A college friend and I, both interested in product design, recently challenged each other to begin keeping a "bug list". This is an idea we'd read about in a book by some of the founders of Ideo, the famous product design firm. A bug list is where you keep a list of all the problems you encounter or run into on a daily basis. The problems that seem the most promising become fodder for later product ideas. All good products start with a problem they're trying to solve. The bigger the problem (I've heard it described as solving shark bites versus mosquito bites) and the more people who have that problem, the more impactful the product will be.
More fundamentally, the bug list is a tool to get ourselves in the habit of looking for problems to solve. Everytime we complain, get frustrated, lose something, etc. during the day we make a note of what the problem was. Or I would sit down at the beginning of the day and think of ten or more problems I had as I mentally ran through my routine or through the previous day's activities.
The nature of our challenge was to each come up with ten new problems a day for two weeks. Then we would have a call to compare and figure out the best problems we would like to solve. That's close to 300 problems we came up with between the two of us over those two weeks. Most of the ideas were shit, of course- things that couldn't really be solved with products or even software, or that were more personal problems or societal problems. Or problems that would require a multi-million dollar research team to solve, rather than two young engineers working in their spare time. Many of the problems were small problems, too- problems few other people likely saw as an issue, or that were mosquito bites that wouldn't be worth the hassle of using a product to solve. Still, we developed a short list of things we'd like to try and solve at some point.
Even if none of these ideas go anywhere, coming up with them has been a powerful process for me. I see three distinct advantages.
Society as a whole, at least in the west, is moving towards a decentralized, networked system rather than centralized. It is notably in our education system, both public and higher, that we are lagging behind.
The internet communications revolution is one of the key pieces behind this. As Jeremy Rifkens notes in The Empathic Civilization, the internet is in and of itself a decentralized system. Rather than being routed through a centralized phone system as with a telephone call, an internet user accesses information from a decentralized database of servers located all over the world. And with previous communications systems, information could only be passed along linearly- in a book, on a floppy disk, or along a telephone line. Whereas information uploaded to the internet can be accessed from anywhere in the world by any number of users. Information uploaded becomes part of a pool of shared value anyone with an internet connection can tap into. This is fundamentally democratizing, allowing unparalleled access to information as well as the chance for everyone to have a voice. We hear talks of the sharing economy as the model for the early 21st century, made possible thanks to the internet. It is a network model of society, where anyone can contribute value in an a-linear way and access the shared pool of value.
The decentralizing effects of the internet can be seen in all facets of modern life, to varying degrees. It is decentralizing the way we learn, collaborate, work, and manage our companies. I've talked sufficiently about the effects of modern technology on learning in other articles, and suffice it to say here that one can learn most anything they want at little to no cost through the internet. Even in cases where expertise, mentorship, or peer-based collaboration is required, the necessary connections can easily be found on the internet.
We've also seen how technology is decentralizing the way people work and companies organize themselves. The growing number of independent, freelance creative professionals is a perfect example of this. Unthinkable decades ago; now designers, creators, and consultants can independently promote and market themselves, and complete their contracts from their laptop and anywhere they have an internet connection.
I've already talked about the example of IBM that Cathy Davidson uses in Now You See It. Faced with becoming irrelevant by fast moving, younger, smaller companies; IBM completely reinvented itself as a decentralized company under a network model. They use technology to manage independent, crossfunctional, interdisciplinary teams whose members are often scattered across all parts of the globe. The members of the team do what they call Endeavor Based Work, where a single crossfunctional team develops a project from start to finish, each member adding value in their unique way but also responsible for the final product. This is in contrast to a centralized organization, where the project, and ownership of it, would be tossed around from department to department like a hot potato: engineering, testing, manufacturing, quality control, marketing, sales, customer service, etc.
It's no coincidence that most software companies, for example, use some form of the Agile. Agile is a decentralized, customer-centric management philosophy that focuses on creating value for customers through rapid prototyping and an empowered team structure. Rather than having a centralized hierarchy where orders are handed down from on high, in Agile, the thought goes that those working directly on a project with customers are the ones who have the most accurate, up-to-date information that affects the direction of a project. Hence the power being decentralized into the hands of the individual teams and its members. Managers and team leaders don't manage or lead in a traditional sense, but are there to facilitate the work of the team members as much as possible by removing obstacles and connecting the team to resources. It's no coincidence that an Agile team leader sounds a lot like the idea of a teacher-as-learning-facilitator I've discussed previously. The inversion of authority functions into facilitation functions is a key aspect of any decentralizing system.
Agile arose in the 90's as a way to solve the problems software companies of the day were having, namely, that they would often spend months or years developing a piece of software that didn't actually fit customer's needs and hence went unused, that the software they built was too interdependent and could not easily be updated, and that they spent an inordinate amount of time at the end debugging the code. As I write this, I can even see the parallels between this and the problems with our education institutions I've previously discussed, that our schools and universities are not customer-centric, deliver learning "products" that their customers don't want, have parts that are too interdependent and as a result prevent them from adapting and trying new things and experimenting.
Eventually, the pioneers of Agile created the following manifesto of 12 principles to describe their work and management philosophy:
Rather than developing a product for a year in an isolated silo, hoping it is what the customers need, then kicking it down the line to the sales and marketing department, Agile teams invert the approach. The team works hand in hand with the customer, who often forms a member of the team. At the very least, the teams typically include a "customer advocate" position whose job is to ask, "is this really what the customer wants? Will the customer actually use this?" They build a rough, dirty prototype to begin with that may look nothing like the final product but that can be shown to the customer in a week or two weeks rather than two years. This is key because it means crucial feedback can be collected than can influence the next prototype, which is slightly better than the previous one. Over the course of dozens of iterations and evolving prototypes, the constant customer feedback ensures that the product, slowly but surely, moves towards completion, often much more rapidly than a traditionally-managed project. And resources are saved because by the time the product is finished, no extra testing is needed. The customer testing was built into the development and the developers, as a result, know that the product delights its customers.
That is obviously best case circumstances, as it is hard for many companies to successfully implement agile, especially larger ones with more established corporate cultures. But the data support the idea of Agile and its efficacy: Agile-managed projects are successful 50% of the time, to within 50% of the original timeframe of the project planners. By comparison, traditionally (centrally) managed projects are successful just 14% of the time and are accurate to with 350% of the original timeframe alloted (source).
The teams are purposefully kept small to facilitate communication and collaboration, usually no larger than 5-6 people. Teams larger than that have been shown to actually output less on average than smaller teams, due to the complexity inherent in having more people who need to be constantly communicating, collaborating, and developing and maintaining a consensus and direction. It's much more effective to split larger teams up into smaller teams whose leader-facilitators then coordinate the combined actions of the two mini-teams. These teams typically set their own goals and tasks to achieve those goals then hold each other accountable in the execution. The team members, as with the IBM example, are often comprised of a spectrum of disciplines required to complete the project.
This form of customer-centric, decentralized management is not unique to software, however, but has cropped up and is cropping up in a variety of disparate fields. Toyota, for example, pioneered Lean Manufacturing. Later, the concepts of Lean were applied to managing new startups and the Lean Startup movement arose. Software Agile is slowly giving birth to a new movement of modular, rapid, decentralized manufacturing called Extreme Manufacturing (after Extreme Programming in software). There are the fields of design thinking and human-centered design which have emerged in recent years, as well. And ironically enough, much of the inspiration for Agile came from the pioneering work of the architect Christopher Alexander whose seminal works A Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language described architectural pattern languages as a tool for democratizing the development of livable homes, offices, and towns. Inspired by Alexander, early Agile practitioners began developing their own library of software patterns to accelerate their work and increase their ability to collaborate across teams. Even the military began experimenting with decentralized management as early as the late 70's and 80', and the post-9/11 fight against terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to have renewed the US military's commitment to decentralization.
The question is not if, but when decentralization will begin cropping up in new fields of human endeavors, and those who are capable of facilitating the transition to decentralized systems will almost certainly be heralded as pioneers as we become accustomed to living in a networked society.
in Centralized organizations are characterized by artificial divisions among work tasks or disciplines. In a corporation, that might look like Engineering, Human Relations, Sales, Marketing, Customer Service, etc. In an academic setting, it is the academic disciplines: biology, physics, psychology, and so on. It seems efficient on paper to have all the engineers talking with one another, all the biologists talking to each other, and all the psychologists talking together; and indeed it may be efficient for certain aims. For specialists doing isolated research in very specific subsets of their discipline, it makes sense in some ways to communicate and collaborate primarily with other specialists of that discipline. But the greater efficiency, relevancy, and customer-centricity of the organization suffers as a whole because the individual buckets of disciplines or functions isn't communicating across the various stovepipes of the organization. Meanwhile, the power structure of a centralized organization is very top-down. The CEO sets the overall policy that the high level managers pass on to mid level managers and on to the direct reports at the bottom of the hierarchy. Ultimately, this leads to less buy-in from people involved in the system. They don't feel ownership for the overall product or service that they're offering, as they only ever see a small piece of the final product, and they have no real say in how it looks or how it is delivered.
It's obvious that our education system is still very centralized. Christensen et al. and Davidson describe it very well in Disrupting Class and Now You See It. While they're talking specifically about public education, universities are in the same pot. A typical college student advances through an assembly line's worth of required courses, all taught in a very monolithic way independent of learning styles, typically through a lecture and occasionally through discussions and labs. The students are treated like buckets into which more knowledge is poured by the professors, divided up into discipline-specific departments, until the students are sufficiently "full" of knowledge- both discipline-specific and of the so called "general education"- that they've earned their very expensive set of credentials. And while in the past, the university at least had a somewhat decentralized power structure in that professors largely governed themselves, universities have as a whole been rapidly centralizing their power structure in a more familiar, almost corporate hierarchy as professors have willingly given up their powers of self governance and in doing so have lost a sense of ownership and buy-in into the service-based goals of a university (beyond it's function as a credentialing institution and means for personal economic advantage).
Zemsky et al. describe this phenomenon of a rapidly centralizing university power structure in their work Remaking the American University. For most of the history of the university, professors have organized themselves to elect department heads, handle admissions and counseling, and run the day to day operations of the university. But as the authors describe, a lattice of administrative workers arranged in a centralized, manager-centric model slowly emerged to make the university financially self-sufficient beginning in the 70's and 80's as state appropriations for universities declined. As time went on, the administrators expanded their lattice of powers and responsibilities until gradually a whole class of non-professors where governing the university instead of the professors. They note that in 10 years, from 1975 to 1985, the average amount of faculty increased by 6% while the administrative staff increased by 60% (23).
Yet professors were fine with this, as it freed up more of their time to do prestigious activities that would advance themselves professionally: research, publication, and professional service (25). Unfortunately, as Zemsky et al. note, this gradual disengagement of the professors had poor outcomes for the institution as a whole. It lost its sense of an organization providing a greater societal good and instead came to view itself as a purely consumer good offering students credentials in exchange for tuition money. Professors have, for the most part, been too busy pursuing their personal goals over the goals of the university as a whole, acting more like mercenaries rather than members of a community of scholars (26).
