Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Hacking at the Roots of the Learning Revolution - Live Broadcast Tomorrow

I'll be a guest again on the Connected Learning weekly webinar series tomorrow, with esteemed host Howard Rheingold, and getting provocative. Read the following at your own risk.

Date:  Thursday, Dec 20
Time:  10-11am US Pacific Time (international times)
Event page and participation instructions

Hacking at the Roots:

I see two larger education reform movements.  This is an over-generalization, of course, but maybe not by much.  

The first ed reform movement is the high-stakes, NCLB, foundation/corporation/lobby-driven movement that is couched in the language of business: achievement, accountability, job skills, efficiency, etc. The second ed reform movement is the passionate, largely-educator-driven and pedagogically-progressive movement.  

While both groups would likely disagree with me, I propose that they are actually different versions of the same story. While there are individuals in both movements that are well-meaning (arguably more by my own definitions in the latter), both movements take as core premises that change comes from the top, that there is a "better solution" to education, and--while not overtly stated--that education is something we impose on others.

As well, my take is that because both are institutionally-directed, and the "institutionalization" of values (see Illich) is itself a part of the problem, their ultimate outcome will not be individual independence, but rather continued dependence on our educational and economic "systems"--systems which are driven by the needs of those running them rather than by any desire for individual independence.  

I believe we are in this mess (which is certainly not new), where both of the larger reform movements are actually more similar than we want to admit, because we are focused on outcome rather than process. Laws, for example, are outcomes, while the democratic activities that produce them are processes. The progressive ed reform movement often commits this outcome-over-process error when committees or research or prominent voices are taken as "what we should be doing," when really we need to encouraging participation in the processes of determining for ourselves and our communities that which we care about and how we can work together to accomplish our goals. A list of "21st century skills" might be really fun to create as part of some meeting of prestigious educators, but please don't think that pushing that outcome or list down to schools, teachers and students is what would really benefit them. Instead, we should be pushing down or encouraging the process of creating such a conversation to local levels, where all involved might participate in the discussions that attend the process.

Implementing one group's particular outcomes is fundamentally disrespectful to the agency of others.  Process demands and allows that we respect the inherent rights of individuals to be self-directing agents of their own lives. However, we must recognize that there are few if any lobbies or businesses that will see financial or institutional benefit from self-direction and independence as the outcome of education, so they are not likely going to promote or support this. Intriguingly, we must also recognize that parents, administrators, teachers, and students have often been so inculcated into the co-dependence model of schooling that they not only willingly build prisons for themselves and for others, but often demand agreement with this perspective in an emotional way that suggests schooling as a cultural ritual requiring (and therefore publicly manifesting) our conformity. Perhaps we also fear the mental and moral requirements of independent thought, finding it easier to follow the norm; and (going out on a another limb) perhaps our participation in a known power structure, while demanding we follow others in authority, gives us at least some power of our own as we exert control over others (students/children) below us.

So that leaves me trying to figure out how you generate the kind of public mobilizations that have characterized important civil and social rights movements--ergo, my tour (now being re-branded for the new year as the "Learning Revolution Tour"). What are the models for scaling independent thinking without simplifying it beyond value in order to gain traction? How do you talk about and encourage agency while also respecting it? How do you help the 30% who drop out, and the even greater number of students and families who don't thrive in school and therefore see themselves as failing, to realize that they are in a perverse game of intellectual inadequacy that someone else has set up and rigged against them? How do you help those who benefit from the current system to see the moral failure of perpetuated financial inequity through a college-track system that they believe it is rewarding their own excellence, but is often just confirming the power of better expectations and individual student care?

This is certainly not anti-intellectual; it is, rather, the only moral course of questioning that I can see an intellectual taking.

Currently, my answer is to hold, and hopefully therefore to model, conversations on learning that provide a positive path for helping students, families, teachers, and administrators to recognize that they know a lot more about when and how good learning takes place than they and the establishment have given themselves credit for. And that identifying the positive conditions of learning from their own experiences trumps the proclaimed expertise of others who would impose mindsets and expectations on them--expectations that most never feel they have fully achieved. There is a pervasive and sad fear of straying in any authentic way from the path that others proclaim leads to educational (but not learning) success. 

I suggest we need to hold these conversations one-to-one, starting with the choir then moving to those the system has failed and to those willing to see the unfairness of their own advantage. Then, perhaps, we have the opportunity for real change, the kind of change that comes from inside each of us, and not from the outside or movements that would merely replace one form of schooling with another. We must ourselves be the learning revolution.

For more conversation, join the Education Revolution Google+ Community at

Photo: Roots of big old tree by Paolo Neo


  1. Hi Steve,
    Montessori education is the largest pedagogy in the world with over 20,000 schools world wide. It represents a critical mix of governance as exhibited by Association Montessori International to ensure schools are following the principles of Montessori yet it is not "instituionalized". The Montessori curriculum as defined by AMI (above) allows the process of of learning to be discovered, developed and owned by the individual child in a prepared environment. In a sense, Montessori has the governing structure needed to maintain the quality and consistency in its method without every threatening the learning "process" of the individual.
    In any case, "hacking" your education, is what Montessori children do (they just don't realize that's what they're doing) and it is a joy to watch! Are you familiar with Montessori? I'd love to hear your feedback. All the best and Happy Holidays!
    Aidan McAuley (Montessori Mad Men)

  2. Hi Steve,

    Good posting. I edit online college courses and was just thinking today about how the content, no matter how it is taught resembles a catalog of items held together not by meaning or sense but by merely being presented in a school. My experience with school wasn't about learning because I never seemed to find it there. More that it was just a place where people who knew more than you in a sort of random way could test you on things of no particular importance to no particular purpose beyond conditioning you to accept your apparent "ignorance." There must be some other use for all the energy wasted on this silly process? But who in the system will step up and model change? Look forward to the talk.

  3. Aidan: I really need to do a show on Motessori! Would you be willing to help me pull that off? Email me at Thanks!

    Scott: Thanks for the comment. I'm wondering if those who are dispossessed are the ones most likely to answer the call to step up.

  4. Hi Steve, likely those who are truly dispossessed won't come forward as they simply have no sense of permission or membership in the conversation. An alternate interpretation of the number of people not served by the current model of education is that the, say, 30% are to be expected. No system can serve everyone (at least at the scale we insist on reaching) so maybe it isn't so bad? To be excluded hurts but it can also be a badge of honor to reside outside a system that disposes of people who differ from the norm.

    The whole idea of a public school system is bound to fall into the celebration of sameness and mistake it for equality of opportunity. To me, it seems way more productive to withdraw from a corrupted system and spend our energies building what we value. Things change when people not only stop believing in the BS, they leave the field and go start their own game.


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