Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Half an Hour, Nov 10, 2020



I just read a post from Mitch Resnick on the seeds that Seymour Papert sowed, and highlighted for myself this most important statement: 

"Seymour rejected the computer-aided instruction approach in which 'the computer is being used to program the child' and argued for an alternative approach in which 'the child programs the computer.'"

As I commented in my OLDaily post, this is a lesson I have always kept in mind, and as I look at the criticisms of ed tech (and especially the work of people like Audrey Watters) I think this is the form a response should take.  Or as I said in my presentation last week, "it's not about the technology all the time, it's so often about critical literacy, about perception, sense of belief, it's so often about how people see things, what their environment is, what their ways of perceiving things are, how they're going to learn."

A few minutes later I read a post in Getting Smart from Tom Vander Ark saying that 

"The pandemic laid bare the inequity and inadequacy of the patchwork American system of education. It made clear that learner experience (LX) is an invention opportunity. LX is not just the topics and tasks of the curriculum, it’s the supports, the culture, and how learners interact with their learning environment."

All true, and not only for the American system. But the approach Vander Ark takes is to emphasize the invention and to talk about how LX systems can do the programming. He offers a list of 12 such strategies. It's not a bad list, but we really need to change the focus. 

Hence, I've adapted his list for my own needs, and repurposed is as '12 Degrees of Freedom', describing ways we can enable students to do the programming rather than have a system program them.

1. Recognize Individuality

While Vander Ark says "LX design should respect each person’s autonomy and individuality" he is silent on how systems should enable individuals to define their own identity. We can begin by rejecting the student:non-student dichotomy. Everyone learns, and an LX platform should be designed for everybody, not just those lucky enough to be 'admitted' or to be able to pay tuition.

There are many dimensions to identity, but we can begin here by enabling people to define what constitutes "healthy development, learning, academic success, and resilience" for themselves. Now to be clear: that doesn't mean just giving them a blank form with no resources. 'Freedom' doesn't mean "with no help, support, or assistance', but the difference is, it's up to the individual whether to rely on these supports, and which of them to use.

We always told people in MOOCs, "you define what counts as success". Now if you want to take a quiz, we can provide one, but passing a quiz doesn't mean 'success' unless you decide it does, and we need to be clear about that. We can give you a pathway to complete the course, but completion doesn't count as 'success' unless you decide it does. The same is true for these other four dimensions, and for the other parameters that frame individual identity.

2. Anticipate Malleability

This item makes the important point that people grow and develop over time. It should also recognize that, as we age, some of our capacities may diminish over time. These are biological facts here, and any learning system should approach learning with the biological facts in perspective.

But there are different ways that can be addressed. The popular sentiment is to somehow have the teacher or the system somehow 'recognize and adapt' to changes in in what a person knows and what a person can do. That's why Vander Ark quotes Pam Cantor as saying “None of us can know what a child can become unless we design the environments/context to reveal it,” said Dr. Cantor.

The important thing for a system to do isn't to 'reveal' what an individual can do, it is to allow them to demonstrate what they can do, and to respect the individual's decision about what to demonstrate and how to demonstrate it. Sure, recognize the growth as it happens, but respect the individual's presentation of that. This is the difference between surveillance and performance. 

3. Understand Context

This item presumes a causal story of how the individual came to be, and then requires that these be appropriately identified. It also underlines a story whereby these are thought of as problems to solve. That's why Vander Ark says "Distinguish motivational issues from learning strategy problems and identify their causal factor."

We need to be clear that motivation isn't a problem with the individual, it's a problem with the way we are approaching teaching and learning. If motivation is an issue, then we're trying to force them to do something they don't want to do. If motivation  is an issue we should change the tools we're offering to enable people to pursue something that matches their own interests (and everyone has something that matches their own interests).

The same is true of contextual factors. Our judgement of whether content is a 'problem' or not may well be different from the individual's. This is especially the case in cross-cultural contexts. It's not up to us to identify someone's religion or background or home as a 'problem'. Now, yes, there are extreme cases where educators are working with at-risk individuals; I've had the experience or teaching women in northern communities coming to class with a black eye. But it's not up to us to 'fix' these problems; it's up to us (as a system) to provide tools and means to help them address these problems, if they choose.

4. Build Relationships

Relationships are great; they're one of the main things we emphasize in connectivism. But there are many kinds of relationships (which I explore in my discussions of groups versus networks). There are many ways relationships are created. There can be online and offline relationships. People might form relationships with each other, with their educators, or even with the content or particular thinkers.

And there are many reasons why people form relationships. It may be true that "strong attachments and positive, long-term relationships are key to learning and development" (though I'm sure there are exceptions to that rule) but it doesn't mean that a relationship with you is that key. And that's a good thing, because it would seriously limit how many people each educator could reach.

The rule here for educational developers should be to enable relationships, but to allow people to decide for themselves how strong or weak those relationships should be, how they should work, who they should be with. Sure, we could point to studies saying people 'learn better' (whatever that means) in "safe learning communities where students feel they belong and are known", but that doesn't give us the right to impose them on people. Some of us prefer to keep our distance, to take risks, and to network rather than to belong.

