Me, Today, as a Result of My Schooling

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Here is the prompt for the end-of-week-4 reflection exercise in the “What Future for Education?” MOOC on Coursera:

Create an entry in your reflective blog or journal.

  • How has your experience of school shaped you as a learner, and as an adult?

  • In what ways do you think your own schooling could have been improved, and what priorities do you think are the most important for schools today?

  • Your entry should be a minimum of 200 words.

Starting with the last bullet point, I would say that it is highly likely for me to meet the minimum of 200 words, since the first eleven posts in this blog averaged slightly over 1000 words each. That’s because I’m a bit verbose, I know, but also because I have a lot to say. So now, in all seriousness, I’ll turn to the first two bullet points above.

My experience as a learner is not some uniform, consistent or monolithic phenomenon. There is not a single broad “experience,” but a panoply of experiences of schooling and learning, ranging from formal to informal, from closed-ended to radically open-ended, from disagreeable and counterproductive to wildly positive, fertile and creative, from rigidly imposed to fully autonomous and self-directed. If I had to generalize, what I would say is that in schools, particularly before the age of 13 or 14, I generally refused to conform to rigid learning schemes. But by high school, I had realized that it was going to be necessary to compromise with the inflexible, obligatory educational systems and to “play by the rules” so that I would be able to succeed academically, no matter how uninterested I was in the system itself or in much of the content that it foisted on me. In the end, after some starts and stops, I finished my undergraduate education and received an undergraduate degree in English, which interested me greatly, and Communications, a field that interested me only slightly (although it was “practical” and allowed me to get a job immediately after finishing my university studies). To make a long story short, I completed my undergraduate diploma approximately two years later than my peers, in part because I suspended my postsecondary education a few times to work full-time while reflecting on what I truly wanted to do. Ultimately, somewhat late, I completed my studies, received my diploma, got a job and worked for about one year in two different jobs that I did not particularly like and in which I could hardly imagine a productive and happy future life. After considerable thought, I abandoned my very short career in radio and changed directions completely, applying to graduate school in a completely different field, French, which I had only begun to study as a beginner about three years earlier. But… it was what I wanted to study. It was meaningful to me. Fast forward by a few decades to find me working as a tenured Assistant Professor in that field. Today, I pursue interdisciplinary research and teach both discipline-specific and interdisciplinary classes.

My general experience of school was rife with difficulty and my academic performance was problematic at best. It’s not that I had cognitive problems. It’s that I did not want to do what teachers required of me in many cases. Sometimes I did the obligatory work and earned good grades. Sometimes I simply refused to do what was asked of me. I neglected to do homework, performed poorly on some tests, etc. The underlying reason for my erratic performance was lack of interest and lack of motivation. In those years when I had a teacher or two who appealed to me or excited my curiosity or inspired me, I enjoyed learning. When I found most of my teachers “boring” (as I thought of it then) or when they condescended or lacked enthusiasm for their teaching, I disengaged and received poor grades as a result.

That formal experience diverged significant from another category of life experiences. In part, because both of my parents were medical doctors and valued learning and because they provide a large variety of learning tools and experiences at home, I had an exciting, vibrant and highly productive life as a self-directed learner. My family possessed a copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica, along with a multitude of dictionaries and other reference works. I used them regularly to learn on my own. I read a great deal and used a dictionary constantly. I wrote poetry and fiction and used the encyclopedia to add detail and texture to my stories. I took part in a rocketry club and learned a bit about telemetry. I loved documentaries (being secretly in love with Jane Goodall) and watched Sesame Street and Electric Company. I developed the habit of reading newsmagazines, particularly Time and U.S. New & World Report, around the age of 10 or 11 and I sometimes asked my parents to explain current events, like the Vietnam war, Nixonian politics or the Apollo missions. I had a lot of tools for autonomous learning, like anatomical models of the human body, self-quizzing tools in a range of disciplines, and math puzzles. I had chemistry sets, electronics kits, science magazines. In short, as a kid, I had a lot of rich and satisfying learning experiences outside of school.

The contrast between unsatisfying school life and heady, joyful self-directed study on my own or with my siblings and friends at home formed my tastes and preferences in learning. To this day, I like to learn on my own. My graduate work included a lot of autonomous, self-directed learning, as does my work as a tenure-track faculty member. Indeed, even now, I love to do research and “library detective work.” I take MOOCs and read a great deal. I prefer autonomous learning to highly structured learning activities, especially those where I am asked to do activities in lockstep with others. I do enjoy collaboration and collaborative learning (cMOOCs, for example). However, a teacher- or leader-directed activity that is rigidly structured and leaves me little discretion or freedom to manage my own learning turns me off. I am certain that it is because of this background and this experience that I am a “distributed individual” learner who enjoys takings MOOCs like “Leaders of Learning” or “What Future for Education?”

Connected learning, which can combine autonomous and self-directed learning with digitally-mediated collaboration, generally engages me and captures my interest, particularly if the learning project piques my curiosity or resonates in meaningful ways with questions that I believe are good to ask. Even in my own teaching, I tend to make my lessons learner-centered and collaborative. I allow learners to share in the selection of readings or development of activities. I have learners develop discussion questions or co-manage online discussion forums in collaboration with me. I try to make my learners active. I try to foster autonomy and self-responsibility. I show my enthusiasm and passion. I try to model the best of what I’ve picked up from self-directed learning, but also the best parts of my school experience with engaging, inspiring teachers.

How could schooling be improved for learners like me?  Allow and empower greater autonomy; support self-directed learning. Get rid of drab, rigid, square classrooms. Offer bright, airy, cheerful spaces with flexible and mobile furniture. Enable collaboration. Make learners responsible for their learning, but don’t impose impose structures or timetables for every step. Set high expectations, then empower learners to learn at their own pace to meet them.

