07 April 2017

#AASSA17: The Logic of Learning

I want to start with a provocation. What does it mean to learn?

I am going to tell a story. It is a story six years in the making, and it is a story that I now more or less view as my personal journey through international education. It is a story that is best framed as one about simplicity and complexity.

The basis of this story was brought home nicely for me one night when my wife (a 2nd grade teacher) and I were sitting in our kitchen eating dinner and listening to an oldies station when Little Richie came on. My wife is a trained musician, and liked what she heard, but she was surprised had never heard of him before. My father came of age during these first rock’n rollers, so I had already had my fill of Little Richie, Elvis Presley, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, and the like. However, what struck me while listening to him that night was how simple the music sounded—the clarity of the instrumentation, the rhythm, the harmony, even for me, possibly least musical person you could meet.

I know enough about music to know that making music sound “simple” is actually quite hard. The daunting goal of this talk is to attempt to do what Little Richie did for me that night: make education simple again. What I have begun to call the Logic of Learning.

In order to follow along, you need to be familiar with just one type of logical proposition, called the If/Then statement, commonly referred to as If P, then Q. Or for our purposes, if teaching, then learning. For me, this is one of the foundational logical claims within education, and one I think is more or less completely uncontroversial and that has complete agreement—if we teach, then students learn.

The argument is that this simple logical proposition: if P, then Q, structures almost all of the design choices we make in school, and therefore many of our assumptions and starting points. These result in the outcomes we value, of the educational system as a whole.


The modern international education system has chosen to design the structure of teaching and learning around the consequents to sound teaching. The consequents to sound teaching are the boxes we check in order to evaluate and measure the teaching, and by extension, the learning—the "science of teaching."

And we all know what this looks like. We get here by narrowly defining learning to knowledge acquisition and transfer. The goal becomes to assess, measure, and then evaluate, to prove teaching. Slogans, companies, consultants, initiatives, frameworks, metrics, standards—just for teachers the list can be endless complexity.

The result: we are overwhelmed by the noise of complexity we have designed into the system. And this critique isn’t just for teachers—it is system wide, because teachers do this to students, schools do this to teachers, and authorizing organizations do this schools.

Seriously. Look at the complexity built into school evaluation systems like NEASC or AdvancedEd. The complexity built into teacher evaluation measures and documentation of teaching like curriculum mapping and alignment. And the complexity built into formal learning curriculums like the International Baccalaureate.

Do you know the numbers?

  • NEASC: 7 total sections, 37 standards, and approximately 191 indicators.
  • Danielson Framework: 4 domains, 22 components and 76 smaller elements
  • IB: The handbook of procedures for the DPC job is 338 pages. And the average number of official assessments a student might have is generally over 30.

This logic of teaching and learning has relegated learning to a by product of sound teaching. While focusing on sound teaching will improve formal learning, it is largely based on the false premise that the only learning that matters is the learning we can measure by evaluating the outcomes of formal teaching.

And so learning begins to look like this: we create a box to exert control over what and how to learn. Then we determine the starting point and an endpoint (or work backwards from our end point—doesn’t matter). We draw a line, and we put our students on that defined, pre-determined, linear trajectory.

And now multiply this by 20. You get a de-humanized, faceless mass.

At its most extreme, we’ve created a system rooted in the logic of compulsion, conformity, and compliance.

And important question arises for me and it comes from Paul Krugman’s critique of the Chicago School of Economics after the housing crash of 2009, who sought to explain a complex system with logical algorithms: By focusing on the consequents to sound teaching, have we mistaken beauty for truth?

In our well-intentioned pursuit of the science of teaching, we’ve created a possibly beautiful system on paper that is unsustainable at best, and rests on questionable premises (that we can define learning) and assumptions (that linearity and metrics are goals).

Or maybe more deeper yet. By defining learning so narrowly, are we equating human learning with Shamu?


Instead of focusing on the the consequents to sound teaching, which rests on the assumption that we can define learning (that Gilbert Ryle and Ludwig Wittgenstein might call a category mistake anyway), what happens if return to the why behind it all—the antecedents to deeper learning?

