Finished Products are no more!

Yesterday, I posted an entry on Technology & Learning Magazine’s, TechLearning Blog, entitled Curriculum as Mashup. In that posting, I used the increasingly popular mashup web applications as a metaphor for how our students should be learning in a multidisciplinary environment, that all pieces are loosely joined. I want to say a couple of things today, about one of the statements I made in that blog, “…information is the raw material that people work with.”

I know the industrial age well. I was born and raised firmly within its influence, as I grew up in a small mill town in western North Carolina. Most of my neighbors worked in the textile plants, producing yarn and fabric for the world. In nearby Gastonia, they made tires, guided missile parts, and chain saws (I worked for Homelite Chainsaws for a year). In that time, we were focused on the finished product, something that when completed, would perform, very well, the task for which it was designed.

People were the same way. When we graduated from high school or from college, we were a finished product, ready to take a job that we could depend on for the next 30 or 35 years. With some exceptions, you were promoted because of some talent you had for leadership or creative problem solving, not because you taught yourself something new. But once again, the finished products that we built were designed to do one thing: make toast, catch a mouse, comfortably propel us to our destinations, or fashionably clothe us.

With the advent of the personal computer, we were introduced to a finished product that could be or act like almost anything. In fact, some of the earlier computer engineers saw this potential and wanted to call it the universal machine. Perhaps the best example of this is the spread sheet. It is something that you go to the store and buy. It is a product. But once you have it, you can fashion the spreadsheet to do thousands of things for you, depending on the problems you wish to solve.

My son sits in his bedroom with a TV, VCR, DVD player, video game systems, a small video camera, a digital camera, a computer, and a Video iPod. Each product was initially designed to perform a specific task, allowing us to be entertained or to record images and sound. My son, however, spends his time mixing them together, drawing audio and video from his video games and from movies, and mixing them together with video and still images that he makes of himself and his friends to produce a different and entertaining new information product. Information, to him, is never finished. It’s just a raw material with which he can make something new. It is important, I believe, that we look at curriculum the same way, that it is a raw material, something that we can mix in different ways, and produce learning experiences that help our students to teach themselves.

I think it may also be interesting and valuable to treat our students and ourselves the same way. That rather than graduating finished students, who are ready for the world, that we produce people who are raw material, capable of not only adapting to a rapidly changing world, but also able to continue to learn, unlearn, and relearn, so that they can shape that world into something that is better.

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