In short, based on my experience, I would like to introduce some informal character into formal education. I developed into a serious intellectual and a committed lifelong learner largely in opposition to formal educational systems and processes, rather than in harmony with them or supported by them. Given that background, it is understandable, I think, that I would like for education to allow greater learner autonomy. The educational system(s) ought to teach teachers to motivate, guide, mentor and accompany learners, instead of directing or commanding them. Institutions and schools ought to figure ways to provide digital tools and resources, then let the learners pursue their interests in a way that meets learning goals, as part of the curriculum if not as its whole substance. Generally speaking, those kinds of innovations would be the major elements in my plan to improve education. I think that it’s important to focus on learner autonomy and self-responsibility, with high expectations, but flexible pathways for meeting learning goals.

That’s it in a nutshell.

Have I Experienced Good Schools? Yes and No.

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In the fourth week of the “What Future for Education?” MOOC, participants are invited to reflect on “good” schools that they have encountered and to reflect on what about them was valuable. Here is the exact prompt:

Reflect on:

  • your own schooling, did you go to a “good” school? What “residuals” did you take away from your schooling, and how has it helped you subsequently.

  • Finish the sentence: “A good school …” and post your idea to the AnswerGarden here.

I can honestly say that I have seen examples of what seems to me to be good schools, but I cannot endorse any of the schools that I actually attended or declare one or more of them as “extremely good.” Most of them seem to have had competent staffing, sufficient resourcing, facilities that were in line with expectations of their times and a generally appropriate process for managing the number and diversity of children in their charge. However, to say that they were “very good,” at least in my experience of them, would be an overstatement. There are some aspects of schooling that did appeal to the learner in me.  I remember, for example a public school in Evanston, Illinois, on Main Street, where I first experienced rocketry, which sparked my interest in math, science and technology. At the same school, I remember enjoying mathematics lessons. At the same time, I did not feel safe at the school, since I was bullied and mocked by some of my peers. So, all things considered, it was not a very good learning environment for me. At Andalusia High School, in Covington County, Alabama, I had learned how to fend for myself, which made it a bit easier, and I even took on some bullies who mistreated other kids. I earned respect and had a stable and enjoyable circle of friends. I learned a useful skill (typing, which came in handy since personal computers were emerging around this time). I further developed my taste for science, particularly biology and chemistry, along with creative writing and, in my final year, I was “turned on” to American history. All in all, it was a decent learning experience, even though the school was not particularly well endowed and some of my teachers were relatively poor performers. I would say that it was more the teachers than the school that gave me the most positive learning experiences. And I’d say that in most cases it was because they set the bar high, then helped me figure how to meet those expectations. One other school, Roycemore, a private, independent K-12 school in Evanston, was quite good. It was small and it had fairly talented teachers, including one of my favorites of all, a science teacher who had a great sense of humor and continually told jokes, even during his lessons. (He did not remain in teaching very long and, ultimately, he had a long career as a writer and standup comic.) Still, he really stoked my enthusiasm for the life sciences and it was at Roycemore that I began doing serious reading and research in what was called “ecology” at the time. It was also at Roycemore that I had an English teacher who recognized that I needed a different kind of teaching or instructional supervision. She allowed me to pursue independent learning/reading/writing projects, where I am certain that I accomplished more than I would have if she had forced me to “get with the program.” I believe that Roycemore, more than the other schools I attended, allowed teachers to exercise discretion in the way that they worked with learners to attain “growth” learning goals, rather than sticking to a rigid curriculum where all students march in lock-step. For that reason, it may have been the best school for me.

About two years ago, when I took a MOOC on titled “Leaders of Learning,” I saw many examples of schools and learning environments that I wish had been part of my experience and that, I’m pretty sure would have been very good schools for me. Nearly all of the schools that I actually went to were characterized by rigid, squared-off learning spaces, with desks neatly aligned. They were not particularly comfortable or welcoming environments. Collaboration and informal exchange during class were not particularly encouraged. Nearly all lessons were teacher-centered and ignored learning differences. In other words, pretty much everything about my formal schooling (except maybe typing classes, art classes, chorus) tended to be boring, one-size-fits-all and disheartening. In only a few cases did certain teachers help me forget the oppression of the “classroom,”  (both the dreary, constrained physical space and the “classroom” modality of a desks aligned to face the teacher, who was the center of attention). In science classes, we often had “hands on” and collaborative activities in the “lab.”

I think that a lot of schools do things differently today (vibrant colors, open spaces, mobile and adaptable furniture, opportunities to work collaboratively), but when I was in school, it was mostly a grind and a bore — both the process and the environment. So to say that any of my schools was truly outstanding would be dishonest. At best, I’d say that Roycemore was good and Andalusia High School was slightly better than mediocre.

Teachers Who Inspired Me

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If you have been reading this blog, you know by now that I distinguish between “education” and “learning,” valuing the latter more than the former. It’s not that I dismiss the necessity of education for the good of society. Rather, it is because I have been disappointed in the systems and curricula that made up the greatest part of my own “education.” In many ways, except for my work in graduate school, a significant portion of which was self-directed (an M. A. thesis that became a book, a doctoral dissertation that I’m mining for articles), my self-directed learning has been more productive and helpful than the learning I did within the educational systems that I progressed through. If you have read a number of blog posts, you will also know that I focus more on teaching than on teachers and I truly focus on teaching as a complex process of fostering learning, not on teaching as the “transfer of knowledge” from teacher to student. In other words, I focus on learning, more than on teachers and teaching.

