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:

STANDARD IV
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.

Learning’s first principle – the most important thing i learned this year

I have spent most of my year straddled between different ideas of what it means to learn. I’ve worked with k-12 educators, with the province here in PEI, with science educators and crazy postmodern theorists. I want to talk about a thread that I’m seeing through all of my work at the moment. I see it in the (M)OOC work I’ve done for years, I’ve seen it in the ‘transition to university’ stuff I’ve been doing since 2007, and I hear it from educators chatting in bars, over christmas cakes, and at conferences. I’ve come to think of it as the ‘first principle’.

First inkling of the first principle
Credit where it’s due. As with every idea I ever write about here (and i think we’re like 200 blog posts in) it started with a conversation with smart people. In this case it was Anne Bartlett, someone who’s depth of understanding of the student experience I have learned from many times over the years. We were looking over a model of student engagement, and just kind of looked at each other and said “well… none of this matters if they don’t give a shit”.

and that’s my first principle, that i keep seeing all the time… “do they care?”.

Boring… we all know that dave
Sure. We all know that student engagement is important. It’s the connection to the framework that made all the difference for me. When you ask the ‘care->don’t care’ question first all the time, it seems to have some interesting impacts on a discussion. I was talking to a passionate educator over cake last night and she asked me how i felt about students being automatically promoted regardless of their academic success (sometimes known as social promotion). Her concern was that the students were starting to realize that grades didn’t matter anymore… that they were going to pass regardless. She cares about student success, and was concerned that without grades that had meaning, it would be difficult to get students to do their work. Then she made the mistake of asking me my opinion :). I applied my new first principle for learning

Student separate into two categories… those that care and those that don’t care.

Our job, as educators, is to convince students who don’t care to start caring, and to encourage those who currently care, to continue caring.

All kinds of pedagogy happens after this… but it doesn’t happen until this happens.

So. In this case, we’re trying to make students move from the ‘not care’ category to the ‘care’ category by threatening to not allow them to stay with their friends. Grades serve a number of ‘not care to care’ purposes in our system. Your parents may get mad, so you should care. You’ll be embarrassed in front of your friends so you should care. In none of these cases are you caring about ‘learning’ but rather caring about things you, apparently, already care about. We take the ‘caring about learning’ part as a lost cause.

The problem with threatening people is that in order for it to continue to work, you have to continue to threaten them (well… there are other problems, but this is the relevant one for this discussion). And, as has happened, students no longer care about grades, or their parents believe their low grades are the fault of the teacher, then the whole system falls apart. You can only threaten people with things they care about.

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t hold kids accountable, but if we’re trying to encourage people to care about their work, about their world, is it practical to have it only work when someone is threatening them? Even if you are the most cynical personal imaginable, wouldn’t you like people to be able to do things when you aren’t actually threatening them? Are we promoting a ‘creative/knowledge economy’ by doing this? Are we building democracy? Unless you are a fascist (and i really mean that, unless you want a world where a couple of people tell everyone exactly what to do) you can’t really want the world to be this way.

Why this matters to me
The first principle matters most to me because it speaks across different disciplines. I have yet to talk to anyone, instructivist or constructivist, parent, student or teacher who doesn’t prefer learners who care over those that don’t. It directly addresses the various threats, physical or otherwise, that we have built into the education system. It allows us a place to start to engage in a conversation about why we care about education. Why we educate. Once we jointly answer questions like “why would people care about this” and “how does this support people starting to care about this for the first time” and “will this stop people who care now from caring”, we have a place to work from.

I’m in this business because i think i might be able to help, here and there, with trying to build a culture of thinkers. If our education system is designed to have people take on ideas because they are forced to, this only further supports those people who want to force people to believe things that serve their own particular agenda. It builds a culture of power accepters. It supports passivity.

I don’t believe it’s possible to design an educational experience that works for both those that care and those that don’t. Do we want to cast aside those that refuse to care? Do we only work with those that want to learn? How do we encourage people to care? If our learning experiences aren’t about making people care… what is it about?

Rhizomatic Learning – A Big Forking Course

The notion of rhizomatic learning has been good to me. As Ryan Tracy has recently mentioned, my thoughts about it have moved over the last eight years, but i still find that the story isn’t finished for me… and it is this sense of not being finished, of never being whole, of the learning process being forever uncertain that i find fascinating. The notion of the rhizome is gathering interest, just today i saw links to medical education people interested in knowledge and a classroom teacher talking about freeing their work.

Rhizomatic Learning
A cross section of posts on the internet will do better work than i can in a few words to give you a sense of what I mean by this expression. It is, in a sense, about celebrating uncertainty in learning. It’s about making content people. it’s about seeing curriculum look more like membership. Here’s a short description for folks who haven’t seen it before. (subject to change)

Rhizo14
Earlier this year I scheduled a 6 week course that turned into a community. It was a course scheduled around 6 questions, four of which were changed during the course itself. It found its strife and its curriculum from the community of folks who took time to make those questions and the people who moved around it. Those six challenges will still circulate in the background of this year’s course.

Week 1 – Cheating as Learning (Jan 14-21)
Week 2 – Enforcing Independence (Jan 21-28)
Week 3 – Embracing Uncertainty (Jan 28-Feb 4)
Week 4 – Is Books Making Us Stupid? (Feb 4-Feb 11)
Week 5 – Community As Curriculum (Feb 11-Feb 18)
Week 6 – Planned Obsolescence (Feb 18-?)

But I, at least, am moving to the next conversation.

One of the challenges of rhizo14 was that with me being the originator of the course, people still needed permission from me to go ahead and control some of the spaces of discussion. It also means that in describing how rhizomatic learning can be cultivated, we’ve only got my model to work with. I don’t suggest that everyone does stuff my way. We need more and more interesting models.

Enter P2PU
I love those guys. Last year’s course was hosted on P2PU. This year when i went back to see what the course could look like, I found a new project being launched – course in a box. It’s a course replication engine. Follow the steps… and you’ve got your own copy of the course… like really got it. It’s yours. It’s automagically hosted with a company called github. No cost. Good licensing. And a few pretty funky technologies to do interactive stuff online. (i’ll leave tech stuff to a further post). You are now responsible for deciding who can do what in the course you have.

Fork the course
So, in extended discussion with the excellent Vanessa Gennarelli (who had serious influence on the design of rhizo14) it occurred that this year’s course could use some of this technology to give people responsibility for their own work. Don’t like how the course is being fun FORK THE COURSE. Want to try a different way of talking about week three FORK THE COURSE. We could have any number of people who are running separate installations of the course. Everyone could move to a new one. I have this crazy dream that we could end the course with 5, 20 100 courses all running with different people, with different ideas of how to talk about rhizomatic learning.

What could be better?

So rhizo15
So rhizo14 already exists. The community that developed out of that course still works together and is one that I feel very privileged to be part of. We are starting over again. In late February/March of 2015 we’ll be starting a new discussion. I can’t say for sure how that will go, but i can say that the burning question that’s in my mind right now is ‘how can we talk about successes in rhizomatic learning?’ What happens when everyone else starts to play along? Who knows… Let the games begin.

Join the rhizo15 mailing list

* indicates required