Give Them a Reason to Reason

An Ecosystem for EducationComputers, on balance, are a social good, but there are things that have been invented to fleece people by exploiting their vices, such as laziness, an unruly mind that lacks discipline. Video games provide one example. Like all of life’s pleasures, they are fine in moderation, but many game makers have had zero concern in their motives for people’s health, well-being, physical fitness, or sanity, instead just concerning themselves with money. Computers, on the other hand, are different. Video games, on the whole, entertain and make their consumer idle. While a great deal of idleness has been caused by computers, many computer designers have had noble motives, and frequently have been very industrious, hardworking people. Think of the stereotype of an engineer versus a game designer. As a result partly of the motives by which they evolved, computers have added more to the human race than they have taken from us.

Now, to compare the design of schools with that of computers. I don’t have a great deal of historical context. I know the dubiously researched–no footnotes!–case of Prussian schooling presented by John Taylor Gatto, as well as something about Waldorf schooling and Montessori schooling, both a little more than a century old. Those with their own proper names–what altruistic motives behind their advent! Yet, while they have spread widely, they have not been taken up so widely as the computer, where one or more belongs to every household.

There was a time not so long ago when computers were still the purview of universities, only. There, one would need years of close study to be able to write a computer program. Since then, programming has been democratized: tens of millions of people can do it. In the future, it will be a basic, universal literacy. A computer is the hardware and the operating system is the platform for a program to run. In education, a school building is the hardware, an educational philosophy espoused by the school is the operating system. Units of work crafted by the instructors are the programs that run on it. The OER movement (stands for “open educational resources”) is democratizing lesson planning, just like programming. The world of computer science today is a wild and varied ecosystem with titans who can achieve incredible feats of complexity like IBM and clever youths like Mark Zuckerberg when he developed Facebook with one other college student, outside the context of a class. We need an ecosystem to come alive, one that will support a messy global community of brilliant, maverick lesson planners.

Up until now, there has been a major level of resistance to letting people learn how to lesson plan. Before the reform era, many venerable institutions like teachers’ colleges strongly protested the dangers of amateurism among teachers. Now, large numbers of people are being taught how to do a teacher’s programming. What’s strange is that, when it comes to programming a computer, you can achieve anything you want, though some programming languages are better suited to achieving certain goals than others. However, with lesson planning, the same does not appear to be true: while hypothetically any type of activity could go into a lesson plan, it doesn’t. They generally seem extremely generic, consisting mainly of mathematical problems, oral discussions, reading and analysis of text passages, reviewing material learned before… It’s boring me just writing it. This is a problem resulting from a limiting factor somewhere in the system. To continue with the computer analogy, the imaginative quality of early computer programs, all thought up by academics, was fascinating and stultifying all at once. High math, meteorology simulations, monitors for electrical equipment. Then, graduate students got their hands on it and made “Tennis for Two,” the first video game, to be played on an oscilloscope. This narrow world of boring and serious computer programs is not to be blamed on academics, excepting maybe the ones who thought that the public getting access to computers might cause an accidental nuclear war. Instead, there just weren’t enough minds on the problem. Back then, congressmen and men in dark suits were the only ones who could have paid for computers. Only universities had them at that time because the public didn’t want them. And, there’s a comparison to learning here. In the Middle Ages, science and academe itself was a snooze to everyone but scowling men who wore funny hats and spoke dead languages. Until Galileo came along. He was charged with a crime in his day. Now, his only crime is seen to be liberating the pursuit of truth, and the clergy are painted as petty tyrants using people’s ignorance to keep them religious. Thanks to the path blazing of men like Galileo, during the Enlightenment, the baby of the Renaissance, many of the great contributions to science and the history of ideas would be made by amateurs.

The pursuit of knowledge certainly has been democratized. But then we run into that tricky thing politics, because the public has been, at first welcomed into the world of the academic, and then, after king became prime minister, shouldered out of higher learning, again. Some powerful person thought it would be wise to use the school as a bully pulpit for indoctrination, not only to the official version of history, but also to learning certain sums, but not all of them, to learn certain words, but not all of them. After that, it became a corral.

Now, back to computers. Young, unlettered men and women have made millions designing apps. If people want to pay ninety-nine cents for fart sound effects, that could give a clever lad or lassie his or her start in life. This has yet to happen with schooling and specifically lesson planning. When a coder makes an app, he knows it has to appeal to his audience to spread. However, different types of schools–public, private academies, boarding schools, Christian schools, Sudbury schools–appeal to the parents that choose them, but only as the least bad alternative. They are not lusted after. They are not sexy. They are at best venerable and more likely just musty. It is as if the government forced every American family to buy a computer in 1980. Tandy, TI, Commodore–I could go on. We, thankfully, are not stuck there. There are incredible, democratizing forces at work in education today. For one thing, I’d like to point out the silent revolution being driven by organizations like the George Lucas Foundation’s Edutopia.org. Many organizations like Edutopia have hit on the idea of infiltrating the school through its cadre of teachers. Teachers by the millions are being influenced, their lesson plans are changing in profound ways, and I say the revolution is silent because the administration is happy. Modern heads-of-school are totally preoccupied with raising American children’s flagging academic stature in the world. Organizations of the ilk of Edutopia have all formed ranks with the Common Core in pursuit of this one overriding goal, and it is a good one, that could help young Americans grow up and make a living. However, while this approach is revolutionary, and intended partly to disrupt the top-down, lock-step decision making that governs schooling, it is not really a revolution, but a reaction–a reaction to our standing in the world and our abysmal achievement gap. Perhaps the same approach could be co-opted for truly revolutionary purposes, but at present it isn’t revolutionary. Back to the topic at hand.