Still, during my long years of formal education, I encountered a few teachers who had a particularly significant impact on me and I would like to talk about them collectively. I am not talking about larger-than-life or miracle-working teachers. I generally do not believe in the sustainable reality of “magically effective” or “superhero” teachers, no matter how inspiring they might be in movies. (I’m thinking of Louanne Johnson, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, in Dangerous Minds or John Keating, played by Robin Williams, in Dead Poets Society, Glenn Holland, played by Richard Dreyfuss, in Mr. Holland’s Opus, François Marin, played by François Bégaudeau, in Entre les murs, Arthur Chipping, played by Peter O’Toole, in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Clément Mathieu, played by Gérard Jugnot, in Les Choristes, Jaime Escalante, played by Edward James Olmos, in Stand and Deliver, and so forth.) There do exist fabulously great teachers who can change lives, yes, but most of those who have a real impact on real learners tend to be modest, down-to-earth, human beings struggling to do a good job, not epically charismatic, bigger-than-life, almost supernatural figures. Please note that that’s not to say that extraordinary teachers do not exist. It’s just that I don’t think that the “superhero teacher” a workable model for most folks who decide to teach.

The folks I am talking were extraordinary in some very humble and ordinary ways. They were conscientious and attentive. They were attuned to the body language and the needs of their students. They had genuine enthusiasm for their subject matter. They used humor, empathy and compassion to reach their students. And they focused as much on actual student learning as they did on complying with the prescribed curriculum. In short, they were teachers, yes, but they were also mentors, guides and, in an almost etymological sense, pedagogues. The accompanied learners and taught them more than just facts or specific skills. They helped them to develop as learners. Their attentions where not just on the books, the activities and the syllabi, but also on the learners themselves. They sought to foster learning by helping the students understand how to forge meaningful and lasting connections to bodies of knowledge, how to make their own meaning, discern complexities, uncover patterns, accomplish deeds. And in my case, that meant giving me the freedom to learn my way, instead of forcing me to kowtow to the curriculum.

A small handful ofe teachers, encountered in schools, colleges and universities between the ages of 11 and 20, truly “turned me on” to learning in a number of different areas (science, particularly ecology and entomology, literature, creative writing, history, philosophy, geology, media studies, communications, law). In most cases, it was because the were willing to depart from the “production line” model of moving learners through the system and, instead, engaged me on a human level, helped me understand why some subjects are worth studying, mentored me on ways to succeed within a relatively inflexible educational system and helped me pursue my own interests while doing so. For me, the great teachers who made me want to be a teacher myself were folks who modeled several fundamental human traits. Curiosity. Engagement. Seeing the big picture. A propensity for explaining well and, more importantly, giving good examples. Interest in connecting disparate ideas and data. Empathy with others. Compassion. Flexibility. Enthusiasm. Personal charm. And a willingness to guide and support learners, rather than dictate to them.

Even though I sometimes fall back to the “assembly line” model of teaching, I mostly try to emulate these good folks who helped me so much and inspired me to learn.

What is a “Good Teacher”?

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The question in my title truly masks a pair of inquiries. I will try to address both of them in this post. First, and most importantly, it focuses on the nature of teaching as an act, and on a range of specific elements that comprise the normal or typical praxis, outlook and character of someone who claims to be a “teacher.” Secondly, and just as richly, it ponders the nature of the elements that define the highest level of effectiveness and quality in the elements of practice, outlook and character constituting and animating the dynamic ensemble that we would recognize as a “good teacher.”

I say that the first question is more important, although it might have been more fitting to say that it is more intriguing, more complex and, perhaps, more problematic. What I mean to suggest is that “teaching” is not necessarily “something” that one “does.” Or to put it another way, teaching is, or can be, or ought to be  about “fostering learning,” more than it is an act in and of itself. The colloquial way of talking about the paradigm shift that I am referencing is to say that a teacher is no longer a “sage on the stage,” but is now a “guide on the side.” Those who want to inculcate and sustain the best and most effective kinds of learning probably need to stop thinking of themselves as folks who do this thing called “teaching,” and focus instead on being subject matter experts and “resource persons,” who are also mentors, advanced organizers of learning activities and exemplars who inspire and support learners. Teaching truly is not just one thing, but a whole panoply of practices and roles and manners and modes of attention and focus. It is about understanding learners and understanding and promoting learning. It is about effective monitoring of learning practices and careful attention to each and every learner. It is about organizing learning activities and assuring that students have the motivation, knowledge, strategies and resources that they need to complete the learning work. It is about supporting learners and facilitating good, resonant and durable learning. It is about fostering metacognition and resilience and curiosity.

Teaching that arcs toward what I am calling, with hope in my heart and mind, the “future of learning” is a complex and difficult enterprise. It is not to be undertaken by the faint of heart or by the uninspired or the lazy. It is hard work. Being a teacher in its best incarnation means fulfilling a multitude of roles simultaneously, with wit, and grace, and care.

And that leads us to the second question. What is “good teaching”? It is about focusing on learning and assuring that students know how to learn, assuring that they are prepared to do the activities that they need to accomplish for good learning to take place. It means assuring that they adopt and use learning practices that maximize learning for all involved in the activities. A good teacher inspires learners and helps them develop strategies and mindsets that support their learning, or that helps the learner improve his or her ability to learn effectively alone or collectively and knows how to apply new knowledge and skills impactfully. A good teacher has a sense of the attitudes and levels of engagement, and intellectual strengths or weaknesses,  of each of the learners that she or he is working with. In other words, in my view, for an effective future of learning, it will be necessary to redefine teaching in a universal way to embrace this dynamic, complex, difficult set of interwoven competencies, propensities and potentialities. That kind of “teaching for learning” can be extremely difficult — because the challenge of it is continually renewed, moment to moment —  and it requires interweaving many roles, juggling many priorities and managing many sets of information, with an eye turned toward the target of effective and durable learning for every single learner in one’s class, course, room or purview.