"In the early twenty-first century, all that social activism is now gone or disappearing. Today colleges and universities are seen principally as gateways to economic security and middle-class status. Except for the occasional bout with political correctness, almost no one worries about higher educaiton institutions leading young people astray. If anything, the lament is that they have, in their pursuit of market advantage, bceome dispensers of degrees and certificates rather than communities of educators who originate, debate, and promulgate important ideas" (4).
This is a direct result of the gradual centralization of the power structure of American universities combined with the new role of the university as a path to middle-class economic prosperity. But that middle-class opportunity as we knew it is disappearing fast, if it's not already completely disappeared. Liberal arts majors are hard pressed to find jobs worthy of a bachelor's or master's degree after they graduate. Professional degrees such as business and engineering still confer some employment opportunities. But it seems like a given that even technical jobs will soon be outsourced to the developing world, where the same jobs can be done more cheaply and effectively- at least, in a centralized model of education and work. In a centralized system, as long as the engineers can cheaply and effectively execute the specifications set by the business team. But as I've mentioned, the inability of the functional "stovepipes" to communicate between one another often means this system doesn't work as well in practice as in theory. That said, with modern communications technology, decentralized teams can easily be managed and coordinated even when the members are scattered across the globe. So outsourcing isn't necessarily a phenomenon of centralization.
Zemsky et al. try to answer the question, why care that the role of universities have changed and they've become the degree factories they are today? Besides the fact that the road they provide to prosperity isn't as clear as it may have been in the past due to globalization, they say:
"The answer lies in what is lost when universities are shaped almost exclusively by the wants of students seeking educational credentials and businesses and govermental agencies seeking research outcomes. When universities are wholly dominated by market interests, there is a notable abridgement of their roles as public agencies- and a diminution of their capacity to provide public enues for testing ideas and creeds as well as agendas of public action... Finally, what is being lost is the idea that knowledge has other than instrumental purposes, that ideas are important whether or not they confer personal advantage" (7).
Centralization has led universities to focus almost exclusively on the credentialing of our youth to the exclusion of its other potential functions. Another unfortunate side effect is that it provides a subpar educational experience. Christensen et al. describe one such effect this has on the educational experience in a university:
"Consider colleges and universities, by illustration. Their major lines of organizational structure are typically drawn by academic field: departments of mathematics, physics, French, economics, classics, and so on. The reason for structuring universities in academic departments is to facilitate the faculty's ability to interact with others who share common interests and expertise and to help them publish in specialized acdemic journals so that they can achieve tenure. As a result of these structures, college education for most students entalis repeated bouncing back and forth in a cumbersome way between departments and administration to get their education. And colleges incur extraordinary overhead expenses to deal with the fact that few of them are organized in ways tthat optimize the flow of students through the requisite experiences" (172).
And so students pay more for a subpar experience that doesn't quite prepare them to create value in a networked, 21st century America. If their goal is to mimic the outdated centralized, assembly-line style management and work practices that resulted in the outsourcing of a large part of our economy in the past decades, then they are succeeding. In the meantime, students who have never had an opportunity to experiment and explore their interests and identity are stuck in a system that discourages experimentation and exploration of disciplines, majors, and interdisciplinary collaboration, the latter being where the truly interesting and engaging work is usually done. They often spend two years taking "general education" classes before they get to any meaty class on what they're supposed to be excited about, which is their choice of major. These general education classes are usually the same things covered in High School, which discourages and depresses them and make them realize they are in for More of the Same. And almost without fail (there are notable exceptions, but they are exactly that, exceptions) these classes are easy and poorly taught in large auditoriums of 200+ students, as the professors realize the students are there because they have to be and not because they want to be.
So by the time they get to any interesting classes in their third year or if they're lucky by the end of their second year, many students feel it's too late to change majors even if they realized they studied the wrong thing. The sunk-cost bias sinks in, and after all, each class they already took means hundreds if not thousands of dollars down the drain if it doesn't count towards their new major. And even changing general-education requirements between majors and departments means that some of those classes may be wasted, as well.
Worse, because of the academic nature of the courses even in professional tracks like engineering and business and social science, someone can easily graduate from a university without knowing the least thing about how their profession actually operates. This is, once again, thanks to the centralized nature of the university. A centralized system requires standardized processes across the institution, and the easiest thing to do as the institution grows is to apply the existing processes to the new parts of the organization even if they aren't ideal. As professions typically taught in vocational schools or apprenticeships suddenly found themselves taught in universities, no effort was made to find effective ways to teach the practical skills associated with those professions. They were instead shoe-horned into the existing pedagogical methods perhaps suited to teaching philosophy and rhetoric but ill suited to what most students in a university study nowadays. And with the current system of economic incentives for universities, educational quality is typically ignored in favor of ever more robust and competitive recruitment processes (Zemsky et al. 44).
The Endeavor Based University is a decentralized education at its finest. The technology and infrastructure is already there such that anyone can learn practically anything from anywhere they have an internet connection. At a fraction of the cost of a university degree, they could even take advantage of non-virtual resources like libraries, fab labs, hacker spaces, apprenticeships, and mentorship.
Universities and other educational institutions have the opportunity to recast themselves as network nodes in this decentralized network of learning, that is, natural accumulations of peers, expertise, resources, and facilities that can vastly accelerate an individual student's learning as well as advance a certain agenda: civic and democratic engagement, cross-cultural collaboration, humanistic values, etc.
Think about the portrait of a typical college student's experience that Goodman drew earlier. Imagine what a university education could be, instead.
Imagine if the university were instead project based or endeavor based, and interdisciplinary instead of divided into disciplines. Each student would still have a major, but from the very beginning they would be working on real world projects in small teams instead of sitting in lectures for the first two years that had little to do with what they might actually be doing after they graduate. That way, they could decide from the beginning if that major was what they really wanted to be doing, instead of having to wait until their third or fourth year to find out.
These teams, rather than working on a contrived academic project, would be working on a real project with real value for someone. It could be working hand in hand with a professor on his research project, working with a real startup, or even a project a corporation or company had. Or, it could be a completely student driven initiative: a startup, a community improvement or activism project, or even a local political campaign.
The team would be interdisciplinary, as a real world team would be. For example, imagine if the project were to try and launch a new product. Engineers, industrial designers, graphic designers, etc. would be needed, of course. But also business students, entrepreneurship majors, an accounting major. A psychology or sociology student could be recruited, whose role would be customer discovery and to be the customer advocate on the team.
Or imagine a team that decided they wanted to run for a local political science office. That could include political science majors, sociology majors, a journalism student, even a systems or industrial engineer.
Or even if students wanted to work with a professor on a research project not based on disciplinary choice, either on a team or 1 on 1, that would be an option as well.
Lecture classes as we know them would be gone. Instead of learning abstract knowledge, memorizing it for the test, then promptly forgetting it after the course was over, there would be just in time learning, roughly analogous to just in time manufacturing in lean. In just in time manufacturing, rather than expensively storing hundreds of extra pieces in a warehouse until they're needed, costs are cut by using superior organization to deliver parts to the factory only when they're needed.
In just in time learning, students would learn only what they needed to know to complete what they were working on at that particular moment in their project. If they needed to learn differential equations to design a particular engine piece, their learning facilitator would direct them to the textbook or online tutorial series they needed to learn that, and to a professor on campus that could help them if they got stuck. So instead of learning a bunch of theory without application that has no real application or context or meaning for them, they would learn the material much more effectively because it meant something to them. It was something they learned, not something a professor taught them. Those differential equations would live on in their memory and experience as that engine piece they designed that was actually being used in a car somewhere.
And the students would be creating real value in the world, something most of us have never had the opportunity, never been trusted to do until after we graduate. This would create tighter bonds between the university, its students, and the community. The university would come to be seen as a community resource where the nation's youth could be employed to solve some of the world's, the nation's, or the community's most pressing problems, keeping it relevant in an age where someone can get just as quality an education (though not the credentials) online at a fraction of the cost.
Rather than learning only a particular set of technical skills, which are likely to be out of date as soon as they graduate or soon thereafter, the students would learn those in addition to the real gems: learning how to collaborate, work in teams, set and achieve their own objectives, be self-starters, problem solve an ambiguous real world problem, create real value for others, build consensus, think critically and creatively, and take action to achieve real, measurable change. In other words, the higher-level skills that are needed in a creative, networked society where outsourcing and automation are rapidly making those skills necessary to get a job or even better, create a job where one didn't exist previously.
Of course, this idea brings up many questions to answer, which I'll explore in future articles. For example, how does a liberal arts education fit into this idea? How do you measure the results of students' learning or the efficacy of the university in such a system? Among others. So stay tuned.
Dillon Dakota Carroll
Disrupting Class is a 2011 book, written by Christensen, Horn, and Johnson, that attempts to show how schools can take advantage of computer and internet based software to provide an intrinsically motivating learning environment for kids. As they point out, students need customizable learning suited to their pace, learning style, and personal interests. That learning should also give them the most opportunities for success.
The complication is that schools, organizationally, cannot do the very thing students need the most. Due to the interdependence of the modern school, customized leraning cannot be offered without prohibitive costs. Technology has only been bolted on as an afterthought and hasn't changed the core teaching methods.
Christensen, et al. see a future where teachers are learning coaches and facilitators and software-based, student-centric tutoring programs allow students to learn the material they want, at their pace, with the grading and assessment built into the software. This won't come all at once, due to the entrenched infrastructure of our education system. Instead, it will happen in the gaps where traditional teaching isn't reaching as their effectiveness is proved, and will eventually become the norm as costs fall and the role of teachers is changed.
In certain ways, Christensen et al.'s ideas are similar to that of Cathy Davidson in Now You See It: using technology to create a network model of learning. In fact, the authors of the respective books use the same metaphors, though in different words. While Davidson talks about an assembly line versus a network model, Christensen et al. talk about them in terms of business models. The current system we have, as they describe, is a value added process, or value chain, analogous to an assembly line. At each stage of the value chain, new inputs are added that create value for the end customer. The textbook manufacturers send textbooks to the schools, and the teachers in the schools use them to add value to the students in certain batches: 9th grade math, 7th grade science, etc. The model we need to have, on the other hand, is a value network. Instead of the producers creating value in a linear fashion that is consumed at the end point of the chain by the students, in a value network, each of the consumers adds their own value into a vast pool that can be shared by everyone who's bought into that network. Think about YouTube as the consumate example. Anyone can add value to the network in the form of a funny, useful, or entertaining video, and the benefits are available for all to use. In fact, YouTube is essentially the model Christensen et al. envision: an internet-based learning platform where teachers, students, and parents can develop learning apps that can be shared with one another at low, or no, cost (132).
Currently, schools are only able to provide monolithic, one-size-fits-all learning because, as the authors say, "Today's system was designed at a time when standardization was seen as a virtue" (38). And in many ways, despite our newfound understanding of learning styles, developmental psychology, and more, we still believe this. The fact that we still bother with the same, monolithic standards for every single child in the US, which are the same measures we use to compare ourselves internationally, proves this.
