Co-Facilitating a Faculty Learning Community:

[978 words]

Let me begin by saying, quite honestly, that it was an honor to be asked to co-facilitate the inaugural Faculty Learning Community at my university, which took place over the  2017-2018 academic year. Each part of the process was interesting and engaging, from preliminary conversations with the Director of the Office of Teaching and Learning at my institution during the preceding academic year, through more concrete and focused discussions over the summer of 2017, and the actual implementation of plans for our first meeting in October, to subsequent meetings through the spring 2018 semester. (Our final regularly scheduled discussion will take place in about ten days, on 18 April 2018. That will be followed by a workshop session in early May, where some FLC participants will draft revised syllabi for our targeted courses and discuss changes we have already implemented or that we intend to implement.)

Learning communities can function in a variety of different ways. In this case, my co-facilitator and I designed it as a learning community for teachers at our institution, with a focus on potentially helpful instructional strategies. We were hoping to have a mix of tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty members; we also hoped for a mix of experienced teachers and relatively new ones. As it turns out, only one non-tenure track teacher joined the group and none of the faculty learning community members was relatively inexperienced or new to our institution. Still, we had a good mix of disciplines and a variety of personalities that made for interesting discussions.

We settled on two books to inform and direct our readings, Make It Stick and The New Science of Learning. The former was more central to our discussions and the latter provided supplementary perspectives and information.  Each of the participants agreed to target one particular course and pledged to revise the syllabus to that course to reflect concrete, specific changes as a result of participating in the learning community (e.g. modifications in the manner of teaching, in the manner of information presentation, in particular learning activities or in the general structure of the course).  Beyond the two co-facilitators, there were eight participants, The ten of us (or a large majority of the ten of us) met once or twice per month through the spring semester.

For me there was frustration and ambivalence in the experience of facilitating discussions among the faculty members of the learning community. First, I was not sure just how much authority to assume in nudging the conversation in particular directions. I created prompts, questions and an agenda for each meeting. However, it was not always easy to keep the participants on task and focused on the proposed talking points. The conversation veered periodically into tangents that, in my view, had little to do with the subject matter of the books under discussion, the proposed agenda, or the overarching goals of this learning experience. What is more, I often had the impression that my colleagues were more eager to speak about their own teaching, than they were willing to listen to and to learn from others. In some moments, I felt a little bit like the flustered teacher at the front of a classroom who begs students to turn their minds and conversations to a particular assigned topic or to focus on a particular idea or dataset… and is immensely frustrated to see all students ignoring those directions and continue to chat about matters irrelevant to the pre-planned.

As I pause to take a step back, however, and think about how I prefer to teach, by giving up a large measure of control, allowing students significant responsibility in each class session for constructing their own meanings, gently guiding students as they develop and integrate their own “new” knowledge and forge their own connections, I realize that my frustration is a bit silly. Part of my problem is that over these past weeks I did not consistently follow the lead of my co-facilitator, who consistently accepts faculty engagement at whatever level our colleagues give it and seems to consider any progress made by any FLC member to be a good thing. My feelings of frustration point more toward a problem with my attitude as a co-leader and co-facilitator, along with my perhaps unreasonable expectations than toward a lack of productivity in Faculty Learning Community on the whole. Indeed, if I am honest and objective, I note that most of the members of the faculty learning community have been expressing real excitement about the ideas and strategies that we evoke and critique. FLC members are very intellectually and emotionally invested in rethinking their teaching, their classroom practices, and the manner of presentation and/or organization of their courses. In truth, the Faculty Learning Community has had a real impact.

The real ambivalence has to do with my desire to control the entire experience. No, wait, it’s not even desire. It’s my belief that somehow I would prove to be negligent and irresponsible if I failed to control every moment of the experience or if I lacked mastery in directing the conversations. This notion is, I have come to realize, an unnecessary and counterproductive way to view this experiment. I need to let my overzealous illusion of control fall to the wayside. My true responsibility is to influence the gist of conversations ahead of time by providing good prompts and by framing certain ideas or expectations for the conversation. However, the actual exchanges and crosstalk during our meetings are not my primary responsibility and are not really under my control. I can reasonably expect my colleagues to invest in our shared intellectual work only as much as they want to and need to. To state the lesson for myself, in a nutshell, I need to prep conscientiously, then to chill and let the experience unfold, trusting participants to engage with each other and with the ideas and frameworks. Amen.

Reflections on the “fit” between digital resources, cognitive science and my instructional design thinking in LTT 150

[ 2263 words; revised 18 April 2018 ]

Here, as promised a while ago, are some further comments on MCC 150 Learning Across Cultures. The revised syllabus for the course may be found here. In this blog post, I will comment on the course as a whole, including the historical background that motivated my decision to propose, design and teach the course. I will also comment on my impressions about the relative effectiveness of certain elements of the course (combining certain digital media tools with cognitive-science-informed learning goals or design principles).

Background, Purpose, Overarching Goals

The original impetus for this course was a meeting many years ago between staff from my university’s admissions office, representatives of the offices that support academic advising in the College of Arts and Sciences and the business school at my university, representatives of Academic Affairs, and representatives from my department, Modern and Classical Languages (which, in addition to teaching several modern languages, Latin and Ancient Greek, also houses a few ESL courses and a robust Linguistics program). I was in the meeting primarily in the role of Chair of my department at the time. The major issues under discussion were a range difficulties faced by some international students and their advisors. The students in question were performing problematically in multiple courses or has language skills in English that were perceived as being insufficient, even though those students had met admissions standards for language ability. They could do this either by demonstrating proficiency through an appropriate TOEFL score or through enrollment and achievement in appropriate ESL courses prior to their first semester at Saint Joseph’s University. One of the ideas floated during that meeting was for faculty members in my department to develop a First-Year Seminar course that would orient such students to academic culture and studies at our university, while offering them general academic support and guidance on reading, writing, speaking, listening and note-taking in English.

Fast-forward a few years. No other faculty members in my department had expressed an interest in creating such a course. No one gave any sign of intending to plan or design a new First-Year Seminar in the form of a skills- and content-focused course that would to serve students from outside the U.S. or would offer particular support for those who enter my university as non-native speakers of English. As Chair, I had little time to produce or implement such a course myself. However, I continued to reflect on the issues. Toward the end of my service as chair, believing that my department had the necessary expertise and a moral obligation to help those students, I decided to design and propose a course whose principal intellectual content would be intercultural communication and whose general manner would help all students develop fundamental skills for success in the academic programs at our university. Obviously, a major goal in developing and teaching this course was to help students from overseas, especially those who might predictably have problems adapting to life as a student in the United States. However, that goal alone did not seem sufficient for designing a free-standing course. It would amount to guessing about certain students’ likely prospects for academic success and seek to bolster skills in areas of imagined weaknesses or lacunae. In a sense, such a course would seem to single out those who had received a secondary education outside of mainstream United States schools and/or doing most of their learning in a language other than American English. I wondered if there would not be a way to draw on the richness of such students diverse experience, while also exposing them to a variety of perspectives of students born, raised and educated inside the U.S. To me, it seemed important to articulate other, more robust, goals for the course, like helping students, whatever their national origin or cultural-linguistic background, learn about how to learn more effectively. It seemed appropriate to develop a course to help all students develop good learning habits, devise and implement good strategies for academic performance across a variety of disciplines, increase their resilience so that they could face academic challenges more effectively, reflect critically on cultural dimensions of educational institutions and practices, particularly those that might become obstacles or impediments to some students, devise solutions for minimizing or removing such “educational-cultural” obstacles, and better understanding how their own brains work in the learning process.