In subsequent blog posts, I expect to unpack at least the most salient of the multitude of skills and roles that teaching for optimal learning seems to demand.(To understand and master teaching skills for fostering learning, it is necessary to understand how human brains work, how lasting memories are formed and how to motivate and guide learners. Those are a few aspects of learning (and teaching) that we will focus on in future posts, along with investigations of kinds of learning, and appropriate modalities for administering and managing the complex processes of education. Unpacking these ideas will require talking about cognitive science and models of learning. It will touch on assessment. It will touch on questions about what education is for. So… it’s a vast and complex agenda that I had packed into a single — or was that a double? — question.

“Academia, Love Me Back” by TM

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Here, I am doing something a bit different. I am re-blogging an entry by Tiffany Martínez in her online journal. It is about a learning experience that was impactful in a negative way, but that also offers us, all of us, an opportunity to learn. There are multiple layers of potential learning here, thanks to Tiffany’s blogging about her experience. I encourage you to read “Tiffany Martínez: a journal,” particularly the entry linked below. Here are my own initial thoughts.

As I think about my own education (where I had immense benefit as a valued and supported and loved member of an economically and socially privileged family) and as I think about ways to foster and sustain teaching that encourages learners and helps them uncover and affirm their own cognitive strengths, their passions, their own version of critical engagement with the world at large and with the work of the academic enterprise, teaching that offers learners tools and strategies and resources, that helps them develop character and courage for wrestling with challenging new ideas, for making sense of intimidating quantities and patterns of information, for socializing into new intellectual practices… my hope is that teachers will NEVER proceed as Tiffany Martínez’s professor did with her. Jumping to conclusions and shaming, particularly in ways that further marginalize and undercut folks whose backgrounds and circumstances may not offer them needed support or encouragement, folks who face disproportionate obstacles in the academic world, is abhorrent. It’s just plain wrong. Dispassionately and properly reporting suspicion of plagiarism is one thing. Public shaming is quite another. Especially for “hence.” Hence! Really?

I would like to think that I would never treat a learner in my own class in this manner. However, it would be more honest for me to recognize that, as a teacher, I, too, have jumped to erroneous conclusions. I’ve always tried to discern and address my own misapprehensions and unfair behaviors, but I know that I have also failed on occasion to repair or address some of my hurtful and unjust acts. In spite of my self-professed flaws, there is one truth that and can affirm absolutely:  It is always counterproductive and unjustified to humiliate or ridicule a learner. In. All. Circumstances. Always.

One or two more things. I’m so sorry that this incident happened to you, Tiffany. I hope that you will please take strength in the following. I find your courage in talking about this incident — with equanimity and grace (in spite of your hurt) — an admirable and inspiring act. Thank you for offering us an opportunity to reflect and learn. Thank you for this demonstration of character and courage.

“Academia needs work.” Indeed.

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My name is Tiffany Martínez. As a McNair Fellow and student scholar, I’ve presented at national conferences in San Francisco, San Diego, and Miami. I have crafted a critical reflection piece that was published in a peer-reviewed journal managed by the Pell Institute for the Study of Higher Education and Council for Opportunity in Education. I have consistently juggled at least two jobs and maintained the status of a full-time student and Dean’s list recipient since my first year at Suffolk University. I have used this past summer to supervise a teen girls empower program and craft a thirty page intensive research project funded by the federal government. As a first generation college student, first generation U.S. citizen, and aspiring professor I have confronted a number of obstacles in order to earn every accomplishment and award I have accumulated. In the face of struggle, I have persevered and continuously produced…

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My “Intelligence,” My Education, My Learning

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Here is my final reflection for week 2 in the “What future for education?” MOOC. First, the prompt:

Here are some questions to guide your thinking:

  • During your own education, how has your “intelligence” been assessed?

  • How has this affected the educational opportunities you have been given?

  • What judgments have people made about you that have been affected by an assessment of your “intelligence”?

  • Do you consider yourself to be a “learner”? why?

School and private psychologists assessed my IQ  multiple times during my childhood. They also submitted me to aptitude tests and a battery of other kinds of instruments to measure different abilities, personality traits and attitudes. The reason for all of this attention and testing? First, I was a troubled, insecure child. I was extremely reserved. Indeed, I was almost pathologically shy. My parents were worried about me and sought professional help. Secondly, I performed very poorly in school. So school psychologists or learning specialists would test me every so often to find out what the “problem” was. They learned that I had no cognitive or sensory disabilities and that my intelligence was — as measured by their assessments — above average.

The problem, it seems, is that I was unmotivated. I did not see the purpose of doing many of the activities, homework and readings that teachers assigned in class. Indeed, I thought that school was largely futile and exceedingly boring. From time to time, I encountered a teacher who excited my passion (for biology, for reading and literature, for ecology, for art, for languages). But very often, I either found my classes unchallenging in the extreme or I thought them irrelevant. In the case of the former, I worked very little because it was too easy. In the case of the later, I did very little because I did not see the point. In retrospect, I know that I frustrated my teachers and my parents enormously.

While I was a very problematic and under-performing pupil (because I was inattentive, distracted, and failed to complete homework assignments and other work in a timely manner), I was a very good informal learner and, in fact, I learned a lot. For example, I had memorized and could easily identity all of the bones and major organs in human anatomy and I understood many principles of physiology by the time I was 10. I was reading at a college level at 12 years of age. By that same age, I had learned the names of most world capitals and was reading about cultural practices in other nations. I sampled American Indian lore. I pursued projects in rocketry. I was wrote several science fiction tales that I illustrated myself. I studied wetland ecosystems and entomology. Once, when I was 12, I was “academically disciplined” for reading Michael Crichton’s novel, The Andromeda Strain in the back of my English class instead of participating in an exercise that I considered “boring”: analyzing and diagramming silly and artificial-sounding sentences from our textbook.  At 13, I had finished The Hobbit and was reading The Lord of the Rings instead of doing my geometry homework. I was regularly perusing newsmagazines to learn about current events and following the Watergate proceedings on television instead of doing my “summer homework.” I built crystal radios. I raised seahorses. I observed ants and other insects and took notes on their behavior. In short, I read a lot and did a lot. I explored many divergent conceptual areas, both on my own or with others. I exercised my curiosity in a multitude of ways. By doing all of those things, I developed my intellectual frameworks and knowledge significantly. Truly, I learned an immense amout. However, in school, my performance was inconsistent and teachers generally considered me a very “poor” learner.

