Posted by: crudbasher | March 26, 2012

Why I Am Optimistic About Learning

In my most recent blog post called The Best Way To Learn: Carrot Or Stick commenter MH wrote the following:

This isn’t directly related, but does relate in an indirect way: All this is part of the reason why I am skeptical about the underlying positive tone of this blog some of the time. Again and again we read that this or that change – almost all about technological changes – are inevitable, like the explicit analogy to the force of nature that is the title here, and most of the time with the undercurrent that it is a good thing and teachers will just have to buck up and go along. Not always.

MH is exactly right, I am optimistic. That made me realize I have never really spelled out why so here goes.

A simple answer is that people don’t like to read about things that bum them out. 😉 However, there is a lot more to it that that.

The reason I started this blog was to answer some questions I had about Education. I had been a college teacher for 11 years and was unsatisfied with how I had done. While I am not a perfectionist I realized that a lot of the things I thought I knew about how to teach were not true or were becoming obsolete in the face of a changing student population. Fortunately I found the idea of a Personal Learning Network and began to construct my own. Over the last two years I have learned so much and had my thinking pushed into some amazing areas.

This process made me realize that you can learn things without a formal school structure. It was a profound realization for me. I was learning from a curriculum that I came up with and in fact was being adjusted as I went. If I came across something interesting, I did some searching and learned more. Therefore I came to one of my first realizations.

Realization #1: Learning and Education weren’t the same thing.

Education is a system where learning takes place (theoretically). Even so, when you investigate how the current public school system was created you can come the conclusion that education done in a standardized way must ignore the needs of the individual. Just look at high school graduates who are totally unprepared for pretty much any sort of career and you realize that the system cares mostly about itself, not the students. This realization was a bit of a shock and was counter to what I believed since childhood. This lead to the next realization.

Realization #2: You can’t look at the future with any preconceptions. 

Our economy is filled with wreckage from people who took things for granted. If you go to college you are guaranteed a good job. If you buy a house it will always go up in value. Getting better schools is a function of more money. Increasing the goal for standardized tests will increase student achievement. None of these things are true. I think some of them used to be true so what has changed? Technology is remaking society.

Realization #3: Society is undergoing a transition into the next revolution after the Industrial Revolution.

Revolution is a scary thing. It takes what you knew for certain and throws it out the window. The various structures that get built up to support a certain way of doing things get broken up and reformed into new things. When the Soviet Union broke up in 1990 many things that the citizens thought were always going to be there disappeared almost overnight. So with all of these realizations, why am I optimistic?

Most of the structures we have made in the last 100 years were to connect people together. Book publishers exists to connect author and reader. Newspapers exist to connect news with readers. I believe that the true nature of the Internet is to connect people together without the middleman. While the Internet can benefit companies too, it’s most empowering to the individual. A person can post a video on YouTube and get 100 millon views in a week. This places a revolutionary amount of power in the hands of every person online. We are now just starting to see what people can really do with it. Governments around the world are falling, companies that have been dominant for years are getting eaten by small startups, and more voices than ever are being heard in politics. Any organization that is based on the distribution of information is being threatened. It’s a bad time to be a gatekeeper of information (like schools).

So this leads me back to schools. I really see very little future for schools as they currently are structured because it’s not a technology issue. Any technologies that allow mass standardization of learning will be accepted. For example, Scantron machines were readily accepted because they made the factory more efficient. There will be some who try to use online learning to further this factory model. With online you can track every single keystroke and every student-teacher interaction. For the control freak administrator it is a dream come true but no matter how you slice it, it’s still not a good way to learn, it’s just cheaper.

So why am I optimistic?

The education system is not the same thing as learning. I think schools as they exist today are like the Soviet Union with top down planning, interchangeable pieces and no individual thought allowed. New initiatives like Race to the Top are just like the old Soviet 5 year plans. Both are equally useless and just make government fatter.

(cc) Todd Basker

Even so I believe that it is a basic part of human nature to want to learn and that is what will save education. The school system will continue to grind along resisting change. This will force true educational innovation to the fringes. Since the school system is sucking up all the real money it will force innovation to be cheap too. Finally, because of the Internet, once an innovator comes up with a better way to learn , the idea will be spread rapidly. One innovation will be quickly copied by a hundred imitators, each with their own refinements. This will rapidly drive the evolutionary cycle. This will also breed a great deal of alternatives so you can choose the right one for each learner. There is a cool term from Star Trek (nerd alert here) called IDIC. It stand for Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. This is the future of learning where everyone can get exactly what they want to know, when they want to know it, and in a way that will actually encourage their passion for their whole lives.