To do this, go back to our logic. If P, then Q, if teaching, then learning. Instead of reducing learning to the knowledge transfer of formal teaching, what happens when we re-center education back to the human beings (true human-centered design), where the relationships we form and encourage are not mediated through metrics, evaluations, and credentialing. What we might call the de-humanized approach, where once we align and standardize, anyone can do it. It de-humanizes our relationships and our work, and hence our educational goals and aims.

Instead what happens when these human relationships form the very basis and act as the very rationale for the work, not as a means to some further end, rather as the end in itself. A true humanized approach.

Here is the vision: for the design of learning to embrace the messiness of simplicity. The simplicity that we are here to help students becomes better, new versions of themselves, not little idealized versions of a standard. By focusing on them as a human first and foremost, we break the linearity.

What does messy simplicity look like? Maybe something like this. Our box is much smaller, without the artificial boundaries, collapsing the divisions and silos. And after the starting point? In the immortal words of Doc Brown, “Where we are going, there are no roads.”

What does this look at scale? A beautiful kaleidoscope of deliberately designed but fuzzy and unknown learning journeys (instead of the de-humanized and faceless standardized learning trajectory).

Is messy hard? Yes, absolutely. But there are vanguards out there leading the way. Seek them out. Learn from them. Fail forward. To steal a quote: “Think big. Start small. Move fast.” And roll safe (added by a sage 7th grader after he heard another version of this talk during our TEDEd night).

We need education to allow "hard fun," to give the freedom to pursue wicked problems, and structure the feedback to enable deep reflection. This type of education is open to two of the most basic truths of the human condition: relationships and imperfection.

Theory of Change

By strictly defining and measuring learning through sound teaching is in effect to continue to make the logical mistake of turning school design into a well-structured problem. It is anything but. School is by its nature an ill-structured problem—it is wicked. A get from critique to vision schools need to be bold in their vision, be transparent about what they value in learning and why, and then be deliberate and conscious with their design choices.

In order for real change to happen, I have four recommendations for international schools: humanize learning, structure disruption, empower teachers, and become autonomous.

Humanize learning.
Learning is a social process. We need to focus on the human relationships created and encouraged by the design of the school structures. Focusing on sound teaching will only improve formal teaching. It will not ask organizations to redesign and reinvent learning based upon what we see in changing in the world outside. In today’s world, this focus on improvement is not enough. All organizations with learning as their central goal should first structure design processes around figuring out just what they—the humans—mean by learning—what antecedents to learning they value and why.

Structure disruption.
If the path of learning is not linear, than neither should the work of teaching be linear. Change doesn’t happen on its own. And innovation just doesn’t happen by osmosis. If we want to make disruption a useful force for change, then it needs to be structured into the design of the school. Instead of looking to sustain the current model by continuously improving it, we should instead to towards the idea of creativity as discontinuity—discontinuous improvement. Ask “what would you do right now if you could do whatever you wanted.” We have to put a bias toward action into the DNA of school. This means structuring in time to create to disrupt (not wasting PD time complying to curricular mapping mandates or school accreditation measures).

Empower teachers.
The only way for school design to effectively define learning and structure disruption is to empower teachers as experimenters; to embrace the uncertainty of the future of learning. Empower teachers as learners, harness their passions, structure and value collaboration, and stop making is so damn complex. Flip the narrative. The important question isn’t what got you into teaching, rather it is what got you into learning? Take the bullshit out of the work, and give teachers back the time to do the good and true work.

Become autonomous.
When we relinquish autonomy to outside entities like the AP, the IB, NEASC, etc, then ipso facto we find ourselves following the rigid constraints defined by their systems. Learning then becomes dangerously close to being reduced to compulsion, compliance and conformity. It thus becomes improbable if not impossible to create the type of dynamic, participatory design processes we need to change the paradigm of school. Why? Because you cede major control of the system to an entity it is then not designed to be responsive to frontline concerns. In order to truly define learning, structure disruption, and empower experimentation, I think schools need to do the hard work of redesigning school themselves. This means becoming a true autonomous learning organization.


At the end of the day, here is the logical argument that matters to me most. 

School is an artificial thing. Humans created all of it (and we can uncreate it).

All artificial things are designed. From the smallest detail to the largest concept. They are all designed by humans.

Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets. The processes we put in place are the result of conscious and deliberate design decisions, even if we don’t realize all of them. And these decisions create the system that perfectly delivers the results it was designed to produce.