My comments below will center on a few of the digital resources that I used to help me guide students toward certain learning outcomes.

TED Talks, Other YouTube Videos, Google Books (initial weeks)

I chose to begin the course by teaching students about neuroplasticity and about how the brain functions during learning. For these purposes, YouTube and Google Books were helpful, readily available and free of charge. In class, we focused on the importance of working memory, attention, connecting new learning to prior knowledge, and using rehearsal practice to strengthen the recall of new information and new insights for effective long-term learning. We also explored and discussed themes like distributed practice and the role of sufficient sleep and good nutrition for effective brain function. In short, I wanted students to learn about brain function and cognition, so that they would be able to structure their learning habits in alignment with how human brains actually work. I covered this material over the first three weeks of the course.

The digital resources that I used in this portion of the course was as follows:

How did the digital resources work? Quite well, generally speaking. Most students reacted extremely favorably to my assigning some videos instead of sticking exclusively with more traditional readings. Discussions were quite lively and productive. What is more, when I later asked students to comment on working memory and neuroplasticity, most of them were able to evoke accurate and detailed explanations of those phenomena.

Other Strategies and Digital Tools Used During the Rest of the Course

For the latter eleven weeks of the course, I asked students to do extensive readings in three print books:

  • Hall, E. T. (1976). Beyond culture. New York: Anchor Books.
  • Maalouf, A. (2012). In the name of identity: Violence and the need to belong. Bray, B., trans. New York: Arcade Publishing.
  • Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J., & Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind. 3rd. ed. New York: McGraw Hill.

Please note, however, that I did not ask them simply to read. I asked them to work collaboratively in assigned groups of four or five to articulate their collective understandings of each reading assignment and to share their impressions and understandings of the content of the course and its connections with both the wider world and their own educational experiences. (I had asked students to complete a survey about their educational, linguistic and socio-economic background. I interviewed each of them individually outside of class. This allowed me to create working groups that were quite diverse.)

To accomplish this work, I asked them to use two digital tools. First, for group work, I asked them to use GSuite tools to create Google Docs for each reading assignment. I expected them to use Google to generate collective reading notes and shared comments and observations, to be circulated among all members of each group (four groups of four to five students) but also to be shared with me. In this way, I was able to follow the collective readings and understandings of the four groups in the course and to prepare my own responses to their comments. When we met for class discussions, I asked each group to discuss their collective conclusions briefly face-to-face, then I asked all groups to specify a few major ideas that they found important. After recording these comments on the board, we engaged in a whole-class discussion of the readings, debating or refining the ideas recorded on the board. During the full-class discussion activity, we drew conclusions about the most important ideas in each reading — and we drew implications. If (on rare occasions) there were significant lacunae after group discussions, I used question-asking to help the students fill them. On rare occasions, I simply filled the lacunae. Generally speaking, though, the 18 students in the course generated a very good understanding of each of the readings with relatively few interventions on my part. Indeed, I had relatively little work to do as the “mentor” and “guide” in this course. This result was in line with my goal of having students actively engage with each text — and having them help each other understand both the gist and the significant details of each reading.

The other major tool that I used during the remain of the semester was Yellowdig, a social-media-inflected discussion tool. My intent in using Yellowdig was to foster a spirit of collective engagement, social learning and excitement about the themes and the specific ideas we were exploring, as well as to ask students to connect course material to their own experience of the world. Students where required to produce a certain number of words of commentary weekly and to respond to each other’s observations. In most cases, student engagement greatly surpassed my expectations. Again, the software chosen for this function proved to be an effective digital tool. Students using Yellowdig pulled together with enthusiasm, responding to each other and affirming the dignity and value of other participants in the course. On occasion, they offered advice to each other and they formulated mutually comprehensible understandings of the gist of the course, extending in-class discussions and adding meaningful examples. On the whole, the digital collaboration and discussion tools worked as intended, building a kind of widely shared spirit of cooperation, support, empathy and mutual respect.

What were my instructional strategies in using these tools and how did cognitive science inform them? First, my intention in asking the students to generate collaborative notes on the readings was to set up a continual pattern of cognitive effort and retrieval practice. In essence, I required them to process each reading twice before coming to class. (First, when they read for an initial understanding; then, again, while thinking through bits and pieces of the reading to formulate notes, comments or ideas to post to the Google Doc.) Students processed the main ideas of readings a third time when arrived in class, by talking through the readings again face-to-face, while consulting the group document, they engaged in an active and interpersonal way with the readings. Then, finally, by having groups share out their observations and perspectives on the readings, then discussing or debating them with the class as a whole, I engaged most students in yet another round of processing and retrieval practice. I might add that peer pressure — the obligation to carry a fair share of the load of producing a group document and a shared understanding — motivated most students to participate quite actively. I added a layer of complexity by periodically asking them to link current readings to earlier ones. In short, by the time we had worked through the entire cycle of reading, note-taking and discussion for any particular assignment, most students understood the texts extremely well and noted many important implications beyond a surface reading. Indeed, most student made significant and resonant connections to other texts, ideas or frameworks.

The instructional strategies behind my use of Yellowdig were different. In that case, the digital tool was intended to build a sense of community in the class as a whole and to allow students to link the ideas discussed in the classroom to their own experiences as struggling or inspired students — or as cultural outsiders. It worked spectacularly well. Most students in the course were very enthusiastic and responded quite positively and in a welcoming and affirming way to most other students’ posts. They also made many connections to current events, to their own lives and to cultural perspectives, both their own and others’, which they analyzed and critiqued in interesting ways. To be honest, reading their Yellowdig posts was almost always an immense pleasure for me. Students found this tool to be interesting, helpful and fun. And so did I.

My general conclusions?

I believe that my general design principles and the tools and resources that I chose were appropriate and had a significant impact on student engagement and learning. Still, as I prepare for the second iteration of the course, I may need to do some additional research into digital tools that may be effective for illustrating or embodying cognitive-science-informed learning principles or effective means for developing intercultural awareness and effective intercultural communication strategies.

I’m open to comments and critiques. I’d love to hear from fellow teachers and learners.


Reflections on a New Course: “Learning Across Cultures”


18 December 2017

As I sit at the end of a semester-long experience teaching a course that I had begun designing about four years ago, I am feeling simultaneously gratified, grateful, regretful, elated, pensive, self-doubting, and deeply fatigued.

