Using Technology to Rediscover Our Roots as Cultural Creators


Identity enhancing learning emerges from a felt-sense of purpose acknowledged and nurtured through sharing with others. By definition Learning Communities, as distinguished from our current more static institutions, create the circumstances to nourish richly creative interactions — so flow and creativity replace sterile textbook redundancy.

Learning Communities are non-judgmental, respectful, purposeful and enthusiastic. They are eager to nurture the mysterious process of discovering where and how the individual meets the world because these communities grasp that everyone grows in their own way from where they are. Ideally everyone learns to treat everyone else as an end in themselves, and no one is a means to another’s or an institution’s ends.

Learning Communities are flat rather than hierarchical. Administration’s task is to support and serve rather than to direct and manage. These principles of Learning Communities threaten the established order built on centuries of habits. But unless we shift our paradigm toward STEAM, personalized learning, and democracy we will not create the improvements we seek.

Until recently it was very challenging to design curriculum and to measure human development and learning in Learning Communities. With technology this kind of design and assessment is much easier. We will radically improve our curriculum and its metrics as we enrich the relationships among self-knowledge, academics and project-based learning within a STEAM culture of learning.

Technology as a Facilitator of Purposeful Learning

By seeing digital systems as tools to support Learning Communities, we are empowered to design balanced and engaging systems of education.

The first step is to ask how we can use the Internet to help us build the human networks to support school communities — student and educator groups, curriculum design teams, computer science and research cadres.

This suggests that instead of being consumers of expensive teach and test systems, the stakeholders in Learning Communities will be empowered to improve and create what is taught, discovered, and made. And they will design their assessments.

This calls for a creative and humanizing use of engineering that will optimize circumstances to develop Self and Social Knowledge, Basic Skills, Cultural Knowledge, and Research on what works for whom and in what contexts.

It is a strange and lovely irony that we must now call on our technology to humanize our education system. By using technology in this way, education will keep pace with our health care, transportation, energy, food, financial, and other R&D based enterprises that are essential to improving our lives.

As we marry our in the field, or in-residence design processes with our designs for learning with computer science, we will facilitate on and offline learning and research. Our assessments of these areas will improve rapidly and profoundly. Doors will open into fascinating rooms with views into human nature and our evolving relationships with each other, society and nature. This is the only true path to Personalized Learning.

The issue is whether we have the insight, foresight and courage to transcend our traditions and to set our priorities in a logical STEAM inspired order. This requires that we change centuries of authoritarian institutional and educational practice.

Creating In-Residence STEAM Learning and Design Communities

There is much in the existing scope and sequence in each discipline of the Common Core that is useful. Our method to humanize curriculum is to build on the foundation of our current curriculum by adding our learning sciences and the art of curriculum design.

Our hypothesis is that to build on learning science, we need to create effective curriculum and assessment design processes. At the heart of such work is the concept of Learning Communities, which, by definition, are Research and Design Communities.

These Research and Design Communities will be made up of students, teachers, learning, social, and computer scientists, curriculum designers, experts, artists and media specialists, who, as needed, will be in-residence in classrooms as part of R&D teams.

In these new Learning Communities, education is part of a design process that lives and works within the larger community, in classrooms and on playgrounds. Such local communities will benefit from global and virtual relationships. This is a very different process of design from publishing content-to-test education resources that are produced in cubicles on the 40th floor — or anywhere but in a face-to-face relationship with actual users.

An intended consequence is that a great deal of authentic, STEAM inspired and modeled Project Based learning will occur by participating in the process of creating the learning experiences in an interdisciplinary, cross-age, Learning and Design Community.

STEAM taught didactically as another academic discipline is a ship without keel, rudder or North Star. Science, Art, Technology and Design inspired by concerned observation, empathy, and imagination can enable us to heal our schools, communities, natural world, and our selves. This is both the educational and global work of the 21st Century.


When we view these new Learning Communities using classrooms as R&D Studios, we discover subtle and powerful new roles for technology as a community organizing tool, design medium, and set of research instruments for both online and off-screen activities. Technology used as a design, publishing, research, and assessment tool enables us to move from being curriculum consumers to being curriculum creators and disseminators.

This is STEAM transformed from an academically taught discipline to becoming an entirely relevant problem solving process that combines purposeful work and learning across disciplines — from human development and cognitive sciences to key concepts in and across subject areas. All of this is made possible by applying computer science to support our understanding of how research and design can support learning.

The goal is to evolve the good in what is old, and to create what is good in what is new. This is problem solving that teaches by reaching for the stars within our selves and the universe.