5. Set Priorities

Here Vander Ark says simply, "Focus on foundational skills and belonging, self-efficacy, and a growth mindset." That takes the perspective that the person who walks into the classroom is somehow flawed and imperfect, and needs to be fixed before any real learning can occur, and in particular, that they need some 'foundational skills', to 'belong', and to have the 'right mindset'. 

And, frankly, none of that is true. Or, rather, it's true only in the following sense: if they are to learn the way you teach them, then they will need some 'foundational skills', to 'belong', and to have the 'right mindset'. But what we could do, maybe, is rethink how we teach them.

I'm not saying that there are no foundational skills, no way to belong, and no good mindsets. The problem is, there are too many. Consider literacy, for example. You need if if you're going to learn by reading. But there are many kinds of literacy - social literacy, digital literacy, numeracy, etc. And there are many ways to be literate (which I describe as the 'critical literacies'). Nobody can do all of them. 

So who makes the decision as to what's most important? The presumption is that it's the educator, because they 'know' what works best for learning. But in a '12 degrees of freedom' approach, it's the individual learner.

6. Build on Prior Learning

It is clear that people are not 'blank slates'. But what do we mean by "meeting students where they are?" The prototypical recognition of prior learning is via credentials or some form of pre-test. But this defines 'where they are' very narrowly. The only prior learning being recognized and acknowledged is that defined by the educator.

When we're entering environment there's really no reason to limit it this way. The worst possible outcome is that the person will be unsuccessful, which is normally not a major problem (though if people have to pay a lot of money and commit significant time in advance, this suddenly becomes a major problem). 

So what we really need to do here is two-fold. First, and most clearly, in a freedom-based education, it should be up to the individual to decide for themselves whether they've already learned or mastered what they need. Having people choose what to study also addresses the question of whether content is appropriate for their situation and background. But the second part is also essential: de-risk participation in learning. We shouldn't be committing to semester-long expensive engagements, even at young ages. That lets people try something and change on a dime if it doesn't work out.

7. Engaging Tasks

Here Vander Ark is recommending "well-designed, interdisciplinary projects" that "combat the pedagogy of poverty and support rigorous academic work." Projects are great, and of course we all like things that are well-designed. But between the lines here we see the distinction between a project that is carefully crafted to lead a person to a particular outcome ('rigorous academic work', say) and a project that most closely reflects the real-world objectives of the person.

Indeed, it could be pointed out here that real-world projects are in many ways the best projects. In my work on 'personal learning' I have argued that learning should begin with what the individual is actually trying to accomplish. And here, 'well-designed' means something very different - it means providing open-ended support using tools and resources with no particular end in sight other than what the individual has in mind.

Now there are many tasks that can lead someone step-by-step through a learning process. I've done hundreds of such tasks learning to do web development, for example. They're useful if I'm working on a particular platform for the first time. But I select these tasks for myself, I do as much or as little of them as I want, and I don't feel compelled to satisfy any objectives other than my own.

8. Quality Feedback

Here we are told two things: first, "to provide the right amount of challenge, rigor, support, feedback, and formative assessment to drive and accelerate the developmental range and performance of individual students," and second, that "self-regulation and academic growth is developed with quality feedback."

Pretty much any growth is provided through feedback; without resistance it's difficult to develop muscles, and without feedback, we learn nothing from the things we do. But it's a very large leap to jump from the need for feedback to the 'right' amount and type of feedback. 

And that's the real challenge here. With highly detailed and precise feedback, you might be able to direct people to specific outcomes. But this means tightly controlling all the stimulus and all the feedback. We've learned this working with artificial intelligence. But a significant effort required to create this degree of control for each individual person. And it also leaves the individual very fragile intellectually once they enter the real world where feedback is diverse and unpredictable. It's impossible to know what has been taught.

So, while feedback is always important, a freedom-based education depends on diverse and authentic feedback based either on the real world or open-ended real world models, and not carefully controlled training system feedback based on artificial metrics like challenge, rigor, support, feedback, and assessment.

9. Risk Factors

The Getting Smart article is focused mostly on children's education, and nobody believes that children should be exposed to any significant degree of risk. Moreover, it is generally recognized that the risks people face do not only include physical dangers, but also averse impacts from stress or social interaction.

The natural inclination is to want to protect people. And that's the approach that Vander Ark takes when he argues that "adult buffering of risk factors and assets from relationships and a sense of belonging foster resilience and accelerates healthy development and learning." But there's also such a thing as too little risk, and I think that's what a lot of 'buffering' creates.

A free education doesn't minimize risks so much as it limits the consequences of taking risks. In slogan form, I might say "use nets, not walls." People should expect some pushback from failure, but (as we just discussed) that's where the learning comes from. Allowing people to fail, but mitigating the worst consequences, allows people not only to feel this pushback, but to be able to determine for themselves what type of pushback matters to them, and what they can list with. After all, we all experience pain differently.

