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TEDGlobal: Education and Learning to Leverage Fear

What does technology, entertainment and design have to do with education? At this week's TEDGlobal 2012 conference on "Radical Openness" in Edinburgh, Scotland (which I'm attending virtually, along with others in 71 countries), educators can get a lot of insight from the ways cutting-edge researchers and experts from other fields are dealing with the tectonic cultural, economic and technological shifts in our world.

"What's happened to our pace of learning as the world has accelerated? The pace of change overtakes that of learning," said Eddie Obeng, a business educator. "We respond rationally to a world we understand but no longer exists."

Novelist Karen Thompson Walker said that in times of crisis, people are much more likely to respond to and address lurid but less common fears than those that are more subtle but also more likely—the disengaged school shooter versus the disengaged eventual dropout perhaps. She described the lost crew of the whaling ship the Essex, one of the inspirations for Herman Melville's Moby Dick: After being struck by a whale, the surviving crew decided to strike a much longer course across the Pacific Ocean for rescue rather than trying to reach the much closer Tahiti, because they feared cannibals, but ran out of food and ended up becoming cannibals themselves. She urged people to "think about what our fears really mean."

Students are already well ahead of their teachers and principals in many cases, according to Don Tapscott, author of the 2000 book Growing Up Digital, which described current students as the "net generation."

"Kids today have no fear of technology because it is simply there, like air," Tapscott said. "It's like, I have no fear of a refrigerator."

He, like many of the speakers so far, argued it is vital to teach everyone in schools, from administrators down to the students, to look critically at their own fears and use them to adapt and thrive in a changing environment.

For example, the 2010 release of teacher performance data in Los Angeles public schools proved to be the Wikileaks of the education world, spurring lawsuits by the teachers union and national debates over privacy and the validity of the evaluation system. Yet in Tapscott's view, teachers and education leaders can only expect this sort of transparency to increase at every level, as more student and teacher data becomes accessible not just to researchers or lawmakers, but to the public at large.

"Institutions are going to be naked," he said, "and if you are going to be naked, fitness is no longer optional. If you are going to be naked, you better be buff." He argued that institutions should stop being afraid of this sort of transparency and start thinking about how to use it to identify opportunities to "buff up" both the value they provide and in the moral values they represent.

Shimon Schocken, a former dean at Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel, and developer of one of the first crowd-sourced online computer science courses, agreed. "We're obsessed with grades because we're obsessed with data, but it takes all the fun from failing," he said.

Schocken hopes that as more student data becomes available—via not just testing but also online user information—we will move to more holistic evaluation that encourages student experimentation. He has been developing a series of math-learning games for young children which allow them to learn mathematical concepts like finding the area of various shapes through experimentation. Educators not only have to teach, but provide environment for self-study, self-exploration, self-empowerment, he concluded.

I'll be following more on the ideas percolating at TED this week on Twitter @sarahdsparks.

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