I won't go too far into the author's explanation, found in chapter one, but they do an excellent job of showing how the various pieces of a modern school are too interdependent. You can't change one piece without changing all of them. They are interdependent temporally (with the age-based grade system), laterally (across disciplines- as they note, you can't change the way Spanish is taught without changing the way English is taught), physically (the school buildings are designed to facilitate only one kind of learning), and hierarchically (schools have various stakeholders to make happy, often in conflicting ways) (33).
Because of the interdependence of the parts and the fact that, at its core, the system is designed to standardize, adding computers and software to the mix solves nothing. It apports marginal benefits, but nothing revolutionary because the fundamental teaching methods haven't changed. The software solutions designed are little better than digital textbooks. As a result, customizing learning to aid students is prohibitively expensive. The authors make the point that in Rhode Island, educating a regular student costs about $9,300 per year. But educating a Special Education student, who's learning is supplemented with special materials, individualized instruction, etc., costs just shy of $23,000 per year (34).
Ultimately, technology can't be the solution. It's a force multiplier that improves the efficacy of the solution you already have. If you have an ineffective solution that creates poor outcomes, technology can't save it. The analogy Ivan Illich uses in Deschooling Society is that expecting technology to solve our educational crisis is like the US military trying to bomb the Viet Cong into submission with bigger and more destructive bombs (77). It can never work because the fundamental approach is flawed. As John Boyd noted during his time in the Pentagon, “People should come first. Then ideas. And then hardware.” The fundamental way students, teachers, and people in general interact in our education system has to change before technology can be effective at multiplying the impact of learning. Ultimately, that's what Disrupting Class is about.
While Christensen et al. would probably disagree with much of Ivan Illich's philosophy of completely abolishing mandatory education, their ideas are very similar in important ways. In his book Deschooling Society, written before the internet, Ivan Illich provides an alternative vision to modern education to replace our current model of mandatory education. He describes four learning networks, free and open to all to use (91):
This sounds pretty close to the network model Disrupting Class promotes as an ideal, where students and teachers can trade personalized learning apps, expertise, and knowledge in a mutually beneficial way. The only real difference I see between Illich's and Christensen et al.'s idea is that the latter still buys into the idea of standardization: all kids need to be learning more or less the same thing and get ranked and graded on those same things. If we accept that, then we still need most of the current educational infrastructure we currently have: mandatory attendance and all the associated overhead and extra cost associated with keeping a quarter of our population under control for half the days of the year, not to mention the largesse of a national system of testing and standards.
To this point Christensen et al. describe two uses for testing. The first is for students to demonstrate mastery of the subject material, which is fine pedagogically when that aim is separated from our compulsive need to rank, sort, and compare students. Indeed, according to Cathy Davidson, the original letter grade system arose primarily as a shorthand among teachers to understand how well their own students were grasping the material. But alas, the second use Christensen et al. see is to compare students.
"College admission decisions are built around test scores. The evaluation of which schools and districts are doing satisfactory jobs educating their students depends upon standardized exams. Even the assembly of honor rolls- whose purpose is to compare students- is largely based upon performance on exams" (111).
As I already wrote in a previous article, it seems silly and wasteful to test kids on behalf of universities and employers, and sends the message that our schools are basically factories and feeders for these institutions. At what point did it become the responsibility of our school system to help those institutions choose who to accept? But as Christensen et al. point out, colleges do need a way to make admissions decisions. If they want to use test scores to do that, there are plenty of ways to accomplish that aim without making it the responsibility of the public school system. Universities could easily have their own entrance exam, and at any rate, plenty of standardized tests like the ACT and SAT exist, all supposedly designed to test college-readiness.
The second point, that of evaluating the performance of schools and districts, is an issue inherent in a standardized, mandatory system of schooling. If we truly accepted a plurality of interests, passions, and learning styles among ourselves, and as a result rejected a standardized, mandatory system, then the onus would be on the teachers to make their class interesting and relevant enough that kids would want to attend. Then it would be easy to see who the good instructors were: they would be the ones who could present the material in a way that was interesting and engaging to the students, and actually had attendance. In vying for kid's attention in an open marketplace of ideas, instruction, and learning-facilitation, it would spur a search for innovative and effective pedagogical methods such as the very ones described in Disrupting Class in creatively run institutions like Quest 2 Learn, The Met, and High Tech High. The entire city or town could be opened up to facilitate more natural, integrated, and holistic learning.
Christopher Alexander, ironically enough an architect, provides a visionary example of what our educational system could look like in his A Pattern Language. Envisioning a learning network remarkably similar to that of Ivan Illich, Alexander describes "another network, not physical like transportation, but conceptual and equally important, is the network of learning: the thousands of inter-connected situations that occur all over the city, and which in fact comprise the city's 'curriculum'". This city-as-curriculum is in fact a decentralized education "congruent with the urban structure itself", noting that "living and learning are the same."
He continues: "In a society which emphasizes teaching, children and students- and adults- become passive and unable to think or act for themselves. Creative, active individuals can only grow up in a society which emphasizes learning instead of teaching" (99).
I mention Alexander here because one of the many inspiring architectural "patterns" (or solutions) in his compendium is that of the University as Marketplace (231), more or less similar to what I described above when discussing the potential results of abolishing a mandatory, standardized curriculum.
"Concentrated, cloistered universities, with closed admission policies and rigid procedures which dictate who may teach a course, kill opportunities for learning. The original universities in the middle ages were simply collections of teachers who attracted students because they had something to offer. They were marketplaces of ideas, located all over the town, where people could shop around for the kinds of iedas and learning which made sense to them. By contrast, the isolated and over-administered university of today kills the variety and intensity of the different ideas at the university and also limits the student's opportunity to shop for ideas."
He notes that the key aspects here are that:
A university or school system run in this way could essentially be seen as nodes in Illich's learning networks: natural points where learners, mentors, researchers, masters, apprentices, instructors, and resources congregate.
Going back to the idea of testing, what do these standardized tests measure anyway? Their chief virtue is that the metrics they use are easy to measure and compare. But ease of use does not a good metric make. What higher-level, more important values are we leaving unmeasured as a result of our focus on our precious, multiple choice, standardized tests?
But, we say, how can our students be prepared for the real world if they don't learn certain basic skills? And implicit in that question, is how can we know if they've really learned those skills if we don't test and compare them?
One thing everyone agrees on is that, the more intrinsically motivated one is to learn, the better. Indeed, Christensen et al. state several times in Disrupting Class that fostering intrinsic motivation should be a chief aim of our education system. But that intrinsic motivation cannot develop in an environment of coercion. Because the learning has no real context or meaning for students, it doesn't stick, and kids pass their time slowly learning the same things over and over again to pass the next test.
Yet there's substantial evidence that when someone is truly motivated to learn and able to freely choose to do so, they can learn the same content on their own or with minimal instruction in a fraction of the time it would have taken in a coercive school setting. Think about all the hair-pulling and gnashing of teeth that teaching reading inspires in our schools today, for example.
Paulo Freire, an internationally renowned revolutionary pedagogue, became famous for his work as an itinerant teacher in rural Brazil. He would go from village to village teaching illiterate farmers how to read. These tenant farmers were forgotten by society and exploited by landowners, in large part because of their illiteracy. Because they never had access to resources to learn how to read, they grew up illiterate, and as a result couldn't do something as simple as sign their own name at a courthouse- something they had to be able to do if they wanted to take legal recourse to protect themselves against the endemic exploitation they faced.
He found that, without fail, a month was all it took to teach these "dumb" illiterate farmers enough of the basics of reading and writing that they became self-sufficient autodidacts, starting with the words and topics that were important to them as exploited, poor, rural farmers- their Key Vocabulary, as Sylvia Aston-Warner called it. From there, they could learn the rest on their own. Why? Because they had clear, strong motivations to do so. They needed, and knew they needed, to learn how to read to be free and to live well in their society. I believe it is a mistake to assume that, with the overabundance of the written word in nearly all parts of the United States today, our youth would not come to the same conclusion that these poor Brazilian farmers came to.
And again, it comes down to what we value. Do we want pacified citizenry that duly does as its told? Or do we want ingenious self-starters who identify a problem and take the initiative to correct it? The first is the system we currently have. The second requires that we trust ourselves in a way that, as we've become slowly more institutionalized, we've forgotten how to do. If the basic skills we aspire to teach in school are truly as important as we think, then we will by necessity learn them as a natural part of living.
As a simple example, imagine a youth that has lagged behind his peers in learning how to read, for whatever reason. All his friends are on Facebook, and he wants to be able to use Facebook to talk to his friends. So he begins teasing out the patterns on his own, and if resources were made available to him through a free and open learning network, he would probably take advantage of them.
John Holt provides an admittedly much more compelling example describing his experiences working as a teacher in a summer reading program designed to help at-risk, poor, mostly black kids with poor reading skills.
"Leon didn't speak. When he did, he didn't say much. But what he said I will never forget. He stood up, holding before him a paperback copy of Dr. Martin Luther King's book Why We Can't Wait, which he had read or mostly read, during that summer session. He turned from one to another of the adults, holding the book before each of us and shaking it for emphasis, and, in a voice trembling with anger, said several times at the top of his lungs, "Why didn't anyone ever tell me about this book? Why didn't anyone ever tell me about this book?" What he meant, of course, was that in all his years of schooling no one had ever asked him to read, or ever shown him or mentioned to him, even one book that he had any reason to feel might be worth reading. It's worth noting that Why We Can't Wait is full of long intricate sentences and big words. It would not have been easy reading for more than a handful of students in Leon's or any other high school. But Leon, whose standardized Reading Achievement Test scores "proved" that he had the reading skills of a second-grader, had struggled and fought his way through that book in perhaps a month or so. The moral of the story is twofold: that young people want, need, and like to read books that have meaning for them, and that when such books are put within easy reach they will sooner or later figure out, without being taught and with only minimal outside help, how to read them" (33).
Finally, Christensen et al.'s last explicit use for comparing students: honor rolls. I can think of no more vain or petty reason to test students than to sustain the practice of honor rolls or principal's lists in schools. They are an academic beauty pageant, and don't actually justify the need to test. It is one of the many carrots we offer students to gain their buy-in and cooperation: do well on these tests and you'll get a gold star, do poorly and you'll have to stay back and repeat the class.
All this is to say that if we take Christensen et al.'s fundamental theorem to its logical conclusion- that everyone is different, with their own learning interests, passions, pace, and learning style, then the idea of testing everyone on the same standard seems unnecessary and wasteful. If we accept that, then the whole apparatus of nationalized standards and testing, national curriculums, even mandatory attendance seems to totter. Why have the costly educational infrastructure at all, if these learning networks can be provided at a fraction of the cost?
Christensen et al. provide an example of a fictitious kid named Doug. A star soccer player, academically he is "falling through the cracks".