What I am most grateful for is the way in which the course seems to have been highly meaningful and inspiring for many students. It was successful, on the face of it, and students have clearly articulated ways in which it has had an impact on their thinking, on their practices, on their fundamental patterns of cognition and engagement at my university. The course matters and it went quite well in many ways. So I’m feeling gratified.

My regret arises from my own failings and the missed opportunities that I see clearly. Had I been better organized, more disciplined and had I done my work more promptly, the experience would have been even better for the students and for me.

I’m elated that it is over, because the course has demanded a lot of energy and thought, and it’s a relief to think that in the very near future I can let it go, at least for a time. I’m elated that I’m going into my Christmas break with real teaching and learning success in the course. I’m elated that I have had a positive impact on a number of students and that they think well of me, despite my flaws and shortcomings. I’m

I’m feeling pensive because I wonder about my own motivations and about the meaning of this course. Why did I create it? Why was I so enthusiastic about creating it? Am I simply trying to cast myself in the light of a ground-breaking maverick who is doing heroic and misunderstood work? Why was it so hard to get departmental approval for the course? Why were my colleagues so resistant to it? Is it truly worthwhile? Or am I deluding myself? Where my colleagues right and am I wrong about the value of the course?

Given the reactions of students in interviews and in spontaneous comments — much of which is carefully reasoned, argument-rich, highly articulate and insightful discourse — and given their enthusiasm for this class and the ways in which they make connections to other courses, other conceptual domains, and the wider world, it seems to me that the course that I designed and taught is meaningful to most of the students who took the course and had a positive impact on their experience as learners. In short, I do not believe that this whole enterprise is a waste of time. Still… I wonder. Am I really the right person to do this kind of interdisciplinary course creation? (I believe that the proper answer is “yes,” mostly because I find real intellectual satisfaction in making connections and/or finding correspondences and/or discerning meaningful interrelations among disparate fields of study. What is more,  I love learning; I am a very good model for lifelong learning; I love thinking and seeking to understand “the big picture”; I love research and reading. So… yeah.)

Finally, I’m fatigued because I hardly slept last night.  (I finished the third major iteration of an article for the NECTFL Review around 2:00 a.m. before crashing, then woke and rose again at 6:00.) I am fatigued because I’ve been going full blast intellectually and physically.

Now, enough with focusing on me and my feelings. Let’s take a look at the course itself. Here is a link to the MCC 150 Learning Across Cultures syllabus. I’ll offer comments on the course in a subsequent blog. I’d be interested in comments on the course as evoked in the syllabus. I think it has significance and significant promise. But I need to improve my execution as a facilitator of learning in this course. More later, I promise.



Education and the State

[648 words]

What are schools for and why do public entities (nations, states, local governments, etc.) fund, regulate and manage them? The answer is long and complicated. To form a backdrop to my reflection here, I’ll start with a few historical contexts in a few different places. (In the following, when I use the verb “form,” I mean it in the sense using educational instutions and processes to shape or educate human beings so that they have a certain set of competencies, knowledge and attitudes, in alignment with particular roles.)

  • France, Middle Ages —> to form priests; to give the sons of noble families a minimal level of knowledge of Latin, manners, and doctrine
  • Europe, public education, 18th, 19th centuries —> to form a docile and productive, somewhat literate population
  • Europe, private education, 18th, 19th centuries —> to form highly literate élites (aristocrats, clergy) of reasonably good judgment
  • Europe, US, 19th and 20th centuries —> to form clerks and bureaucrats, to form compliant and economically productive citizens, to offer a pathway for social mobility based on certain forms of merit
  • 20th century colonial British and French schools —> to form a docile, literate population, to indoctrinate natives, to form a local élite
  • Amish schools in the U.S., 19th, 20th and 21st centuries —> to provide minimal necessary competencies for functioning in a rural agricultural society
  • higher education in the U.S. in the 20th and 21st centuries —> to pursue research and to form researchers, to form literate employees, to give WW II veterans something useful to do, to form compliant citizens who are not susceptible to ostensibly dangerous and unAmerican ideologies (like communism), and to develop and disseminate materially progressive information, frameworks and principles for the betterment of the nation


In many cases, we are still working, in primary and secondary education, on the same assumptions and using the same design principles as in the 19th century. Our schools and institutions of higher education are constructed and managed not unlike factories. Classrooms are like stations along an assembly line from which there will emerge as the final product a mass of relatively literate, reasonably polished students who have some understanding of the workaday world (and the world of work). What is more, teaching work is regulated by the clock and learning is measured in terms of contact hours or what some call “seat time” in classrooms. Overseers frame their management thinking largely in terms of “productivity” and “economic efficiency,” which are imperative. An academic worker who produces more units of merely acceptable quality is, in general, more highly prized than a teaching employee who produces very few units of very high quality.

This system makes sense, so long as schools are intended primarily as a building block of state stability and security, general social prosperity, a skilled but relatively dependent and docile workforce and general economic efficiency. However, the question must be asked. Is that what education ought to be doing in the 21st century? Or ought we be turning to alternative ways of proceeding? Why not seek to implement truly humanist orientations, by fostering engaged learning and providing educational opportunities that place a high value on personal excellence, ethics, attention to what is meaningful, satisfying and engaging for learners, shared thriving, the common good, environmental and economic sustainability and truth? This kind of orientation is not incompatible with the discipline-based systems we now have in place. But it is a very different orientation from what discipline-focused higher education has generally implemented.

Is it wise to continue to use the efficiency-oriented factory model? Is it humane? Is it productive in the long run?

It is so much a part of our culture, such a large part of our mindset and of our habitus that we don’t even realize this these are the metaphors that undergird most of what we, as teachers, do.

Let’s wake up and smell the coffee. Then let’s take a long, hard look at what we are doing, which is little more than a variation on what our ancestors did, whether in the U.S. or in Europe. Let’s think for ourselves.


The Functional, the Valuable and the Forgotten in American Higher Ed.

[974 words]

I am returning to the reflection prompts at the beginning of the sixth and final week of the MOOC that I completed in summer 2016, “What Future of Education?”:

  • what is currently working well within the education system that you are familiar with?
  • what priorities and values does it reflect?
  • what requires improvement, or what has been forgotten?

I think that in my previous blog posts I have made my thinking fairly clear. My attitude toward formal education is mixed. It combines a recognition of its necessity, a yearning for an increase in its vitality and pertinency and a deep disappointment in its relative inflexibility and in the many ways in which it falls flat on its implied promise to serve all learners well. While I do not blame all of my teachers or all of the administrators who shaped my experience in school, I do believe that the dominant paradigms and the entrenched systems that I encountered were, generally speaking, terrible models for learners like me. My experience of school was mostly uninspiring and largely ineffective, with some notable bright spots.