So if you are happy with the results, then this talk was not for you. Go home and sleep quietly. However, if you are not happy with the results, then you need to begin the hard work of redesigning the system in order to start to get results that you are happy with.

And if you do that, if you change this mindset with regard to school, then you become a rebel. And you will begin to rethink your choices and reimagine the logicin school by redesigning the learning. You become part of the rebellion. To this I say: join us, the water is becoming warmer. Rebel against the status quo of school.

Because the ultimate goal is education pure and simple, and it is education that we want to become a reality, not some name or slogan.


31 January 2017

The Low Tech of High Tech High

Photo Credit: Ewan MacIntosh

Last week I had the privilege of touring two of High Tech High’s three campuses (probably 8 or 9 of their 13 total schools in total). I had read about them for years, starting with Tony Wagner’s Global Achievement Gap back in 2009 or 2010. However excited I was, I still tried to go into the experience without a bunch of ill-conceived expectations. And I think I was relatively successful, except for one glaring exception: I expected to see “high technology” — re: the newest technological gadgets and digital devices.

On the face of it, expecting “high tech” at High Tech High seems like an easily forgivable if not entirely reasonable assumption to make — the concept is in the name itself.
That this was my expectation caught me off guard a bit; it came on more like an unearthed latent assumption that I had to really reflect on. In my mind I must have expected a brand-new 3 story high school, complete with new agile learning spaces, and classrooms and labs pimped out with all the latest and greatest #edtech.

On the face of it, expecting “high tech” at High Tech High seems like an easily forgivable if not entirely reasonable assumption to make — the concept is in the name itself.

But this latency goes deeper too — to the now near reflexive nature with which too many talk about school in popular culture: that high technology and high performing are almost necessarily linked. From Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates to personalized learning and STEM, we hear that high technology is both necessary and increasingly ubiquitous in the best schools, where students get the best preparation for the brave new world we are entering into.

However, my visit to HTH in many ways proved the opposite — the most impressive and pervasive technology I saw is probably the “lowest” form of technology there is: human to human relationships. What this low tech amounts to in practice is in an explicit focus on the relationships between the human beings who come there everyday to do awesome things.

What the humans are doing, not what the humans are using.

Focusing on the human relationships created and encouraged by the design of the school structures kept popping up, in both small and large ways.
This isn’t to say there isn’t high tech at HTH. I saw plenty of technology many schools would love to have (can every school pretty please get a laser cutter!), and saw plenty of semester projects based on awesome uses of tech (plus award winning robotics clubs). But I never once got into a conversation where the people there talked about the technology as being constituent of who they are and what they represent.

I also didn’t get the impression that VR sets, 3D printers, SMARTboards, or 1:1 programs were an organizational priority, and the majority of the classrooms I visited looked more like 20th century shop classes than 21st century learning spaces. In fact I probably saw more students with shop tools in their hands over my 3 day visit than I did with MacBooks or smart phones.

Focusing on the human relationships created and encouraged by the design of the school structures kept popping up, in both small and large ways.

Kaleb Rashad, the director of the Gary & Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High School, explained this to me as the re-centering of education back to the human beings (true human-centered design), where the relationships we form and encourage are not mediated through metrics, evaluations, and credentialing (which so much of education is these days). That is the de-humanized approach, where once we align and standardize, anyone can do it. It de-humanizes our relationships and our work, and hence our educational goals and aims.

These human relationships — student to student, student to family, student to teacher, teacher to family, teacher to teacher, teacher to administrator, student to administrator, family to administrator, and administrator to administrator — instead form the very basis and act as the very rational for the work, not as a means to some further end, rather as the end in itself. A humanized approach.

• • •

The High Tech High network of schools are many things (big and small), and many of these things more schools should be trying to learn about, with and from them. However, even as oxymoronic as it sounds, one thing they are not is “high technology.”

And while they can be considered some of the original, intrepid pioneers of showing the world the educational power of Project-Based Learning as an organizing principle, to me that isn’t who they really came off as.

Who are they really? — Vanguards of the human-centered learning revolution.

(And expectation destroyers.)

And there within is the magic of the “low tech” of High Tech High.

Thanks to Kaleb Rashad, Mike Strong, and everyone else at High Tech High for their time while I was there. I am sure there will be many more personal reflections and unpacking in the future ;)