Trying to solve for the problem of education in 2015

In the last two blog posts i’ve been talking about something I’ve alternately called ‘caring about learning’ and ‘student engagement’. I have said a variety of irritating things about the education system over the years – “i don’t believe in content” – being my favourite, but those conversations only progress when people already agree with me, or if i’m in a class where students believe they have to at least hear me out. I’m looking to take the next step in that process. I want to convince people that engagement is more important than content. Along the way you might say i’m trying to answer the question “what problem does Rhizomatic learning solve?”

a note: Education vs. Learning
For the purposes of reading this blog, the word ‘education’ should be seen in the sense of a set of social systems developed to encouraged learning at scale. ‘Learning’ is that mysterious thing that all living things seem to do in adapting to their environment.

The problem of education in 1798
In the late 18th century Johann Pestalozzi had one of the boldest ideas an educator ever had… he decided he wanted to teach an entire country to read. He was already a well known educator who, with various levels of success, had run some very compelling schools in Switzerland. What he noticed, however, was that his schools weren’t having much of an influence on the poor – his real concern. He started thinking about how one might go about creating an approach to education that would allow him to teach all of Switzerland at the same time. Given the limited number of trained teachers, he decided we needed a book that could do the teaching. Here’s what he had to say about it…

I believe it is not possible for common popular instruction to advance a step, so long as formulas of instruction are not found which make the teacher… merely the mechanical tool of a method
Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi – “How Gertrude Teaches Her Children”, p. 41, 1801.

and further

I assert definitely, that a school-book is only good when an uninstructed schoolmaster can use it at need, [almost as well as an instructed and talented one] ibid

So. In order to turn his really great learning experiences into ‘common popular instruction’ we need to make teachers ‘the mechanical tool of the method’.

The problem of education in 1870
As I’ve discussed in my previous post, the 1870 elementary education act in the UK is a great historical lens through which we can look at the foundations of ‘modern’ schooling. They had a different kind of problem than our friend Johann, they were hoping to better prepare the poor, yes, but specifically to help power the economy. They wanted more people to have the basic literacies necessary to work in the factories. With education reform we see the establishment of 1000s of schools all over England and, eventually, mandatory attendance.

In the system we have standards levels that are used to judge the level of ability of a given pupil – can they read? – can they write? – can they do math? Note that none of these require the student to ‘understand’ anything. That’s not really needed. There are basic literacies that are required and, once achieved, they needn’t learn anything further. The same learning situation, i might add, that they’ll find in the factory.

I should add, that only through achieving a certain standard could student be allowed to leave school (early) and enter the workforce. They were assessed according to a government mandated standard of ‘what they would need to function in the workforce.’ That’s a pretty strong incentive for getting the grade.

And so…
In our first two examples, we have first a standardized method, then standardized content as solutions to specific problems. The method allowed us to account for a shortage of trained teachers, the second allowed us to scale the specific abilities that government required students to have so they could work in a very specific environment. In both cases ‘the common people’ needed a basic set of literacies their parents did not have. They changed how a society looked at learning knowing why they needed to make this change. They wanted or needed large portions of the population to be able to perform basic tasks.

We simply cannot ignore the (social) class implications of these two steps. There were grave concerns in 1870 that the ‘lower classes’ would become too educated and expect to be treated better. There was a specific intent in Pestalozzi case to better the plight of the poorer people. The implications of the public school system being designed as a control mechanism for the ‘lower classes’ is important to remember when we think about how they are built and are run.

The problem of education in 2015
It is generally accepted that we need to be raising a generation of life-long learners who are able to adapt to change as it comes to them. The world is complex. I’ve been in dozens of different kinds of conversation where people will say things like “we are preparing students for jobs that don’t exist yet”. I don’t entirely believe this, but things do seem to have a habit of changing alot lately. This is not a problem solved by the system we inherited. The system we inherited is designed to teach a finite number of skills to people who can prove they have learned those skills. One set of skills. The end. How, then, do we have to change our conception of ‘education’ in order to account for this?

Truth is we have any number of ‘learning theories’ that account for this. Constructivism (which i tend to think of as the umbrella term for ‘student first over teacher first’) has been preaching a variety of solutions to this for a 100 years. Heutagogy (one of the most recent), for instance, speaks to an approach “in which knowing how to learn will be a fundamental skill“. We need a new narrative for public education that we can talk about across the social spectrum… that makes sense to folks, and that addresses our actual purpose for education. A way to talk about constructivism is all it’s forms that speaks to what we are trying to do as a society, leaving room for everyone to play.