I have also commented at great length on what I see as the value and significance of self-directed education (click here for one good overview site) and increased learner autonomy. A large part of my own learning was accomplished outside of the formal processes of schooling. I might add that both constructivist and connectivist pedagogies, as I understand them, seem to undergird and valorize individual learning, which can be advanced and activated in collaboration with others. This conception of learning — broadly humanist, cognitive-science-informed, focused on meaningful connections and inflected by Deleuzian and Guattarian thinking and by theories like “transformational learning”  — is very different from the policies and approaches that dominated formal education from the 1960s through about a decade ago (whether primary, secondary and postsecondary). A great deal of change and potential for change have arisen since about 2009.

The most important factor, in my view, is our increased understanding of how human brains actually work during learning processes. I truly believe that cognitive science research and the more complex and dynamic models of learning that it has helped to generate will, ultimately, lead to a radically different, higher-quality, more effective and better-adapted set of teaching and learning practices. So… what is functional in American Higher Education today? First, it seems that — despite ongoing resistance among faculty members and administrators — we are increasingly willing to interrogate our teaching and learning practices. The American Association of Colleges and Universities, in particular, has led the way in reflecting on what works, on what is particularly effective and what is not. I am particularly encouraged by reflections on what AAC&U has identified and endorsed as “high-impact practices,” which engage students and seek to make connections between abstract learning, theoretical models, real-world experience and practical problems. We are displacing the long-dominant metaphor of the classroom as a space dominated by and focused on teachers, where students are lined up in rows to receive information in relatively passive ways.

In many ways “business as usual” has worked reasonably well for many students. They absorb knowledge, get a bit of practice, and manage to acquire and sharpen skills in a teacher-focused system. That’s the functional. What is valuable is that the very best, most disciplined students who are able to adapt to the system are able to succeed spectacularly well. Many of those students will proceed to graduate studies, then become teachers themselves, perpetuating the system that has worked “well enough” for a critical mass. That way of proceeding, with its discipline-focused prestige and tenure system, has produced some reasonably good teaching and some great research.

However, the forgotten is more vast still. What has been overshadowed, forgotten or suppressed in many ways are what, in my view, ought to be at the core of education: the intellectual thriving of all, the socio-intellectual development of humanity as a whole, the affirmation of broadly humanistic values; of ethics, particularly the ethics of thriving, sustainability; of connection and the affirmation of human communities; and respect for biodiversity. In many ways, the classroom metaphor, the very structure of schools qua factories of learning, is structured on top of a capitalist, productivist, consumerist system that is, in fact, dehumanizing and unsustainable. It treats some human beings very well (academic stars, the tenured) and others play the role of natural resources to be exploited in the extreme. Universities cajole academic labor out of them with “carrots” and “sticks” (as if they were beasts of burden or the constrained providers of muscle power to run machines). Or, by analogy with forests or mines, universities seek to extract high-value resources (teaching labor, expertise) from them, at minimal cost for maximum profit, then then, when the natural resource has been depleted, universities set aside the “human resource” as if they were dealing with waste or defective units or useless by-products to be dumped into rivers or landfills. Likewise, learners who fit the system might be reasonably well served, since they are easy-to-please consumers willing to pay a premium for what they are told is a good education. But those who do not fit the system — the learners whose mental processing does not align with the dominant modalities, the learners who don’t know how to advocate for themselves, the neuro-atypical — can fall to the wayside as defective products, rejected materials or exceptionally difficult consumers who are unwilling or unable to pay at the rate the education marketplace demands.

It’s time for us to rethink higher education from top to bottom, front to back, side to side and from heart to brain, muscle to lymphatic system.

How do we make education as a whole, particularly higher ed, human-friendly, truly engaging, life-affirming, effective for all learners, humanistic in the best sense of the word, and sustainable both economically and environmentally?


“Quality Education”: UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development, No. 4

[212 words]

Global Goal number four:

Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

The UN also offers a site of educational resources to help primary- and secondary-school teachers conduct lessons focusing on the UN Global Goals. Here is the page keyed to “quality education”:

The lofty goal is further teased out on the “world largest lesson” site:

What does Quality Education mean?

  • Ensure education for all, starting from basic education.
  • Provide more opportunities for technical and vocational training to youth and adults so they can get better jobs.
  • End inequality in educational opportunities between men and women, for children with disabilities, indigenous people and victims of conflict.
  • Improve school facilities to provide a safe and positive environment for everyone.
  • Increase the number of scholarships for vocational and technical training, either in a person’s home country or abroad.
  • Increase the number of trained and qualified teachers.
  • Promote education for sustainable development.

And, finally, here is a post by Claire Boonstra, a World Economic Forum “Young Leader,” Dutch entrepreneur, public speaker and founder of oe Operation Education, an NGO seeking to take a lead on education reform, based in the Netherlands.

All of this sounds wonderful. However… there remains a question:

How do we manage it by 2030?

Do We Just Fire All the Teachers?

[843 words]

Short answer: Absolutely not. We need teachers. We also need autonomous learning.

I have observed ambivalence in my successive enthusiasms and in my seemingly self-contradictory declarations in this blog and elsewhere. On the one hand, as a teacher, I am totally enthusiastic about teaching, pedagogy, learning theories, imagining new and better ways of promoting learning. I talk about what teachers need to do or think about to improve their work with learners. But then I also talk about how learners deserve autonomy and freedom to direct their own learning. I critique the ways in which many, if not most, educational systems and processes fail to align with how learners’ brains work, how many curricula fail to help learners thrive, and how teachers often fail to discern or provide the support and the opportunities that learners most need. My fluctuating attitudes seem to embrace incompatible sets of ideas and values. It makes me wonder about the intellectual soundness and good judgment of the person who continually flips between those broad points of view.

Clearly, as a teacher, I value my work with learners. I  believe that my skill and my labor doing so is of value to my institution of higher education and to learners enrolled there. Then I switch hats and find that as a learner, I value learner autonomy and believe that schools and curricula and teachers actually discourage  or impede learning in many cases or, at best, fall short of optimally supporting good, durable, resonant, meaningful learning. So… which one is it? Do I think that we need teachers, or not? Do I think that learners ought to have absolute freedom without undue interference from teachers and regulations, or not?

I am pretty sure that I’m not an intellectual hypocrite or the victim of cognitive dysfunction when I flip between these positions. What I mean is that my ideas about teaching and my ideas about learning are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They are more like positions along a continuum, with some distance between them, without being fully separated from each other. To put it another way… not only do I think that it is possible to have autonomous learning AND teachers, but I think that it is necessary. Indeed, I would say that it is unthinkable not to have teachers. So, just to be clear, even as I advocate for more autonomy for learners and for a full and proper place for self-directed learning across educational systems, I am not talking about “firing the teachers.”