Take this one small example and combine it with OER Commons, one of the vanguard online communities for sharing OER, and you can see that American education is experiencing genuine innovation. The question is, when will lesson context undergo the explosive transformation that has caused us all to “need” an iPhone? How can an ecosystem like iTunes and the App Store be created for lesson plans? There are online market places for lesson plans, now. Created for teachers, aimed at teachers. I promise you, in those settings, the cuteness of the printables seems to be the driver of the prices because they are all leashed to what ResearchDevelop.org called “Common Core sameness.” They are not wanted, not by teachers, except lukewarmly, not by kids–*shudder*.

Ultimately, then, the law is the problem. The law is the x-factor damming up the trickle of new lesson plans (and new teaching methods as yet unforeseen) that would become a flood. Every teacher in a public school has his or her hands ties by one rope that never runs out: the Common Core (or state standards, where applicable). And, private schools have their hands tied to what prestigious universities want. We are each acculturated to a society in which learning is controlled by a munificent, secular priesthood with whom we live side-by-side (or maybe in the next town over). The truth is, in preliterate times schooling was invisible and authentic assessment was life and death. A few members of the public and some educators are now awakening to a leaderless movement unfolding that could change education radically by side-stepping the Common Core. If it does, homeschooling laws will provide the opening. I know nothing about the figures who shaped homeschooling, other than the strongly felt desire to teach family values without interference. That’s fine. However, as soon as we speak about school vouchers, I must recognize that while the motive of some voucher advocates may be innovation of a profound and radical kind, for many powerful politicians, it is a bid to support their own friends or allies who stand to benefit: either private school masters who wanting more students in their customer base or, more insidious, entrepreneurs who want to keep the boarding schools exclusive to their children, but who would like to open a chain of for-profit schools. As we have seen from a very brief discussion of video games, there can be things created without considering the welfare of there society that they are going to be sold to which can do more harm than good. This may certainly happen when schools seek a profit. The enormous business in for-profit colleges is rife with schools whose recruitment policies are textbook sales strategies, carried out by low-wage service industry workers who no doubt feel conflicted about the financial aid, value proposition, and debt burden, all of which they have been trained to misrepresent. These tactics breed mistrust, not trust. They have a deleterious affect on society. On the other hand, no one vilifies ITT Tech. It has been providing quality technical training for decades, and its reputation is not atrocious like so many for-profit institutions of post-secondary learning. Motive matters. That is why I see a lot of danger in vouchers as a proposed method of revolutionizing lesson plans and why I feel homeschooling as a simple off-ramp is the only viable–and probably only necessary–tool needed to get a schooling revolution like the computer revolution going.

Right now, the only people getting into the mix of an education revolution are professionals. They see the importance, socially, of the potential available. What we need is a platform that will get everyone involved. We need to remove perverse incentives and emplace real financial incentives. Right now, the market for “disruptive” education products is schools and school boards with all their inertia. After that, maybe teachers–with empty pockets. Innovators can’t all be Ahmed Khan with his huge heart. I mean, it’s tragicomic: he’s Atlas, trying to teach every single subject from kindergarten through college single-handedly, so people can learn on their own, for free, while we teachers shrug at compulsory schooling because we haven’t thought about it since teacher college and continue taking attendance–Ka-ching! Billy. Ka-ching! Rogelio. Khan Academy really points out the incredible democratizing potential of the now: one man can open a free school for millions where he teaches around the clock. In every classroom, “Mr. Khan” is written on the whiteboard. All we need is a million allies like Mr. Khan, and we’re really going to see something.

So, how did we go from the prediction that four computers will run the world to four is just enough to manage my fast-paced life–work, home, iPad, and iPhone? Well, computers we redesigned to be sold. We need to sell schools. But for the right reasons. Schools need to go from being big, giant, cumbersome things to things that will fit in your pocket and fit in your life. I love my iPhone. People that are co-dependent love school–guilty. Someone needs to make money–lots of money–not talking over our heads to school boards who have the legal right to spend some not-inconsiderable sum of our money for us, but directly to us. The public needs to learn how the sausage gets made, so they can make a better sausage. One that is actually nutritious for growing bodies and growing minds. The public needs to be invited to learn how to program a school, like the public has been invited to program an app. The public needs an API for school, and, when an amazing lesson plan gets made, there needs to be a real pot of gold at the end of that rainbow. It will take heart, it will take boldness. Someone will have to deal plainly, educating the public about the risks and rewards of jumping ship and relying on these new ways of educating its children and adults. For a long time, it might feel like we are just playing with these home schools, just like we spent hours playing SkiFree and Lunar Lander and changing our screensaver or buying one on a CD-ROM. But, someday, we can educate in a totally new paradigm. It can, and I believe it will, come to pass.

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