To Create, To Design

A video and education reform’s 100 year failure

A timely video inspired by Michael Wesch came across my desk today and it comes at an interesting time in my thinking on education. The Future of Ed Reform? weaves a very short yet potent story about the realities so many of us face who seek to radically change the structure of education from “places of schooling” to “places of learning”.

I have written about critical education in many posts and realize that most of my ideation, design and praxis towards democratic education has met with the realities of institutions, schooling an societal structures around education and official knowledge. I would like to say I met these challenges and take the path I do now, knowing I stand on the shoulders of progressives and a hundred years of work from John Dewey, L. Thomas Hopkins et al., and their contemporaries James Beane, Micheal Apple, Deb Meir and so many others who are in the field not writing prolifically but fostering experiences and learning.

The Future of Ed Reform begs questions of reform and stasis in education. “If so many years of reform, (including some almost 100 years old that espouse the same reform we are seeking in education today) have failed why do we think it will work….this time.” A good question and one I had with a visionary leader and progressive educator in the field just yesterday: More on this in future posts.

The author of Future of Ed Reform is right to question these new “reforms” and their ability to succeed. The authors points at “the revolution failed” are right. The use of Dewey as an example is illustrative of the issues here. Dewey, Francis Parker, L. Thomas Hopkins et al. faced a backlash from an American society bent on order and standardization. Though their reform was brilliant and on the mark in many ways, school in the 20th century was an institution based on order and control just as it is today. Today as in the 20th century, linear schedules, corporate curricula, and the extra-curricularization of energy and interests still combine to hold firm what has been at the expense of what is. The School structure and its meanings are the issues of today just as they where a century ago.

Dewey did call for a revolution from schooling to learning, and espoused among so many brilliant ideas a call for deschooling on the grounds that control and order do little for learning. Dewey (1938) reflects,

Almost everyone has had occasion to look back upon his [and her] school days and wonder what has become of the knowledge he was supposed to have amassed during his [and her] years of schooling….but it was so segregated when it was acquired and hence is so disconnected from the rest of experience that it is not available under the actual conditions of life. (p.48)

We must reflect presently on the “reform” engines of today motoring throughschools and quietly accepting the structures imposed in what amounts to seeing learners and their communities as commodities and economies of scale, versus dynamic realities of human possibility. The author of The Future of Ed Reform? is calling out the realities of societal structures and the school not the reform which may have similarity to our 100 year past.

To Create, To Design

It is no mystery to many that I favor the design of new learning Ecologies that leverage much of what Dewey espoused and practiced in the fields of experiential and democratic education. I have also focused my work on the networking of blended learning ecologies. A combination of Illich’s learning webs, the mesh ideas of OLPC and my roots in experiential and mobile learning in the big outside. This design like so many is at risk when placed against the onslaught of stasis in education. No Softballs here, we have heard them in detail. Yet I find myself asking are we ready for a networked learning ecology? Is society? What will it take?

So anthropologists, critical educators, deschoolers, unschoolers, reformers, what will make your vision work? Are you part of a revolution? If so why, and will that revolution be enough force to break the dam of traditional control and order schooling to create or recreate places of learning for society? I am interested in hearing your voice and working with you.


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  1. Thomas; You bring up many issues, but I'll speak to 3 where I've had some experience and thoughtfulness. Please don't take this as an attempt to rain on your parade. I too would like to seek new ecologies and better understand the ones I see in formation.
    1. I've always taken issue with critical educators and reconstructionists in general when it comes to politics. I'm a great supported of education's role in supporting political reform, but I've found it personally frustrating as a teacher when education attempts to lead or inspire political reform.
    2. There is very little standardization in educational practice. It is found in control structures like curriculums and assessments and I do believe there it is there to seek control in an obsessive way. There are places where standardized practice could help each teacher not have to continually re-invent the wheel in activities where standardization makes sense. I believe every educational activity could be placed somewhere on a continuum with standardization on one side and individualization on the other. I consider standardization a tool that is only appropriate for some circumstances.
    3. Regarding the quote from Dewey; I believe that content is not fully understood until it is embedded in activity and then it takes on the character of that activity. That is, the knowledge you memorized in preparation for recall on a test is not the same knowledge you'll need to do things in real life. It will take substantial contextual adaptation, or internalization as appropriation as James V. Wertsch puts it in "Mind in Action. (Another anthropologist / educator) I think Vygotsky understood this better than Dewey. The task for us is to update Vygotsky. He lived in a world that was comfortable thinking about learning processes in a teacher / student diode, where today we're more inclined to see learning as a networked and ever evolving process.

  2. Thank you for the response, Howard. Your link to Wertsch is instructive. I will dig into Mind in Action as I have only given it a glance. As for standardization, power and politics I have seen as a teacher the damage curriculum and assessment can do. The nexus between curriculum/assessment and praxis seen in all but the most progressive schools is political in my estimation. Michael Apple (professor and k-12 teacher) summed this up well in Ideology and Curriculum. New York: Routledge, 1990 and Education and Power. New York: Routledge, 1995 along with Ivan Illich Deschooling Society (1970), Bowles and Gintis Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life. New York: Basic, 1976. I do not see education as a diode but a network of emerging ideas, abilities, failures, and connection–to people, places, and more. My students teach me as much as I teach them, and the community, and a network of experiences teach us all constantly. The barrier to this learning in my experience has always been with the structure of the school which are well ingrained in a politic of stasis and lack of flow. Dewey, Vygotsky, Papert et al. taken, our ability to see beyond structures and the standardization of movements, times, and spaces in learning are not being widely addressed or adopted.

  3. Hey Thomas;
    I guess my take on ideas that grow our of critical pedagogy (like many other Marxist based schools) is that their analysis is true, but where do u go next. Organizing and revolution with a Marxist bent; I just haven't seen a good example where resistance has worked toward a good outcome in economic or political circumstances. Now I believe Schumpterian creative distruction is rampant and many capitalist strongholds are falling without work resistance. Assembly line models of control aren't serving anyone's purpose anymore and change is in the air. New efforts of control will be attempted and political work is needed. Here is one example: I just want to see that in political contexts like what is happening in Egypt, not through subversive educational and Marxist contexts.
    Institutional change is needed in education to serve the students and society. I'm in favor of focusing on people like Dewey and Vygotsky, who focused primarily on education not politics, which I see as the primary focus of critical pedagogy. Vygotsky's life goal was to create a Marxist psychology for education, but his work was banned because it focused on serving the needs of individual students in their context. It didn't fit Stalinist politics (Seems he dared to reference western authors like Piaget).
    I do respect your views and I'm welcome to any insights that might help me to return from my abandonment of critical pedagogy. Note – most of my views of critical pedagogy are based on Henry Giroux, Peter McLaren and Paulo Freire. I'm less versed on Apple's work

  4. Howard, sorry it took so long to respond. Your points at "their analysis is true, but where do u go next." are my focus. I am interested in helping networks flow and in co-designing a learning ecology that can serve as a catalyst for more nodes in network. The process of de-schooling is an important one. If we do not read think and deliberate on critical education, I feel we are all stuck in an education without praxis. In my estimation all design starts with theory and social imagination….These are social constructs and "political" at times. Apple and Illich (who I would suggest…..) are both theoretician and practitioner. How Network Learning, connectivism, critical praxis and design can inspire, uplift, and liberate human imagination is of much interest to a growing network of learners. I would like to see, find and connect to more thinking this way…. CC: CCK11

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