There’s something wrong in education – a response to Stephen Downes

Last week I wrote a post called “learning’s first principle“. In it I tried to explain a thread that I’ve been seeing as the fundamental issue facing my colleagues and I (and by extension, probably some other people) in education. If you are like me and too lazy to click links to read context pieces 🙂 the excellent David Wiley posted a comment in the comments summing up one of the main issues

“Why bother learning how to use all these ‘effective instructional strategies’ when people aren’t even going to engage with them?” – David Wiley from 1998


Or, put another way, if students don’t care about learning… nothing else matters. Stephen Downes responded on OLDAILY

My take is different. I see education less as an enterprise in making people do what they don’t want to do, and more as one of helping people do what they want to do. And there’s something wrong with the selection mechanism when a student can pay and spend four years at a university and still not be engaged in learning.

It sort of sets things up nicely to be between Wiley the ‘Iterating towards openness’ guy (read: pragmatic approach to reform) and Mr. burn the schools down himself, Stephen Downes. I vacillate between these two positions… i find myself choosing many pragmatic options in my efforts to understand the administration of education at the same time that i work on what is seen by many as a fairly radical approach to learning. This time, I’m on Wiley’s side – Let’s breakdown Stephen’s comment.

note: Stephen has written 5-6 of these responses about education on the internet each day for the past 137 years, it’s a tad unfair for me to pick apart his sentences like this… but i’m going to do it anyway.

Education vs. learning
Stephen is referring to ‘education’ and not to ‘learning’. That word usually indicates that we are talking about the institutions that support learning inside of our culture rather than the broader ‘learning’ that happens as part of being alive. Our education system is always a victim of the need for bureaucratization. It’s terrible… but it’s a necessary evil. Getting everyone on board, getting something funded, getting training rolled out and getting a program started inevitably falls pray to ‘standardization’. Education is much harder than learning. Learning reform is something you can do in your basement… it’s something I explore with my colleagues in projects like #rhizo15. Education reform involves getting governments, teachers and parents to change what they all think learning is for. Oof.

There’s something wrong
I totally agree with Stephen here. There’s definitely something wrong if people are leaving their first degree and are not engaged in learning. We certainly need to address it. We totally want to be in the business of helping people do what they want to do. Try it. No really. Just try it. Sit down with a child and help them do what they want to do. And i don’t mean “hey this child has shown up with a random project they are totally passionate about and are asking me a question” I mean “stop them at a random time, say 8:25am, and just start helping them.” You will get blank stares. You’ll get resistance. You’ll get students who will say anything you want if it means you will go away/give them a grade. You will not enjoy this process. They will also not enjoy it.

There is something wrong. The problem is that we have built an education system with checks and balances, trying to make it accountable and progressive (in some cases), but we are building it without knowing why. We have not built an education system that encourages people to be engaged. The system is not designed to do it. It’s designed to get people to a ‘standard of knowing.’ Knowing a thing, in the sense of being able to repeat it back or demonstrate it, has no direct relationship to ‘engagement’. There are certainly some teachers that create spaces where engagement occurs, but they are swimming upstream, constantly battling the dreaded assessment and the need to cover the curriculum. The need to guarantee knowing.

Selection mechanism
It’s not clear from Stephen’s response whether he’s talking about the selection mechanism in the sense of ‘picking people to teach’ or ‘students picking things to study’ but both are minefields of complexity. I’m going to assume he’s talking about the students picking… because the other has not been my day job for the last little while. I spent the last 18 months working on our recruitment/transitions/orientation/first year with colleagues at UPEI, and, by extension, looking at approaches from around the world. The vast majority of students coming to most universities are not prepared to be engaged in learning. It’s that simple. It crosses socio-economic barriers. It crosses cultural differences. We are not bringing up a generation of children who are ENGAGED in learning by default. That engagement is an exception. I must admit… i don’t think we ever have… but then, i don’t think we’ve ever tried.

The ‘purpose’ of education
The Elementary Education Act (1870 UK) is a fascinating window on what our education system is for. With it’s standards system gripped in our hand we can look right into the jaws of the lion and say the purpose of education is “to make sure these kids can work in factories”. Here is Standard IV swiped from wikipedia and, apparently, enough to qualify as educated in Birmingham in the late 19th century:

Reading – A few lines of poetry or prose, at the choice of the inspector.
Writing – A sentence slowly dictated once, by a few words at a time, from a reading book, such as is used in the first class of the school.
Arithmetic – Compound rules (common weights and measures).

This, my friends, is our polluted inheritance. The schools were built so that we could give people the precise skills they needed in order to be able to be effective engines in our economies. You might go a little further and suggest that the ‘at the whim of the inspector’ business suggested a more subtle ‘brainwash the citizens into believing that random inspectors know what’s good for them’ but i refuse to give anyone that much credit.

You’ll note the lack of a line in there that speaks to ‘student engagement’ in anything. Measurement of the type the inspector wants, where someone can show up on a specific day and judge someone, cannot be used to measure engagement.

A new purpose for education – keep caring/start caring
What I was looking for in that post was a shared premise that i could use in any education reform (or entrenchment… not all current ideas are bad ones) conversation. I’m suggesting that we need to replace the measurable ‘content’ for the non-counting noun ‘caring’. Give me a kid who’s forgotten 95% of the content they were measured in during K-12 and I will match that with almost every adult i know. Give me a kid who cares about learning… well… then i can help them do just about anything. We simply don’t need all that content, and even if we do need it, we don’t have it anyway. I’m suggesting that we need to replace that awful STANDARD IV, quite consciously, with a first principal that asks ‘will this help people care or keep them caring’. These don’t need to be easy tasks… sometimes very hard, annoying work is the best way to support caring, it just has to connect to a meaningful goal.