I am talking about a radical change. In my emerging vision of education, many teachers will need to learn a very different way of proceeding. Institutions will be forced to rethink the ways in which they manage education, curricular rules, teachers and learners. And to be quite frank, I worry about whether or not it is possible to make a majority of these changes fully, in one fell swoop, on a large scale. I have my doubts about the feasibility of doing it across a single institution, much less across an entire citywide, region-wide or nationwide system. However, my very real concerns and doubts do not convince me that we ought to abandon the idea. Indeed, I think that it is worthwhile to try. In this, I am not alone.

There is, to borrow a theme from a recent conference at which I spoke, a certain urgency behind this questioning and this desire to rethink and to change how we approach teaching, learning and education. It has become increasingly clear to many that the metaphors and paradigms of majority-view Western European and American education are inefficient for learning in general and horrendously dysfunctional for many learners. Most of all, they are ill-adapted to the task of enacting the cultural and intellectual shifts that are needed in this time of crisis and transition, the Anthropocene.

Of course, if we think that everything is just great and that we ought to continue doing things exactly as we are — overexploiting natural resources, creating social and environmental catastrophes on a huge scale, blithely ignoring poverty, illiteracy, malnourishment, plastic-filled oceans and other extreme kinds of pollution, mass habitat destruction, mass extinction, deforestation, uncontrolled addiction in some communities, global warming, antibiotic-resistant microbes; or acknowledging but spectacularly failing to solve most problems in any sustainable way, continually building systems and social environments that leave the vast majority of human beings feeling dissatisfied, unfulfilled, sick, exploited or victimized (or all of the above) — then, by all means, we ought to stick with the educational systems and the modalities of thinking and doing that undergird Western industrial societies’ ways of doing things.

On the other hand, if we are going to address the underlying problems of the Anthropocene and create a society more in line with the possibility of sustainable thriving for the human race as a whole, we must change how we educate, how we learn and how we solve problems. Radically.

Teachers have an important role to play…

Even if it means that they must operate outside their comfort zone.

It’s important.




Reflections on Personalized Learning, Self-Directed Learning, and “Teaching”

[2524 words]

This entry extends my thinking about different forms of customized learning. I originally began articulating my ideas in an approximately 2000-word post in the eLearning Ecologies MOOC community update stream on Common Ground Scholar. (To read that post click the following title: “Teacher/Learner Agency and ‘Customized’ Learning”). The Scholar website comprises community pages (including my post) that are linked to a Coursera MOOC, e-Learning Ecologies. I am in the process of completing my work in the final module. (To earn a certificat for the course, we post four 300-word-minimum “updates” on concepts in the course, posted on either Coursera or Scholar and we must must peer-review similar posts by three other MOOC participants in each each of four units.) I chose to do all of my updates on Scholar because it’s a bit more flexible. I must also admit that was particularly enthusiastic about the idea of “community” on Scholar, although I can’t say that I’ve found it to be as vibrant or helpful as I had anticipated. There are a couple of folks with whom I’ve exchanged comments and agreed to connect as a “peer.” As it turns out, the “peer” status is, in fact, little more than facilitated communication through the website, and it does not provide a good mechanism for the connected co-creation of knowledge. At any rate, eLearning Ecologies is is definitely an xMOOC, not a cMOOC. To be expected, I guess.

At any rate, my Common Ground Scholar update (link above) is on the seventh of seven “affordances” that the teachers, Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis, lay out in the course. They say that these affordances are important for “e-Learning Ecologies” and that they will shape the future of education. The particular affordance that is the general subject of my post is “differentiated learning,” a term that I find to be somewhat problematic. It corresponds to a designation used in Special Education regarding students with particular cognitive or physical needs, for whom a teacher is obligated to devise a “personalized learning plan.” I understand that Cope and Kalantizis are using the term “differentiated” in a more abstract or general way, without specific regulatory implications. Their intention is to evoke an approach where learners are not all treated the same. However, by employing a label that has precise technical, legal and educational denotations, they obscure that general meaning.

That’s why, in my Scholar post, I speak in some detail to distinguish between four kinds of “customized learning.” (Differentiated learning is one of those terms; the others are adaptive learning, individualized learning and personalized learning. ) The idea that I end the Scholar update is personalized learning, which I then proceed to assimilate to self-directed learning and autonomous learning, as if those labels are approximately the same thing. While it is true that all of these terms suggest a degree of learner agency and a focus on addressing learners’ needs, there are nuances and distinctions to draw among personalized, self-directed and autonomous learning. This ISTE webpage is helpful for drawing some of those distinctions:  “Personalized vs. differentiated vs. individualized learning.”

As one thinks about personalized learning when grouped together with individualized and differentiated learning, what jumps out about those terms? It’s the adjective in the form of a past participle. That linguistic construction suggests the passivity of the learner. It’s like the passive voice, where the agent is not, grammatically speaking, the actor in the sentence. That is, it’s not tantamount to saying “the learner personalized his or her own learning.” Rather, it’s: “The learning was personalized.” By whom? We don’t know. Yet what seems abundantly clear is that the learner is not in a leading role. It is implied the the personalization was done by someone else for the learner. In this, it is analogous to “differentiated learning” and “individualized learning.” Who does the differentiating or the individualizing? In the case of the former, it is clearly the teacher who discerns and adapts instructional planning according to the needs of the learner. In the case of the latter, even if the learner has some control, particularly of pacing, she or he is not really striking out on a unique, individual, path that she or he decides on. The teacher (or corporations of teachers) will draw up the map and plot the navigational charts, determining the learning trajectory, including each and every stop along the way. For that matter, even the fourth form of learning  that I mentioned, adaptive learning, agency belongs largely to those who create the learning content (activities, tasks, tests, standards of assessment, etc.) and to those who create the algorithms that manage the adaptive system.

Now, it’s true that there are other ways of thinking about it, for example when personalized learning is part of, say, a personal learning environment (PLE) or similar setup. There, it is the learner who is largely in control of the learning pathways and modalities. Sure, some parameters and functionalities of the personal learning environment are determined by the institution that hosts and facilitates it. Yet, the learner can still choose which lines of research to pursue, which connections to make, which artifacts to display as a demonstration of learning. The learner chooses with whom to collaborate and how to communicate.

Despite the availability of a plethora of personalized tools and approaches, it seems to me that most formal learning in the early 21st century remains almost completely under the control of folks other than the learner. In one sense, such has always been the case, whether in the pedagogy of the Ancient World (tutors who guided the development of individual young men in families of a certain status) or Church-dominated schooling and university education in the late Middle Ages in Europe, which dictated a certain ordered curriculum for all souls in their care, or the nineteenth- and twentieth-century models of production-line education, ostensibly constructed following scientific principles to produce large-scale optimal efficacy in learning. In these earlier learning models, the learner — who is, after all, the one best suited to say whether or not the concepts and information being presented make sense or the skills acquired seem firmly seated and have “stuck” (to echo a recent book on learning) — is treated more as a passive consumer or as a creature to be shaped and conditioned by others than she or he is considered an active agent doing what makes sense to her or him.