"She [the principal] has seen Doug in class a couple of times- he's perfected the art of appearing to take notes, but unlike most of his teachers, she knows he's not. He's doodling. Fantastic, elaborate doodles. That first glimpse of his notebook had horrified her- how long had he been getting away with this? But she had also instantly known he was talented. Maybe Doug belongs in a school with more unconventional programming- more art, more creative kinds of writing, more music. Too bad Randall Circle [the school] doesn't have the infrastructure or funding for that stuff" (208).
Too bad, indeed. It's clear that the school isn't serving kids like Doug adequately and may even be doing more harm than good, as by the school's standards, Doug is a failure. But by other standards- athletic, artistic- Doug might very well be considered a success, or at the least very promising. Christensen et al. note that every kid (and really, every person) has a need to feel successful and competent (176). But Doug will never be able to feel competent in that system; the one school activity he does excel at (soccer) is disdainfully labeled as "extracurricular".
Doctors learn that their first imperative is to, above all else, do no harm. Should we not hold our schools to the same standard? Would Doug not be better off if he were left to his own devices so that he could find the "unconventional programming" on his own?
Later on, a fantastic AP calculus teacher named Escalante is described. "Escalante was an exceptional teacher. Why not capture Escalante's instructional magic on film and make it available to schools anywhere?... But these sorts of films have had little impact because they were simply carmmed into classrooms as a tool on top of the traditional teaching methods. Not surprisingly, never has a calculus teacher announced to the class, 'Kids, today is a great day. We have these films of a teacher in Los Angeles, and you just need a technician to run the projector. You don't need me any more'" (83).
I almost feel like that quote needs no explanation. It is the equivalent of keeping our tax code convoluted to satisfy and employ an industry's worth of H&R Blocks, and it sounds like Christensen et al. are as frustrated by that as I am. Of course, change won't happen all at once. The interests- of teachers, unions, administrators, textbook suppliers, standardized testing companies- are too entrenched. A complete collapse of the system is unlikely, instead rapidly increasing costs and mediocre improvements seem to be on the horizon. In the meantime, the disruption will happen in the cracks of the current education system. In the meantime, I will echo one of the calls of Christensen et al.: we need more experiments, more pilot schools and pilot initiatives designed to push the boundaries of what we think we know about learning and teaching and show that other, more empowering ways of educating ourselves are possible.
Perhaps universities have an advantage in that, as more autonomous institutions, they can test new ideas and change with more speed and agility. That is, if any of them are willing to say "enough!" to the current collegiate arms race long enough to care about the quality of their educational instruction.
I'll end with a poignant observation that Ivan Illich made: "The social decision to allocate educational resources preferably to those citizens who have outgrown the extraordinary learning capacity of their first four years and have not arrived at the height of their self-motivated learning will, in retrospect, probably appear as bizarre" (34).
Dillon Dakota Carroll
While in this series I'm primarily concerned with universities, it is worthwhile to take a bit of a broader view and examine the greater educational context they exist in. Not all, but many, of the problems universities have today are baggage inherited from our system of mandatory public education which, as noted in my previous article on Now You See It, is designed to produce efficient worker bees in an assembly line model of value creation, where workers and their tasks are specialized and compartmentalized to the point that they begin resembling the machines they're operating- whether a welder in a factory or a copy machine in an office.
Indeed, universities face extensions of the same problems facing primary and secondary education, and together, these institutions form a vicious cycle. Public education molds students into a certain form and instills specific values (most of them terrible- more on that later, but for now, I defer to Paul Goodman's description of our generation's "morality fit for a slave") which institutions like universities or employers react and adapt to in dumbing down their own processes. As standards slide further, they're seen as proof of the need for more of the same from public schools: more testing, more discipline, more math and science, less free time, etc.
Ivan Illich in Deschooling Society humorously notes that, "No society in history has been able to survive without ritual or myth, but ours is the first which has needed such a dull, protracted, destructive, and expensive initiation into its myth (45)."
I'll talk first about one particular piece of baggage universities inherit from public education, then use that into a springboard into discussing several others, as they're ultimately all interconnected. I will also say that I have nothing against most teachers, as in general they're doing what they can in a terrible system and at rather low wages, at least in the US.
This first issue is that schools invert the learning process. In schools, we get Education and Teaching, both processes done to a passive set of kids by the teacher. But no real learning can occur passively. Learning is always an active process. But in schools it is completely passive: sit down, shut up, listen and pay attention, write down exactly what I say. School learning becomes another product to be consumed.
Learning is also something that can, and should, be done all the time as a natural result of living, a natural result of Praxis, not a separate activity done outside and above the things we truly care about in our lives. Worse, our schools teach us (one of the few things they very definitively teach us) that "learning" can only happen in school, and the only things worth learning are what you learn in school anyway. After all, that's the only way to advance in school, get good grades, get into college, and get a high paying job so that we can live the American Dream.
So learning turns into yet another product to be consumed, like sitting in front of a television, and our schools have the monopoly on its distribution. These, respectively, are the first two issues, and already a vicious cycle become apparent. As more and more learning becomes institutionalized in schools, students must necessarily spend more time in school to learn those things to get ahead, even if they could learn them more quickly and effectively outside of school. But with the monopoly on learning, what begins to matter are the credentials one obtains, not necessarily the skills learned or practiced. Since formal schools become the only way to improve oneself, students flock to them as never before. Employers and universities respond by requiring more and more credentials to gain employment or acceptance. So more and more students flood back to school. What required a bachelors 30 years ago now requires a Masters, and what once required a high school diploma now requires a bachelors. Soon we'll be a nation of underemployed PhDs, always moving from one degree to the next.
John Holt expresses this sentiment, and some of what is wrong with it, in this passage in his book Learning all the Time:
"Not long ago I heard a college president refer to himself as a "womb-to- tomber": that is, a person who would like us all to be learners all our lives. What he actually meant, of course, was that he would like us to be students at some educational institution, with or without walls, all our lives. He meant that he would like us to be responsible to some expert or body of experts for what we know, that we would for all our lives be in the position of having to prove every so often that we were shaping up, knowing a satisfactory amount of what these experts felt we ought to know."
As the decades pass since Holt's statement, this is looking to be even more so the case. For even back in Holt's time, Ivan Illich noted that "If we add those engaged in full-time teaching to those in full-time attendance, we realize that this so-called superstructure has become society's major employer. In the United States sixty-two million people are in school and eighty million at work elsewhere (55)."
And yet, somehow we learned some of the most fundamental components of the human experience outside of school. "Everyone learns how to live outside school. We learn to speak, to think, to love, to feel, to play, to curse, to politick, and to work without interference from a teacher (Illich, 35)." Though for how much longer we'll be trusted to even learn these things on our own remains to be seen.
Davidson wrote in Now You See It that "we've confused high standards with standardization." In doing so, we're destroying the fundamental diversity of thought, spirit, and way of life that should be at the heart of a successful society. As students, or former students, we are all products of our education system. We've been stamped into "patterned people" as Organic Teaching pioneer Sylvia Aston-Warner would say.
"I said to a friend of mine, a professor, recently, "What kind of children arrive at the University to you?" He said, "They're all exactly the same." "But" I said, "how can it be like that? The whole plan of primary education at least is for diversity." "Well," he answered, "they come to me like samples from a mill. Not one can think for himself. I beg them not to serve back to me exactly what I have given to them. I challenge them sometimes with wrong statements to provoke at least some disagreement but even that won't work." "But" I said, "you must confess to about three per cent originality." "One in a thousand," he replied. "One in a thousand.""
For as much talk about celebrating diversity as schools may or may not offer, they espouse only one standard. Students who don't measure up to that standard are considered delinquent, handicapped, unruly, in need of medication, slow, or remedial.
"[School] is not liberating or educational because school reserves instuction to those whose every step in learning fits previously approed measures of social control." Ivan Illich
And yet there's a sense that these unruly students are fighting back against something. Of this Abraham Maslow said in Motivation and Personality: "Crime and delinquency and bad behavior in chlidren may sometimes represent psychiatriaclly and biologically legitimate revolt against exploitation, injustice, and unfairness."
But rather we consider these children to be abnormal for revolting, consciously or subconsciously, against our attempts to adjust them to the norms of the schoolhouse classroom: sit down, don't talk, don't play, be serious, write exactly what I say, I'm the arbiter of good, not you...
Maslow continues to ask rhetorically, "Adjustment means a passive shaping of oneself to one's culture, to the external environment. But supposing it is a sick culture?" (268)
Students that have been expected to conform to the demands of public education, treated like dumb children who can't be trusted to learn on their own, given no responsibility or freedom or chance to engage meaningfully with the world on their own terms, nor given the chance to explore whim or curiosity or fancy or discover any natural phenomena on their own, cannot be expected to suddenly do those things in a college or university. Some manage of course, maybe not until their second or third or fourth year (I didn't really manage to do those things till after I graduated), but the fact is that students coming into universities are handicapped by their mandatory schooling. And so it is inevitable that universities are dumbed down, perhaps even imperceptibly or unknowingly, to accomodate the needs of students who have never had to think for themselves, act for themselves, or engage meaningfully with a topic or learn of their own free will. College courses, particularly the Freshman and Sophomore courses, look disgustingly like High School classes, which probably aren't all that different from the ones in Junior High or Elementary school for that matter.
But as Maslow points out, just because something is average (i.e. most people are doing it) doesn't make it normal. Average is a statistical fact, normal implies making a value judgment about what is good and bad. Normal instead is often taken to mean what is traditional or habitual. He uses a fantastic example to drive this point home:
"I remember the turmoil over women smoking when I went to college. It was not normal, our dean of women said, and forbade it. At that time it was also not normal for college women to wear slacks, or hold hands in public. Of course what she meant was, 'this is not traditional,' which was perfectly true, and this implied for her, 'this is abnormal, sick, intrinsically pathological,' which was perfectly false. A few years later the traditions changed and she was fired, because by that time her ways were not 'normal'" (267).
If deciding what is normal is a value decision, we may as well make it consciously rather than relying on what has been.
A common argument I've heard many times is the following: we all came out of our public education system, and we came out okay, right? Maybe, maybe not. But I think that's avoiding the real issue here, which is, what do we want to value? In the context of education, do we want normal to be the disempowering, individual-consuming maw that it currently is? Or something that celebrates freedom, initiative, self-direction, and actualization? How much more richness, creativity, empathy, and depth could our culture have if we weren't spiritually killed by our school system, if we didn't have to learn to turn ourselves off for eight to twelve hours a day (consider homework, too), half the days out of the year.
"The adults actively discourage earnestness. As James Coleman of Johns Hopkins has pointed out, the ‘serious' activity of youth is going to school and getting at least passing grades; all the rest... is treated by the adults as frivolous. In fact, of course, these frivolous things are where normally a child would explore his feelings and find his identity and vocation, learn to be responsible... The result is a generation not notable for self-confidence, determination, initiative or ingenuous idealism. It is a result unique in history: an elite that had imposed on itself morale fit for slaves."
