Invisible Learning – book review

26 September 2011 0

** This is a cross-post written by Mitch Weisburgh on September 23, 2011 in Academic-Biz.
** 1o days ago, the eBook ‘Invisible Learning’ was realeased with Creative Commns.  And we are pleased to say that so far 5,000 people have already downloaded it!


This is a summary of Aprendizaje Invisible (Invisible Learning, in English), an ebook by Cristóbal Cobo and John W. Moravec on transforming educational systems around the world.

Why is education important? For one, in today’s competitive international labor marketplace, superior education is the oxygen that all potential employees want to acquire.

Modern Classroom, 1
Image by IK’s World Trip via Flickr


Modern technologies, like social networking, texting, and digital storytelling, are viewed as inimical to the tried and true techniques of the formal classroom. Outside of the classroom, it’s a different story. Compared to watching television when it was a young technology, kids today are spending more time on the Internet with less supervision. Whatever they are doing, they are learning, but what and how they are learning is invisible to the formal education system. There is thus a whole new environment of learning outside of formal education, including through social networks, games, and searching, with students playing, discussing, finding, and sharing information. The question is not, “Are they learning on the Internet?” It’s “what are they learning?”

Can educators leverage this time and energy to help students learn? Only if we understand that the most significant potential lies outside of the classroom, where students are now spending so much of their time, and if we start understanding the dynamics of Internet usage.

But we need to consider models different from that of a sage lecturing to students who avidly or passively absorb the materials. There may not be one winning idea, there is probably not one learning theory that is correct in all instances, maybe we will need to follow several different possible paths to arrive at superior means of teaching more to more. The goal of this book is to try to unify different learning theories, teaching practices, change management techniques, and technologies to make education more effective, efficient, informative, and adaptive to the needs of our rapidly changing world.


School of the Air

Image by RBerteig via Flickr

While you can’t deny that schools are adopting software tools, many times those tools are primarily reinforcing the traditional ways of teaching and assessing. The software that students are using outside of school, and are informally, non-formally, or serendipitously learning from, are more attuned to what most of us regard as 21st century skills. Additionally, what is often considered new technology by adult teachers and educators is regarded as the norm (at best) and outdated (at worst) by many students. For example, using PowerPoint slides may or may not be effective, but it certainly would not be considered as technologically savvy by high school or college students.

It’s ironic that now, when there are so many people interested in learning and going to school, we don’t know what a good education is. And it’s sad that, with all the resources and effort societies invest in education, and with all the capabilities of teachers and schools, our education systems do not do a better job preparing students for the demands of our interconnected, rapidly changing, 21st century world.

A lot of what we know, and need to know, is not formally taught or measured. Even though these acquired skills and knowledge are invisible or ignored by traditional measurement vehicles, they are very visible and valued real life. How are they acquired? How can technology help us teach them better?

The book explores the roots of what makes learning invisible:

  1. Technology: Because schools are not adapting the technologies that students are using, the technologies that students use to communicate, explore, amuse, and learn are invisible to formal education.
  2. Actions: Students are spending a lot more time on the computer in non-school environments, often doing much more advanced tasks, and these activities are invisible to formal education
  3. Knowledge: the skills and capacities acquired using informal learning are different from what are demanded in formal education, and so are invisible.
  4. Technical skills: besides the rudiments of learning commands and functions, many technical skills are learned while doing other things, for example when you want to create a video and post it to a social network. Because these skills are not being explicitly taught, they often become invisible to formal education.
  5. Assessment: many of the competencies learned outside of lectures, textbooks, and repetitive exercises are not tested, especially on high stakes assessments, so are invisible.
  6. Momentum: because the different parties in the educational system have so much vested in their existing methods, technologies, and practices, they do not or cannot devote the time or resources to looking at creative ways of change, or eliminating the practices that just do not make sense anymore. Thus, the lack of attention makes the possibility of change invisible.

What is often taught, assessed, and rewarded at schools is memorization and exactitude. But are these the traits that are most valuable in the real world? In fact, by penalizing errors, we are also hampering creativity and experimentation, two of the key skills most demanded in the world outside of school.

Our education system needs to better understand the technologies students are using, what students are doing with that technology, what they are learning, how to better understand how much students are learning and what they are capable of doing. All those interested in education should be doing this with a lens of teaching how to learn, not specifically in teaching specific skills, and with an understanding that learning doesn’t stop at graduation, learning has become a life-long process.

We are preparing students to live, and hopefully thrive, in a world we cannot even imagine today, so we need to redesign our education systems. Rethinking education has three parts, figuring out what we are doing that works, culling out what we are doing that isn’t working, and devising what to add or change.

Ivan Illich proposed, forty years ago, the idea that a good education system lets all who want to learn learn, it provides access to learning content at whatever moment people need it, it provides the means to teach for those who have knowledge and want to share it with others, and it does not dictate any pre-determined plan of studies, titles, or diplomas. How different from the education we offer today, but how close to where we need to end up!

Rethinking education is a job for all of us.

You can access the book (it is in Spanish) here. And you can watch Cristóbal Cobo present these ideas at a TED presentation (also in Spanish) here.


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