Friday, November 05, 2010

The Divided Stories of Education Reform, Personal Cognitive Revolutions, and New Superheroes

A few months ago I interviewed John Taylor Gatto for my “Future of Education” interview series. From 1989-1991 Mr. Gatto was recognized as the New York City teacher of the year, as well in 1991 as the New York State teacher of the year. In the summer of 1991 he retired abrubptly, and in a very public way: in an op-ed piece published in the Wall Street Journal where he claimed by being a part of the public school system he was harming students more than helping them. His 1992 book, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling then became a seminal work of the homeschool movement, but was not widely known in traditional education circles.

What struck me as I interviewed Mr. Gatto was how much his message—that factory-model schooling was not just ineffective but actually harmful to most students—a message which had been so radical and out of the mainstream twenty years ago, actually sounded very much like the messages of my other guests. Sir Ken Robinson, Seth Godin, Anya Kamenetz, Tim Magner—guests both well-known and more obscure—were now singing similar tunes, but the audience of traditional educators now seems much more open to it. In fact, in most of my interviews, I might venture to say that we start from the baseline of the factory-model “story” of education being “broken,” and then work toward understanding where we might go in the future.

If there's a more general acceptance that the story, or narrative, we've told ourselves about the purpose and value of education for the past 100+ years is now broken, there's also an awareness that we don't have a ready replacement for that story. Stories help us to place our lives and activities in context, and without a new story, we have a crisis of “meaning:” it's not clear how to measure what is important or not, and how to move forward with some relative assurance that we are accomplishing things of worth and value. As the Internet revolution opens the door to dramatic changes in the power and organizational structures within (and between) societies and cultures, many of the other important stories we've relied on are breaking or broken as well, especially and including economics and politics. Finding a new story (or stories) for education becomes imperative because so many other aspects of our lives are dependent on our vision of how teaching and learning take place.

It's telling that while the Internet has become an unparalleled platform for learning, intitiative, participation, productivity, and creativity, almost all of this happens outside of formal educational institutions. Where we were largely passive media consumers before, we now have a web that encourages and even favors participation. We have online leaning, anytime and anywhere connected devices, a crowd-source encyclopedia that has displaced a 200-year old cultural bulwark, free courses from MIT, and a content licensing system (Creative Commons) for purposefully sharing content. We have Open Source Software, open textbooks, and 2.0 versions of activism, politics and government, and volunteer work. We have an incredible new electronic long-tail of creative and business opportunity, personal expertise being built on blogs and wikis, student portfolios more powerful than any resume, and worldwide network facilitating innovation and collaboration at speeds almost hard to believe. We have a social network whose membership, if it were a country, would make it the third largest in the world. We're unleashing the cognitive and social energies of mankind in what may turn out to be one of the most fundamental shifts in what it means to be human that's ever occurred. And yet, our schools remain almost unchanged, and unable to prepare students for this new world.

Out of a world being reinvented by these computer capabilities, two somewhat opposing stories about education have been raised to the fore, each vying to replace the old broken factory-model one, each proposing a view or rationale of the roles and aims of educational institutions. The first is very visibly at the heart of the educational policies being pursued by the current administration in the United States, and is characterized by the buzzwords of testing, tracking, and accountability.

I will not hide my perspective on this: I find this focus not just counter to research into productivity in knowledge-based activities (see Dan Pink's Drive for references), but believe it actually invites into the educational arena the short-cut numerical achievement tactics which have characterized the economic debacles of our day. As the easy successor to the factory-model story, this approach represents continuity of practice more than change, and can be understood as the predictable reaction of an institution facing significant challenges to its relevance. The ironic pathologies of large institutions are that they often invite or perpetuate the very problems that they were created to solve, they engender an internal conceit that they are best suited to address these or any new problems, and they are often unable to change in the critical ways that are actually needed. This approach to reforming education, from the inside and using high-stakes testing and punishment / reward metrics, will not serve our students or our societies well.

The second story now more actively vying for our consideration (also strengthened by technology) is based on technology as a liberating force: allowing for individualization of education, focusing on flexibility and personal interests, considering engagement to be more important than the particular content area, placing the learner as an active driver of his or her education, and at its core helping through participative communications tools to build a passionate or intentional learning culture. While this story interestingly more closely mirrors the workforce needs and realities of modern businesses, it's justification can also be found in rich pedagogical roots that took a back seat to the factory-model but whose flames were kept alive in alternative or progressive schools and through parts of the homeschooling movement.

