EdTech’s culture problem

Education is innately cultural. The way we learn is shaped by our environment, our experiences and our belief systems. The EdTech community, for all its promises of personalised learning, has not yet matured to grasp all that this term entails. Instead it throws algorithms and data at Education in the vain hope that every child’s needs will be met: whoever they are, wherever they live, and whatever their circumstances.

In doing so, EdTech perpetuates all the problems of one-size-fits-all models of education: the very thing it is supposed to liberate us from.

My favourite story in mathematics is that of Srinivasa Ramanujan and GH Hardy. Ramanjuan was born and raised in rural India. His mathematical genius was obvious to those around him, but he toiled in an education system that only rewarded conformity. One day Ramanujan stumbled upon a primitive, outdated maths textbook and from that he derived deep mathematical theorems, many of them unknown at the time.

The odd couple: Hardy and Ramanujan

Ramanujan sent his manuscripts over to Hardy, a maths fellow at Cambridge, who immediately recognised Ramanujan’s genius and arranged for him to visit Cambridge. There the two main enjoyed a fruitful collaboration in the years leading up to the First World War, breaking new ground in the field of number theory.

Everyone thinks of mathematicians as all being alike (I’ll spare my brethren a description as it doesn’t end well for them). Yet Hardy and Ramanujan were quite the odd couple.

Their approach to problem solving could not have been more different. Hardy was trained with all the formality that comes with a Cambridge mathematics degree. He was an atheist evangelist and for him logical reasoning and rigorous proof was king. Ramanujan, on the other hand, was from the Hindu Brahmin tradition and relied on a holistic approach grounded in intuition and regular leaps of faith.

What Hardy and Ramanujan had in common is that their environment and upbringing shaped their way of thinking and being. The two men found a balance and ultimately lifted one another with their complementary styles. As Hardy took Ramanujan under his wing, he was mindful of where his protégé was coming from and made a conscious effort not to force systematic instruction on him. Hardy later described their collaboration as the most romantic affair of his life. High praise indeed.

This example is profoundly important because it reminds us that education is a cultural affair. A core purpose of education is to transfer our cultural values from one generation to the next. The way we educate young minds is entwined with the beliefs and practises that underpin society. It is arrogant to assume that every culture is beholden to the same values.

As we scale digital technologies, we have to keep in mind the cultural sensibilities of our learners.

Localisation of educational content has to go beyond translations (though that’s a good start). The way in which we design lessons or present a problem must take account of learners’ dispositions. Personalisation is a complex and multi-faceted goal; it deserves all the nuance we can give it.

There’s a generation of Ramajunans waiting to be discovered with the help of technology, ready to be inspired to take on the world’s pressing problems. But we won’t find them or lift them up if we strip them of their humanity and reduce them to data points.

There’s a lot we can glean from data — a student’s learning progress, their habits and their strengths across a curriculum. But there’s so much more that’s hidden from view.

There is a human story behind every data point and as educators and innovators we have to shine a light on it.

Technology only exists to amplify human effort. It has the power to reinforce existing practices as well as inspire new ones. If we truly want EdTech to be a liberating force, we had better be prepared to connect with students on a human level, to understand their ways of thinking and being, and to recognise that there are no silver-bullet fixes that will meet every child where they are.

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