Paul Goodman, Compulsory Miseducation
I'm reminded of a discussion group I once participated in during my second year at the University of Oklahoma. Somehow the topic of education came up, and I began vehemently arguing for a major reform of our public education system. At that point I'd already been exposed to the idea of unschooling. We'd been discussing this for quite some time when one of the participants, Javen, got frustrated with my "abnormal" views.
Javen went on the offensive. "I don't know what terrible experience you had at school... but most people turn out fine. Every French student in every school in France is learning the exact same thing at exactly the same time, and they turn out fine." I didn't know what to say, as his personal comment caught me off guard. Looking back, I should have retorted, "Yes, but what are they really learning?" Truth is, my school experience was fairly normal. An 'A' student, teacher's pet, and even had my mom as a teacher for two years.
I include this anecdote to illustrate two facts. First, that average or traditional is certainly confused with normal in the case of schooling. We assume that because it is done this way now, it has always been that way, should always be done that way, and worse, that that way is the only or the best way to get the task accomplished.
Second, that the most vehement defenders of the status quo are typically students themselves. Again, however, this defense is made while ignoring the value decisions we inherently make in accepting the system as is.
Goodman noted that "Perhaps the chief objectors to abolishing grading would be the students and their parents. The parents should be simply disregarded; their anxiety has done enough damage already. For the students, it seems to me that a primary duty of the university is to deprive them of their props, their dependence on extrinsic valuation and motivation, and to force them to confront the difficult enterprise itself (54)."
I suspect that the sunk-cost fallacy is at work here, and explains why students are the school's staunchest allies. The sunk-cost fallacy says that, the more time you invest in a certain thing, activity, person, or group; the more highly you tend to value it independent of its actual value. It's what makes us stick with a long-term relationship long after we know it's done, continue on a project we know is doomed for failure, or finish the book we've started even though we don't enjoy it. Or defend an institution that beens the nucleus of our lives since the time we were four or five. I think back at the amount of time I've spent in my lifetime in class, taking tests, and doing busywork. It is a terrifying thought that much, if not most of this, was for naught, something I thought I'd firmly grasped only to have it slip through my fingers like grains of sand. It is easier to pretend in value of those wasted years, and it's psychologically ingrained in us to do so.
"A great neurologist tells me that the puzzle is not how to teach reading, but why some children fail to learn to read. Given the amount of exposure that any urban child gets, any normal animal should spontaneously catch on to the code. What prevents it is almost demonstrable that, for many children, it is precisely going to school that prevents -- because of the school’s alien style, banning of spontaneous interest, extrinsic rewards and punishments. In many underprivileged schools, the IQ steadily falls the longer they go to school" (Holt, 1).
By taking children out of the real world, giving them no autonomy, freedom, or opportunity to make mistakes, develop their interests and explore their curiosity, and learn from their mistakes, but instead turn themselves off as they swallow a prescribed universal curriculum against their will, several things happen.
Children can't grow up or find themselves. To grow up means they have been given progressively more mature things to do, more responsibility and freedom and initiative, to engage with the world in meaningful ways. In previous ages, this would have started happening whenever kids were old enough to be useful- around the time they were 10 or 11. Helping out on the farm, around the shop, in the studio, in the community: these all provided a way for children to gain valuable experience, make and learn from mistakes in a low-risk setting, develop independence, freedom, and responsibility, and discover who they are and what their vocation is. Mandatory education probably helped when it first arose to prevent the exploitive practices of urban factories that arose in the 19th century, but few would argue that American children are in danger of being worked like slaves in 21st century sweatshops.
This cycle of Praxis is one that any human being engages in naturally as part of their life: Take action, reflect, learn from your mistakes and from what you enjoyed or disliked, then take more action based on those insights. We learn constantly in this way simply by engaging with the world on our own terms. Through experimenting with many different things in this way, making lots of "little bets" as Peter Sims would call them, we learn what we are good at and what we enjoy, and perhaps what we feel called to do. Conversely, we learn what we're not good at and what we don't enjoy. The only way to ever know is to actually do those things.
Instead, children are treated like children until they are 18, and often until they are 22 or older- "If students want to live off-campus in their own cooperatives, they are avuncularly told that, at twenty years old, they are not mature enough to feed their faces and make their beds" (Goodman, 57). They are treated like children, so they act like children. Every day of school, for half the day (longer if you include the ever-increasing loads of schoolwork), students are told exactly where to sit, when to talk, what to say, what to learn. They are never given freedom or responsibility, of the true kind, but only in trivial things (Do you want to study Spanish or French? Nevermind that foreign languages have little meaning or sense until one is exposed to foreign cultures, foreign peoples, foreign countries). Independence, freedom, responsibility, autonomy, initiative... these are not magically gained upon coming of age. They must be won and developed, degree by painful degree through the process of Praxis, reflective acting with and in the world. These capacities are built, not by teachers teaching abstract arcana, but by the learner in the very act of freely engaging with the world. It all starts there, with the act of freely choosing.
John Holt wrote that the one thing schools could do to improve their education today "would be to let every child be the planner, director, and assessor of his own education, to allow and encourage him, with the inspiration and guidance of more experienced and expert people, and as much help as he asked for, to decide what he is to learn, when he is to learn it, how he is to learn it, and how well he is learning it. It would be to make our schools, instead of what they are, which is jails for children, into resources for free and independent learning, which everyone in the community, of whatever age, could use as much or as little as he wanted."
I recall a girl I knew in college. Let's call her Cindy. One day, in her Senior year (so she must have been 22 or so), she wrote a post on Facebook that went something like this:
"I don't know where my life is going or where I should be headed. People tell me just to walk forward. But what if I don't know which way is forward, even?"
I include this because I suspect so many of us feel this way, or felt this way until either very late in our schooling or until we finally left our schooling years behind. Cindy was just courageous enough to vocalize it, for all of her learned helplessness.
I wanted to shake Cindy by the shoulders and say, "It doesn't matter which way is forward! Just step anywhere, and go from there! Take a step, and if you liked that step, keep going, or step in a different direction..." I didn't know what Praxis was then, but if that's not the core of the idea, I don't know what is. Of course, my vehement response was because I similarly felt unsure of which direction to walk towards in my own life.
A couple more comments on Cindy's situation. First, her (our) learned helplessness. Because we've never developed our faculty of self-driven action and reflection, when the time comes to do it to decide something truly important (like finding our vocation or profession) we are paralyzed with fear. We are terrified of making a mistake (which schools teach us to fear), of studying the wrong major or of sending all of our expensive tuition money down the drain. We are taught that we must have analyzed the thing inside and out on paper before taking action, but in school, we're never allowed to take action on our ideas anyway, so the planning and analyzing later just becomes an excuse to procrastinate once we actually gain the freedom to act. We read and debate and ponder and write and think (though probably not too hard or innovatively, because what we really want is for our Teacher to tell us the Right Answer) instead of trying something, anything, and learning with our feet and our hands what we like, are good at, and feel called to do.
Second, that as a generation many of us are still unsure of our identities, interests, passions, vocation (call it what you will) until we are well into our third decade of life. I'd call this criminal but that word seems too personal, because schools as an institution strip away our human faculties in a machinal way and thrust us, sheared, naked and bleating, into the wide world with legs too weak to stand upon, so long have they been sitting at the uncomfortably tiny school chairs. Our only choice is to turn back to schools, to universities, to further shelter us in "continuing education". They manufacture the demand for their product.
There is no good reason why teenagers, or even children (true children, the kind that are ten or younger) shouldn't be given the opportunity to engage meaningfully with the world outside of an academic setting, to learn about themselves, the world, and their peers and mentors. Indeed, I suspect they learn far more there than they would learn in school.
One might say that kids do have these opportunities: in youth sports, in youth music bands and orchestras, in afterschool programs. That may be true. But school, and schoolwork, still takes up an overwhelming portion of a kid's day, to the point that there is precious little room for a kid to fill with activities of their own choosing. Holt wrote that, "One of my own students, a girl just turned fourteen, said not long ago, more in a spirit of wry amusement than of complaint, that she went home every night on a commuter train with businessmen, most of whom could look forward to an evening of relaxation with their families, while she had at least two or three hours’ more work to do. And probably a good many of those men find their work during the day less difficult and demanding than her schoolwork is for her" (32).
I also wonder how many of the kids in these extracurricular activities do them because they were told to by their parents, or, perhaps having started them of their own volition, had their natural interest co-opted by overbearing parents anxious to use success in those extracurriculars as a means to the only end school teaches us is valuable: getting into a good college, studying something like Medicine, Law, or Engineering, and joining the rat race (which still exists among my generation, we're just less materialistic about it).
Rollo May in Man's Search for Himself makes the convincing case that the chief task of any of us is to grow into our own independent, responsible, actualized selves. To do this, we must learn to leave behind the conformist mass and judge ourselves and our actions based on internal values rather than external approval from our peers or authority figures.
The chief problem here is that our 12-16+ years of schooling conspires to do exactly the opposite, to make us all the more dependent on authority figures and our peers for direction and approval. Few children know any adults well besides their parents and their teachers, all of which are authority figures. But whereas parents can theoretically give their kids individualized attention to fit their specific needs and desires, teachers must adopt a nearly universal approach for their entire class, both because of the sheer number of kids they are responsible for and because of the necessity of teaching a set subject from a set curriculum. Further complicating things, teachers are one of the few authority figures in society that combine all authority roles in one, in what Ivan Illich calls the "Triple Crown of Authority". They set the rules, advise and counsel students about those rules, and finally enforce those very rules. In most other authority figures in society, these roles are segregated: therapists and lawyers counsel, policemen enforce, legislatures or councils set the rules. Combining these three roles in one authority figure, with whom students spend more of their time with than perhaps even with their parents, augments a school's natural tendency to make children dependent on external approval rather than being internally motivated.
Take the 20-30 young children in a class, who would rather be talking, playing, perhaps reading an interesting book or comic (interesting to them, that is) or nowadays, messing around on their phones. To get them to do something against their will- sit still, shut up, copy down what the teacher says- requires external motivators. Carrots and sticks. Don't do your work and you get detention. Do it well and you get a good grade, a gold star, and eventually, you'll get into a good college. Pleasing this authority figure becomes the path to success in life, then. It doesn't matter what you thought about that book or passage- it matters what the teacher thought. Schools create externally-motivated, lifelong "students" passively waiting for the next dose of teaching.
This attitude, as I wrote before, must necessarily trickle up to our universities. Holt writes: "a senior, soon to graduate cum laude from one of the leading Ivy League colleges, told me not long ago - and I have to add that he was no radical or troublemaker - that he and everyone he knew were wholly convinced that their surest chance of getting an A on their papers and in their courses was to repeat the professor’s ideas back to him, though of course in somewhat altered language" (87).
Kids who don't do this are labeled as failures, learning-handicapped, remedial, delinquent, etc. Being normal or gifted means following the instructions and fulfilling the wishes of the teacher satisfactorily or very well, respectively.
