The changing face of learning and how to adapt to it

This post is based on my notes from Prof. Roger Säljö‘s talk at a Sydney Ideas event, hosted by the University of Sydney. I was undecided at first about attending this talk since it was held on a Valentine’s day evening, but I’m really glad I did 🙂 In his intriguing talk, Prof. Roger shared how the nature of knowledge and learning have changed in our current digital societies compared to previous traditional forms, and how educators should respond to it.

We’ve almost always been finding ways to preserve and communicate knowledge, from scripts and stone age symbols to modern digital libraries. That’s how we learn, grow and improve the society we live in. The Game of Thrones quote about its library town ‘Citadel’ is something I could immediately relate to:


While all societies need to reproduce knowledge for the next generations (like how its been done for ages), the conditions for reproducing the cultural memory is quite different in modern, digital societies. The size and complexity of such knowledge have grown tremendously in modern societies due to technology, which is why it is important to prioritize the skills and knowledge for learning. What is of value for students to learn in the new digital world and what skills they need should be considered. There could be two strategies for thinking about this:

  1. We can preserve what has been done (back-to-basics movement in education)
  2. Or we can think about what might be productive for the future

I’m more inclined towards working for a productive future, considering the new changes (by preserving the traditional elements that are essential, of course).


The changing face:

So what has actually changed over the years? Why should we think through these for education NOW? Education has been evolving all the time: from scribal schools over 5000 years ago meant for systematic training of the human mind, to the still relevant act of ‘studying’ which was once a social revolution.  Symbolic technologies are well developed to share a common understanding with all people of the world. In particular, Writing is a literacy that’s probably not dying anytime soon, although its forms may have changed. Text is still the main source of knowledge and is used everyday in many forms including emails, messages, and social media posts. The concepts of schooling have remained stable, although its focus on reproduction (not creativity) and individual as a source of knowledge are changing in recent times.

However, the biggest changes to our society are brought by technology, which has digitized the world. In addition to the growing amount of knowledge in the form of digital data, the conditions of learning have also changed tremendously. A lot of cognitive functions have been externalized and cognitive habits transformed. For instance, we make use of computer software to perform spelling/grammar checks in our everyday writing and even for simple arithmetic calculations (we should probably try to do mental calculations once in a while so that we don’t always need a calculator for 451 * 23). We are dependent on apps for cognitive tasks like remembering and problem solving. Children are starting to learn writing by typing using keyboards, and are moving from passive media consumption to active forms of interaction. We are able to master complex tasks, without understanding the basic steps involved.  There are statistical packages for use today which can help us come up with solutions for highly complex tasks with few lines of code without understanding the sequential steps it involves. Advanced technologies act as a black-box, which cannot be unpacked for education in the classroom: one example from my research context is a machine learning scoring algorithm that doesn’t disclose the features used for calculating these scores of students in a writing task.

Technological changes have made minds hybrid with thinking detours and collaboration with artifacts, which no longer nurture a concentrated mind. The way we look for information has also changed completely with search engines. Google has become our go-to place to seek any information we want, and is available for anyone. There is increased internet use in young children, even on their own. This places huge emphasis on coming up with strategies like restrictions and parental guidance for responsible internet usage by children, and opens a whole new dimension of security. We cannot control the learning trajectory of children from 2 years to 11 years as before, since we don’t know what they learn externally out of class (indirect curriculum). Schools can have no control on external tools and knowledge as it is hard to restrict access to computers at home. One can just hope that such external knowledge children gain is for the good, and guide them to distinguish it from other non desirable content on the internet.

Because the future is digital and there’s no coming back, our duty is to adapt to it the best we can. For this, Prof. Roger emphasizes that the metaphors of learning should shift to respond to the changing environment. Learning should be more performative (rather than reproductive) and focus on learning as design. Learners should be encouraged to participate in and contribute to communities and collective practices, and no longer consider knowledge as an individual asset. With the human mind, interactions with symbolic technologies and communications with people should be relational. Technologies and artificial intelligence should be used with care in education, keeping in mind that “Education is not production, it is not a smoothly running machine”. For young teachers to cope with the advances, they have to learn how to marry the resources to the ambitions of the school, while understanding that technology changes the nature of education, but does not solve the problem. The education system will also have to change assessments to assess the skills that matter the most in the future. While the advances have a role to play in improving learning (E.g. virtual environments where students can experience near reality complex environments), they should also have co-ordination with the teacher to get user perspectives. And for people to accept it more broadly, there should be steps taken to ensure digital literacy. Further, the knowledge, value and skills of an individual should be connected to what technology has to offer. Such design of transparent technology to respond to the natural repertoire of uses will be more relevant for education in the future.

To learn more about Prof. Roger’s work, visit:






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