Thursday, December 05, 2019

Plato's Cave, The Emperor's New Clothes, and Schooling as an Institution

I was invited to submit to speak at a TEDx event about the "learning revolution." Here were the responses I gave to their questions. I've been laughing out loud, honestly, wondering what their response to my rebellious ideas will be!

1.     In a sentence or few brief paragraphs please write your BIG IDEA concept and share why you feel this BID IDEA is helpful and meaningful. What the committee is looking for is a clearly focused idea and a powerful “aHa” or “wow” experience that engages the audience and can make a positive difference. 

My current project is "" Basically, the elephant in the room in high school education is that school is a game, and the best students know this and play school like a game... but the students who are not succeeding don't think it's a game--they think (and we let them think) that they aren't the "smart ones." So what our schools do best (our schools which we say exist to help every student reach their potential) is to teach most students that they are not good learners.

This is actually a fascinatingly deep and important topic, because we come to discover that schooling isn't the only institution that says it does one thing while actually doing the opposite. The advent of modern public schooling coincides with the rise of propaganda and psychological marketing, and we've become incredibly used to seeing that what institutions advertise they do is not what's really going on: the pharmaceutical, food, banking, political institutions in our lives are driven by financial interests that are often at odds with their marketed images. And in the age of the Internet, we now have a whole generation that accurately distrusts those institutions--but are often lost without a good alternative model or framework.

For me, that framework is individual agency: understanding that schools exist for students, not the other way around. And teaching kids how the game works, and how to become the drivers of their own learning, is what my project is about. A longer essay on this is at

2. What makes you a leader in the learning revolution?

Besides owning the domain name? Here's my bio:

I've watched for decades cycle after cycle of education reform movements, and the promises of change from each successively new technologies, all kinds of well-meaning people thinking that this large-scale system will just magically turn the corner and fulfill the lofty promises of public schooling. The more I have understood what's really going on in education, honestly, the less of a visible leader I have been in the field. I mean, people still know me, but I've stopped seeking that image. Every day there's some new "leader" riding some new innovation that is going to "revolutionize education." You see enough of these and you realize that something is wrong.

Imagine any other large-scale institution (pharmaceutical, food, banking): actual truths that break existing narratives create an uncomfortable confusion, as so many people depend so deeply on things working they way that they currently do. It's not malicious, it's human nature. People have spent years in school, have personal and financial responsibilities, are doing good things in their communities--if you discover or uncover something that makes much of what they do irrelevant and that doesn't financially benefit them or their company, and you might as well be speaking another language.

The emperor and his retinue continued on after the small boy saw through the charade--they had to. Were they going to just stop and admit they'd all been duped, and lose their privilege? Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Modern public schooling is a disaster by any human measure. I have talked to individual after individual who will actually begin to cry when I ask about their school experiences. They are not the managers and presidents of companies--they are the servers and laborer and "regular people" of the world. The wounds that come from (often arbitrarily) segregating people into good and bad learners, from sorting the successful from the herd, are deep. Play any random game of chance and see if you don't still feel good after winning, even if it's totally unrelated to skill. The culture we've created with schooling has allowed many of us to feel OK about our positions of privilege, to no longer really believe in the value of the common man or woman, and to look away when millions are killed in overseas engagements that have nothing to do with making the world safe for democracy.

As I've looked at revolutionary changes in thinking that have taken place (Jesus, Gandhi, MLK), those changes came from brave individuals speaking the truth. A different kind of leadership. But like the slave in Plato's Cave discovers when coming back to free his fellow slaves after discovering the narrative illusion they had been living in, the emotional and hypnotic bonds we live in can make it really hard those around us to be willing to see through the illusion.

3. Please provide any additional materials (websites, video links, etc. you would like the committee to consider and review).

I ran an interview series ( with over 400 interviews that helped to develop my thinking over time. I wrote a report on technology in education that basically said we should use an "Amish Test" for determining first what we really care about, then measuring technology use in education against our actual goals (turns out that's NOT what most schools do) at My large online conferences have "democratized" professional development for educator and librarians (,, and my original Classroom 2.0 network ( was, in it's day, seen as an incredible shift in the ability for teachers to connect with each other--although now pales in comparison with the effects of Facebook and Twitter.



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