To continue the throwback kick: an article I wrote for a newsletter in university about Don Quijote. It's fun for me to see how my thoughts and writing have evolved since then (2012), both generally and specifically about this book. I don't think I said much of anything in the article, actually, which is quite funny to me now. But I do like the ending: "While his effectiveness is unclear, his character issues a resounding challenge to us all to grapple with the reality of the virtues and ideals with we hold dear." It's increasingly clear to me that few, precious few of us live a life from principle, and we all to varying degrees participate in the timeless tradition of deluding oneself otherwise. Rather, living from convenience and expedience is the norm. For if a decision is easy or convenient, we cannot truly say it was freely chosen in affirmation of higher principle. We have only taken the path of least resistance.
If a knight is someone who "acts like a knight," then based on the results of his acts Quijote was inarguably not a very good one. While Quijote at least attempted to live a life of principle, he made the mistake of doing so in a fashion disconnected from his context and disconnected from most others- perhaps as fitting a definition of madness as any other. Any ideal can only come alive in relationship. But it did at least live in the relationship between Quijote and Panza, and perhaps a few other characters. That is something. Even if it has but lived once, then it has still lived. What, then, do we bring alive in our relationships?
Seems it is time for a re-reading...
I've always been a mediocre swimmer. I could never swim more than a lap or two before I was exhausted and needed a break. Even more embarrassingly, I could never submerge my head. I always had a primal fear of getting water up the wrong way somehow, and mastering the mechanics of breathing in time to my stroking seemed beyond me.
In short, I always wanted to learn how to swim properly, but didn't know how to improve. Swimming more laps didn't seem to help, and I just wore myself out faster. I also didn't have the money to hire an instructor and wasn't thrilled by the idea of taking classes anyway. It was obvious I needed some major tutelage but I wasn't sure a class was the way to go.
I read about Total Immersion on Tim Ferriss' blog and always wanted to give it a try. It seemed to be exactly what I needed: a relatively inexpensive multi-media program that promised to decrease my swimming drag, allowing me to go farther with less effort and far more gracefully than before. The fact that it was recommended by Ferriss made me trust it and want to try it more than I would had I stumbled across it on my own, as Ferriss' whole schtick is accelerated learning. The only issue would be finding a swimming pool, as I didn't have access to one.
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 think crowdfunding campaigns are wonderful. Entrepreneurs, artists and creatives can use a website like Kickstarter to get projects funded that might otherwise have neer seen the light of day, or to take preorders to derisk a new product. The success stories really are astounding: The Coolest Cooler got over $13 million, the Solar Roadways project raised $2.2 million, and the Soma water filter creators published the famous article "Hacking Kickstarter: How to Raise $100,000 in Ten Days".
Still, the chances of success are slim. Of all Kickstarter campaigns launched, about 40% are successful. Of those, 70% raise less than $10,000. Few have the runaway success we've seen in the previous examples I've mentioned.
An unsuccessful campaign is a huge time sink. If your campaign is 30 days long, the Kickstarter can easily turn into the only thing you focus on for those 30 days, plus the several weeks of preparation before the campaign even begins.
That's what happened to us. We ran an unsuccessful 40 day campaign. We were trying for $30,000 and made it just shy of $14,000. With at least three weeks of preparation leading up to it, we easily sank two months trying to make it work. While it wasn't the only thing we worked on in those two months, it was certainly our priority. We also wouldn't call it a complete failure- we made many connections from our initiative that might pan out in ways we don't expect. Regardless, we didn't reach our funding goal, which we really would have liked to do. We did learn a few lessons from our campaign that we want to share.
5 Lessons from our failed Kickstarter Campaign
This article isn't meant to dampen anyone's spirits or enthusiasms for a Kickstarter campaign. Instead, we hope to give you a balanced view and share our experience so that you can make a better decision about whether a crowdfunding campaign is the right strategy for your venture at its current stage.
Feel free to share your thoughts, comments and experience with us!
Dillon Dakota Carroll
Happy new year, everyone! 2015 is officially here. What a year it'll be.
