Moving from one-way knowledge transfer to networked learning
Top-Down or Bottom-Up Education?
A lot of traditional education is top-down. When I was teaching for a summer writing camp, I made executive decisions about the curriculum—what we would read, the activities we would do, and the structure of the class. I always gave my middle school students a choice whether to complete a particular group exercise or to work on their own writing projects, and I continuously adjusted the curriculum to their progress and goals (explicit or assumed). Since the camp was a short few weeks long, I felt I had to set a structure in place to create a safe space to hold their unstructured creative work as writers. Thus, the choices students made were limited to what they were going to write, how they would interact with their classmates, and how they would use their time in class—not necessarily about what they were learning or how.
A lot of peer education is bottom-up. When I was working at a medium-sized design firm, I picked up a bunch of skills from my co-workers and bosses. I learned file management, more efficient ways to use software, and how to present my work in client meetings. None of this occurred at “professional development” seminars or with explicit training. One day when I was looking for certain logo files, a co-worker showed me how this particular company organized their files and what he liked and disliked about it. As I was walking by a colleague’s desk another day, I glimpsed something cool on her screen, stopped to chat, and she showed me a couple Adobe Illustrator tricks. During presentations, I observed my bosses and took note of the language they used when explaining and defending our designs. This kind of learning was driven by my curiosity and desire to become a better designer. My co-workers were limited in their teaching to the context of my current questions.
Top-down education provides students safe and reliable structures to learn within, but the burden is on the teacher to plan the curriculum and to ensure their lessons are meeting student needs. Bottom-up education provides teachers context and scope for their knowledge sharing, but the burden is on the student to initiate their own learning and to ensure they’re getting what they want out of the experience. Both remain one-way knowledge transfers.
How about both?
The HourSchool team is working to design platforms that combine the best of both approaches, and in doing so create more directions for knowledge to flow.
I’m currently working on HourSchool’s program framework for peer-education programs at non-profit organizations. Typically before we’re involved, nearly all classes are initiated and planned by staff. (Staff are like the teachers planning the curriculum based on perceived student needs, and the community members are the students.) To start changing this, first HourSchool helps to start conversations about what people want to learn and we introduce request forms—ways for the community members to start asking for the classes they want to see. Now the community members can initiate classes, and the staff continues to plan the logistics. This helps staff and teachers plan classes that are in direct response to student needs and goals. Over time, the staff encourages really active students to start teaching classes. Our program framework scaffolds these community members as they start planning classes and dealing with logistics themselves. In the end, we consider our programs successful when community members are actively initiating and planning classes for other community members.
In reality, there will always be both organization-initiated events AND community-initiated events (top-down AND bottom-up). But instead of just one staff member being responsible for deciding the topics, finding teachers, and setting up ALL the classes, the HourSchool platform allows and encourages everyone within the community to complete any of those steps. The lines also become blurrier between “teacher” and “student.” Everyone in the community has potential and opportunity to be either at different times and in different contexts. In blurring the hierarchy, one-way knowledge transfer gives way to a community of learners. Everyone has something to learn; everyone has something to teach.
Our program framework’s intentions are to:
- - encourage more direct collaboration between the people organizing the education programs and the people taking the classes;
- - shift the learning model from linear to networked; and
- - disperse the responsibility of initiating and planning by sharing it among all community members
The HourSchool team is also currently working on new features for the website that incorporates these ideas of networked learning happening within an active community. Because learning can begin anywhere—top, bottom, or sideways.