Sean Connery, in his thoughtful memoir Being A Scot, tells the story of finding himself on a plane seated next to a compatriot, a young woman. Talking to her, he found that she was a literature student at the University of Edinburgh, and that she was currently studying Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
“Do you see any parallels between Roskolnikov, in the Dostoevsky novel, and the character of Robert Wingham, in James Hogg’s Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner?” he asked her.
“Oh, I haven’t read that,” said she, “I’m in the English Literature Department, not the Scottish.” Connery was bemused, but presumably did not bother to ask why, given her odd perspective, she was studying a novel originally written in Russian.
Connery had left school at 13 with little to show for his eight years in Scottish education other than an ability to read. But early in his acting career, a fellow-thespian had suggested a list of books that the young Connery ought to read, and he had subsequently embarked on his own education in fine literature. His young travelling companion, on the other hand, had successfully completed seven years of primary schooling, five or six years of secondary schooling, and by the time Connery met her at least a year or two at university. So what was the difference between the famous actor with his paucity of formal schooling and the literature student with a decade and a half of institutional education behind her?
In the literature student, I believe that we can see something of the schooled mind at work, in this case someone for whom the books she read were prescribed by others and for whom reading was largely a means to an end. In Connery, a lover of literature, we can see the independent mind of someone who has taken control of his own learning, someone for whom reading was a pleasure in itself, and nothing to do with passing examinations or gaining qualifications.
It is interesting to ponder the differences between the truly autonomous learner and the schooled mind, to explore the nature of learning in an age where, although the opportunities for self-directed learning are expanding immensely as the tendrils of the Internet extend into every facet of our lives, the enduring institutions of the school and the college and the university (all of which I am happy to refer to collectively and conceptually as ‘the school’) remain stubbornly tenacious. This durable social construct, one that has been shaped and adapted continuously throughout history to suit the needs of time and place and wealth and power, has allowed the myriad social, political and religious entities that have sustained it, and that continue to sustain it, to retain an often insidious and reductive grip on the minds of those who pass through their hands. And, despite that constant refrain of ‘the school is dead’ that we have heard in different times and in different places, the school is arguably stronger in some ways today than it has ever been.
Of course, the tale of Sean Connery and the young literature student raises more questions than answers: the gulf between the autonomous learner and the schooled mind is rarely identifiable as a simple dichotomy between the free spirit and the captive will. The reality for most of us is that we find ourselves, throughout our lives, shifting back and forth along a continuum somewhere between the two extremes, although we night hope that, as we grow older, we become more aware of the dangers of the schooled mind, and therefore develop a greater capacity to break free of the constraints placed on us by the school in our early years. Connery’s self-taught love of literature was perhaps not entirely free of instrumental intentions: as an actor, he recognized that an appreciation of literature would be useful to him in his career, but it was his own recognition, not one suggested by others or imposed from without. Equally, the young woman, we hope, would have taken up her course in English Literature because of a love of reading. But between those two routes into books, and most certainly in the student’s response to Connery’s question, there lies a discernible difference between the approach that each had previously taken to their mutual love of literature. Connery, consciously or otherwise, had discovered that there is a higher and deeper and wider significance to learning than can be gleaned from submitting to the strictures of the classroom. The young woman had allowed herself to be persuaded that, like the overwhelming majority of ‘educated’ people, she had little choice but to accept those strictures as seemingly the only available path to an education in the discipline that she enjoyed.
The road taken by Connery was one that led not only to a knowledge of fine literature but also, I would contend, to a greater chance for attaining a degree of self-knowledge that, if not actually denied by school, has rarely if ever been an explicit aim of schooling. The school, historically, has not actively encouraged independence of thought, nor has it cultivated the truly spontaneous or creative mind. We develop such traits despite school not because of it. School is fundamentally about training the mind, developing the intellect (as opposed to intelligence), passing on the knowledge deemed important by a society to those whose role it will be to perpetuate and preserve that society at all levels. As such, the school continues what already is and what has been; its function, whatever the rhetoric, is essentially backwards looking, seeking to maintain the structures and relationships from the past and present on into the future with minimal change.
But given the ubiquity of the school, we cannot simply equate the schooled mind with attendance at school. To do so would be ludicrous. If the schooled mind were to be identified merely by dint of someone having attended school there would no chance of escape from the condition for most of us. But schooling does imbue the student, the scholar, with certain characteristics that the learner has to find the means to overcome either while at school, or more likely once schooling is complete.
I will come back to what that schooled mind is all about, why we must not be content with the intellectual framework that school bestows on us, and how critical it is that we are able to overcome at least the most deleterious and pernicious aspects of the school’s legacy on our own development as rational, free-thinking human beings.
Evgeny Morozov dismantles the lazy thinking and the fundamentally anti-progressive notions outlined in Gavin Newsom’s recent book: Citizenville:How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government [bad book, so no link!]. California’s lieutenant governor is taken apart in an article in Bookforum.