Here's some of my personal highlights from the year:
Big Milestones and Successes:
Favorite Books from 2014:
Favorite Movies I saw in 2014 (not necessarily released in 2014... I'm waaay behind on most things popular culture)
Here's to an awesome 2015!
This is the interview guide I've developed to try out at the next coworking space I visit.
Hi! I'm Dillon Carroll. I'm a traveling entrepreneur. I run my startup remotely, and I work with coworking spaces around the world to give workshops on skills for startups- agile methods, lean startup, and digital marketing.
One of my other projects is to write about each coworking space I visit. I try and understand the culture of coworking spaces, and see how the space affects the community and vice versa. Would you mind if I asked you a few questions?
For some reason my photos aren't uploading correctly. Bear with me as I try to fix them!
The second coworking space I visited, and the only other well known space in Lima, is called Stars Camp.
I'll preface this article by saying that I didn't spend nearly as much time here as I did at Comunal, which I wrote about in a previous article. I spent three days at Comunal, whereas I got a quick tour at Stars Camp and later only spent a half day working there after trying to set up a workshop.
My overall impression is that Stars Camp has a different community and work environment compared to Comunal. It seems much more familial- which makes sense, as the three cofounders are all older women, and it's located in Lince, which is a more residential part of Lima. Where Comunal tries (and succeeds, in my experience) to be a fun, exciting place to be, Stars Camp's focus is on highlighting the startups in their space and trying to connect them with resources and expertise. The founders of both spaces recognize that they seek to serve somewhat distinct demographics- not to mention they're decently far away from each other in the city- so they have a jovial relationship.
Arriving at Stars Camp meant either taking a taxi, or using one of the buses that runs along Avenue Javier Prado. Though it's on a quieter residential street, it's perhaps a three minute walk from this main throughway. And 2 blocks away there's a supermarket.
Walking inside, you're greeted by the receptionist. The first thing she had me do was read Stars Camp's motto on the wall. Comunal had their tongue-in-cheek rules, and I suppose most any space like this will have a similar motto or credo that attempts to capture the spirit of the community within. I translated part of it below.
Here, dreams matter.
Translator's note- where I used the word begin, the orginal Spanish was "emprende", from the verb emprender. Emprender can literally be the verb form or the act of entrepreneurship, and it's often used more generally as well in the sense of beginning or forging something new. For example, you can say "emprender un camino" which would be to blaze a new trail. We would probably translate "emprende" in the sense of Stars Camp as the verb "to innovate" (entrepreneurship being a noun borrowed from French, we lack the verb form), but as you can see, the credo already uses the verb innovate just before "emprende". As a result, I've chosen to go with the more general meaning of the verb.
Around the corner to the right, there are two rooms of flex space. Remember, this is where the tenant pays a reduced fee to use a common space, where they don't have their own desk- they just grab whatever desk is open. You also often pay for less than a full 40 hour work week.
There's a bulletin board where they highlight and celebrate all the startup and business teams in their space, and on the opposing wall there is a big calendar of upcoming events. So one one side, you have the entrepreneurs climbing the wall to reach the top and become "stars", and on the other all the upcoming community events and resources that can help them get there.
The patio, where tenants can take a break, eat lunch, and relax. You're outdoors, in the sun and fresh air, but you're also still "inside" the coworking space. I think that's why patios and terraces are such great places to relax- you get a change of scenery, you're outdoors where you can be refreshed, but far away from traffic and the noise of the city, but you haven't left the building. Plus in Lima, which has a consistently pleasant temperature year round, you can always use it. I think a coworking or any kind of community space suffers for not having a patio or terrace!
Stars Camp's Zen Room, which is their community living room. Like Comunal, they use it for events. I'm beginning to see a pattern here with the bean bags and big cushions.
Upstairs, you can rent desks and even entire office rooms for your team. There are also several conference rooms of varying sizes that can be rented for meetings.
As a Stars Camp employee showed me around the space, they told me about some of the tenants. Many seemed to be software startups, more so than at Comunal. The recent success they're most proud of is a traffic app that helps drivers navigate through Lima more efficiently that was just beginning to get some traction.