10. Explore Motivation

What Vander Ark says here is true: "a complex mix of beliefs, values, interests, goals, drives, needs, reinforcements, and identities influences choices, persistence, and effort. The perceived utility of a task and the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations are unique for each learner."

What a task, then, to design for all of these factors. It's as though we were to build a system that tests a student to find out what language they're speaking, and then to select a resource for that language. How much easier it is to just allow the person to select their own resource; we can focus on supporting different languages without worrying whether we're picking the right one.

This sometimes means listening to people expressing what they need (that will tell you what languages you need to cover) and it may sometimes mean providing access to systems that can learn from them and provide recommendations (which is what Google does). But what's key here is to enabling people to follow their own motivations without trying to interpret them or to substitute your own.

11. Metacognition

Vander Ark says, "becoming aware of one’s own thinking and learning depends on foundational self-regulation and executive function skills." I'm here to flatly say, "no it doesn't". I know that the whole literature of 'executive function' and 'self-regulation' is really popular, but I think it is wrong, and in many ways damaging.

It's wrong because 'executive function' and 'self-regulation' are not real. These are versions of the Homunculus theory of cognition. There's no little voice in our head that tells us what do do (and if you think of it, even if there were, we'd have to ask, "how does the little voice know what do say? Does it have it's own even smaller little voice?"). It's true, most of us hear an internal monologue (though some people don't even have that). But this inner voice is a chatterbox: it repeats things it hears, it lies to us, it gives us false beliefs - if there's a key to success, it's learning to ignore the 'executive function'.

And it's damaging because it assigns responsibility to the learner for failure (and especially failure to meet externally defined goals, specifically, the goals you are imposing on the learner). If only they had more willpower. If only they stayed on task. If only they had a growth mindset. Then they would be successful and doing this thing they never really wanted to do in the first place. But it's not true. Usually, success or failure depends on resources, support and environment.

And that's true of learning to learn as well. I am not saying here that people cannot learn how to learn. But learning to learn is a lot more like Kierkegaard than like Aquinas - it's a lot more about the practice, what you do, than how you think about what you do. It's incremental, it's influenced (a lot) by examples and environment, and it's something that grows as a result of having taken a leap, not of you talking yourself into leaping.

12. Unique Pathways

It's true that "there are no ideal developmental pathways." But that's mostly because, like the roads in a city, none of the pathways leads to anywhere in particular. It all depends on where you want to go.

Vander Ark says, "there are multiple pathways to healthy development, learning, academic success, and resilience." If that's what you're after, great. But most people have very different ideas of what constitutes 'healthy' and 'successful' and even 'learning' and 'resiliance'. Vander Ark's statement is like saying "All roads lead to Rome." Even those people who actually want to go to Rome will need a more precisely defined destination than that. A gladiator headed for the Colosseum feels very different from a senator on the way to the Forum.

That having been said, having pathways (or maybe more neutrally stated, 'links' or 'connections') can be useful (keeping in mind that people won't always want to follow the pathways). Building infrastructure can be useful - but we should always leave it open to allow people to build their own infrastructure - to map their own connections between concepts, create their own data flows, interact with their own network of friends and colleagues.  


Vander Ark and his colleagues are discussing education for children, and it is a common objection to all of these points to say that children need more direction and control, because they're irresponsible and reckless. They can't learn on their own. They can't direct their own learning.

This is no doubt true to an extent, but I have two major responses:

- first, to what degree is it true? My observation is that around the world children need a lot more support than they're getting, not more protection. If we paid more attention to feeding them properly, housing them and clothing them, and providing access to bandwidth and resources, we'd be doing a lot more good. Yes, children are irresponsible, but that's how they learn. Let's work with that, not against it.

- second, when does it stop being true? I've heard no small number of people making the same points about high school students, university students, even adult learners. At what point do we decide that people have mastered the basics (whatever we perceive them to be) and can both take risks and be accountable for them?


So what are the 12 degrees of freedom? Here they are, more or less:

  1. The freedom to decide who I am
  2. The freedom to define how I am seen
  3. The freedom to decide what interests me
  4. The freedom to choose who I associate with
  5. The freedom to decide what matters most
  6. The freedom to decide what counts as success
  7. The freedom to do what I want to do
  8. The freedom to decide what is right
  9. The freedom to decide what risks are worth taking
  10. The freedom to decide what I need
  11. The freedom to learn my own way
  12. The freedom to create my own map of the world




- , Nov 10, 2020
, - , Nov 10, 2020
, - Stephen's Web ~ Open Learning, Open Networks - Online Learning in 2020 ~ Stephen Downes, Nov 10, 2020
, - There’s No Homunculus In Our Brain Who Guides Us - Issue 81: Maps - Nautilus, Nov 10, 2020
, - 12 Degrees Of Freedom, Nov 10, 2020

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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Last Updated: Mar 31, 2021 01:28 a.m.