Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ The Issues In Front of Us

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Feb 25, 2007

Responding to Doug Johnson, who created this list based on one posted by Miguel Guhlin.

This is one of those lists that looks so good on the surface but is really nothing more than slogans carelessly applied. I don't mean to be so critical (and would rather not be) but really would like to draw out some of the problems of this list.

The way it is: Teachers lecture - students listen
The way it will be: Teachers guide - students do

Does this mean: 'teachers tell students what to do, and students do it?' And if so, is this any advantage over lecturing?

It is always fashionable to complain about lecturing, but this does not automatically make the alternative (whatever it may be) acceptable.

In my view, the issue has nothing to do with the form and content of the educational offering. Lectures have value when used appropriately. Rather, the issue has to do with control. Lecture at me when I'm not interested, and no new information reaches my mind.

The proper approach here is to make learning available, in whatever form is desired and appropriate, to assist students as they do what they choose to do.

The way it is: Students work alone
The way it will be: Students work in groups

I hated groups. Hated them. Despised them.

Groups aren't about some better way of learning, they're about conformity, power and control.

What is so *bad* about working alone? This doesn't mean that I am isolated, without resources or support. It merely means I don't have somebody telling me what to do, taking credit for my work, and excluding me if I don't conform to their rules.

There is nothing sacrosanct about groups. Certainly no particular learning advantage is gained by forcing students into groups.

The proper approach here is to allow students to form groups if they want to (in other words, to redefine 'cheating') but to allow them to work on their own as well.

The way it is: Subjects are departmentalized
The way it will be: Subjects are integrated

I agree. But what does that mean.

If it just means that the math problems now include examples drawn from the science curriculum, then no real advance has been made.

It is as though only two alternatives are envisioned: subjects taught apart, or subjects taught together. That's certainly what the wording of this item suggests.

The real alternative is, of course, subjects not taught. Rather, students engage in real world activities (which may include the solving of problems, but is not exclusively problem-based). As they engage in these activities, learning (that might correspond to 'subjects') becomes available to them.

The way it is: Curriculum fact centered
The way it will be: Curriculum problem centered


First of all, there are domains of learning that do not involve solving problems. Art and other forms of creativity, for example. There is no known problem that is solved by the Mona Lisa. Or by the Beatles. But the world is the better for them.

More significantly, a problem centred curriculum is still a curriculum. It retains that idea that there is some One Way that will work for all students. But this is no more true of problems than it is true of facts.

Finally, students are still going to need facts, or perhaps more accurately, some way to get facts. This is merely obscured by problem centered curricula, which imposes a layer of obfuscation between students and learning.

The way it is: Teacher primary source
The way it will be: Rich resource environment

Yes. But it should be worded 'resource-rich environment' because it doesn't matter whether or not the resources themselves are rich.

The way it is: Primary print medium
The way it will be: Variety of media

If print is the primary medium, then why is it necessary to harangue against the lecture (as above) which is primarily an *oral* medium?

The *real* distinction here is between language-based and non-language-based learning resources. Multi-media seems to offer a non-linguistic alternative. But of course, a lot of multi-media is intended to deliver text in other ways. That's what podcasts are about.

More significantly, though, is the question of *why* we need to use non-linguistic resources. Normally here we might get some story about the same information being transmitted using multiple modalities.

However (and I write this while listening to some jazz guitar) what is the message delivered by genuinely non-textual modalities? How is it the same as, say, some sentence, or even some concept?

At the very least, if you get this far, you need now to be asking questions like: if knowledge and learning are not textually based, then what are they? If what we learn does not depend essentially on language, then what does it depend on?

You can't just eschew text without knowing where you're going. Which is why people say that they don't want to use print, and continue to use print.

The way it is: Success = tradition
The way it will be: Success = accountability

I am not sure where it has been the case ever that 'Success = tradition' (though I applaud the ambiguity of use with the '=' symbol, a vagueness that ought to be celebrated for looking like it means something while remaining meaningless).

'Success', more accurately, has traditionally been represented as the ability to recite, on demand, relevant facts and information. And in some cases, to solve certain types of (mathematical and linguistic) problems. As, say, defined by the structure of such measurement instruments as the SATs.

So, now, how is 'accountability' different from this?

Turns out, it isn't.

The *real* tension here is in whether the measurement of 'success' is curricular based or not curricular based. Whether you are measured against some sort of academic standard, or something else.

In my thinking, 'success' is measured by 'something else'. Where the 'something else' means leading a good life, whatever you think that to be.