As I said in the article on Comunal, next time I'd like to spend more time talking to the founders and tenants about the space. Regardless, I like that Stars Camp seems committed to the success of the entrepreneurs in its space. As an entrepreneur, I can say that it is appealing to feel surrounded by the resources and support of people who want to see you succeed. It's a cozy space where Comunal is fun and energetic. Which one you might want to work in depends on the type of business you have, your personality, and of course where you're located in Lima.
Until the next coworking space I visit!
Dillon Dakota Carroll
Comunal Coworking is the first of my series on coworking spaces. It lies in the Barranco District of Lima, which is the hip part of town according to my sources.
I spent three days working from Comunal as I prepared for the Lean Startup workshop I gave there. Overall, I'll say that I enjoyed my time there. It's a bright, fun, and energetic space, and everyone I met there seemed like great people.
Ernesto, one of the three founders of Comunal, told me that the coworking space was born when the three of them realized that there wasn't a single coworking space available in Lima. At some point they visited some of the more famous coworking spaces in the United States to get an idea of how they could craft their own in Lima. They launched about the same time the other big coworking space in Lima launched, Stars Camp. I'll be writing about Stars Camp in another post.
Let's take a look at the individual components of Comunal.
I must say I was quite impressed by Comunal. It feels cool, modern, and unique. There's a clean yellow, black and white aesthetic in the interior design and in the logo. When you walk in you see the reception desk and a small meeting room.
To the right, there's two stories of "flex space". More on that below.
There are typically two membership plans in a coworking space, from what I understand. You can pay a higher monthly sum to have your own desk (about $320 at Comunal), where you can leave your things and you know you can always come work any day and that desk will be yours. Or, you can pay a lower amount to use the flex space, where you don't have a set desk and you just grab a space that's open. These plans are more flexible too in that you can buy a part time membership, say, 20 hours a week, which saves money if you know you're not going to be there all the time. In Comunal's case, they offer 15 hours of flex space per week for $60. I imagine flex plans are good for the coworking spaces as well because they can capture a wider variety of customers.
I like how there are a lot of nooks and crannies in Comunal's flex space, along with a couple big desks.
Here you can see that they're in the process of remodeling the upstairs part of the flex space.
From the front door, if you proceed straight back you'll run into, in order, 1) stairs to more office space, with tenants that pay to have their own desks:
2) the community kitchen. Comunal provides soda, coffee, and beer as part of the membership package.
and 3) the community living room and outdoor patio.
I gave my workshop in this living area. I love this space, even if it wasn't the most practical arrangement for what I was doing. It's hard to get up and squeeze past everyone else, and not the best for breakout sessions and taking notes. The advantage is that about 18 people can fit in the stadium style seating. And who doesn't like bean bags?
The "rules" painted on the wall are worth translating:
In Comunal it is prohibited to:
That takes care of the main part of the coworking space.
Comunal is even bigger than this, though. They have several of the top floors in the same building that they rent out to larger groups. For example, there's an entire office for about 20 people rented out to a marketing firm that's doing consulting work for Coca-Cola in Peru.
I get the feeling that Comunal doesn't host a lot of events, because the staff member I worked with to organize my workshop told me that they were only just beginning to make regular programming a priority. At least my event was timely if nothing else!
And what of the people of Comunal? Here is where I wish I could have spent more time meeting tenants and learning about them and their business. Still, from the people I did meet, there was quite a variety, all very friendly.
This kind of variety is one of the cool parts of a coworking space: you find people from all over the world, in all kinds of fields.
Next time I visit a coworking space, I want to really achieve a greater knowledge of how the tenants and founders use and view the space. Still, I'm very happy about my time at Comunal. From what I've seen, the community lives up to the happy-go-lucky rules they've codified on their walls. Everyone I saw working there was enjoying themselves, and didn't hesitate to say hi and smile. Successfully capturing the essence of coworking is paying off: they're at 90% occupancy (in the absence of other data I'll assume that's very good for a coworking space) and are looking at creating branches all across Lima.
It's hard to draw too many conclusions, as this is one of the first coworking spaces I've ever been in. But for what it's worth, I'd happily return to Comunal and work there!
Stay tuned for an article on the other major coworking space in Lima, Stars Camp!
Dillon Dakota Carroll
...sees much and knows much