So kids get to college, and probably finish their university studies, having never actually done or made anything of note of their own free volition. They've never had the opportunity, and have quickly learned that their personal pursuits are not valued or appreciated by the authority figures because they don't fit into the curriculum and aren't what the kids are "supposed to learn". (And who decides what we should learn anyway? When did we learn to trust a stranger's opinion of what should go into our mind over our own desires, needs, wishes? It's all very Orwellian.)
All this conspires to make us all dependent on authority figures for approval and validation of our work but also dependent on them for direction. We cannot evaluate our options, compare them to our interests and strengths and come to a decision of our own of what to do. It's hard even for us to be curious about people, phenomena, or things just because they're new or interesting, as our natural curiosity was stamped out along with our self-drive and initiative. Because curiosity implies personal whim and spontaneity, a deviation from what is planned or expected, and therefor anathema to the curriculum-based teacher. This may be the most tragic loss of all, as "Curiosity is the wonderment of Life. It is the sense of adventure in our soul. It is leaning to cultivate profound interest in the journey itself, the learning, the surprises. It is the essential ingredient in every dynamic interaction in life (Zan Perrion, The Alabaster Girl)."
According to Maslow, curiosity for the mysterious and the unknown is a defining trait of psychologically healthy people (75). Yet in school, curiosity is treated almost as a disease that gets in the way of real learning. Students who wish to get ahead and earn the "carrots" dangled in front of them quickly learn to kill their curiosity and live in a half-awake state of boredom.
It is a mistake to think that we are capable of compartmentalizing our lives, especially as children, to the point where this does not do long-term damage to our personalities and our essential human nature. Rollo May noted from his work with adult patients: "When they talk about lack of autonomy, or lament their inability to make decisions—difficulties which are present in all decades—it soon becomes evident that their underlying problem is that they have no definite experience of their own desires or wants. Thus they feel swayed this way and that, with painful feelings of powerlessness, because they feel vacuous, empty. The complaint which leads them to come for help may be, for example, that their love relationships always break up or that they cannot go through with marriage plans or are dissatisfied with the marriage partner. But they do not talk long before they make it clear that they expect the marriage partner, real or hoped-for, to fill some lack, some vacancy within themselves; and they are anxious and angry because he or she doesn’t."
May wrote this in the 50's, but I don't think the situation has changed. I think we just have more toys to play with nowadays. It's easy to whip out a laptop or smartphone to keep one's boredom, despair, or anxiety at bay. Because if anything, the causes behind the "Age of Anxiety" have intensified. We are more schooled than ever, and with the internet and social media, more plugged in than ever to what our peers think and say of us or of the things that are important to us.
While May attributes the cause of this problem to society in general, and I would argue that the specific culprit, in large part, must be our education system. Through what other modern institution did every person in the United States today pass through, spending (in most cases) at least 12 years of their lives in it? Indeed, Ivan Illich noted in the 60's that compared to 80 million Americans in the work force, there were 60 million involved in the education system. Although we don't usually realize it, school is the institution that defines our era, the same way the institution of the Catholic church defined medieval Europe. Yet, like medieval man taking the church for granted, we think that school is the way it is and the way it must be. We can talk about superficial changes- usually more testing, less vacation, more homework- but the central thesis of the school remains unchallenged. I can only hope that a Reformation is not far off.
As a result of all this Schooling, we are well-adjusted, sure. But as Maslow put it, "Adjustment is a passive rather than active process; its ideal is attained in the cow or in the slave or anyone else who can be happy without individuality."
And so we go to college because it's whats expected of us, what our teachers and parents and all the rest want. We go to college because it's easy, and we don't know what else to do. Having spent 12 years continuously in school, never having had an opportunity to engage with society or contribute to it or create value for anyone or discover ourselves through work or play, the only thing we can do is continue in school for another four years and hope that at last one of our professors will be able to reveal to us what it is we're actually supposed to do once we get out of school. And, failing that, either study something that pays a lot (money doesn't make anyone happy, but it doesn't hurt, either) or study something that will mean we never have to leave college.
Holt wrote this advice in a letter to a former student wondering what to do in their lives: "What you stand a good chance of learning at the high powered universities and grad schools is how to fit into the system as it exists. There are no guarantees even about that, since there are a lot more people trying to find comfy jobs within the system than there are jobs for them. Still, you have already proven that you are pretty good at that game, if that’s the game you want to play. But I think you will continue to hate playing it—and you will have to go on playing it for many years even after you get your Ph.D.—and I don’t think it will enable you to do the things you really want to do. The advantage of that road, and the reason many young people take it, is that it is kind of like an Interstate Highway—large, clearly marked, just the thing for high speed driving. A lot of young people take that road because it is such a good road—never mind where it goes. Also, Mom and Pop, to continue the metaphor, will pay for the car, the gas, and the tolls, as long as you stick to that road. The other roads are not very big or smooth or clearly marked or easy to find, and there are many places where there are no roads at all and you’re going to have to make your own trail. It’s hard, risky, uncertain, and in your case, your parents will almost certainly not like it" (A Life Worth Living, 344).
We hope that the university will finally be different, but it can't be and won't be, because like its very students' minds it was co-opted into doing something it was never supposed to do. And we kids come to accept more of the same because we are the same kids who came out of our public education system: cowed, anxious to please, scheming for the 'A', passive, incurious, wanting to do something with our lives but now sure how to even start.
Note: This is an article in the Agile University series I describe in this blog post here. I'll add a table of contents as I write more articles, and in the meantime that link provides some context to this post.
I just finished the book Now You See It by Cathy Davidson, an interesting look at how the primary institutions in our lives- school and work- can be refreshed to take advantage of new technology and new understandings of how the human brain works. While I'm focusing primarily on the education side of the picture, there were also some lessons from Davidson's view of the workplace that can be applied to schools and universities, which I'll discuss later.
Davidson makes the argument that, despite our widespread critique of multitasking, the mind is made for it and even craves multitasking. As she put it, "The mind wanders off task because the mind's task is to wander." When we add modern technology to the mix- the internet, computers, and smartphones- collaborative and creative multitasking is more possible than ever before.
The complication as Davidson sees it is that our insititutions- school and work- are designed for the pre-internet 20th century and don't address the question of how we can use technology to be better, create more value, and learn more effectively. They fit the 20th century division of labor, not a networked, collaborative 21st century. For example, society claims that kids these days are dumbed down by technology, but Davidson asks if perhaps the problem isn't with the kids, but with the system that is supposed to serve them. "For all the punditry about the 'dumbest generation' and so forth, I believe that many kids today are doing a better job preparing themselves for their futures than we have done providing them with the institutions to help them. We're more likely to label them with a disability when they can't be categorized by our present system, but how we think about disability is actually a window onto how attention blindness keeps us tethered to a system that isn't working." (10).
Davidson presents several solutions to bring these institutions into the 21st century. For example, she talks at length about the idea of game-ifying work and school to keep people's attention. She also advocates embracing flexible, virtual work environments that prize an individual's unique talents and work style. She recommends collaborative, endeavor-based work and learning, as well as trashing traditional grading and curriculum-based teaching and letting students take the lead of their own education and even grading, all while using technology to accelerate progress.
It's no revelation that we're stuck with an outdated education system, and Davidson makes the excellent point that for the most part you could put a schoolteacher from 1900 in a modern classroom and they would recognize it instantly. That classroom is a product of the 19th and 20th centuries, when society- based on the prevailing work and management theories of the day- thought that the most efficient way to use workers to create value was an assembly line approach characterized by individual tasks as specialized and specific as possible. Think about the stereotype of an early Ford car factory, for example. A motor might be rolling down the assembly line, and as it passes, a worker in line screws in a piece. The engine continues and is replaced by the next, and all day long, the only thing that worker is doing is screwing in that one piece in each new engine. The man is no better, no more capable than the machine. If the ideal was this kind of mindless, low level work, then schools were seen as an integral piece in training a work force capable of doing these repetitive task. And this assembly line approach didn't just apply to industry, but also to the office. Think about how compartmentalized a 20th century company was- HR departments, Engineering, Sales, Marketing; all completely compartmentalized and almost never talking with one another. Each employee had a specific task to perform, like a piece in a motor. If one piece didn't work, the system failed.
Employers needed single-minded workers who would do their one task exceptionally well without asking questions, thinking for themselves, or getting distracted. Schools had to produce those kinds of workers, and so we evolved a system that reflected the specialized, hierarchical separation of labor found in the workplace. Knowledge was divided up into arbitrary disciplines, and ranked in terms of importance. This hierarchy of disciplines, as Davidson notes, was sciences on the top, humanities on the bottom, with physical education, shop, and arts being slowly eliminated over the years. Even the kids began to be ranked (letter grades, as she notes, didn't exist as we know them until 1897) so that they could be sorted into those most apt for employment. After all, in an assembly line model, you're only as fast as your slowest piece.
Davidson writes on page 279, "School has been organized to prepare us for this world of work, dividing one age group from another, one subject from another, with grades dictating who is or is not academically gifted, and with hierarchies of what knowledge is or is not important (science on top, arts on the bottom, physical education and shop gone). Intellectual work, in general, is divided up too, with facts separated from interpretation, logic from imagination, rationality from creativity, and knowledge from entertainment. In the end, there are no clear boundaries separating any of these things from the other, but we've arranged our institutions to make it all seem as discrete, fixed, and hierarchical as possible."
Of course, we now know there are better organizational schemes ways to productively create value for others, whether in a factory or in an office. Lean Manufacturing, Decentralized Management, and the Coventry Gang System have all shown this. But schools are still afflicted with that turn-of-the-20th-century mentality, the assembly line model of learning, despite the fact that the model most apt for the 21st century is a network. What sense does grading and sorting kids, or dividing knowledge up into arbitrary categories, make in a network model of society?
Grading and sorting kids is done all with the idea of getting them into a good college, and eventually, a good job. I agree with Paul Goodman in his fantastic Compulsory Miseducation. Why did we ever start to think that it was the job of the schools and universities to help employers find good employees? Shouldn't the employers worry about the best way to sort and rank potential employees, and universities bother themselves about the best way to sort and rank applicants? And Davidson's observation of the difference between an assembly-line model of production and a network model of production only reinforces this point further. A weak link in an assembly line slows the whole system down, granted. But in a network, the opportunity is there for each person to find their ideal position around a central node or cluster and contribute to it in an a-linear way that defies the assembly line way of thinking.
The best example I can think of comes from Davidson's book. Take people who have autism or asperger syndrome. They are not cut out for a typical work or school environment, and without special aid, typically fail miserably in a common school environment. That is to say, in the assembly line model where each "product" (student) coming out of the factory must be as close to identical as possible (as Davidson says, we've confused "high standards" with "standardization"). But that model ignores the special talents they have as a result of their disability. She mentions in her book a code testing company that employs nothing but people with autism and asperger. Employees in this company rigorously test new code from their clients for errors, bugs, and typos. People without autism and asperger are terrible at this job, and they don't have the concentration or attention span to catch all the errors in the code. But those with autism and asperger excel at this kind of intense, detail-oriented work. The workers there, who are labeled by the assembly line model as defective products of the education system, have found their niche where they can contribute the most value to society. That is the network model at its best.