I”ve been testing out the first principle of ‘caring about learning’ being more important to ‘content’ and it seems to resonate. The idea that it’s more important that a student is ‘engaged’ in the learning process than if they can ‘recall’ the learning outcomes. But what are the objectives that attach to that goal? How do we make a minister of education happy about that idea? How do we convince parents that the way a kid feels about learning is more important than what they learned? How would we teach learning? Oh my gosh… how would we assess it? How, inevitably, do we bureaucratize it?

The story of the rhizome
The rhizome has been the story i have used, frankly without thinking about it, to address this issue. There are lots of other ways to talk about it – a complex problem does not get solved by one solution. In a rhizomatic approach (super short version) each participant is responsible for creating their own map within a particular learning context. The journey never ‘starts’ and hopefully never ends. There is no beginning, no first step. Who you are will prescribe where you start and then you grow and reach out given your needs, happenstance, and the people in your context. That context, in my view, is a collection of people. Those people may be paying participants in a course, they may be people who wrote things, it could be people known to the facilitator. The curriculum of the course is the community of people pulled together by the facilitator and all those others that join, are contacted or interacted with. The interwebs… you know.

I have gotten as far as writing a syllabus for a face 2 face, institutional course that I think of as rhizomatic. I’ve designed a first version of an open online course that i think of as rhizomatic. We generally start out very confused, I ask questions like “well… how am i supposed to know what you want to learn, i don’t even know you yet” a lot. The ‘contract’ for learning is very different for some, particularly when i teach teachers, who like for me to have clear objectives for them to achieve. I don’t have them. I do have broad goals… that sets the context. Success, however, is individual.

The point here is that i attempt to replace the ‘certainty of the prepared classroom’ with the ‘uncertainty of knowing’. In doing so I’m hoping to encourage students to engage in the learning process in their own right. I want them to make connections that make sense to them, so that when the course is over, they will simply keep making connections with the communities of knowing they have met during the class. The community is both the place where they learn from other people, but, more importantly, learning how to be in the community is a big part of the curriculum. Customs, mores, common perspectives, taboos… that sort of thing.

The teacher, in the approach, is part jester, part resource, part cheerleader and part community organizer. You know… a teacher :). Neither a mechanical tool of a method nor an enforcer of content. More importantly, the teacher IS the rigour. It’s not some arbitrary memory check.

How does this help address the problem?

That’s really what i’m wondering about. I have had a not insignificant number of people I’ve talked to in the last 6 or 7 years say things like “this is exactly the way i think about education…” and they do it this way or can’t or are afraid to or are doing it better. I want to be able to do a better job of explaining how rhizomatic education is possible. How would it roll out to a university? A school district? Does it need to be wholesale? Can it work in pieces? Are models like Genius Hour examples of this…? I have alot of questions.

My other questions for this year

  1. Does a rhizomatic approach encourage engagement?
  2. Can it do so without a focus on content?
  3. Does it encourage lifelong learning?
  4. More other things i will think about, this blog post is already too long


If “school is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is” (Illich) what society are we selling?

Two example of ways we need to change the discussion if we’re going to change education along with learning
Example 1 – Wellbeing
One move would be to ask if we want education to lead to wellbeing.
The excellent response to this discussion from Michael Feldstein. Some fun data from a Gallop Poll ” asks the question, “What kind of education is more likely to promote wellbeing?”

What factors did matter? What moved the needle? Odds of thriving in all five areas of Gallup’s wellbeing index were

1.7 times higher if “I had a mentor who encouraged me to pursue my goals and dreams”
1.5 times higher if “I had at least one professor at [College] who made me excited about learning”
1.7 times higher if “My professors at [College] cared about me as a person”
1.5 times higher if “I had an internship or job that allowed me to apply what I was learning in the classroom”
1.1 times higher if “I worked on a project that took a semester or more to complete”
1.4 times higher if “I was extremely active in extracurricular activities and organizations while attending [College]”

Example 2 – What did you learn at school today?
TV has taught me that good parents ask this question to their kids everyday when they come home. It’s an interesting one to think about it. It’s possible, i suppose, that my child could look at me and say

“i learned that when i imagine there’s only one answer to a question, i tend to get trapped into seeing solutions as simple rather than complex and start fitting evidence into my conclusion without challenging it”.

And that’d be great. But it’s not the first sense in which I, at least, have have generally used that question. I’m expecting a piece of content, a historical fact or something else easily traded as an answer to the question. For this to work we’d need to be asking our kids new questions…

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