Here, then, is why I think that self-directed learning or autonomous learning is a better option in general. First, it is obvious to me that when the learning is meaningful and relevant, it is more likely to be effective and have lasting impact. (A situation that stands in contrast to imposed, obligatory learning that has little direct relevance to the learner’s life and connects in no way with her or his interests.) We learn most effectively and enduringly by connecting new learning to what we already know. Most human beings learn best by allowing our curiosity to draw us into a dialogue of inquiry and investigation, where we explore or uncover new aspects of topics that we are to focus on, which we then investigate or figure out, in order to make them comprehensible and meaningful for ourselves. My credo: Intrinsic motivation is more effective than extrinsic motivation. Self-regulation is better and more effective than arbitrary standards and pressure from others. Enthusiastic engagement stimulates and supports exciting, resonant, durable, meaningful learning more effectively than do fear or anxiety or grades.

Secondly, I believe that learners have a certain insight, a certain wisdom, if you will, about what learning they need to do. A 20-year-old intending to enter into the digital job market is likely to have at least as good an insight into what skills are most important for her or him to develop as a 50-year-old teacher who may not fully understand the implications of the digital economy. At the very least, the real learning needs probably need to take into account the learner’s insights and perceptions and weigh them appropriately and consider them in context. Teachers ought to be guides and coaches who support learning, not drill instructors moving learners through a restrictive, pre-defined obstacle course. Forcing all learners to follow approximately the same trajectory, leading to the same exit ramp seems foolish.

This is even clearer when we have the honesty to admit that the curriculum, that obstacle course that learners must pass through, is generally developed and modified in a haphazard and, frankly, slapdash manner, pushed here by one discipline’s standards and twisted there by some trustee’s personal priorities. In most cases, this process happens without teachers, faculty (whether tenure-track or contingent), psychologists, theoreticians of education, politicians or anyone else actually talking to each other and committing to an overarching design that serves learners first and foremost. Curricula are thrown together in a kind of free-for-all jostle for influence and discipline-focused, obsessive-compulsive insistence on certain processes, canonical sets of knowledge content and bits and pieces of standards and criteria. It is very rare that major curricular elements, courses, graduation requirements, educational frameworks, or teaching philosophies take a long-term, learner-centered, holistic view of learning. Rather, faculty in different disciplines compete for resources and prestige, keeping one eye on their discipline (usually very narrowly defined) and the other on their power and influence in academic governance. In all honesty, this is not a dynamic that makes for optimal learning plans or platforms.

The outcome of the crashing and grinding of these pressures, these tidal movements, all enacted by right-thinking, well-intentioned folks, leads to a mishmash that sometimes works for learners, sometimes motivates and transforms learners, but more often does not. Sometimes they produce life-sustaining toolkits, but more often they do not. Sometimes, they promote real engagement with the real world, with high levels of critical thinking and solution-producing skills. Mostly, though, it’s a muddle that serves a small number of learners very well. I submit to my fellow faculty and fellow teachers that we ought to be more focused on learners’ need for self-determination and self-fashioning than on our own need to affirm our authority or to control the classroom, the curriculum, or the Academy. After all, many teachers’ only real authority is based on disciplinary competence, but not on a deep and committed understanding of the complex process of learning. Teachers teach. They don’t necessarily foster learning. On the other hand, learners need help developing their learning. They need support, succor, encouragement, guidance. But not diktats.

The simple fact of the matter is that we cannot force learning. Whether we are aware of the fact or not, whether we admit it or not, we can’t really teach students. At most, we can inspire learners to follow the learning paths that we propose, to do the activities that we organize, to engage with the ideas, theories, values, frameworks and information that we present. In the end, though, it is the students who do the cognitive work of learning, of knowledge creation, of skills practice. Most of the ones who teach — including me — are not better equipped than our students to manage, assess or quantify their deep and durable learning. Most of us don’t know how learning, memory, or cognitive processing works. We don’t really understand what learning means to our students or what it feels like to the individuals we teach. Heck, most of us can’t even offer them very good advice for overcoming learning challenges. And since in the real cognitive work of learning, learners must forge meaningful connections for themselves, “teaching” is little more than the context in which our students do their cognitive work. If we are honest, we will recognize that our classroom context, our performance as teachers,  is far from optimal for supporting resonant, meaningful, deep-seated and durable learning. We can’t do the cognitive work for them, so why do we put ourselves in the driver’s seat and tell our passengers to shut up and enjoy the ride, whether it makes sense to them or not, whether it proves useful to them or not, whether it takes them along a road they want or need to explore or not, whether it seems worthwhile and interesting to them or not?

I acknowledge that education (whether primary, secondary or, in my case, postsecondary) is not only about personalized learning or self-directed learning. I know that there are other values that must enter into the process, including economic utility, disciplinary standards of truth-finding and truth-telling, specific skillsets for certain kinds of endeavors, and a contribution to the broad social good. I know that nation-states and potential employers have needs that must be met. I recognize that institutions have a moral obligation to obey laws, to follow rules and to heed the advice of state or federal departments of education, accrediting agencies and so forth. But the simple fact of the matter that all of those layers of obligation and rules, institutional imperatives and prescribed processes… are far removed and, in many cases, unconcerned about what ought to be at the center of the enterprise: learning. When we talk about assessment, are we truly thinking first and foremost about how meaningful and impactful learning is for students? When we devise general education requirements and lists of courses required for completing a particular major, are we really thinking about helping students engage in the process of knowledge creation? Are we truly, in our heart of hearts, motivated by a desire to create a love of learning, a desire to inquire, investigate and critique? When we talk about “promoting critical thinking,” do we really know what we are talking about? Are we truly willing to allow learners to exercise their critical judgments? Do we take seriously their questioning of our authority to dictate curricula?

I think that we (teachers at my own and other universities, scholars who lecture in the classroom and grade students, teachers in high schools, members of boards of education, the Secretary of Education and the plethora of undersecretaries) …we have a long way to go before we can honestly say that “learning” is at the heart of what we do. Whatever our rhetoric or our marketing message, most of us truly do not taken the autonomy and the intellectual merit of learners seriously. We believe that we are more qualified than they are to judge the effectiveness and the value of their learning, when it’s just untrue. Yes, we are qualified as disciplinary specialists. We are qualified as organizers and presenters of information. We are highly qualified as experts who can create testing artifacts that give us a sense of control over the learning experience. But are we truly, sincerely, honestly and effectively focused on learning per se? Not so much. If we were, we would give learners a hell of a lot more say in their own learning. We’d figure how to be truly effective as the “guide on the side,” supporting learners, advising them, and guiding them. But lecturing? Meh. Giving short-answer or multiple-choice or essay tests based on what *we* think they should know? Bof. That’s not learning. That’s “teaching.”

I simply don’t want to “teach” any more.