Schools are built to reward monotasking, but a central point Davidson makes is that our brain, despite what we may think, is not built to monotask. Multitasking is its natural mode of operating. Our minds abhor the boredom and single-mindedness that comes with monotasking and instead defies disciplinary boundaries and craves novelty, stimuli, and collaboration. The best thing we can do is stop fighting our nature and take advantage of the possibilities our technology offers to build systems that embrace the way our minds work.
For example, Davidson points to the fact that in studies on distractions in the workplace, nearly half the time the distraction was internal. In other words, the subject was distracting themselves. Later in the book, she notes that on average, 80% of our neural energy taken up just talking to ourselves (280). These two statistics support Davidson's conclusion that our minds are naturally hyperactive. Like a little kid on a sugar high, they constantly need something to distract them and keep them occupied, and they quickly get bored when confined to performing the same task repeatedly or for an extended amount of time.
While often easy to vilify, the natural overactivity of the human brain has an advantage. It is constantly cross-referencing other parts of our experiences and memories looking for new connections that could be of value to us or those around us. In other words, the same distractability that frustrates us is also a source of creativity. And it apparently doesn't even take that much mental energy to switch gears mid-task to something new- only 5% of our at rest energy (280). Even when we're seemingly zoned out and day-dreaming, the mind is incredibly active at making connections with what's around us and with our stored bank of experience. The brain is a natural multi-tasker.
What's clear is that our minds aren't well ordered, logical, linearly-functioning machines as 20th century thinkers thought but are themselves networks of neurons constantly communicating with one another. We've been trained to think in terms of compartmentalized disciplines and functions, but our minds are naturally interdisciplinary, constantly seeking to connect new and old experiences in novel ways. Our distractability is a side effect of this. The key may be in consciously controlling what our distractions are to facilitate productive connections and distractions over unproductive ones. As Davidson writes, "What confuses the brain delights the brain. What confounds the brain enlivens the brain. What mixes up categories energizes the brain. Or, to sum it all up, as we have seen, what surprises the brain is what allows for learning." (286).
Unfortunately, our education system is designed to punish distractions and enforce an unnatural and stilting single-mindedness of the kind required for an assembly mind worker, not the creative knowledge workers the world needs from our schools in the 21st century.
Davidson provides some ideas and examples of how the school and university environments could be reformed to be fit for the 21st century. This is a point where the book falls a little short, unfortunately. Davidson lost the opportunity to comprehensively describe her vision. There's some great ideas and anecdotes provided, but they lacked cohesion and an easily understandable vision. For example, she describes some great examples of what she might have called "endeavor based learning", which could have easily formed a central operating principle for her classroom makeover (as she calls it). But she fails to make that principle explicit in her descriptions. This idea of endeavor based learning is something I will discuss later in the essay.
Davidson does discuss the role technology can play in the 21st century classroom to enhance the interdisciplinary, collaborative, student-driven learning opportunities she sees as key to the future of learning (as do I, for that matter). I think I would have loved to see a few more examples here, as the central example she provided was a fantastic one. She oversaw a program at Duke University to equip the majority of the students with free iPods. A partnership with Apple, the plan was to turn the entire campus into a learning lab on how a device like the iPod could enhance the student's educational experience on campus. Note that this was back in 2003 when the idea of an app itself was new, let alone that of a learning app.
The implementation was simple. All incoming Freshman got iPods. Any upperclassman could get one by proposing a use for it in one of their classes. In that case, everyone in that class would get an iPod. Professors could also propose uses, in which case all their students would get an iPod as well.
She uses this example because it has a happy ending, as the experiment was a huge success. Dozens of new apps were created and hundreds of new uses found for the device. More importantly, at least in my eyes, is the effect the process must have had on the students. In a limited but important way, it made them co-creators of their own learning experience. If the computer and the internet has democratized information, then it also has the potential to democratize the way we learn that information. We're certainly moving further in that direction even since the publication of Now You See It in 2010. But the democratization has mostly occurred outside of the classroom. Instead of percolating into the cracks of these old-as-rock institutions, classrooms have become more expensive (particularly on the subject of tuition and fees in universities and the per-student spending in public schools) and the extent of technology use in the classrooms are typically superficial, like smartboards instead of whiteboards, or having the online homework and quiz systems in language classes that students universally despise.
I do think of how some universities are experimenting with the idea of webcasting the overcrowded first and second year classes- the ones taught in auditoriums to hundreds of students at once. But that begs the question, why even have the class in the first place? Why not just make a recording of the lecture and put it online? It would save everyone's time, effort, and money. If students had a question (and few do), the email address of the instructor could be provided so that the student could email their question or even set up an in-person meeting if necessary.
This is going a bit off the topic of Davidson's book, but modern technology has made the lecture redundant and wasteful. Or perhaps it's always been that way. Dr. David Ray of the University of Oklahoma made the point that the lecture has been obsolete since the invention of the printing press. The word lecture comes from the latin verb legere, meaning to read, and the medieval latin lectura, meaning read. According to Dr. Ray, the origin of the lecture as we know it was in medieval monasteries, when books were precious because they had to be copied meticulously by hand. To create these copies, the head monk would read aloud from the original while the rest of the monks copied his words onto new parchment. We might even suppose that, as the monastery had at best only a couple copies of a given work at one time, one monk reading aloud (as all reading was done then, interestingly enough) would allow many other brother monks to partake of the "lecture" or reading of the book. As a system of learning (if it ever was one) it ceased to be meaningful when books could be cheaply and rapidly printed.
What's interesting is that some of the most vocal defendants of the lecture format are students themselves, who typically claim it to be an effective teaching method. I am very, very skeptical of this claim, and it is a hypothesis I'm going to be investigating in further writings. Small group discussions can certainly spark meaningful insights, but most lectures are a far cry from a discussion group and usually consist of the teacher writing notes on the board that would be more effectively communicated if he had simply passed out the book he had taken his notes from. Even better, technology allows each learner to find the codified information in formats conducive to their learning style: books, ebooks, audio programs, and even video programs. I knew many friends who, confused by the professor's lectures and explanations, taught themselves entire courses through free video series on YouTube.
And the lecture is so far removed from any practical application. I fail to see how listening to a teacher talk about an equation is more effective than actually doing the equation oneself, or even better, using that equation to do something useful or meaningful- like building an app or a widget, or even a prototype or model of one.
I know this is a big can of worms, and I'm leaving it unopened for now. But I will return to the topic in a later piece, rest assured!
One thing I'm curious to think about is, if a university were invented today, completely blank-slate, what would it look like? How would it be organized and maintained, and what would it prioritize and how? How would our new technology be used? What staples of the modern college would still find their way into a completely new model? These are tricky questions to answer, because to do so, one has to answer what the role of a university is. For example, there are a plethora of online university options available that take advantage of internet technology for so-called distance learning, but these seem to fill the relatively modern role of a university as a factory for credentialing professionals.
Davidson does provide a good example of what her idea of what a student-directed class could look like in her own course at Duke University. Teaching a class called Your Brain on the Internet, the idea was that it would be an interdisciplinary exploration of pretty much exactly what this book is about- the role our rapidly evolving technology has on the way we live our lives. She provided a list of recommended reading, but otherwise let her students direct the course and what would be discussed. From her description, Davidson was more of a facilitator than a teacher.
The class was incredibly successful. Not only did the students later rank this course as one of the most impactful they took while at Duke, they even went so far as to organize extra classes when they felt they needed it. For instance, when a thinker they had been discussing happened to be in town, they organized an extra-curricular class (if extra-curricular has any meaning when the curriculum is set by the students anyway!) to hear straight from the horse's mouth what he thought. Imagine if more classes were organized this way!
Of course, well-meaning administrators could easily ruin a course such as Davidson's by making it part of a required, general education curriculum. My guess is that in that case, the course would fail miserably, as it would only pay lip service to the idea of being student directed. Students would see it as yet another tick box to check off on the long, arduous, overly prescribed path to getting their degree.
As it turns out, students weren't completely satisfied with Davidson's administration of the course. For all its progressiveness, it still boringly followed the typical manner of grading a course: a professor-graded midterm, term paper, and final exam. After this feedback from her original class, she wrote a controversial blog post about a potential alternative: contract grading combined with class-sourced grades.
Contract grading, which I'd never heard of, goes back to the 60's or so. In that system, a student could agree to do proportionately less work in exchange for a guaranteed B or C, less than what would be required to get a A. So she proposed that students in the next iteration of her course could decide in advance exactly how much work and what kind of grade they were shooting for (she points out that the coursework required in the first version was not insignificant, so even someone shooting for a B or a C would still have her hands full).
When it came time to evaluate each other, the students would look at the amount of work their peers had agreed to per their contract and evaluate if they had fulfilled the terms of that contract. For example, if their contract stated that they had to write 10 blog posts during the course of the semester, did they do so? And were the blog posts of sufficient length and depth to be considered worthy of the name?
Having already discussed earlier my views on the modern grading system, I think this is a refreshing new approach of the kind that I'd like to see more of. I don't see grading, ranking, and labeling as part of role of a teacher- that's the job of an admissions officer or HR department. I see a student-directed grading initiative as an interesting compromise. It reinforces the self-directed nature of the class (and the inherently self-directed nature of learning) and reduces the workload of the professor so that they can focus on more important things. My guess is, the students are as strict if not more strict than the professor herself in upholding themselves to the terms they agreed to. I say that because the students undoubtedly felt a sense of pride and ownership of the course and what they learned in it, a feeling most never get in 16+ years of schooling, most of it mandatory and teacher-directed. We always take better care of what we own, and the students felt ownership of the course. They had a vested interest in maintaining its high standards.
In Compulsory Miseducation, Goodman writes that in the original medieval universities, grading and ranking the students was never considered part of the mission of the institution or its professors. Students of course had to demonstrate competence, that they were worthy to be included within a certain guild or group of professionals or scholars, just as we require lawyers today to take the bar exam and doctors to do a residency. But if they were good enough to be in (and I imagine the standards were fairly high), then they were all the way in. None of this nonsense of A's and C's.
"It is really necessary to remind our academics of the ancient history of Examination. In the medieval university, the whole point of the grueling trial of the candidate was whether or not to accept him as a peer. His disputation and lecture for the Master's was just that, a masterpiece to enter the guild. It was not to make comparative evaluations. It was not to weed out and select for an extra-mural licensor or employer. It was certainly not to pit one young fellow against another in an ugly competition. My philosophic impression is that the medieval thought they knew what a good job of work was and that we are competitive because we do not know. But the more status is achieved by largely irrelevant competitive evaluation, the less will we ever know."
How much more inspiring would our universities be if, instead of viewing themselves as a factory for employers and grad schools, they saw themselves as aiding students in creating a masterpiece, a perfection of their craft, and to prepare them to enter a close-knit fraternity of curious and worldly professionals and scholars?
