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.
CritiqueThe 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."
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.
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).
VisionInstead 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.
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 ChangeBy 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.
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).
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.
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.
ConclusionAt 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.
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.
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