Back to testing. My personality and my intelligence were probed and analyzed repeatedly, yet the results of those tests did little to help educators figure out how to help me. I was fortunate because I did encounter a few teachers who knew how to harness my curiosity, my divergent interests, my passion for exploring the world. My English teacher, for example, ultimately allowed me to write a lengthy book report on Michael Crichton’s novel instead of forcing me to diagram sentences. My geometry teacher allowed me to develop my own “real-world” problems to solve, rather than forcing me to do the problems in the textbook. My science teacher allowed me to research and write an extensive report on the consequences of shrinking wetlands in a region near my school, rather than dissecting a frog.

In the long run, I learned how to adapt to the “game” of education and I began focusing my cognitive abilities on the tasks that teachers required me to do, even when those tasks and activities made little sense to me. I believed that a significant part of my formal education was silly and wasteful, but I bent to the rules. I did activities and exercises were ineffective for helping me to learn. I memorized and parroted a lot of information that I considered to have little value. As a consequence, I still have mostly negative feelings about my primary school and secondary school learning and about a large part of my undergraduate education as well. It was only in the last years of university and in my graduate programs that I felt challenged, invigorated, engaged. Beyond that, the other major areas where I feel truly invigorated and highly motivated as a learner lie in various kinds of informal activities that I have sampled outside of educational institutions, including, for example, community-based informal workshops, self-organizing reading groups, open-source educational tools (including Wikipedia, podcasts, educational programming on public broadcasting) and in MOOCS.

So, in my case, I would say that “intelligence” and IQ testing had little effect, whether positive or negative, on my learning in school. My parents’ and my teachers’ focus on my “intelligence” and my “ability” was a distraction. What mattered most for my learning was engagement, a sense of control, a sense of relevance, developing a focus for my curiosity, having a passion for the learning content. Unfortunately, unlike one accomplished intellectual whom I admire, Neil deGrasse Tyson, I did not manage my time and attention well, or find an academically productive focus for my passion for learning when I was young. Unlike Tyson, I did not concentrate on any particular subject or cultivate any particular ambition during my formal primary and secondary education. I failed to develop resilience, grit or disciplined focus. I did not have a goal.

In retrospect, I wish that I had found my calling earlier in my life, rather than later. Through all of these experiences, I note that my “intelligence,” such as it is, had relatively little to do with my academic performance, broadly speaking. While it is true that my cognitive capacities helped me learn in those moments when I applied myself, my “intelligence” did very little to motivate me in school. My conclusion? I would say that, all things considered, generalized “intelligence,” “ability,” and “talent” are vastly overrated in learning and in formal education. There are many other factors that are far more important, like focus, persistence, resilience, discipline, passion, grit, relevance and, of course, “deliberate practice.” After embracing this point of view, I became a far more effective learner (and teacher).

Intelligence is…

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Week 2 of the “What future for education?” MOOC focuses on intelligence, a tricky and controversial topic. Here is the initial reflection prompt:

Reflect on:

  • What you already know about intelligence. How do you know if someone is intelligent or not?

  • Do you consider yourself to be intelligent? Why? What is your evidence for this?

  • Finish this sentence: Intelligence is … and post your idea on AnswerGarden here

I will start with the third bit, then move to the first and second bullet points. On “AnswerGarden” (an online app that creates a kind of word cloud) I gave three answers:

  • Intelligence is  complex
  • Intelligence is a complex set of skills and potential
  • Intelligence is like a garden

The first point is my own honest answer. The other two I entered mostly to “upvote” the two responses that I believed made the most sense. The largest term in the cloud (with 40 votes) was “making effective use of knowledge and skills.” For me, that has little to do with intelligence. That phrase is about competence or about self-management. But it’s not “intelligence” per se, unless you mean some kind of pragmatic, self-management-oriented version of intelligence, not generalized intelligence.

Let me explain my reasons for the responses I entered:

“Like a garden” = can be cultivated, can change with careful planning and systematic work, is productive, depends on circumstances (like climate, resources, sunshine, favorable conditions, etc.)

“a complex set of skills and potential” = intelligence is about intellectual capacity, the ability to interpret, make connections, discern, generate ideas, etc. So, yes, in a sense, it undergirds and informs skills. And it is about potential. (Again, intelligence can change over time and can rise to meet a challenge in some cases, so it’s a kind of potential and a kind of resource that informs skills.)

“Complex” = that is, it is not just one thing. It derives from a multitude of interconnecting cognitive processes and capacities. It fluctuates. Its functioning is not easily predictable.

About the third bullet point, I would say that, yes, I am intelligent. I say this for two reasons. First, I tested for an above-average Intelligence Quotient when I was young. That is, I have a good brain with good basic cognitive capabilities. But that’s not sufficient. Secondly, I would say that I also am able to use my cognitive abilities in a wide variety of circumstances. I am perceptive and discerning and I seize most information rapidly and easily. I process large quantities of data and complex thoughts without a problem. I am articulate, I read widely and exercise my brain regularly. I adapt to different circumstances and perform a wide variety of intellectual tasks well. I am reasonably creative. And, finally, many folks consider me to be intelligent. For all of those reasons, I would venture to say that, yes, I am intelligent. It’s all about my being able to exercise a wide range of highly adaptable cognitive skills and to process information rapidly and accurately. All of those things are measures of different forms of intelligence.

