Power Learning

Chapter One - The Student as Thinker, Researcher
and Inventor


Power learning . . .

The student as thinker, researcher and inventor. The teacher as guide, coach and mentor. New technologies open new windows, changing where and how students learn. Schools become information hubs, orchestrating the flow of data across complex networks, linking students across towns and nations.

An Age of Information requires changed conceptions of schooling and the creation of what Toffler calls brainworkers, a generation of young people capable of thinking on their feet, finding answers to puzzling questions and developing imaginative solutions to challenging problems (Toffler, 1990). In order to maintain the health and wealth of this society in the global Information Age, roles of students will shift from consumption of information and insight to production of insight. Smokestack education must give way to power learning.

I. The Passing of Smokestack Education

Back when factories provided the foundation for American success, schools delivered a curriculum to prepare most young people for spots on the assembly lines, a curriculum which stressed compliance, memorization and scripts. A small percentage of the population was groomed for leadership by means of a tracking system which sorted and sifted students into levels of potential early in their school careers.

Today the factory system of the 1950s and 1960s has moved off shore (Henkoff, 1992). Ours is an information-based and service economy which prizes flexibility, imagination and innovation. Japan's success with total quality management has driven a movement to involve front line workers in continuous improvement. What factory jobs remain increasingly depend upon "informating," a term coined by Shoshanna Zuboff to describe the powerful use of data to adjust production and service as opposed to automating which reduces procedures into relatively rigid computer programs (Zuboff, 1988).

The National Alliance of Business calls for workers with "the fourth 'R,' workforce readiness, which includes reasoning, analytical, creative, and problem-solving skills, and behaviors such as reliability, responsibility and responsiveness to new work requirements ." (NAB, 1987, p. 1)

II. The Advent of Power Learning

Power learning encourages students to be infotectives. What is an infotective? . . . a student thinker capable of asking great questions about data (with analysis) in order to convert the data into information (data organized so as to reveal patterns and relationships) and eventually into insight (information which may suggest action or strategy of some kind). An infotective solves information puzzles and riddles using all kinds of clues and new technologies. The problem-solving which often follows the detective work then requires synthesis (invention) and evaluation (careful choices from lists of options). An infotective is a skilled thinker, researcher and inventor.

Infotective is a term designed for education in an Age of Information. In the smokestack school, teachers imparted meanings for students to digest, memorize and regurgitate. In Information Age schools, students make the meaning. They puzzle their way through piles of fragments - sorting, sifting, weighing and arranging them until a picture emerges.

New technologies enable even young students to test the power of relationships between variables in order to explore cause-and-effect and to attempt forecasting. These new technologies support hypothesis-testing, theory testing and model building by intermediate and middle school students as well as the older ones. They allow systems thinking to creep down into elementary classrooms.

A turbulent, rapidly changing world confronts us with a great deal of non-sense, a swirling ocean of data bombarding the average citizen at a remarkable pace with an unrelenting intensity. Some of this data has been organized and manipulated in order to twist and control our thinking, as with political advertising, sound-bites and infomercials. Toffler calls this manipulation infotactics . We need to raise a generation of infotectives who are capable of navigating through the oceans of data, even when the surface is heavy with fog, making sense out of non-sense in order to build a healthier and stronger world community.

Power learning satisfies demands for a strong workforce and a healthy, well adjusted citizenry. Power learning addresses most of the skills identified as critical in studies such as "Workforce Basics: the Skills Employers Need" - basic skills, learning to learn, negotiating, self-esteem and career-planning, communicating, leadership and creative problem-solving (ASTD, 1988).

But power learning should also take children past workforce and economic concerns to strengthen the social fabric, bolster the quality of life and make productive citizenship a priority. We will expect students to act as "everyday heroes," by which Catford and Ray mean that they will commit themselves to heroic, creative action, applying their new skills to improve life, to build a better community and world (Catford, 1991).

Power learning engages students in the use of new technologies along with what Catford and Ray identify as the four main tools of a hero: creative powers, careful observation, effective questioning and an open mind. This book is designed to acquaint the reader with the wonderful marriage that is possible between power learning and these new technologies, touching upon each of the major traditional subject areas and offering examples of classroom practice which puts students in the roles of thinker, researcher and inventor.

Technology Snapshot 1.1

Half the fifth graders grouped are busily programming turtles to follow their instructions on the screens of a dozen computer monitors while the rest have spilled out into the hallway as pairs to connect LEGO pieces with electric motors, lights, wheels and pulleys in an assortment of projects which range from merry-go-rounds to assembly lines complete with light sensors. Their equipment assembled and wired, these young inventors step to the computer, plug in their devices and call up a student-designed program which tells the device what to do.

An observer quickly notes the astute trouble-shooting and the experimental flair of the group. If the device fails, the team immediately starts testing various hypotheses until the problem is solved. They seem reluctant to call upon the teacher for help. Self reliance and perseverance are alive and well.

Technology Snapshot 1.2

A group of middle school students gathers in the mayor's office to present findings. One student moves forward to the projector, adjusts the image on the screen and then clicks on a mouse to show their first colored graph.

"This graph shows you the fecal coloform content at various sites along Copper Creek," she explains. "Notice the sudden jump at site 5. Let me show you a map to help you relate to that location."

With another click of the mouse, the screen is filled with a close-up of a topographical map showing the meandering creek. In addition to the normal information found on such maps, this one also shows important structures along the path of the creek.

"You probably can see for yourself that a sewage treatment plant is located quite close to site 5, and since that belongs to the town, we are here to ask you to investigate the matter, to see if the plant is dumping raw sewage or something."

The mayor raises her eyebrows.


New technologies may allow us to revolutionize the way children learn about their world, significantly expanding the proportion of the citizenry which is capable of higher level reasoning and imaginative problem-solving. The key to successful implementation of such power learning programs is an understanding of the information skills that will be required by workers and citizens of the next century and how technology plays a crucial role in enabling people to manage information. Even if we are preparing some students for jobs in factories, we must ask what kinds of factories will these be and what skills will they demand from their employees. Chances are that most jobs of the future will demand that employees be thinkers, researchers and inventors capable of wielding technology in powerful ways.

© 1993, J. McKenzie, all rights reserved.
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