Education is Experiencing a Speciation Event

So often the analogy of evolution is drawn when speaking of societal or technological developments, and rightly so. There is much to learn from how our biological and ecological world function that we can extend into the social sphere.

Sometimes though, we don’t take full advantage of the analogy we apply, and evolution is a great example of this.

At this point, most people accept the theory of evolution, and recognize the evidence that supports it is pretty diverse and numerous. Evolution itself though, has also gone through several refinements, and one of these speaks clearly to what we are seeing in education. The theory of evolution often is connected to a concept called gradualism, where evolution is a slow and consistent process that happens over a vast amount of time. One species slowly turns into another species as it improves its fitness in the environment. However, there are (naturally) antagonizing views, one of which is called punctuated equilibrium. In this model, evolution happens in fits and bursts (well, on a geological timescale). For long periods a species changes little, and then kapow, something occurs which leads to rapid speciation. This second model, punctuated equilibrium, is actively being reflected in education as we speak. Our society experienced over a century of effectively the same model for learning: send kids to a full time job, which is to learn all that society deems essential. We call this school, and while a time traveler from the past would find a lot confusing about the world, they would feel feel an eerie comfort in how little the world of education has changed.

That is, until recently.

Something happened. The pandemic triggered a rapid shift in approach on how students may learn, and now we are on the path to something quite different.

Virtual Learning Becomes Mainstream

Virtual learning has been the dominant form of learning around the world for nearly 2 years now, and for better or worse it seems that type of learning will not go quietly as our ability to learn in person re-appears. In the adult education world, the shift into this more reflected the gradualist concept of evolution. Slowly, a growing number of adults chose to learn through virtual means. It suited their schedules better, allowed them to upskill while holding a job, and often costs less.

Young people did not get eased into distance learning. In a matter of days I went from meeting my students in person to seeing them exclusively online. There was no adaptation period for either the educators or the learners, we just had to. In many respects, the quality of learning suffered. Kids had yet to learn independent work ethic, and were suddenly facing full unsupervised days. The interactive nature of the school I worked in translated poorly into the online realm, and our overall engagement fell.

It was not all negative though. With many families the desire to be more connected to their kids turned into a need, as the parents had to increase their presence and become a collaborator in the learning experience. Others started to question the value of what their kids were learning, and some kids started to ask fundamental questions around what learning really means to them.

This process rejigged mainstream education to align with a radical shift we had already experienced in the world of technology. Moving forward, after the strangeness and shock of such an abrupt change, virtual learning will always be part of the education landscape.

Furthermore, as the metaverse starts to come online the demand for a virtual education will only intensify. Why spend money maintaining physical infrastructure when you can build virtual schools for a fraction of the cost?

An Emergent Species of Learning

Speciation is hardly linear… one species does not only grow to occupy the other’s niche. Instead, multiple new species can arise where there once was a single species, each meeting the demands of new niches.

Until now, virtual learning has filled the gap left by traditional education imperfectly, and left another niche untouched: that of in-person experiential education.

It is in this second ‘species’ of education that I find the greatest hope.

There still is a strong need for real connections to real people in real places. While virtual learning continues to grow and hone its ability to meet the content and learning outcomes elements of the old order, it leaves a door wide open for place based experiential learning to meet other needs.

My own learning journey was deeply rooted in experiential pieces. I recall clearly those summer camps when I learned to sail a boat, the field trip to Mammoth Caves I took with the geology club, and the summer semester I had at a research station on the coast. When I consider what is formative to who I am, those count for a lot, despite accounting for only a fraction of the time I spent in formal education. This trend stands true to nearly every student I can think of, whether young or old. Experiential learning is a driver of both what we care about and who we are.

As virtual learning takes a greater role in ticking the boxes mainstream education continues to demand, there is an opportunity for place based education to shift to a more human centered version of itself. Educators at various sites may choose to focus on building strong relationships, creating experiences which foster wonder and awe, and design collaborative experiences that cannot be replicated in a virtual sphere.

What is more, another wall could be removed as we diversify education. There is no longer a view that education happens in school, and the rest of life plays second fiddle to this. After nearly two years of online learning society has grown to accept that credible education can happen anywhere.

Here lies an opportunity. For some time now there has been recognition that school could not provide the diversity and flavor that most kids need, and so parents enrolled their young ones in a host of lessons. While after school language learning, ballet, or sport clubs may be joyful for kids, it is also a lot of stress to fit in this load of learning on top of an already full day at school. Terms like helicopter and tiger parents aren’t worn as badges of pride in most circles.

Part of the challenge lies in the fact that institutions are unable to formally appreciate that learning happens everywhere. No school that I have encountered factors in the student’s entire learning experience. Some may allude to it, but none I am aware of truly accommodate it. This can and must change.

Through a way of considering how to build better networks for homeschoolers, I founded the Zeno Project. The premise is simple enough… create a database of all location based learning experiences, followed by a standard so those experiences may communicate among themselves about the learner (with the learner’s permission of course). Through this I found the tools and framework to turn such a concept into a reality already exist, and are ready to be applied to the newly liberated student, one who lives in a world where school does not own learning, nor does it exist solely online.

Noan Fesnoux is an educator, a technologist, and lover of the natural world. Over the past year he has been seeking for a way to create strategies for education to grow beyond the walls of a school.

All icons in this article were the creation of Luis Prado, a generous contributor of icons for the Noun Project. It was through this article written on his design experiences that Noan chose to experiment with using icons instead of images, and thanks to the power of a creative commons all collaboration happened effortlessly and at the speed of ideation.

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