To that, I would add that I have a good level of so-called “emotional intelligence” or “social intelligence.” I read people reasonably well. I understand the feelings of others and am usually adept at interpreting their facial expressions and postures accurately to know the mood that they are in. I’m attuned to others.

Now, finally, how do I know if someone is intelligent or not? In general, the kind of intelligence that I am looking for is intellectual: speaking well, having a good range of vocabulary, possessing good basic knowledge, being perceptive and discerning, reasoning well, being able to engage in effective and productive dialogue, and so forth. I also tend to look for both creativity and social intelligence as indicators of a generalized intellectual intelligence, although I am acquainted with smart people who are social morons and socially adept, highly creative folks who are not very smart intellectually.

In the end, intelligence is about cognitive power, about a high cognitive potential for thinking, speaking, processing information and reasoning, about perception and about articulation of thoughts. But those are simply my definition of intelligence, not signs of intelligence per se. Like beauty, intelligence is in the interpretive scheme of the beholder, not inherent in brains themselves. What we call “intelligence” is an artificial construct that we simply use unthinkingly and without critical examination. In truth, though, intelligence derives from a complex amalgam of various cognitive abilities and potentials that we generally value and derive benefit from in our social and professional lives. Intelligence is not just one thing. There are myriad forms of intelligence and a multitude of nuanced manifestations of its capacities. So… the answer to the question about how I know whether or not someone is intelligent is… “It depends.”

What Future for Education? Reading List from Week 1


[348 words]

Here, I’m simply reproducing a list of potential readings from the “What future for education?” MOOC. I may comment on one or more of these titles later. For now, though, I’m just reproducing information gathered by Clare Brooks.

Here are the details of the texts mentioned by Eleanore in her interview:

  • Apple, M. (2014) Official knowledge. New York: Routledge.

  • Carr, W. and Kemmis, S. (1986) Becoming critical. Oxford: Deakin University Press.

  • Dewey, J. (2010 [1902; 1915]) The school and society. Mineola: Dover Publications.

  • Fielding, M. and Moss, P. (2011) Radical education and the common school. Oxford: Routledge.

  • Freire, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the oppressed. London: Penguin.

  • Scott, D. and Hargreaves, E. (2015) The Sage handbook of learning. London: Sage.

  • Vygotsky, L. (1986) Thought and language (A. Kozulin Ed.), USA: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

  • Watkins, C. (2003) Classrooms as learning communities. Oxford: Routledge.

To this list, I will add a blog entry titled “Learning theory: models, product and process” that I believe is worth sampling, and that was referenced in the MOOC.

The blog site is labeled “infed,” which is an abbreviated version of “informal education.” I note that Mark K. Smith, the author, distinguishes between formal learning and informal learning (or, as I put it earlier, between learning and education) and he seems to value autonomous, self-motivated learning. At any rate, he quotes American psychologist Carl Rogers, who clearly distinguished between the rigid, formal system and “lifeless, sterile, futile, quickly forgotten stuff” that derives from education and the self-motivated, learner-controlled kinds of explorations, investigations and experiences that comprise autonomous learning (Rogers 1983: 18-19). In short, I am not alone in distinguishing between formal learning in educational institutions and other, more autonomous, distributed, learner-centered forms of learning. Nor am I alone in valorizing the latter over the former. At any rate, this site provides a good overview of a variety of learning theories. And the Rogers book provides an overview of learning from a humanist psychologist’s perspective.

Works cited

Rogers, A. (2003) What is the Difference? A new critique of adult learning and teaching, Leicester: NIACE. 85 pages.

Smith, M. K. (2003). ‘Learning theory’, the encyclopedia of informal education. [ Retrieved: 5 January 2017.

Rhizomatic learning? Rhiz016?

[2160 words]

(thoughts reiterated from an earlier FB post)

At the outset of this blog entry, I note that in one sense, I’m “cheating” by quoting myself from elsewhere. I acknowledge that this is not an entirely new or original reflection. It is an extension of some ideas that I have been following, consuming and processing while meandering through other sites. This post takes me in a new direction here, offers a new perspective. It’s a shift, a break, something intrusive in this context. It is a jumping-off point (or as I put it in my earlier post, an “on-ramp”) and it might lead to some additional strands of thought here.

The earlier post was on the page of a FaceBook Group, Rhizomatic learning – a theoretical discussion. That group had arisen out of earlier iterations of a connectivist MOOC that constituted a collective and collaborative learning effort, Rhizo14 and Rhizo15, largely organized by Dave Cormier. I stumbled into traces and archives of those phenomena, Dave Cormier’s scholarly work (along with the work of others, including Maha Bali, Sarah Honeychurch and many more) and, finally I landed on one post-Rhizo15 MOOC Facebook page, then another, then a Google Plus page on Rhizomatic Learning. All of the texts, images and suggestive videos that I’ve encountered along these lines have been resonating powerfully in my cognitive depths. Over the past year or so, I have been re-reading Guattari and Deleuze (very slowly, in bits and pieces) and I’m particularly intrigued by their model (or is it an image? metaphor? concept? intuition?) of the rhizome. Over the last year, as I investigated and reflected on connectivist pedagogy, I was struck by the many adaptations and iterations that folks have suggested on the subject of rhizomatic learning. Many of those reflections made (and continue to make) a lot of sense to me. So… here is my earlier FB post, which is, at least in part, intended as an impetus to help launch rhizo16  — or something like it — into an active learning phase.*

If one were to suggest a potential on-ramp for a ride through a rhizomatic whirl of thinking, the very notion of the rhizome itself might be a place to start. It seems to me that this broad idea is not so far from the gist of Keith Hamon’s post:…/…/framing-rhizome-rhizo16.html

If I were to state my own way of thinking about (or “framing”) the image / model / metaphor / notion of the rhizome, my own thoughts would drift in two distinct directions (probably), influenced by the contingencies of this moment.