The Cognitive Underpinnings of Active Multimodal Learning

[approximately 1750 Words]

This is a somewhat atypical blog post, although it does follow an oft-repeated pattern. To wit, my being inspired by an assigned task in (yet another!) MOOC that I’m taking. The course in question is “e-Learning Ecologies: Innovative Approaches to Teaching and Learning for the Digital Age,” taught by William (Bill) Cope and Mary Kalantzis, of U of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. It is atypical in the sense that I’m not just musing or thinking through the issue posed. Instead, I’m taking a position, making an argument. So… what I’m going to say here amounts to an evidence-based reaffirmation of some of the propositions that Cope and Kalantzis set forth in the course and elsewhere, specifically, their insistence on the importance and the real value of multimodal learning. In what follows, I’ll talk a bit about multimodality per se, then talk about a cognitive-science-informed understanding of learning, with arguments and evidence in favor of active multimodal learning. Finally, I’ll offer links to additional information and perspectives, research and websites. In short, I will argue that using multiple modes during active learning is more effective than limiting modalities during the learning process. NB: The following is an revised/adapted version of the post that I made to the Common Ground Scholar site that is associated with the MOOC. The original post may be seen here:


One of the first things that one notices on investigating the notions of multimodality or multimodal learning is that there is a plethora of groupings of “modalities.” For Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis (e-Learning Ecologies MOOC, week 2, second video, affordance 3B,, there are six (or seven) modalities facilitated by digital learning: textual, spoken, sound, visual, tactile/spatial and gestural. For others, though, the modalities that enter into learning can vary. For the folks behind the VARK packaging of pedagogy and “learning styles”, there are four modalities (visual, auditory, read/write and kinesthetic). For Kate O’Halloran, in this scholarly article on “multimodal discourse analysis”, the modes are essentially textual and visual. In this other discussion of the application of Michael Halliday’s Systemic Functional theory of language to multimodality, the range is somewhat broader, since it mentions language (presumably both spoken and written), gesture, proxemics, image, and layout. In a writing textbook that purports to guide students toward effectively expressing themselves multimodally, the authors lay out exactly five “modes of communication”: visual, aural, linguistic, spatial and gestural (Arola, Ball and Sheppard 2014, 4), even though the book itself focuses primarily on writing combined with visual elements (image, layout). Different lines of research in psychology or linguistics point toward yet other sets of modalities, like this lab focusing on “multimodal language” (which includes both gestures and sign language), or this paper, which summarizes research on “Cognition, multimodal interaction and new media,” including gestures, gazing, interpreting visual cues, forming mental images, writing, and so forth. In short, there are a number of different ways of define the sensory channels, dimensions of meaning or genres of expression that the term “multimodal” refers to. In short, a “mode” amounts to any socially recognized channel through which meaning can be expressed or interpreted. Multimodality, then, is any combination of two or more distinct channels of communication.

Learning, from a Cognitive Science Perspective

What we are beginning to learn, as we explore the functioning of the brain using increasingly precise tools and techniques, like the functional magnetic resonance imaging (or fMRI), is that the dynamic human brain is extremely complex. Many distinct neural circuits are implicated in a complex and coordinated way to perform what seem like simple or unitary functions. Reading, for example, seems like it is just one kind of cognitive activity. However, it involves a multitude of interconnecting functions that use different neural circuits, including those that transmit stimuli to the brain, that transform such input into perception of marks on the page, that recognize the patterns of marks as meaningful, that assign particular meanings to particular sets of marks (words, sentences, paragraphs, punctuation, blank spaces), and still other circuits that then juggle a multiplicity of meanings to form a coherent internalized version of the intended or presumed message, and still other neural pathways and brain structures function in complex ways to connect that interpretation to other textual or paratextual messages, and/or to previous learning and/or to current understandings and perceptions of the world. Reading, in and of itself, is a highly complex and multimodal activity. So are activities like conversing with a fellow student, viewing a video, listening to a song, drawing, laughing, navigating a crowded street, or simply walking, etc. Our brain constantly manages — and harmonizes — a multitude of neural modalities: sensory inputs, channels of perception, interpretation, emotion, volition and action. And we are able to manage all of these complex neuro-somatic activities, which we do continuously, because we do them largely without thinking about it. The brain is working hard, constantly and automatically, just to sustain life, bodily functioning, cognition and consciousness.

When it comes to learning, what we mean by “multimodality” is a bit different from what I called neural modalities. In learning, the “modes” of meaning or modes of communication are the complex groupings of cognitive functions that our brain can do while on autopilot. Generally speaking, we do not have to consciously recall a large set of rules about writing before we mark symbols or words on a page or begin typing at a keyboard. We do not need to consciously recall all of the rules of long narrative genres as we navigate from sentence to sentence or paragraph to paragraph in Pride and Prejudice or Gravity’s Rainbow. Much of the intellectual work that we do as thinkers, writers or learners draws on our previous learning, our previous training and our previous habitual conditioning. In short, we depend on what have become ingrained patterns of behavior or knowledge.

On the other hand, new learning is the setting up and reinforcing of a new neural pattern. It is the creation of a novel set of interrelated brain processes that trace preliminary synaptic connections. For learning to be effective in the long term, those connections must be reinforced until they “stick.” That is, the new learning must initially take place largely outside of “autopilot mode” and must be consciously rehearsed. Indeed, as it turns out, one of the conditions that makes for effective long-term learning is a high level of cognitive effort, or to put it another way, learning in a way that requires struggle. The more conscious effort we put into the process of inscribing the new neural patterns of our learning, the more likely it is that such learning will remain retrievable to our conscious mind. This is one of the fundamental ideas in Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Brown, Roedinger & McDaniel 2014). Now, one way to make new learning — and the subsequent rehearsal of what we have learned — far more challenging is to disrupt the “autopilot” pattern (easy-to-use, unconscious single communication modalities) when we approach new material, when we seek to comprehend or master it, then note, recap, recall and explain what we have learned. By using multiple modalities during new learning, during rehearsal of that learning and during production of artifacts based on new learning, one does two things. First, one makes the processes involved in learning (and reinforcing and recalling learning) more cognitively challenging because it forces the brain to juggle or switch among modalities. Second, it adds robustness to the retrieval of of new learning because that new pattern is inscribed in the brain in multiple interconnected but slightly different ways. Rehearsing what one has learned via one of the modalities helps support and reinforce its recall via other modalities. That is, using multiple modalities can mutually reinforce and strengthen multiple paths for retrieving what was learned. To be clear, there is significant evidence in cognitive scientists’ emerging views of learning that support the use of multiple modalities in learning.

(Side Note about “Learning Styles”)

Much has been made in the past of so-called “learning styles.” Cognitive science research does not support this framework for learning because there is no evidence to suggest that it is effective to customize learning activities or modalities to fit a particular student’s ostensible “learning style”. While it is true that some students may have a preference for hearing information and others for reading it, research strongly suggests that, absent particular disabilities or neurocognitive anomalies, students can learn equally well using a variety of modalities. Rather than focusing on a single learning modality in the case of any particular student, it is better to encourage use of a variety of modalities, preferably in multimodal ways, to increase cognitive load and to necessitate greater care and attention in attending to the learning tasks. What is more, learning is more effective when learning and recall are meaningful. For that reason, I would suggest, first, that it is appropriate to allow students to choose their own — meaningful — modalities for learning, for memory reinforcement and for communication of learning and, second, that multimodal learning practices are effective in ways that mono-modal learning-style-focused learning practices are not (see Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014, particularly chapter 6, “Get Beyond Learning Styles”).