So in short, if you are a teacher in the system it might seem like a hopeless cause but I think we are about to enter a golden age of learning.

At first, dreams seem impossible, then improbable, and eventually inevitable. – Christopher Reeve 


  1. All very true, but there are also negative developments. Institutional education is being usurped by a growing technocracy. I don’t just see innovation being used to move away from the factory model and teach to each student’s needs. I see technology being used to make the factory model even more powerful and invasive, reducing me the teacher to a cog in the machine – and not in the interest of the student, but in the interest of collecting more tuition money and moving more and more people through the system as efficiently as possible. The standardization you see being eroded, I see being imposed more and more. I hope you are right and the good guys win, but I have the impression that we are losing at the institutions where I teach and to some degree at the political level. Step by step, the factory model is taking over. I get paid less and less to do more cookie-cutter work. Standards are falling. My work is getting dumber. I am teaching less and less and pressing more and more buttons. If students were learning more, I’d say, “Okay, my tough luck.” But they aren’t, at least not in the online classroom.

    Part of the problem is seeing education as being only about career preparation, getting a good job. Students don’t want Shakespeare and employers certainly don’t give a damn. So all the forces are pulling away from that. But I and lots of other teachers think he should be taught anyway. Where does that leave us? Who decides?

    And as the teacher I am the one right there, with the students, in their face. Why do technocrats, who might have PhDs in “education technology” or “education administration” and titles like Deputy Director of Student Learning Assessment get more and more resources and more and more say in what I do? It is not inevitable. It is conscious policy.

    That is the top-down angle on it. From the bottom up angle, which is what this blog usually focuses on, things look better. I entertain a hope that pressure from the bottom, especially from projects like UnCollege, will seriously shake up institutional education.

    But even there, not everything is rosy. Yes, I as an educator need to consider how the students live and function. Their lives are relevant. If they are using gadgets, I need to consider using gadgets. That is their world. Part of the game is picking them up where they are. But at some point, the text is the text. We can put all the bells and whistles in the world into the classroom, but we’ve still got to read. If we want our students to leave school with a real understanding of their history and traditions and language, they’ve got to sit down and read big, fat books. And that takes time, concentration, and focus. Unless and until we’re willing to directly intervene in the structural neuro-biology of our students, no screens, collaborative learning, peer-to-peer, messaging, Twitter, videos, facilitating, google-searched snippets of texts, summaries on Wikipedia, tablets, Khan-lectures, or all the edu-babble terms I hear about at my job are going to replace the triangle between the student’s butt on a chair, a fat book on their desk (or in a Kindle), and, at least for a while, a teacher there to help with the text and, if necessary, pull the earphones off their skull. We often need to pick them up where they are, but we can have a voice in where we take them and how to get there.

    • That’s a brilliant reply, thanks so much!

      As Princess Leia said in Star Wars: “the more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers”. I agree, the factory model is being strengthened not weakened. That’s why I expect people to continue leaving that system in ever increasing numbers. We are on the cusp I believe of a viable alternative to public education.

      It is horrible what has happened to education. Learning should be fun and it’s main purpose should be to benefit the learner. Neither of those are true now. I would hate to teach in a system where I am just a cog in the machine and it’s all about a production quota.

      You seem to have a passion to teach, it breaks my heart to know the circumstances you have to work under. What if you could teach students in such a way that you didn’t have any restrictions and had as much time as you wanted? I believe those days are coming and people like you will be an important part in making it happen.

      The public school system is lost, but there will be another way soon. Keep the faith my friend and I think things will change before you know it!

      • Well, the “circumstances I have to work under” are partially my fault. There are still good jobs out there. I made some poor decisions and didn’t work hard enough at the crucial points in my career. I am moving again, however, and things will look much better for me in a year or two.

        I am an example of what you’re talking about – people leaving the system. If it results in more people learning more, then I guess it’s a good thing. I wish more admin people would leave the system. (Actually I’m leaving higher ed, but I’ll be doing high school soon.)

        You ask, “What if you could teach students in such a way that you didn’t have any restrictions and had as much time as you wanted?”

        Hmm. Good question. 10 years ago I would have thought, “Yeah!” In the meantime, I realize how much I’ve learned and would prefer to do even totally unrestricted teaching in an institutional setting, or with some form of institutional resources or personnel backing because I no longer think I know everything! It also has to do with being “online” for so long. I want people. But then again, the students might be enough for the “people” end of it. We’ll see.

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