Mule Ear Surprise ©2015 Tom Haymes

The problem with most educational responses to the pressures of the Digital Age is that they have been of the first-order variety. Janet Murray described this as “new technologies are extending our powers faster than we can assimilate the change.” She goes on to say:

Even when we are engaged in enterprises that cry out for the help of a computer, many of us still see the machine as a threat rather than an ally. We cling to books as if we believed that coherent human thought is only possible in bound, numbered pages.

(Murray, Janet, Hamlet on the Holodeck, MIT Press, 1999, p. 8).

I think we all know at some level that she is right. I certainly hear this from colleagues all of the time. “We need to change.” However, what we define as “change” often revolves around adding new technologies to existing sets of stories. “We can improve performance in current metrics” instead of “do these metrics make any sense in a digital world.” Murray realized early on that we cling to notions of the prior technological and systemic world and this impedes our ability to see, and shape, new stories. Instead, we live with incongruity and paper it over. We learn to fail faster but do not understand the roots of those failures because we never critically examine the underlying stories that may or may no longer make sense in the current context. Thomas Kuhn referred to the amalgam of all of these stories as “paradigms.” These paradigms underlie all of our systems including the industrial educational sector whose roots date back more than 100 years. They are also remarkably resistant to change because we are content to live with their assumptions even as they rapidly fall out of sync with the realities of the world around them.

Much of the effort of the last two decades has been centered around technology platforms that enhance what we are able to do in the classroom. Much of this this effort revolves around “enhancing” old narratives with new technology. Around the edges there has been discussion of approaches such as active learning and empowered learning but at the end of the day most classes still resemble those of 1950 or even 1920. One of my frustrations as an educational innovator has been my inability to fundamentally break through some of the basic assumptions that underlie the activity in most learning environments. Distance education has merely transferred the anachronisms of the physical classroom to the digital world (and created an inferior product in most instances). The only solution to these fundamental issues is to get people to step back and think about what they’re really doing as they’re trying to teach, assess, and, hopefully, connect with their students.

Supposedly “digital” learning environments are far from it because they never question the paradigmatic assumptions from the analog classrooms they are trying to mimic. The digital world allows us to reconfigure everything, even the physical world. It allows us to question to question the very nature of the term “classroom” and yet we still use that metaphor to describe an environment where learning begins (and often ends). Are grades an anachronistic vestige of mass production model of education, where students resemble widgets more than they do minds? 

Today’s classes still have a decidedly analog flow to them. They have a beginning, midterm, and end and the results are sadly predictable. This flow is dictated in part by the paradigms of learning we accept but they are also a product of outdated thinking about what the necessary skills for making it in a 21stCentury digital environment are. In other words, instruction does not do a deep dive into how it can use the digital tools available to reshape what happens withinthe confines of the instructional unit. Most instruction also fails to account for the way that these very same tools are reshaping the demands on the workforce (and in some cases replacing it entirely). Humans are the lagging indicator here. They don’t have to be.

One of the challenges of creating empowered students is the fact that they don’t even know what that means. I spent the first week of classes this semester challenging my classes to think deeply about the things that make it hard for them to learn and the things that might empower them. The column of constraints was much longer than those things that might empower their learning. Furthermore, most of the empowering list had to do with their own self-discipline and failures in conforming to the existing system. 

What my students perceived about their own educational challenges looked more like a list written by high school guidance counselor (do the readings, study hard, do your homework, etc.) than anything that resembled them having any power over their own learning fates. Their vision of education is that of a rat running through a maze with the vague hope of finding a bit of cheese at the end. It’s no wonder they feel dehumanized. In every class the constraints of the industrial education model weigh heavily on me as a teacher. Grades, benchmarks, and a restrictive schedule force me, at least on some level, to treat my students as widgets and they know it. At the very least, they want to make sure they get some cheese even when they’ve long since given up on getting anything else out of the process. It will be interesting to see whether this effort at self-reflection makes a dent in their training.

There are many layers to the industrial education system that turn students into widgets. Many of them start outside of the instructional “space.” Most of them started with the best of intentions but have now outlived their purpose. Should the class be a place where the professor dispenses his or her wisdom or a gathering place where people come together to learn? What is the purpose of a textbook, especially basic textbooks, in an age of Google and Wikipedia? What does an LMS add to these factors? What does it take away? What are we doing here anyway? The list goes on and on.

The biggest barrier to deconstructing education is not money. It is imagination. In some cases it requires systemic change and that in itself creates massive barriers. However, incremental changes are happening all of the time. They could be accelerated if we confronted some of the paradigmatic shibboleths that have arisen because of industrialized mass production education. Organizing thought around a system like Donella Meadows’s Leverage Points is a good way to become more mindful of where change is occurring and where it needs to occur in your organization. At its top level Meadow’s system assumes ongoing paradigmatic reassessment. She and other systems thinkers like Peter Senge are not naïve about how hard this is and how systems are likely to react when challenged at this level. It’s hard enough to change your own personal story but organizations depend on a vast range of interlocking and shared understandings and tend to react badly when those shared understandings are challenged. 

The first step in overcoming these systemic challenges lies in asserting that those shibboleths are precisely what need to be questioned in a period characterized by ongoing and rapid technological and economic shifts. If we do not question the fundamentals of the systems we sustain, we risk education failing on its collective anachronisms. Ultimately, humanizing education is only possible when we give the power over learning back to the students and this, in turn, is only possible if we are willing to deconstruct the systems that conspire to dehumanize them.