposition 8. Teacher improvement is more valuable if it is site-specific rather than template-driven

Re-professionisation and adaptive expertise imply that professional learning is a personal responsibility. They also imply a level of rigour and accountability that moves beyond self-indulgent versions of professional reflection and ‘action research’ towards a collaborative, networked and peer-referenced intellectual environment.  In a context where there is often more diversity within a school than between schools, consideration of the ways to mine the anthill of diverse site-based practice is a valuable starting point for professional learning, especially in larger schools.

How might this be done?  We know that professional learning is optimised where conversation is used as the basis for the negotiation of meanings and intentions, and where those conversations address issues of the ‘why’, the ‘what’ and  the ‘how’ of teaching, with the ‘how’ understood in terms of strategies and routines. Site-specific conversations allow for sharing and borrowing of those strategies and routines between peers.  Sharing and borrowing in smart ways, in turn, allows everyone in a school community to recognise and value the professional expertise that is on-site.  So annotated video-based excerpts, for example, are a very valuable means of sharing – making the pedagogical reasoning behind those practices visible.

It is self-evident that such smart borrowing and smart sharing are likely to be most effective done in contexts of high trust, contexts where the overall goal of teacher learning is improvement through adaptation, rather than compliance and mindless imitation. In such contexts, smart borrowing and smart sharing affords a low-stakes and cost-effective approach to the provision of resources for professional learning.

For too long teachers have worked like Gulliver among their little people. It is time to usher in a post-Gulliver era in which it is normal for teams of teachers to engage with teams of students, where lock-step grades and locked-in classrooms give way to a constant flow of people and ideas within and around the learning communities, physical and online, that make up a school. This flow of people and ideas stands to be greatly enhanced by a re-professionalising agenda in which teachers learn to be smart borrowers from the best of what is going on alongside them. Conversely, it stands to be diminished if and when teachers only look for their salvation to the next all-purpose template or curriculum package from ‘head office’ to land in their collective lap.

Proposition 9. Kids who experience the pleasure of the rigour of learning will always choose to learn

It goes without saying that we are more likely to engage in activities we enjoy, whether they are activities associated with professional learning or learning of any other sort. It follows that we would want young people to find pleasure in the work they do in schools. For some time efforts have been made in progressive classrooms to ensure that our kids come to experience learning as a pleasant thing to do. The imperative to have fun with Maths, or Science or reading has transformed many classrooms from dreary institutionalised settings into colour-filled spaces whose aesthetic is designed to appeal to our kids’ sense of fun and enjoyment.

What is less obvious, however, is compelling evidence that the pleasure of learning in such an environment is equally derived from frequent engagement in rigorous complex problem-posing and problem-solving. Having fun with sums is not the equivalent of the pleasure of relating empirical data to complex formulae and equations, or to innovative models and metaphors. The ability to see the part in the context of a wider and more complex whole, to intuitively or analytically experiment with ideas and their products, to bring function and aesthetics together in value-adding ways, to collaborate in a dynamic team for the purposes of increasing opportunities for successful innovation – all these are the attributes of highly employable young people who know the rewards and deep satisfactions that come from seeking out complex cognitive challenges. In other words, they know the pleasure of serious play. In his book The Play Ethic, author Pat Kane insists that “play will be to the 21st century what work was to 300 years of industrial society – our dominant way of knowing, doing and creating value”[ix]. When young people experience serious play as a normal way to approach their learning, they are likely to maintain their desire to engage the unfamiliar with a sense of keen anticipation, not dread.

Proposition 10. Self-managers with powerful learning portfolios trump those who rely solely on credentials

Once young people taste the pleasure of the rigour of serious play and high challenge learning, they are no longer bound by the conventions of the ‘coverage’ culture, or the sense that the only thing that matters is their next set of test results. In other words, learning becomes personally significant to them.  Secondary students who presented at the 2012 Innovate ZISThinkTank made it clear that, while they valued their schooling and the quality of teaching they received from most of their teachers, their eyes were on a prize far greater than an ‘A’ grade. Some of the highest flyers were seriously considering by-passing university courses, even those as prestigious as Stanford and MIT, into which they had been accepted, because their self-selected learning was so compelling and their self-management of it so sophisticated. They just could not see the point of sitting in lectures or taking three years to complete a degree. They were both capable and impatient.

There are powerful implications here for the future of formal education, implications that schools and universities may not want to hear, much less respond to.  Universities will have to adapt or become obsolete, just as baby boomer managers have been forced to adapt to the new imperatives of a world in which high-powered learning is possible within networks that have nothing to do with educational institutions. It should not surprise us that a number of our brightest and best kids are starting to choose fast-track learning over slow-track degrees. Unfortunately, it is also unsurprising that kids who have been spoon-fed, who have never learned to self-manage, who have been compliant and comfortable, will find themselves pawns in a very fast-paced, high challenge employability game. It is the players – those for whom learning is personally significant and opportunities are created, not found – who will reap the rewards.

Professor Erica McWilliam, Brisbane Girls Grammar School’s Author in Residence 2012, and Professor Peter Taylor

(The authors would like to acknowledge and thank the organisers of the ZIS Innovate ThinkTank ‘Learning 2030: Schools Out?’ held in Zurich on March 15-17 2012, for its contribution to the ideas in this paper.)


[i] The Innovate ZISThinkTank ‘Learning 2030: Schools Out?’ was a 3 day event conducted from March 15 to 17 2012 by The Zurich International School in Zurich, Switzerland. It brought together experts from industry, anthropology, education and technology to focus on the question of whether schools as we know them will be needed in the year 2030.

[ii] That’s the number 15 followed by 15 zeros.

[iii] Kurzweil, R. (2005) The Singularity is Near. New York: Viking Press. Sir Ken Robinson cited Kurzweil’s proposition when he spoke about the future of schools and the impact of technology at the Innovate ZISThinkTank ‘Learning 2030: Schools Out?’ He presented by video-link from Los Angeles, USA.

[iv] Moshe Rappoport is an Executive Technology Briefer with the Zurich-based IBM Research Lab who also presented at Innovate ZISThinkTank ‘Learning 2030: Schools Out?’ in March, 2012.

[v] Leadbeater, C. (2000) Living on Thin Air: The New Economy. New York: Viking.

[vi] NCEE (2007) Tough Choices or Tough Times: The Report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. National Center on Education and the Economy., p.7.

[vii] From Seth Godin. Stop Stealing Dreams.

[viii] Timperley, H. (2011). A background paper to inform the development of a national professional development framework for teachers and school leaders. The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL).

[ix] Kane, P. (2004) The Play Ethic: A manifesto for a different way of living. London: Macmillan.

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