Workers, soldiers or nomads – what does the Gates Foundation want from our education system?

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
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.

The soldier
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.

Rhizomatic learning
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.

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

26 thoughts on “Workers, soldiers or nomads – what does the Gates Foundation want from our education system?”

  1. Dave,
    I can´t agree more. Still, could we understand what you´re saying if we hadn´t gone through a period of apprenticeship in which someone tought us the hows and the whats of our culture?

    Besides, how many Bill Gates, Steven Jobs or Dave Cormiers are there in the world?

  2. @ines
    We’re always in various states of apprenticeship… we tend to think of ourselves in these conversations only in terms of our professions. These things are true for hockey players and baking deserts and mowing the lawn. The question is what we’re reaching for as a culture. Are we trying to perfect the past or looking to create something new?

  3. Your discussion of the nomad experience reminds me of my first MAIS course. I don’t do well in a classroom designed for workers – perhaps it is because I have had a taste of the nomadic life – and the rigid, don’t-ask-questions-just-press-the-button outcomes in this course almost ended my academic quest. Oddly enough, the content of the course (self-directed behaviour) pushed me to question my motivation, and helped me find what Csikszentmihalyi calls flow.

    These ideas of motivation and flow are key components to how I see the nomadic learner. For anyone who has ever traveled without a guidebook or itinerary, there is nothing quite as exhilarating as stepping to the open road and allowing serendipity to pull you along. The ‘workers’ and ‘soldiers’ don’t understand it. They think it’s dangerous or a waste of time to head out without a moment by moment plan of attack – a guidebook that will tell them beforehand the world they will see so they don’t have to look for themselves (one of my favourite ideas from Said).

    While I couldn’t agree more with your characterization of the ‘worker’ and the ‘soldier’, I wonder if it would be helpful to see the nomad as a pilgrim. There are a couple reasons I would make this distinction related to rhizomatic learning. First, it seems a little strange that the learning philosophy that inspires the wandering, homeless one is that of a root system. Second, the image of the nomad suggests a relentless pushing forward – a restlessness that disallows significant investment in any single space. The nomad, often seen as a vagrant, may not mix well with the rhizomatic community that requires commitment. Of course the image of the pilgrim has its religious overtones which may complicate it as a term, but the deep, contemplative movement of the heart and mind in the search for truth is more in-line with how I see the rhizomatic model specifically and learning in general. Perhaps we can call these nomads odysseans or peripatetics… or maybe just good ol’ fashioned gypsies…

    Thanks for including me in your weekly wanderings. It’s been great finding you on the same path!

  4. As I was reading this blog post, I was putting ‘soldiers’, ‘workers’, and nomads in the context of my middle years’ classes, both past and present. I would say that in my classes, 95% of the students are soldiers and workers (maybe more) with a few nomads interspersed here and there. Is this an innate desire to belong and maintain the status quo? Or do we engender this in our students? I think it’s a little of both. Certainly the ‘nomads’ are much more difficult to teach. They ask questions that we don’t know the answers to. Their minds move in directions that ours maybe don’t. If we are not ‘nomads’ ourselves, how do we teach others to be that way?

  5. I see where you are coming from with the nomad idea but I always go back the way that babies learn (and they do more learning than the rest of us). Their loving parents try to give them freedom within safe boundaries (no you can’t crawl on the road) and the babies seem to be driven by curiosity and searching for fun. And of course, they are learning outside ‘educational systems’. I think they may have much to teach us.

  6. Quite like your engagement with Deleuze & Guattari’s nomadology here. Think it might be helpful to emphasize the nomad in relation to the war machine and the State. That’ll help distinguish the concept from ‘pilgrim’, etc.

    Re. the learning of babies, you might try: Olsson, L. (2009). Movement and Experimentation in Young Children’s Learning: Deleuze and Guattari in Early Childhood Education.

    Re. apprenticeships, see Deleuze & Guattari’s ‘What is philosophy?’ for a discussion on the ‘apprenticeship of the signs’.

    Suspect the soldier/worker duality might be supplemented with attention to the division of labour. Anti-Oedipus = good for this.

  7. @Tobey – thanks for the reference to the book – had a quick inspect on Google books and I see that babies may indeed be nomadic in their thinking (more than us and their ‘schooled’ brothers and sisters). Babies can be ‘abstract enough’ in their thinking whilst remaining grounded in the practice of poking tasting and generally experimenting.

  8. Growing up in a Minnesota town – where farming and hunting cycles moved through nomadic, pastoral and peripatetic versions, where the US-Dakota War intensified the clash between nomadic communities – Dakota peoples and white settlers/Dakota warriors and white soldiers – until 38 Dakota were hanged as a single platform dropped on the Boxing Day of 1862 after a hoax of a trial, and where rhizomes of hops, asparagus, irises and Lily of the Valley rooted at home then traveled underground to new beds – the blend of nomad and rhizome made my brain light up, the synapses tingling with recognition from growing up and in learning that mattered to me as well as teaching I dare to engage. Nomads are not wanderers, homeless nor necessarily restless or relentless – purposed, mindful, drawn to next discoveries and to bringing these home, communal and communicative in both social settings and self-reflection, learners because of and teachers with their families – where the context is about making it safe to take risk and where the mentoring is about making it possible to discern risk and make other decisions.

    Thank you, Dave, for this post.

  9. @Ilene – Your picture of the rhizome-nomad connection really hit me! Of course – the nomad follows the rhizome in its most fertile state! Connection to home is found through the soil – links through the earth.

  10. @onepercentyellow – love that hub of connection you’ve made. thanks for the say back of ideas!

  11. Dave,
    I agree 90%. As for the 10% remaining, we should be careful not to “jeter le bébé avec l’eau du bain” (French saying: throwing away the baby with the bath water). Today’s society probably needs us much more to be nomads, and this is exciting – at least for us who are ready for that – but also and still needs 1/ workers (having only clones of Steve Jobs would not do), 2/ nomads but who also have a memory and ability to be workers.
    Basic knowledge – of languages, math etc. – helps a lot understanding problems and thus inventing solutions. Wynton Marsalis can reach “being the thing itself” thanks to a wide musical culture/mastery. After all, to be rhizomatic, it should help to start with some paramount roots.
    A secondary note: is your word “soldiers” well chosen? Such people generally are dedicated to the rule they (ob)serve, not just to a benefit they draw from it (as would soldiers / mercenaries)…

  12. I really enjoyed the article. It is a good contrast to consider goals of a system and its structures. I think that you could and should choose a better (less loaded) example of a pseudo-science than intelligent design. Your feelings toward that being or not being a valid form of science are off-putting to those who may agree with the rest of your points enthusiastically but are within that paradigm.

    I also agree with Alain in that all types are needed, however I would argue that our goal as educators should be to set up an environment where each and every student can learn effectively. What type of learner results from our systems’ instructional design (nomad, worker, soldier) should be resultant (imo) of an open democracy where transparency and the will of the people rule.

    1. Thanks for the kind comments about the article. I will say that intelligent design isn’t really contentious in my country or in most for that matter… I don’t think that you can engage in a discussion about pseudo-science without offending the group that considers it something else. Where else would i look but my own feelings about it to choose one from another?

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