Cloisters

I like to hang out in the Harvard Graduate School of Education library. It has a good vibe, is usually full of students focused on my favorite topic, and is set up to enable technology as you well might expect. Every student has their own laptop. Lots of tables have power. The Web is open and free. And the two person desks are arranged in cloverleaf pattern with 4 tables extending from a central pivot. Most of the folks are studying or working on their own, some are working together across from each other. The café keeps the food and drink flowing, and often free food sits atop the long professional magazine counter to provide tempting refreshment, nourishment, and up-to-date research.

But, like nearly every other college and university space, even this one, devoted as it is to the future of education, is a cloister in the fullest sense of the word. Cloister comes for the Latin for enclosure, a place separated from the real world, a place where devotees poured over manuscripts, copying and recopying documents, listening to lectures, and joining discussions, intellectual and otherwise. It was and remains a world devoted to nuance, and like all schools much of the talk is about what is demanded of us, what did he or she mean by that, what will we be evaluated on. So, like students everywhere, these Harvard education students plug miniature speakers into their ears, consult their latest messages on iPhones, and turn to laptops to read, trying to concentrate on understanding, absorbing, and finding meaning in ideas that for the most part are inherently ambiguous and often irrelevant.

Like the cloisters of old, today’s students, like all previous students, are for-all-intents-and-purposes monks, listening to a master speak, then working for the most part on their own, in great buildings where silence is golden and talk is in whispers. When they complete this great institution, they will walk in crisp lines wearing medieval costumes and receive pieces of paper printed in elegant old fonts that say they have behaved according to the ancient rules and rituals that govern schooling.

As was true in the medieval religious cloisters, change in our learning institutions is astonishingly slow. Few new ideas penetrate the walls segregating them from the external world. Rather, our schools like the monasteries of old, seek to perfect their mission and processes. Like the cloisters they are modeled after, our schools are profoundly regulated systems with clocks and bells controlling movement and calendars defining activities. To meet ever growing demands, they have become overly optimized, leading to exhaustion, criticism, and failure. Their mission no longer relates to the modern digital world, and yet they remain steadfast in form and substance, recycling old ideas again and again.

Surprisingly, the solution is at their fingertips. At the Ed School library, most of the students have their phone sitting on the desk right next to their computer. They consult it often. They are looking for the latest news, for the latest posts, for information. They are looking at it to take a break and to get educated, to answer a message or to check on their plans. Yet, as ubiquitous as these small connections to the Web and the outside world are in graduate schools and in elementary schools, they are rarely, if ever, viewed as learning tools in our classrooms. The cell phone in their hands connecting them to the outside world and the computer on their table giving them tools to work with that information are so clearly objects of continuous learning, and yet they are not used for school learning. How could they be, when our schools remain cloisters? Our task is to break down those cloister walls, to open our schools to the real world, and to enable our students to use technology for learning as they are already trying to do.

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