On the one hand, I would like to take a closer look at just how the rhizome figures in D&G’s accounting of the human psyche and what its relationship might be to desire, to underlying urges, to unconscious will. How effective a representation is this image, the rhizome, when considering the cognitive and emotional and social dynamics of humans acting in socially-defined or other kinds of constrained contexts?

On the other, I wonder what the rhizome has to say about revolution, or subversive effort or underground pathways for effecting change in a world that oppresses human beings, destroys psyches and livelihoods, destroys and persecutes and generally runs roughshod over peaceful beings? What is the relationship between rhizomatic thinking and democracy? What place does D&G’s rhizome have in the unfolding circumstances of human evolution (biological, cognitive, cultural)?

Finally, in a nod to the departed and regretted Derek Parfit


…does individual identity have any value relative to rhizomatic learning or rhizomatic knowledge emergence? Do individual cognitive beings have distinct value as individuals or does the rhizome move humans toward a “flattened” status as cognitive nodes or agents of equal standing. Does it matter? What motivates learning, then, if not individual curiosity or intellectual drive? What are the ethical implications of rhizomatic ways of proceeding, of knowing?

My apologies for being so long-winded here, but I’m both inspired and intimidated by D&G, by the rhizome, by the notion of rhizomatic learning and by the circumstances in which we live, many of us, in dread and in hope. Those things converged here to speak through me. Is there a conversation to be had?

Here are a few additional comments that I’ll probably try to pursue in subsequent reflections. First, one of the ironies for rhizomatic learning is that rhizo14 and rhizo15 were in some sense “organized” by Dave Cormier. The “rhizome” in the thought of Deleuze and Guattari is non-hierarchical and distributed. The very idea of a single-source “teacher” or “organizer” is somewhat antithetical to the notion of the rhizome. Dave Cormier himself recognizes this tension in one of his rhizo15 posts, dated May 6, 2015:

Week 4 – Can/should we get rid of the idea of ‘dave’? How do we teach rhizomatically?

Additionally, that same tension, that sort of question — What is the role of the individual identity, the ego, in rhizomatic learning, which is non-hierarchical and values no part more than any other part? — resonates for me with the work of Derek Parfit, both his Reasons and Persons and, more recently, On What Matters. It’s not that I know the work of Parfit well, but I find the thrust of some of his fundamental ideas important. One of those is the way in which Parfit seeks (well, sought) to reconcile deontological ethics with consequentialist ethics, partly by de-emphasizing the status of the individual and/or questioning the value of “personal identity.” That move seems to correspond in some ways to the de-centering and de-hierarchizing aspects of the rhizome. However, de-emphasizing the individual also raises issues, specifically about authority or competence for “certifying” or “verifying” learning. Those sorts of hierarchical modalities constitute significant chunks of the socially useful enterprise of schooling, so how can rhizomatic learning coexist with “education”? (I’m referring to degree certification, adherence to very strict, even inflexible disciplinary standards, the expectation that ostensibly masterful teachers will ascertain the validity of subaltern and supplicant students’ learning, and those verifications operate through mechanisms like “seat time” and teacher-constructed and teacher-controlled “tests” which remain, after all, the fundamental tools of intellectual apprenticeship in what we call education, along with other forms of extremely hierarchical approval / certification processes that undergird the functioning of schools and universities.) Is it possible to make rhizomatic efforts comply with the needs, rules and structures of educational institutions?

And more along the lines of an eventual launch of rhizo16… is the rhizome itself valid as an idea? Can we critique it? Are there ways to revise and reconstitute the rhizome? Must we accept the “authority” of Deleuze and Guattari? Or are we allowed to make of “the rhizome” what we will? How does one think about the rhizome rhizomatically? What of D&G’s project to rethink psychoanalysis and to offer an account of the human psyche that diverges from both Freud and Lacan? Where exactly does the rhizome fit into that scheme? Does it lead us to useful or productive territory for thinking about how we humans act, about how we are motivated, about what we might do under the pressure of tyranny or perceived danger or extremely discomfiting asininity in our societies? Can the rhizome undergird or facilitate or foment revolution?

Obviously, I have a lot of thinking — and reading and exploring —  to do before I can claim to have the least little idea about what “rhizomatic learning” is. What I can say is that my strong intuition is that Guattari’s and Deleuze’s “rhizome” as applied to learning is rife with connectivist and revolutionary potential.

As I think I made clear recently in my initial post, I believe in the value of dynamic, learner-centered, self-motivated and autonomous learning that employs dialogue and collaboration to extend and refine individual investigation and reflection. I value “learning for the sake of learning” — that is, engaging in discovery and idea formation because the content one is focusing on and/or the process of learning are fun. In my own life, that kind of learning looms much larger and has deeper resonance than learning for extrinsic motivations. To put it another way, the best learning (in my view) is self-motivated, driven by the learner’s curiosity, interest, and sense that the learning content/activity/context has relevance and meaning. In my case, learning for purely extrinsic rewards (grades, diplomas, certifications, rewards, reputation, advancement) is significantly less effective and far less enduring. Given my overarching attitude toward learning, I would say that this MOOC will offer me a lot.

Let me explain. I am interested in the future of education. I am very interested in learning theory. I believe that reflecting on these topics are highly relevant for me — and, indeed, are relevant for any curious and thoughtful person working in higher education. In other words, my motivation for engaging with the themes of this MOOC is quite high.

To that, I would add that the specific questions asked and the seemingly connectivist modalities of this MOOC are likely to work very well for me, particularly if I am able to find a few student peers whose interests and enthusiasms resonate in some way with my own, folks with whom I can engage in productive dialogue and debate. If the discussion forums ever work the way that they ought to, I suspect that I’m likely to encounter others who, like me, draw a sharp distinction between learning and education and who would be willing to explore the complex relationship between the two. I hope that I’ll be able to have some lively exchanges about learning as a driver of education in the future and perhaps even consider ways in which the enterprise of higher education, indeed, education in general, might be rethought to facilitate, guide and support learning in a more effective and sustainable way.

