This is the first draft of the thinking I’ve been doing lately, it draws on a recent article from the gates foundation about learning being like working. It also relies very heavily on the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari, particularly through a thousand plateaus.
The why of education should be the first question that we answer in any discussion in the field. The answer to the ‘why of education’ question should be debated, mulled and hammered, on and on, and be at the centre of the work that we do. Sadly, it seems to be very difficult to say anything about “what learning is” and “why we educate our children”. We tend to end up saying something like the following
- We are preparing our students for the future
- We need to get them ready for university
- We are trying to make good citizens for our society
- We are trying to instill cultural values
- We are trying to teach them to learn
There are any number of ways to say this, and, by saying it, say nothing. These answers have content, maybe, for the people saying them, but there’s no way for me to know what you mean. What are the cultural values you’d like to pass on? Is it likely that a vast majority of people are going to want to pass on those particular values? What would a good citizen do in our society? Are they law abiding or do they fight injustice? I’d like to think that they are both, but it’s pretty tough to create a system that both trains people to do what they are told and to also critically assess their culture.
I’m going to propose three different outcomes from an education system. They are, of course, meant to be exemplars. Any person would likely have bits of each, but the question is, which is the one that we value the most. It is easy to say that we want to have our children to ‘have their own minds’ but harder when confronted by uneaten broccoli. We want them to have their own minds, but come to the conclusions that we want them to come to. This is a subtle business. For now lets accept that we have many different parts and look at the landscape that our three outcomes live in.
Memory is the representation of the things that we ‘know’ as a culture. It is a repetition of the patters that we have established, the rules that we have made the ‘way things are done’. It is the status quo.
The worker was the original goal of the public education system. How can we create a workforce that will show up to work on time, accept tasks and complete them. The worker needs to remember things without understanding them. They need press a button at 2:15pm. They don’t need to know what happens when the button is pushed. They just need to press it.
The worker is easy to measure. You develop expectations and then you ensure that people can meet those expectations. This is one of the outcomes of the Gates vision of education.
At Microsoft, we believed in giving our employees the best chance to succeed, and then we insisted on success. We measured excellence, rewarded those who achieved it and were candid with those who did not.
Learning for a worker is about compliance. Assessment is an assessment of compliance. The worker collects facts and information that it can then trade with other workers. Our education system currently does a very good job of creating workers.
In order to create this kind of model, where the employer (or teacher) decide what excellence means, and then measure someone against it, you need a separate class of people who are responsible for creating the measurements. The temptation here is to call those people ‘managers’ but i’m calling them soldiers here for a specific reason. They are the defenders of memory. They are the ones who establish what things we currently know that the worker should remember, and then establish the system by which we will measure that knowing.
They are the ‘we’ from the quote above. They decide which parts of the past will be valued. One of the sad side effects of this is that the soldiers really can decide what they want to have valued. There are any number of cases where we see this in curriculum now, where we are ‘valuing’ things like intelligent design as science.
Soldiers defend the status quo. They check for compliance. When you learn the rules and why they are used, you move from worker to soldier. These people KNOW MORE. We have a number of paths through our education system where you can learn enough to be someone who can check for compliance.
The nomad is trying to do what I call ‘learning’. Not the recalling of facts, the knowing of things or the complying with given objectives, but getting beyond those things. Learning for the nomad is the point where the steps in a process go away. Think of parallel parking. If you think of the steps, perform them one at a time, you almost inevitably end up on the sidewalk. There is a point where you stop thinking of facts or steps and understand the act.
It is what Wynton Marsalis calls ‘being the thing itself’. It is the difference between playing a succession of notes, thinking of one after the other, and playing music.
In order to create an educational system that allows for nomads we can’t measure for a prescribed outcome. The point at which a new idea (even if it’s only new to that person) forms is going to be different for each nomad. This is about encouraging creativity over compliance.
Is an educational model whereby we create an ecosystem where nomads can learn(create). Where facts and data and knowledge and connection are pulled together in order to allow the nomad to create their own understanding. It is designed for a world where there aren’t ‘things people should know’ but rather ‘new connections to be made’. The knowing of things is there, but it is not the thing of importance.
If we want a society of innovators, of creatives, we can’t think of success as an act of compliance. Success is a break from the past. A new idea, a new context, a new vision.
This is what i want. From what i’ve read from the Gates foundation, they seem to want better workers. What i find so confusing, is that this was not the path that Gates himself took. He was (and maybe still is) a nomad.