Multimodal Learning (theory, sources, research, further reading)

All of this is intended primarily to offer support for Cope’s and Kalantzis’ model that focuses on the virtues of multimodal learning, while adding some nuance to the notion, drawing on my own (admittedly sketchy) understanding of cognitive science perspectives on learning. I also note that many other learning theorists and education visionaries have their own takes on multimodal learning. Here, I’ll add some links to a few additional resources:

Click the following link for an explanation of “multimodal literacy” on a WordPress site for the “Multimodal Literacy Learning Community” created by Victor Lim Fei, Deputy Director, Technologies for Learning, Educational Technology Division, Ministry of Education, Singapore:

A 2007 paper on computer-mediated multimodality in the classroom:

An entry on Guenther Kress, another proponent of taking multimodalities into account in pedagogy and learning theories:

A downloadable dissertation by Kevin R. Cassell, “A Phenomenology of Mimetic Learning and Multimodal Cognition” (2014):

A recent workshop position paper by Anne Marie Piper about the pedagogical affordances of multimodal tabletop displays: interfaces workshop_ampiper.pdf

And, finally, of course, the wiki page on “multimodality”:

My apologies for the length of this update. I guess my cognitive enthusiasm was more powerful than my sense of proportion and restraint! -Robert


Arola, Kristin L., Ball, Cheryl E., & Sheppard, Jennifer. (2014). Writer/Designer: A Guide to Making Multimodal Projects. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Brown, Peter C., Roediger, Henry L., & McDaniel, Mark A. (2014). Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Boston, MA: Belknap Press.

Education for competence, creativity, autonomy, thriving

[1031 words]

Again, this entry is a reflection for “What Future for Education?” in response to the following prompts:

  • In an ideal world, how do you think education should be organised?

  • What priorities do you think it should reflect? and who should be responsible for ensuring that it is of a good quality?

  • Is there anything from the padlet wall that has informed your position?

While I recognize the need of nations, governments and societies to pay attention to the prerogatives of the modern nation-state and while I know that education is one of the important parameters for developing a proper, well-informed, functional citizenry, I also believe that it is now time to focus on other objectives in education. Indeed, for decades now we have needed to shift fundamental models of learning. Some elements certainly need to remain. I generally agree, for example, that a measure of civic education is necessary. All citizens and resident aliens ought to understand (and, in general, subscribe to) the fundamental values and modalities of a society. It is productive and contributes to the common good to assure that everyone has a minimal level of certain competencies: literacy, numeracy, a grasp of basic ideas, information and functional principles of modern science, an understanding of the nation’s history, and so forth. (One can argue about just which competencies and understandings are necessary.)

However, there are two fundamental objectives nation-states’ development of education in the 19th century and that have been maintained throughout the 20th, objectives that I believe need to be discarded outright. First, is the somewhat underhanded intention of making citizens docile and easy to control. This objective is part of a nineteenth-century paternalistic and colonialist worldview, that ought no longer have currency. It is inappropriate and morally wrong. Indeed, education ought to teach citizens to be discerning, to be critical, to be skeptical, to ask probing questions and to press governments and authorities to be responsible and to work for the greater good. Citizens ought to have a grounding in how to demand transparency and accountability. Citizens ought to be taught to detect, to critique and reject (I’m echoing Harry G. Frankfurt here) bullshit claims. With a greater resistance to bullshit, to extreme bias, to deliberately propagated falsehoods, a democratic society or a nation is less susceptible to manipulation by ideologies or demagogues or extremist populist movements. Secondly, education ought NEVER to have as its primary goal the mass production of obedient workers. Yes, compulsory education ought to prepare everyone to do useful work. But it ought not to be aimed almost exclusively at stimulating economic production by preparing young persons to be mere cogs in an economic machine.

In an ideal world, I think that primary and secondary education ought to be about helping each person thrive, initially by developing fundamental competencies, but also by uncovering or discerning one’s capabilities, one’s capacities and propensities. It ought to be, in part, about self-actualization. It ought to be about developing creativity and critical thinking. It ought to be about engaging in an enthusiastic investigation of the world, learning how to use a variety of tools to learn, to explore, to detect and address problems, to develop solutions, to make meaning for oneself, to master oneself, to develop to one’s fullest potential. And for that reason, I believe that secondary and post-secondary education probably ought to be largely self-directed. Not in the sense of simply doing whatever one wants, but in the sense that each student will have a significant hand in planning her or his own education, deciding on what research or which investigations to pursue, which skills to hone, which problems to address, which questions to pose. By the final phases of secondary education, teachers will no longer be “the teacher” standing in front of a classroom, talking. Rather, they will be mentors, guides and models. They will support students by advising and encouraging them, by helping them to frame and pursue their own learning projects, standing ready to aid students who need further assistance or additional guidance. And for that, we need to rethink teacher education, so that teachers themselves are more polyvalent, interdisciplinary, autonomous and well prepared to mentor and, most of all, so that they are able and willing to co-investigate and co-learn in collaboration with students.

I truly believe that a move in the direction of promoting self-actualization and self-directed learning will make education more effective, more durable, more meaningful, with greater impact and it will, over the long term, contribute more effectively to the general good of a society than either market-oriented and job-focused education or expedient forms of education that look more like indoctrination into neoliberal consumerism (or other political philosophy), or a other way of “zombifying” children and making them less critical, less engaged, more compliant and less intellectually independent. In an ideal world, all educational systems ought to start with fundamental competencies (literacy, math, civic understanding, and so forth), move through teaching good collaboration and communication skills and end with autonomy, critical engagement, self-actualization, creativity and student engagement in the world beyond the classroom. Digital technologies and other technical infrastructures make these possibilities feasible in the 21st century. So, please, let’s leave the 19th century behind. We can develop a model of education that retains some elements of the past, starting with competencies and skills that are useful for taking part in meaningful work and social life, but let’s not end there. Let’s develop educational frameworks, structures and processes that culminate in critical thinking, self-understanding, self-actualization, expansive views of the world and learner autonomy. Let’s educate for the 21st century now, rather than in a century or two.

Finally, I note that there is no single Padlet entry that had a particularly strong influence on my thinking, except maybe one entry that referred to a Washington Post article by Valerie Strauss, “Why Pragmatic Liberal Education Matters Now More than Ever.” What most contributed to the thinking in this entry is my own experience of learning, further shaped by Stephen Ball’s comments in MOOC videos, in a lecture on YouTube, and in his book, Global Education, Inc., along with a TED Talk by Pasi Sahlberg, “GERMs that kills schools.”