We currently have ‘this student has once proved they knew tons of stuff’ as our baseline for ‘having an education’. That’s dumb.

My response to Stephen
Sorry for putting so much meaning into something you wrote in 30 seconds while providing the best educational service on the internet. What I’m trying to do is address the serious problem of people not being engaged in the education system. I, like you, think that radical reform is necessary. The vast majority of people in our culture have been trained to be passive learners. (in over 10000 hours of class time, they are ‘expert’ passive learners) In order to support an engaged student we need to change our core assumptions about what education is for. I agree with you when you said in yesterdays newsletter that “the contents are not intended to be memorized by students, they are intended to be used by students as ‘words’ in a ‘conversation'” The ‘content’ is just other people talking, it just expands the conversation. The community is the curriculum.

I’m not sure your take is different. We’re working on the same thing. The ‘first principle’ is a conversation opener that has been successful, for me, at creating a starting point, of establishing common ground, to help foster change from that passive system that measures content in people’s heads (and not terribly effectively) to one that takes a fundamental interest in engagement. People are going to need to care about learning if any of the cool stuff is going to happen.

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

14 thoughts on “There’s something wrong in education – a response to Stephen Downes”

  1. “Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting. Most people learn best by being “with it,” yet school makes them identify their personal, cognitive growth with elaborate planning and manipulation.”
    ? Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society

    “People are going to need to care about learning if any of the cool stuff is going to happen.”

    What do people care about learning?

    What do people really care about learning about on the internet?

    How much of what people care about learning enables them to make a living?

    What is the cool stuff that happens unhampered by instruction?

    What on earth does/could ‘unhampered’ mean? People who are not hampered by school are generally unhampered by meaningful participation in Western societies.

    What are most meaningful settings for most people?

    Can we create more meaningful relationships with people in educational settings? Yes.

    Do we have a choice but to try enable a more active, critical participation in education? Not in my opinion.

    My concern is that the ‘we’ who would read this, reflect on this, agree with this are a marginal number of people involved in education.

    Most people do not care or do not agree that education should be in any way ‘cool’.

  2. Dave, I know you’re talking about caring from a slightly different perspective, but if you don’t know Nel Noddings’ work I would highly recommend it to you (e.g.,

    A few years ago we had a student look at caring in online learning for her dissertation (specifically, she looked at the Open High School of Utah) – You might find something interesting there as well.

  3. @Davecormier I was interested to read this as I had already seen reference to your previous post at #fedwikihappening and I wanted to post something there about caring (and thanks to David Wiley for that excellent Nell Noddings ref).
    Teachers are expected to be and do all sorts of things, often within constraining systems. Reform is an attractive prospect but often leads to more of the same. Deficit models of students’ attitudes and competences are worthy but likely to be of little interest to students. So I thought I would throw in a couple of links that look at things differently.
    One of the things that teachers can do is inspire students to do something, make a change, whatever . There is no standard model for inspiration, and it doesn’t necessarily need teachers to be ‘liked’ as these personal stories show
    A few years ago I took part in a project called Purpos/ed organised by Doug Belshaw – you can browse through the variety of purposes here
    My own post included this
    What is education? I refer you to the stained glass window above see or my interpretation that it is an activity involving serious angels and though which light can shine.
    Looking at what learners think about teachers and what teachers think about education is just as important as thinking about change and technology. Change in people can be emergent from experience rather than determined.

  4. Well, I don’t have much to add here, other than a head nod in your direcction.
    But this quote stuck out for:

    “The problem is that we have built an education system with checks and balances, trying to make it accountable and progressive (in some cases), but we are building it without knowing why. We have not built an education system that encourages people to be engaged. ”

    I wait for the pendulum swing that is bound to come back around. Right? Please tell me I am right.


  5. “It’s designed to get people to a ‘standard of knowing.’ … I’m suggesting that we need to replace the measurable ‘content’ for the non-counting noun ‘caring’. Give me a kid who’s forgotten 95% of the content they were measured in during K-12 and I will match that with almost every adult i know. Give me a kid who cares about learning… well… then i can help them do just about anything.”

    If you have a second, Dave, check out Matthew Lieberman’s book Social, particularly Ch.12 where he discusses education. He echoes your point on page p.282 where he writes:

    “We spend more then 20,000 hours in classrooms before graduating from high school, and research suggests that of the things we learn in school, we retain little more than half of the knowledge just three months after initially learning it, and significantly less than half of that knowledge is accessible to us a few years later.”

    Brutal. Yet we continue to double down.

  6. I know we need a new idea like another hole in the head, but one of the reasons I like Heutagogy (teaching learners how to learn rather than what to learn) is that the very foundation is that they have to learn how/why to care first.

  7. Dave,
    I have been struggling with Stephen Downes on this as well. I have worked in my classrooms (both secondary and higher ed) to remove the distinctions between learning and education. The fundamental difference, as I see it, is that education requires some curriculum that is developed into semester or trimester chunks by institutional needs. Learning is pursuing a individual or small group goal. The issue I have been struggling with is how to reconcile these two. I have worked to give my students a sense of pursuing their own learning, whilst seeking to meet the educational objectives of the various institutions for which I work.
    It is similar to me to the various research and conversation on “student choice” in classrooms. It is one thing to say that I am trying to learn Portuguese (which I am) and allowing myself a variety of choices of platforms and resources and pacing , etc. More typically, we talk about offering students choice in terms of process or more usually product. However, particularly in an elementary or secondary setting, this conversation seems to ignore that students are compelled (either by laws or their parents or grades or whatever), and so the “choices” we give them sit on top of a situation that is fundamentally involuntary.
    All of this is by way of saying that I can see your discussions of engagement and caring about learning as ways to close these gaps.

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