Monday, March 23, 2015

Viral Education

Last week, a parent asked me if we could use medical feeding bags, the kind used in hospitals for patients who can't feed themselves. I knew what she was talking about, but had never given them much thought, let alone wanted one for the preschool. My rule of thumb, however, is that if anyone wants to contribute 20 or more of anything we'll take them. She had 30 so I had no choice but to say "Yes."

They came in two large boxes, one of which I put on the workbench along with a couple of old tempera paint jugs full of water and for the rest of the afternoon we roamed the playground experimenting with them.

These kids are already experts on water and gravity, so it wasn't long before one of them figured out that the water only ran through the hose when the nozzle was lower than the bag of water. This knowledge went viral the way knowledge does in a play-based curriculum, where the children often teach one another.

As I watched the play unfold, I began to think of the virality of knowledge. In this age of the internet, we all know about videos and articles that "go viral" through the democratic process of sharing, but this, what the children were doing with the feeding bags, has always been with us. As I heard children urge one another with invitations like "Try this!" or "Look what I did!" I recognized that this is how humans have always educated ourselves, with one person discovering something, then excitedly sharing it with others.

In 1439, when Johannes Guttenberg invented the first printing press, very few people could read. In fact, if I understand my history correctly, it was primarily the domain of the clergy who needed the skill to read and create Bibles. But the printing press suddenly made printed matter widely available. With no notion of formal literacy education, Europeans were left to learn to read on their own, passing on the knowledge from one person to the next, from one generation to the next. 

Literacy rates steadily climbed for a couple hundred years, then surged around the time of the American Revolution when Thomas Payne's pamphlet Common Sense became a runaway hit, selling over half a million copies and 25 printings in it's first year. It's estimated that 2.5 million colonists read it, an astronomical number for the time. Historians credit this viral document with inspiring the 13 American colonies to ultimately declare their independence from British rule.

People wanted to read, they needed to read, so they learned to read. A similar thing has happened, albeit at a faster pace, with computer technology. I have a distinct memory of Dad buying an Apple II+, a machine that came with no software. Instead it came with thick instruction manuals that taught us how to write our own programs. You could take classes on "how to work your computer." Today, our two-year-olds are teaching themselves as these technology skills have gone viral. The idea of a computer class today is laughable, just as a reading class would have been laughable in 1776. 

As I watched the kids figure out how to use those feeding bags, teaching one another, I thought of other kids who are sitting at their desks over worksheets or tests or homework. There is no virality there. In fact, we call it cheating and you're reprimanded if you share your answers or peek over someone else's shoulder. That's why this sort of learning is so hard.

It's too bad because sharing is how good ideas get big.

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1 comment:

Helen said...

Isn't the stand that these bags are on in a hospital setting called a 'tree'? Another great post Tom!