Four Key Engineering Functions

Four kinds of engineering are basic to enable in-residence Learning Communities:

• Social Engineering — to match people by compatibility or complementary concerns and skills;

• Knowledge Engineering — to support curriculum design, adaptation, and delivery;

• Research Engineering — to evolve the measurements by which we better understand the diversity among students and teachers so we can design and align personalized learning experiences and make informed assessments;

• Computer Engineering — to develop systems that support the above groups and functions;

When these kinds of engineering function as a system, we will meet people’s needs and optimize their growth while achieving excellence in academics. In time, this kind of open, in-residence design and dissemination will facilitate adaptation of content to match insights into student and teacher diversity. This is the only authentic path to Personalized Learning.

Combining our 21st century human, cultural, and technology capacities will enable us to adjust our curriculum and assessment to address the most fundamental questions:

• How is our curriculum aligning with human nature as it needs to be expressed and assessed for different students and teachers who are at different ages and stages of life?

• How are people being helped to live healthier, more fulfilling lives that are in harmony with their families, society, economy, and natural world?

• How are academics in education being made more integrated, meaningful, efficient, and enjoyable?

Human Resources

One inhibitor to this plan is the belief that our communities lack the human resources to do the research and design work. The point this concern misses is that thanks to the multiplying efficiencies of technology, it takes only one or two percent of the population of working and retired teachers, scientists, artists, experts and engineers to build this new system. There are people with the capacities and enthusiasm to do this work currently languishing in our education, research, and technology institutions, and also in retirement.

A low estimate is that there are 15,000,000 teachers (not including retired teachers). Just one percent of this number group amounts to 150,000 active teachers. Could 150,000 of the most talented teachers in the world working in design teams supported by community wide human and technology resources improve instructional design and give it a much-needed local focus and flavor?

Shifting Our Research Capacities

Great gains can be made in research and assessment if we view technology’s measurement capacities in a system-wide manner. Instead of thinking in terms of the normal curve in response to manipulating one or a few variables, we will think in terms of the diversity of students and the multiple interacting factors that affect where they are on any given distribution curve or on a series of potentially interacting curves.

This will enable us to create new precision in our definition of experimental and control groups. Researchers will share data sets and we can begin to drill down to N of one understanding that is basic to build Personalized Learning systems.

Ultimately we will discover that we can design unobtrusive and transferable data gathering systems to support system-wide research that will provide insights into the diversity of students in terms of their learning in on and off-screen contexts. We will also discover ways to measure healthy and efficient learning systems and personalized experiences and outcomes for each student and teacher.

When Self and Academic Knowledge are Complimentary

The Introspective, Social, Creative, Expressive and the Academic systems are not separate. Each, if well understood and considered in design, should nourish the other, and any one, without the others, will perpetuate a less than vital system.

A sound, working hypothesis is that when the Academic Common Core reflects the best of our cultural knowledge, which is an amazingly rich legacy that includes Self-knowledge, we will see self, cultural and academic knowledge come together. Then we will know that we are building great schools as a result of our focus on building Learning Communities for human, social, cultural and economic development.

But the further apart self and academic-cultural and applied learning science knowledge remain, the more we know our educational system is failing us. And by now it should be abundantly clear that measuring what’s most successful in a failing system succeeds in perpetuating failure.

Educational leaders concerned with ROI will want to tread lightly when they consider narrowing our human potential by reducing education to what publishers and technologists can monetize and digital systems can readily deliver and measure.

Only when we find a balance among several stakeholders: our colleges and universities, technology companies, content and assessment providers, and our local Learning Communities, will we have all the information and talent needed to continually improve a 21st century learning culture that maximizes everyone’s development.

Remembering Our Roots as Cultural Creators

During our tribal periods, people were culture creators, inventing language, shelter, clothes, tools, beliefs, medicines, stories, and rituals. This creativity waned with the formation of more formal, and in some ways, more efficient institutions. Now, if we are to thrive as a species, we are called once more to dig deeply into ourselves in order to create new knowledge and new ways of designing, teaching and learning.

How we educate is the true architecture and artifact of our culture. The tasks of discovering and transferring knowledge to make common the wisdom of those who have lived before us, and of those who are creating now, who love us, and who love the earth; this is the basket we must now better weave.

Let’s have the foresight and courage to enlighten education. Let’s apply our 21st century insights and tools to design our way into 21st Century learning and being.

About the Author: Jon Madian wears several hats relevant to this paper. He is or has been an educational and counseling psychologist, children’s book and software writer and designer, software publisher, curriculum designer, artist-in-residence, college instructor on the principles of design, and technology implementation strategist. Jon is a regular contributor to Community Works Journal. He has worked with Apple, Scholastic, McGraw-Hill, Renaissance Learning, Capstone, and Microsoft. Jon founded Humanities Software with his wife Karen — sold to Renaissance Learning in 1999. He also founded the first journal on technology and curriculum design in 1983. He founded and coordinated the Artist-in-Residence Reading Project, which received significant support from the Office of Education and California Arts Council (1976–83). Jon is looking for school communities where the strategies recommended in this paper can be implemented.

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