• Amy Burvall

Learning as Remix, Students as Skateboarders

Steve Wheeler (@timbuckteeth) has started a blog series called #LearningIs (referenced in my last post) and in doing so has challenged all of us to think about how we define learning.

Learning Like a Machine


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My thoughts drifted first to other, non human things that “learn”. I considered the artificial intelligence “stars” of pop culture- Apple’s Siri, 2001 A Space Odyssey’s HAL, Bladerunner’s Rachael and Samantha from Spike Jonze’s poignant film Her.

I’ve long been fascinated by how machines “learn” and what are the differences between machine learning and human learning. Think about your predictive text on your smartphone…mine has sure learned a lot about my linguistic tendencies (sometimes to my embarrassment). How does it work? 

“This learning adapts, by way of the device memory, to a user’s disambiguating feedback that results in corrective key presses” …

This great Wired article discusses “Deep Learning” and the differences between learning by observations versus learning by instruction. Warning: it’s a mind boggler. It even goes into touching upon The Internet of Things:

“The idea of associating an intelligent assistant with a single device is also already a thing of the past; instead, our assistants are already manifesting themselves through a variety of hardware that we utilize throughout the day. The same persona, with a consistent and constantly updated knowledge of our needs and interests, and a memory of all our interactions, transcends specific hardware, and be with us as we move between using our wearables, tablets, TVs, and cars.”


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When I taught Theory of Knowledge in an International Baccalaureate school, we discussed what the IB defines as “Ways of Knowing” – that is, how do we come to know things? In the period in which I was teaching, these ways expanded from four (Sense Perception, Emotion, Reason, and Language) to eight (adding Intuition, Faith, Memory, and – my favourite – Imagination).


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Great, all…but is this “learning”?

Knowing, I think, is not necessarily “learning”.


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For too many years “learning”, as it has been viewed in the education system, has been synonymous with “precise regurgitation”. For some time now many schools have moved beyond that, with more “performance-based” assessments of learning like projects, challenges, and of course portfolios (both types: showcase and growth). That’s fabulous, and I totally believe in it, but I think there has to be something more.

Think of a skateboarder.


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How does he learn a new trick? He finds out about it (usually by observing another, cooler boarder), then tries to emulate. It usually doesn’t happen with the first try – indeed, he must practice hours and hours (not to get all Malcolm Gladwell on the situation but there is an undeniable benefit to a certain amount of practice). The lovely thing about skateboarders, by the way, is that they tend to have an intrinsic desire to improve and work at their sport – we could all take a lesson about personal learning paths from them. They are internally motivated, even in the face of physical pain, to learn!

Let’s say he perfects it and can replicate it exactly. Yes, we can say he has “learned it”…he has memorized the technique, gone through the motions enough time to internalize it (perhaps even with some “muscle memory”), and understands when the move should be employed (for example, on this surface but not that one). (side note: I often think of Digital Fluency this way- not only knowing HOW to use the tools but WHEN to use WHAT tool and WHY)

But wait – what happens next?! Did he just riff on that move? Skateboarding is a lot like jazz in that way. “Players” learn from each other in a highly social setting, they respond to what the environment throws at them (think empty pool!), and adapt as necessary. Moreover,

they seek constant innovation.


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Skaters see value in changing it up, in developing something new. This, I think, is the crux of learning. The ability to change, remix, distort, embellish, improve upon, tweak – whatever you wish to call it.

Learning is Creativity. Creativity is Remix.


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I’ve been, for the past few years, engrossed in the study (and practice!) of Creativity and how it works. The essence of creativity, in my opinion, is remix. Connecting disparate dots...recombination to formulate something new. And there you have it – in my view

you haven’t learned until you can remix.


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If you can, like the skateboarder, demonstrate an understanding of the nuances of an existing piece of knowledge…so much that you can in fact remix it and fashion it into something novel, then you have indeed learned it.

I found a quote recently which perfectly suits this:

“That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you’ve understood all your life, but in a new way” – Doris Lessig

How do we offer students the chance to not only encounter, memorize, reiterate, and even perform “knowledge”, but to truly

use new knowledge in unique ways?

As educators, we

  1. should be constantly embedding opportunities for students to create and remix – to become true innovators in their own right. A large part of this is giving up control and eschewing the notion of the “expert” (we can’t be gurus in an age of Google).

  2. need to help them connect to others with whom they will learn in more informal, affinity based settings.

  3. should switch out the terms “learn” and “know” for “explore” – after all, one must admit that nowadays that is the most one can claim

What do you think? How has creativity and remix played a part in your assessments for learning?

For more resources about Remix: join my curated G+ community

For more resources on Creativity: join my curated G+ community


#malcolmgladwell #artificialintelligence #Her #wiredmagazine #theoryofknowledge #skateboarder #creativity #DeepLearning #HAL #SteveWheeler #innovation #Siri #IB #jazz #knowledge #predictivetext #learningis #AI #connection #amyburvall #digitalfluency #skateboarding #remix

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