As I think about the future of education, I am convinced that many stakeholders in the educational enterprise will need to rethink the basics of what they are doing. Why educate? To what end(s)? What does society need education systems to do? Is education exclusively about creating competent workers? Is it exclusively about “learning for doing,” so to speak, or manufacturing, or performing needed services, etc.? Is it about “learning to be”?  Ought universities teach students to be lifelong learners? Should universities teach students to seek wisdom? Or help them learn how to balance their lives? Or exercise self-control? Or engage in deep reflection for spiritual and intellectual growth? Is it about filling brains with information?

To evoke another dimension… technology is potentially both a complicating factor and a highly effective pathway as we think about the future of education. That is, computer-mediated communication and digital tools do not constitute a solution per se. Indeed, blind or unthinking appeals to technology or imposing the use of specific apps or devices without good support or good justification are, as pedagogical choices, likely to create more problems than they solve. On the other hand, if education is understood as a process of supporting, connecting and guiding autonomous learners, then computer-mediated and digital communication, collaboration and information-sharing can potential be affirmed as a valid and valuable infrastructures and/or pathways of learning and education, if not an obligatory route. Where and how technology plays a role depends on the needs of learners, the context in which learning takes place, societal parameters, and another multitude of factors.

To do a better job of facilitating learning and creating better experiences for learners, we need to increase our understanding of the cognitive processes involved and we need to assure that educational processes, educational pathways, educational tools and teaching strategies align with how learning actually works in the human brain. We need to be clearer and more explicit about the goal(s) of education. We need to employ approaches that support those goals. Is the main goal of education the socialization of human beings into into learning communities? Is education about the acquisition of skills and socialization into professional practices? Is it about teaching individuals to assume greater autonomy for their own educational achievement and greater effectiveness in living satisfying and ethical lives? Those are three very different kinds of learning.

I do not have answers to those questions, although I have some intuitions about how we ought to think about them. At this point in my journey through this MOOC, I have begun formulating what I believe are pertinent questions about the future of education and I am pondering the relationship between “learning” and “education.” In my view, those results alone signal real promise as I begin to engage with this MOOC.

* Since writing this post (and the earlier one), I have been thinking about my intention of “launching” rhizo16 or something like it into a “active learning phase” and I realize that if one is truly talking about rhizomes and rhizomatic learning, it is ludicrous to think that anyone can “control” it or “start” it or “stop” it. So I’ll focus on my own questions and investigations to see where they take me, not rhizo[N].


Are humans “biological learning machines”?

[631 words]

The other day, I blurted out that human beings are “biological learning machines.”

I would like to take a step back and think about this a bit more. I realize now that a significant part of the impetus behind my words were readings that I had been doing about human evolution and the fact that homo sapiens seems to have developed a very particular cognitive profile. One book in particular, Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2015) points toward what he calls a “cognitive revolution” which he suggests was one of the most important developments in the history of our species that took place approximately 70,000 years ago. For Harari, this “revolution” was the result of changes in the hominid brain that allowed the development of contrary-to-fact thinking, vast imagination, and complex conceptualizations expressed through language. These capacities undergirded the emergence of generalized human culture, of myths, of ideologies, of concrete and abstract representations (and misrepresentations), of large-scale social organization and cooperation. Those evolved aspects of the human brain are responsible for our being able to think about the past and the future as well as the present, and being able to plan, to imagine alternatives and to critique and analyze. They make possible the development of writing, record-keeping, archiving and inter-generational learning. I note that Yuval attributes a somewhat lesser role to memory than I think the word “learning” evokes, although he does note that it is homo sapiens’ ability to retain and recall a large amount of relevant information that allows individuals to operate effectively in complex social systems. Still, individual, collective and archived memories are an important part of my own broad view of learning, as are communication networks and shared understandings.

What I believe and what I was trying to say in my blurted declaration about “what human beings are” is that all of these characteristics make us high-capacity, highly adaptable, highly effective learners. Indeed, that complex fact may be the principal evolutionary advantage of homo sapiens. We are learning machines. We learn from experience; we learn through abstract conceptualization and theorization; we learn through experimentation; and we employ intense cognitive processing to make our learning memorable and durable. Add writing, archiving and mutually negotiated standards to the mix and it is clear that we humans constitute a living, global, rhizomatic network of learners and repositories of learning. It is clear that we are programmed for learning and knowledge development, much in the way that viruses are programmed to take over protein production in targeted living cells, to produce additional viruses.

Learning is, perhaps, what humans do best and it is the thing that our evolutionary heritage impels us, indeed, compels us to do. By “learning,” I obviously do not mean simply memorizing information in order to pass a test. I mean it in the largest sense of developing new knowledge, new insights, and new understandings that we share broadly in a way that informs the knowledge, insights and understandings of others, assuring both a measure of homeostasis and change across a social-cognitive network of education and scholarship. We humans have an astounding talent for generating, refining, improving, and interconnecting meaningful ideas. We produce systems of concepts, formulae and metaphors that model the universe and that make our understandings communicable. This high capacity for learning, both individually and collectively, has made us into a kind of creature somewhat beyond all other evolved beings on this planet. So, while there are many ways to characterize what we have become as a species (neurotic and domineering animals, the ultimate apex predator, featherless bipeds, agents of planet-wide destruction, self-obsessed and hubristic creatures, the talking animal, the writing animal, the self-identified “highest form of consciousness”), it is clear to me that my improvised bon mot the other day was absolutely on-target. Beyond that observation, I would point out that my formulation has significant implications for the future of education.

Humans are indeed biological learning machines, an idea that I’ll explore further in later posts.