The last topic of the book I want to touch on is Davidson's description of Endeavor Based Work (EBW for short- she never uses the acronym, but I'll be mentioning it a lot more than she did). The term EBW actually comes from IBM in what seems to be one of the most stunning corporate management transitions in modern history. In short, IBM managed to transform itself from a stodgy, conservative behemoth into a progressive, agile, and virtual workforce and in the process avoided becoming a footnote in history. The part of their story I'm interested in is their idea of EBW, because it has the potential to change the way we think about how we learn.
EBW at its core is simple. Instead of compartmentalizing various functions like chimneys on a factory into HR, Engineering, Sales, Customer Support, etc., EBW organizes its teams by projects. So a project has all the people on it from all the disciplines required to realize it. This is a feature of Agile, for example, and other decentralized management philosophies, but I love the name EBW because of how descriptive it is. Everyone on the team is responsible for the success of the whole project and contributes in their unique way to its success, like members of an orchestra. In fact, the analogy used in the book is that of a film crew. Everyone has a unique role or task, but all are united by the vision of the final film product. In the process, crew members may have to step up and do tasks outside of their specific role. But in the process of seeing the film take shape, everyone learns and grows infinitely more than if they were in an isolated silo performing just their specific, specialized task. And the final product is better for that. In fact, the film might not ever get made if the crew performed their work in isolated silos.
This idea of EBW seems to be part of Davidson's classroom makeover, though she never uses that term to describe it. However, I am convinced that it is the single idea described in her book that, if implemented in our education system, would do the most to positively revolutionize the way we learn.
Imagine if, instead of listening to a teacher drone on and on about seemingly unrelated subjects that have no context or meaning in one's life, students were given an endeavor to complete (or better yet, chose an endeavor to complete) that was meaningful and relevant to them. They could work on it alone or in teams. Completing it would require collaboration, engagement, hands-on learning, creativity, problem-solving, and initiative. Because it is a real task and a real problem, it would defy disciplinary classification, and the lessons learned would be real and meaningful.
Davidson provides several examples of this, but the most beautiful one is easily that of her own mother-in-law, Mrs. Davidson. Teaching in a remote, rural school in Mountain View, Canada, Mrs. Davidson challenged her students to find pen pals. The challenge was that the students had to find pen pals in another town called Mountain View, anywhere in the world. The most creative solution to this problem would "win" the competition. The students first had to create their own world map and, using the minuscule resources available in the school and town, find other Mountain Views. Once they did that, they still had to figure out how to get in touch with a resident there.
The results were nothing short of breathtakingly inspiring.
"One kid remembered that Hang Sang, the elderly Chinese man who ran the local general store, the only store in town, had come over to Canada to work on the railroad, as had so many Chinese immigrants. Taciturn, with a thick accent, Mr. Sang was amused and delighted when one child suddenly wanted help writing a letter- in Chinese. The kid had somehow found out about a town called Mountain View in China. That was the child who won the contest, and long after the contest was over, he spent time with Mr. Sang, talking to him in the back of his store.
But of course they all won. The globe became smaller through the connections they made, and their town became larger. They learned geography and anthropology and foreign languages too. The project lasted not just one full year but many years, and some kids visited those other Mountain Views when they grew up. To this day, I don't drive through a town named Mountain
View (there are a lot of them in the world, actually) without wondering if one of Mrs. Davidson's kids sent a letter there and, through the connection made, was inspired to go on, later, to become a professor or a doctor or a veterinarian (85)."
That was before the internet existed. What possibilities exist for these kinds of real-world, self-directed endeavors in our schools and universities now that, thanks to the internet, we have any kind of expertise, knowledge, experience, and personal connection at our fingertips?
While Cathy Davidson doesn't propose going as far as I think we need to go in reforming our education system, I think she offers several compelling pieces to the puzzle: endeavor based work in schools using technology as a force multiplier, as well as student-directed learning and peer-sourced grading. Davidson makes the point that this system would not only better fit the networked, collaborative society we live in today, but also works with our brains neurology, not against it. It is a smart, humanizing alternative that would reinforce a completely different set of values than those currently taught in our education system. It would teach creativity instead of regurgitation, collaboration instead of compartmentalization, initiative and independence instead of docility, and meaningful, experiential learning instead of learning for an arbitrary test.
The Colony, Texas
I wrote recently that, having almost finished my first book, I have already started on a second. My plan is to write articles and publish them here, on this blog, as I research. The idea is to stitch these articles into a book at the end of it all.
This second book is quite different from my first, but I'm very excited about it as it is on a topic dear to my heart: university education. In particular, the question I want to ask over the course of the coming months is:
How can the modern university be made more relevant, more humanizing, and more effective at facilitating the learning of students?
Before I explain what I mean by that, I'll explain why writing this is an important project for me to undertake.
I am incredibly lucky to have gone to a great university, studied a high-paying major I didn't hate, earned more scholarships than was probably fair, and taken advantage of the opportunity for life-changing extracurriculars, friendships, and study abroad programs.
In other words, my four years at the University of Oklahoma were excellent.
Underneath all that, however, there's a rankling remorse of sorts, one that I've often spoken of with my friends, many of whom have had a similar experience. We felt that the classes we had, with a few very notable exceptions, were the worst part of our college experience, and the place where we learned the least, despite the fact that they (and the accompanying homework, studying, and tests) occupied the largest part of each of our days. I do not think my friends and I were alone in thinking and feeling this, and validating (or dis-validating) this hypothesis is one of the aims of my research to come.
Of all the problems facing universities today- increasing competition from non-traditional education sources, rising prices, astronomical student to teacher ratios- the fact that universities fail so miserably at what should be their core competency is the most sharply ironic, even poignant, problem of all.
Take Paul Goodman's description of the typical experience of a student in a college classroom, written in his book Compulsory Miseducation. Note that I've edited it down quite a bit for brevity, though it is still quite a long passage. Long, but both engrossing and elucidating, and it summarizes perfectly why I think this is a book that needs to be written. The emphasis in bold is mine.
Here is a young fellow in a college classroom... He is in his junior year. So, omitting kindergarten, he has been in an equivalent classroom for nearly fifteen continuous years, intermitted only by summer vacations or play. Schooling has been the serious part of his life, and it has consisted of listening to some grown-up talking and of doing assigned lessons. The young man has almost never seriously assigned himself a task. He's bright -- he can manipulate formulas and remember sentences, and he has made a well-known college...
It was written in 1964 but could easily have been written in 2016. In fact, it's almost certainly more true now than then.
And yet students continue to swamp university admissions offices in ever-increasing numbers, attesting to the allure of two things: first, what we Americans call the College Experience, my generation's rite of initiation into adulthood. Second, the slip of paper (expensive as it may be) certifying our professional and intellectual capabilities, and without which we would be barred from entering most of the professional world.
We can and should do better in our universities, and it doesn't take much effort to come up with dozens of reasons why. To name a few: the huge cost both for students and the community-at-large, the fact that 6 out of every 10 Americans attend a college or university in their life, the role these institutions have in the lives of its attendees as the path to prosperity and, increasingly, as a rite of passage into adulthood; the role universities have in setting standards for our public schools.
In short, having the best possible educative system at a university at the lowest cost possible should be, at the least, of keen interest to all. This means, as I stated earlier, discovering how to make universities more relevant, humanizing, and effective at facilitating learning of the right kind, by which I chiefly mean self-directed and experiential. And as I will argue later, evolving our universities and our public education system in general to meet these goals is probably, as I will argue later, one of the most important initiatives the American people can undertake in the 21st century.
I promised I would explain why I chose those three categories- relevant, humanizing, and effective at facilitating self-directed learning- as the goals which our higher education system should strive to achieve.
To be honest, they just seemed right. I have a certain idea of what principles and values our schools and universities should engender in their students, and how these institutions can evolve to do exactly that. The above categories work well enough for now, the start of my flight-of-the-mind, and I'm confident that a better way to organize these principles will emerge in due time.
Relevant. Universities are hopelessly out of date, not just since the digital age but since the invention of the printing press. Ironically, our universities have in most regards retrograded, even compared to those of the medieval world. The modern university is desperately in need of an overhaul that takes advantage of modern technology and philosophy to cut both costs and obsolete learning practices; improve collaboration, empathy, and initiative; and prepare students to tackle the pressing issues of our generation.
Humanizing. Perhaps the goal of a university we've most lost touch with, as our modern day higher education institutions seem more concerned with how they can increase the amount of donor dollars they receive. Yet this is also perhaps the most important goal of all, as it deals very directly with the kind of people we want to be and the kind of community we want to live in. For example, how can universities help students find themselves and their vocation, becoming free, independent, and self-driven individuals without losing touch with the responsibility we each have for ourselves and one another? Or, as the democratic education pioneer John Holt put it,
"The fundamental educational problem of our time is to find ways to help children grow into adults who have no wish to do harm. We must recognize that traditional education, far from having ever solved this problem, has never tried to solve it."
Effective at Facilitating the Right Kind of Learning. I know few people who find the lecture and the test, the hammer and the forge of traditional education, to be very inspiring or to spark any kind of real learning. On the other hand, evidence is mounting that the ideal learning situation is precisely the opposite of that found in a typical college classroom.
In particular, the ideal qualities of this ideal include it being self-directed, experiential, and interdisciplinary, and that it be based on solving real world problems in small teams. This loose formula is incredibly effective at not only facilitating learning of the subject matter at hand but also at sparking and fanning the flames of the self-actualizing values described above: independence, initiative, responsibility, and finding one's vocation.
Ironically, we see once again how universities have seemingly forgotten the wisdom of the past. One need look no further for inspiration than the relationships of the Master with his apprentices that was alive until well-meaning mandatory education and anti-child labor laws extinguished this age-old tradition in the early twentieth century.
The overall vision of this book is that it be an honest and motivating picture of the untenable problems facing our education system in general and our universities in particular, a brief history of how these problems came to be, and, as described above, a discussion of the imperative changes universities must make not to survive, but to better serve its students and its communities. Indeed, the second half of the book-to-be will transition into discussing in-depth the changes necessary and how to implement them in order to do its students justice.
To create this vision, I took inspiration and synthesized ideas from a variety of fields, sources, and influences as disparate as Agile and Lean product management philosophy of the past 20 odd years, the ancient Greek idea and practice of Praxis, anarchic theories of architecture and urban planning from the 70's, democratic education pioneers from the 60's, my time working at the University of Oklahoma Economic Development department in 2013-2014, as well as two intensely respected and absolutely formative professors I had the honor of knowing while at the University of Oklahoma.
I have a general idea of what the book will say and what my next few articles will be, but part of the adventure will be seeing how that vision evolves and changes as I dive deeper into the subject and encounter questions, issues, and research I hadn't yet considered. For now, however, I'm going to explore the role modern universities play in the United States, with the first article on that topic published by the end of the week.
Dillon Dakota Carroll
December 2nd 2015
...sees much and knows much