[It is his] lack of any basic curiosity about the technological solutions that he advocates—and especially about their unintended consequences—that makes Newsom’s account so suspect. Public institutions such as the BBC might be terribly inefficient and scandal prone, but they still do a better—and more systematic—job at rooting out corruption than Newsom’s citizen-hackers armed with databases and sophisticated visualization tools.
I don’t agree with everything Morozov writes (his Net Delusion described some critical blind spots in our understanding of the Net today — delusion was too strong a word, but I suppose it helped to sell the book) but this piece gets it spot on with respect to Newsom’s Ayn Rand-induced, hacker-worshipping, anti-democratic nonsense.
Most of all, Morozov exposes the fundamentally conservative and regressive philosophy that so many thoughtless, slow-minded and mantra-spouting lovers of technology-for-its-own-sake mistake for creativity, ‘thinking different’ and enlightenment.
There is a conspicuous and abiding fallacy residing at the heart of formal education, namely that what is taught is what is learned, that what the teacher teaches is what the student learns. Education systems, schools, college and universities around the world today rest, as they have done for much of their existences, on an illusory foundation, and I believe that much of what is wrong with formal education today arises from this enduring and mistaken belief.
When we come to the full realisation of the actual relationship between teaching and learning, we begin to discern the sheer pointlessness of so much of what passes for educational policy and strategy in today’s world. We know that human beings learn through interaction with others, with ideas, with information, with the world at large, but that ultimately they create and shape their own learning. The intervention of the teacher in this process is important and valuable, but at no point in the interaction of teacher and student, other than by occasional happy accident, does the learner ‘learn’ what the teacher ‘teaches’.
An appreciation of this, the true nature of learning, means that the complex edifices of curricula, pedagogy, assessment, accreditation, teacher education and professional development, as well as the overbearing structures of institutional management and educational organization, start to crumble to dust before our eyes.
I don’t believe for a moment in technological determinism. I believe any technology can be used benignly and malignantly. You can use a pen to write beautiful poetry. You can also use a pen to poke peoples’ eyes out.
Gardner doesn’t ‘believe’ in technological determinism, in the same way that someone might choose not to believe in a deity or the existence of Santa Claus. Fair enough. However, the example he gives to support his unbelief is not only misleadingly simplistic but also specious. A pen used to poke an eye out is not being used as a pen and is therefore not a pen at that moment in time. It is merely a pointy stick. If he had said that the same pen can be used to write beautiful poetry and also to sign the death warrant of an innocent person, his argument would have been a little more cogent, but still only within the somewhat narrow limits to which he chooses to restrict his notion of technological determinism. We expect better from a Harvard professor.
This much we can agree on: technology is only technology when it is being put to use. Otherwise, it is merely passive artefact. At the level of the instrument (such as the pen), technology can be used for good or ill. But that is not a condition unique to technology; it can be posited for virtually every product of the human hand or mind. Richard Feynman put it succinctly when he quoted a buddhist proverb:
To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven. The same key opens the gates of hell.
I made that point in a post back in 2006 when I compared certain characteristics shared by education and technology: they are both instruments that can be put to good and bad uses; they are both instruments that can be truly transformative or deeply destructive. Given those shared attributes, I used that post to appeal for care in how we choose to bring about their conjunction. But these are attributes that bear no relation to whether or not technology is deterministic; hence the problem with Gardner’s position.
If we want to see how truly deterministic technology can be, and is, we must elevate our point of view so that we can see beyond the individual instrument and allow ourselves to comprehend the broad vista of the technology landscape within which that single instrument is utilised. Whether a pen can write beautiful poetry or consign a person to their death really tells us nothing about how, at a much broader level, systemic shifts in the underlying nature of technology undoubtedly do influence societal interactions and, quite simply, how we do certain things, amongst them, education. To try to pretend, for instance, as Gardner must inevitably do with his ‘unbelief’ in technological determinism, that the way we learn — or for that matter, the way we teach — can remain the same in the digital era as it has been for centuries of print is just naive.
The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.
The digital era — the computer, the network, the Internet, the Web, social technology, universal search, and so much more — changes radically all of the relationships that are critical to how we learn and how we teach: the relationship between teacher and learner; the relationship between the learner and information; the relationship we all have with the concept of learned authority; and the social relationships between ourselves and the rest of the human race. It is of course a hugely complex process of determination, with nuance layered on nuance, but it is undoubtedly true that broad global shifts in technology, such as that between print and digital, determine how learning can happen and therefore should (and inevitably will) determine what it means to teach.