By any curricular definition, by any measure of 'accountability', people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and many others, are failures.

It's actually pretty easy to recognize success when we see it. In a community, we can tell whether the educational system is successful by the lower crime rates, better health of the citizens, inventiveness and creativity, and the like.

Of course, that's a lot harder to measure, and the politics of accountabulity won't be satisfied by these real measures. Hence the demand for pointless testing of irrelevant 'knowledge' based on 'testing'.

The way it is: Schools are insular
The way it will be: Schools are connected

We all have some sort of intuitive idea of what it means for schools to be connected. But if we push these intuitive ideas, we find that they pretty much fall apart.

They fall apart because it's not really true that schools are insular.

They are connected in myriad ways. They are governed by a school board, share in a state or province-mandated curriculum, have teachers represented by a board-wide teachers' union, have ties to the community through the PTA and other such associations, compete against each other in academic and sports competitions, and, of course, can contact each other through the mail, by telephone, online, and more.

So, in this environment, what could the author possibly mean by saying that schools should be connected?

Probably something like the pairing or twinning of classes, shared classes, co-teaching with teachers from other districts, online classes with students from multiple schools.

Things that, in general, constitute a shift from the class as something that is taught by one teacher to the class as something that is taught by multiple teachers. No?

So now I ask, well why is *that* good?

But - of course - the problem is in the statement.

It should not be 'schools are connected'.

It should be '*students* are connected. And even 'teachers are connected' (though the union already supports that, and should play an even larger role).

Of course, if the principle is that 'students should be connected' then the school is no longer so central as it was. And we have to ask, what was it about the school that made it so central in the first place?

The *school* is what keeps students separate. The less the emphasis on the school - the less, for example, that the school demands of students in a given school day, the less the school blocks and filters conten from outside the school - the more students can and will connect.

Magically. Without the help of teachers or schools.

The way it is: 3 R's (Rote, Restraint, Regurgitation)
The way it will be: 5 C's (Children, Computers, Communication, Creativity, Collaboration)

What teachers and what schools are genuinely willing to give up on rote, restraint and regurgitation?

What is 'curriculum' other than rote?

What is a 'school' other than restraint?

What is 'accountability' other than regurgitation?

I think that when most people read these, they will nod in agreement but they will be thinking of the 5 Cs *in addition* to the 3 Rs.

Look at the last four: 'Computers, Communication, Creativity, Collaboration'.

Are children going to be *required* to use computers, to communicate with each other, to be creative, to work in groups?

Will the school be the place where they go too use computers and to talk to other students? Will the school be the place where they find the materials and tools to be creative? Will the school be the place where they are required to work with other students?

Will they need to show what they know about computers, perhaps by answering questions on a test? Will they prove they have communicated with others by answering questions about them? Will 'creativity' be defined as something safe?

If it was *about* children, then they would each get their *own* computer, with which they could communicate with others - children and otherwise - as they *choose*, with which they could create software or art or literature as they desired, where they could work collaboratively, collectively, or without others at all.

In summary...

My reading of this list is that although it looks like it is on the forefront of advocacy for change, it disguises a a sentiment which is at heart fundamentally conservative. It offers the illusion of change, without actually promoting change.

I don't know whether this was the intention of the author, and I won't speculate on motives. It feels to me like a well-intentioned post that was simply unable to move outside of a comfort one.

But the reason why I felt that ti was important to comment on this is that it is characteristic of a lot of recent writing that I have seen in the edublogosphere that walks and talks as though it is at the forefront of something new but is in reality an effort at retrenchment, an effort to protect one's own turf while embracing the chance swirling around it.

The recent 'School 2.0' movement is a good example. By locking into the concept of 'school' the proponents, while looking for all the world like they are enbracing change, are in fact freezing the state of education into an archaic past, where the school is the centre and where everything else - including the students - revolve around that central concept.

The idea of 'school 2.0' by definition eliminates as out of scope any concept that reduces or eliminates the importance of the school (and by extension, the elements that constitute a school, such as classes and curricula, teachers and lessons).

Given that the the shift in focus from authority (such as schools) to empowerment (such as for students) is at the very core of the whole concept of '2.0' the idea of 'school 2.0' is inherently self-contradictory. It stands for the very *opposite* of what its public posture presents.

That's why I posted this response. The future is much more difficult to grasp than a mere set of slogans. Fundamental values are shifting under our feet. Pretending it's something superficial, as represented by this list, won't change that. It is important to have an accurate representation of the issues, so people can genuinely understand what they are facing.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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