Somewhat diametrically opposed to the testing and accountability story, which depends on centralization and the control of an obedience culture, this alternate story provides rich meaning for all constituencies--especially teachers--who have the responsibility to build local learning cultures together. Rather than using measurement to blame and isolate, this story is highly reminiscent of the Total Quality Movement in business, for it recognizes the need of administrators, teachers, parents, students, and the community to solve problems together--where measurement tools are taught to be used by those on the front line, and not arbitrarily (and often unconscionably) held over them to motivate through fear. It also opens our understanding of educational successes with diverse methods: KIPP, High Tech High, Big Picture Schools, and thousands of other successful public, private, chartered, and home schools which don't have identical methods or systems, but which have built learning cultures that drive and inspire achievement.

These two stories are not new, rather they are profoundly different ways of thinking about education that are just finding new advocates as the power shifts of the Internet are opening the institution of education to scrutiny. However, a new and, to most people, a surprising learning super-hero has been actively championing this second story: the educational technologist. This does make sense. Often early adopters of Web 2.0 tools, educational technologists are usually on the front wave of computer trends, and many of them feel the Internet Revolution as a personal cognitive revolution—a transformation of their own learning and quality of life. This powerful, but often unrecognized, passionate group lives below the surface of traditional educational policy discussion, but its strength is strikingly manifested in self-organized professional-development communities and conferences, like in the nearly 50,000 members of the Classroom 2.0 educational social network. Now organizing and holding conferences around the world and online, they have stepped into the kind of grass-roots leadership role that is becoming the hallmark of cultural change in our new era of the Internet. Often their own educational experience models individualization, flexibility, and engagement much more than is the case with traditional teachers. They blog, they tweet, they vod- and pod-cast. They push the boundaries, looking at at gaming and virtual worlds for educational models. They model "learning how to learn" and building “personal learning networks” around the world of like-minded individuals, and then they work--not just with students but also with colleagues, staff, administrators, parents--to help reshape the learning environment they are a part of. Unlike the obedience culture of the accountability story, which seeks to mandate the teaching of specific sets of “21st Century Skills” to students, these pioneers recognize that “21st Century Skills” can't be taught or supported by those who aren't in a 21st Century work environment themselves, and they seek to reinvent both the larger and their local educational systems and environments.

There may be a temptation to want to gloss over the cultural dialog that will have to take place if we want resolve the two stories into the broader cultural understanding, an understanding that we need in order to make sense of and direct educational efforts. We must be careful not to succumb to that temptation, as that dialog will help us to test our theories and ideas against the reality of our cultural and individual needs, and help in the process of refining our understanding. But don't be surprised if the voices of educational technologists begins to take on an increasingly prominent role in this discussion. Their perspective is worth listening to carefully, as they are tapping into and giving new life to a tradition of progressive educational ideas that we will need to fix our broken educational story--at an intriguingly important moment in our collective human history.


  1. Steve, thanks for this reflection. I was inspired by your leadership in creating learning communities for teachers and encouraging the use of technology to improve education. A couple of years ago I invited teachers from our school to get together every week to learn about technology and how it could be used in the classroom to encourage students to excel. I incorporated web 2.0 tools into my classroom experience. Both the teachers and the students reacted with enthusiasm. The problem came from the Administration who saw my attempt to share with the teachers as subordination and undermining. I was told that in my computer class I was to stick strictly to teaching the basics of MS Office. It was frustrating to try to innovate and open the minds of the students and fellow teachers to all the possibilities that are out there when the Admin insists on adhering to the text only...

  2. Ken,
    I facilitate a MS Office class at the post-secondary level. I work in a lot of web 2.0 stuff while still meeting the requirements for the department. However, there is another piece to the puzzle, and this may challenge some of the techies. Students also need to learn how to better collaborate, communicate, and live. These skills should preferably be woven into the exercises rather than add-ons.

    If you would like to hear more, please let me know.
    Best regards,
    RJ Johnson


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