A letter in today’s Observer about George Osborne’s financial competence caught my eye — the letter was in response to an article by Will Hutton in which he had assumed that Osborne really is seeking to remedy financial inequality in the country but he just doesn’t have the economic competence to make it happen. The sentiment in the letter resonated with my own thoughts, not just about Osborne, but about the whole Tory endeavour in Government at the moment, and especially about Michael Gove’s assault on schooling in England. Of Osborne, Graham Aspinall, of Sheffield, wrote:
To credit Osborne merely with economic illiteracy, as Hutton and Blanchflower et al do, is too charitable. He is a shrewd ideologue and strategist. It’s not that he doesn’t understand the ruin he is inflicting on families. He knows what he’s doing; he just doesn’t care. Osborne is not an economic illiterate; he’s worse – a moral illiterate.
I agree. And deep at the heart of this rightwing government is a clever, seemingly-complex (but really not), unfailingly polite, well-read and media-savvy ideologue who just happens to be in charge of education, apparently by his own choice. At least in Scotland we have only to contend with an egotistical incompetent as education secretary; English state schooling, on the other hand, is now being systematically undermined and dismantled by a man who thinks that his own life tale, that of someone from humble beginnings made good by a rigorous schooling of a tradtional kind, is the model that must serve everyone.
But that is only part of what Gove is about. Gove, like many of his rightwing friends in this Government and beyond, accept wholeheartedly the concept of an education system as a race to the line, as the means by which the country’s elite is selected and trained, and as a system designed to weed out those who are not capable (defined by criteria designed to serve the rightwing credo) of benefiting from any kind of academic schooling. Many will throw, and have thrown, the epithet of elitist at this crew, and will intend it as censure. To Gove and his colleagues, such name-callers are merely stating the obvious. They would call themselves exactly the same, being merely descriptive of their philosophy and intentions and values.
Michael Gove is a man with a mission, and he is in a hurry to complete it. State schooling in England has been, for many years now, a foreign land when viewed over the fence from Scottish education; soon, it will be more like viewing the surface of Saturn, an exotic place beyond our easy ken and understanding, a situation not lacking in irony given that Gove’s own schooling happened in Scotland.
On my travels around the world I have often found myself working with some truly inspiring organisations. One of these is SAIDE, the South African Institute for Distance Education, who I met with more than one occasion in Johannesburg. This is an organization that is truly committed to transforming education and training through a focus on the adoption of open learning principles and distance education methods.
SAIDE do not think small! One of their key aims is to:
Support programmes in sound and innovative course design, materials development, learner support, management, and the use of technology, particularly for large scale provision.
They given powerful substance to their principles with the launch of a site dedicated to the provision of OER resources for education across the continent of Africa — OER Africa. With special areas of focus — teacher education, health, agriculture and skills development — this is a great resource built on the assumptions of openness.
A quick search for ‘professional development’ threw up some 237 references, and I could see a rich harvest of ideas and materials even in the first two of three pages of results.
.…the same three-person team of a professor plus assistants that used to teach analog circuit design to 400 students at MIT now handles 10,000 online and could take a hundred times more.…
So said Anant Agarwal, the computer scientist appointed by MIT and Harvard this year to head edX, a $60 million joint effort (currently including UC Berkeley and the University of Texas, as well as MIT and Harvard) to stream a college education over the Web, free to anyone who wants it. Their aim, in time, they say is to reach 1 billion students by this means.
However, while my pedagogical sympathies are somewhat closer to the MOOC’s prime movers, I also have a lot of admiration for what the big players are doing too. Coursera and Udacity, as well as the likes of edX, are all non-profit social enterprise ventures, and while their pedagogy is primarily a ‘knowledge-delivery’ model (as opposed to social-constructivist or connectivist model), they are very much part of a broad-based set of developments in education that, I believe, are coalescing into a major storm that will sweep through the structures and assumptions of formal institutional education in the next few years. Of course, there are many other MOOCs out there too: Stephen Downes offers a recent list of international providers.
That foundation in the pedagogy of the lecture theatre also means, of course, that the big providers are also hoping to find the commercial holy grail of trusted, authenticated and secure accreditation via the MOOC.
Nonetheless, it will be interesting to watch what the effect will be on all those universities across the world currently licensing courses from the big providers. I doubt that they are licensing their own annihilation, as some of the more lurid commentators might suggest; but i do think they are hastening a massive and welcome shift in the centre of gravity in higher education globally.
The MOOC is a development that, like all great innovations, is a culmination of inventions, formations, thinking, experimentations, mistakes and triumphs that came before it; it is also like all great innovations in that it is a game-changer. The game is changing in higher education, and in education generally — of that there is no doubt — and while the MOOC can only be a part of that change, it is a critical part. The MOOC will never be able to cope with all the requirements of learning and of study: there will also be a need, in some disciplines for lab work, ground work, work in the field, whatever. But there should be little doubt that the MOOC is a major development in education.
So, the greatest edtech development in 200 years? I certainly hope so!
All those currently investing millions in Facebook stock should take note: Tent is just one tiny straw in the wind that will eventually blow that monstrosity and so many others like it completely out of the water.