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Innovative Pedagogical Practices for the Future Skills with Ann-Louise Davidson from Concordia University

February 25, 2021

Professor Ann-Louise Davidson holds the Concordia Research Chair in Culture Maker, and is the Director of the Innovation Lab at Concordia University. She came to share with the students of the TEN-7006 Instructional and Training Systems Design course her reflections on future skils that students must acquire, and the role of eduators in preparing them for the labour market in the fourth industrial revolution.

The Research Chair in Maker Culture, and the Makerspace

I received Concordia Research Chair in Maker Culture in 2017 ; although the trend started around 2012, it took several years for it to reach Canada and integrate into community service centres, schools, etc. Today, I don’t think there’s a single school that doesn’t want to have a makerspace. This chair aims to understand how we create communities of practice that engage in what is called thinkering [editor’s note: from think and tinkering, to inspire learning through creativity by setting up concrete projects], so with the whole issue of iteration, trying things, making the technology more transparent. In the end, how am I able to engage in a material culture that will allow me to outsource my critical thinking or my reflections on any topic?

I created a research makerspace at Milieux Institute, and a makerspace at Chalet Kent, which was created through a partnership between Concordia University and the Maison des Jeunes dans Côte-des-Neiges, in a disadvantaged environment in Montreal but that is also very creative, to help empower young people. It’s a very simple space with tables, perforated boards, and machines that we created together with these young people. We are totally at the opposite of the consumption of ready-made kits: the idea is to start from nothing, or anything, to think about how to improve an idea and realize a project that improves the situation of people around us.

The Innovation Lab

The innovation lab is an institutional project at Concordia, of a completely different scope. The goal is to create a playground for students and partners to work via challenge-based pedagogy. We are working on concepts that pose a challenge, situations that have not yet been resolved for which even I have no solution. Students collaborate across multiple faculties and disciplines, with mentors from corporate, community partners, or content experts. So far everything is done in virtual form, but when we come back in person, I hope that this lab can become a porous membrane for the university, where these different worlds can meet. There are four challenges at the moment: maker fundamentals, which corresponds to my expertise at the Research Chair; a partnership with the Robert Sauvé Institute on face masks for occupational health and safety; the creation of a free neighborhood Wi-Fi network with the help of programmers and an expert from the Canadian Army; finally, a community CRM resource.

One objective of the innovation lab is also that students develop the skills of the future which are necessary in the fourth industrial revolution: strategic thinking, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration, communication, to which I add prototyping (quickly developing an analytical or concrete model, and coming back several times in iteration), engaged leadership, and networking in the sense of finding opportunities.

Reflections on the Education System and Learning Theories

After thirty years in university, as a student and as a professor, my priority is that graduates be employable, beyond the A’s. I think a lot about what learning is, and if my students really learn when I teach.  We can talk about many learning theories, from Plato to socioconstructivism, to Montessori, etc., but we must think about what a theory means: theories are meant to be applied.

Plato’s Republic tells us about learning, pedagogy, the difference between pedagogy and a learning theory or even a theory of knowledge. These are all things that have to be deconstructed because they are constantly changing. For example, if I use evidence-based teaching, I will be able to measure the impact of my teaching on student outcomes, see if my teaching is well understood, so I will be able to measure this construct. But do we really remember everything we learned in all our classes, or even if we did learn? There are many courses I remember either in a very fuzzy way, or of which I remember very specific things that don’t make a difference in my life today even though I did very well on the exams and they gave me really good self esteem regarding my academic skills. But that’s learning from lectures, it’s just memorization. There is a very interesting passage from Plato’s Menon, where children have a difficult time remembering the Pythagoras theorem, and Socrates asks a series of questions to one of them until he can infer the formula, to show that learning is a reminiscence and not just memorization. Regardless of the learning theory, the model, the pedagogical approach that is used, for me the best scenario is when the student doesn’t even realize that he has learned, because the knowledge has become so much his own that he doesn’t remember where he learned it.

Her Vision of Constructivism

Personally, I adhere to radical constructivism, even if I sometimes have to teach a class with more «content management» where I give recipes like a bucket theory of mind by Karl Popper. In these situations, true pedagogy lies in the feedback I give, with the aim of creating interactions of ideas and reflections… kind of like a wave of falling dominoes: the learning is situated in each interaction of ideas, like each collision between two dominoes until creating this wave.

In constructivist interaction, we have a meeting between a novice and an expert. The novice is not a tabula rasa, he can arrive from anywhere, with a cognitive structure of his own. On the other hand, the expert holds the cognitive-target structure, so much that he is sometimes no longer able to teach because he doesn’t remember the difficulties to overcome as a novice. This intersection between the two is the educational meeting place. The teacher is right outside this place, and the pedagogical act ultimately is to understand what the novice does not understand in order to offer him adequate resistance in the argumentation that will motivate him and keep him in this pedagogical meeting space.

Advice to Educators

When I prepare for a class, I shouldn’t focus on content I already know perfectly, but on the understanding of my typical novice, to create interactions and advance the dialogue. Actually, preparing myself to receive the learner is paramount. I need to be able to rethink and sort out the content in order to only keep what’s essential to the learner (paradigm of the reflective practitioner of Schön). For example, there is no point in having to read a complete book when only three pages are really needed for the class.

We need to accept to reflect on our past teaching practices and be humble about it: we’re not god, we’re only teachers! And finally, we should ask ourselves how to teach better. The pedagogy of the oppressed is to seek out those who fail to give them the impetus they need to gain confidence and succeed. In fact in order to change the education system, we should take people who have not had much success in school but who are good pedagogues, and get them into the schools.

The Future of Education and the Future Skills

The main thing for me is to accompany the students in the acquisition of skills that they can really use in life. It is a terrible problem to see PhD students who have just finished their thesis and are not employable. So the question is: how to prepare a thinker to better contribute to society? How to prepare future generations to address large-scale multidisciplinary problems such as UNESCO’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals?

The question of the relevance of higher education arises because we have a problem with the employability of students who come out of it. In any paradigm shift, not everything changes at the same time. If we think about the concept of waiting horizons, the expectations of our teachers, our learners, have changed a lot since the beginning of the pandemic. Universities are adapting like never before. We are at an inflection point in the curve of the future of education, and the key, in my view, is to accept that there is not a single right formula or a single paradigm. Sustained efforts are needed to address the problems of the 21st century, with the fourth industrial revolution, the growing precariousness of workers, but also global warming, mental health, etc. It is essential that our student population be able to contribute to that environment.