Tag Archives: education


Imagine this …

The medical scenario may be laughable but, transferred to the context of many schools and classrooms today, quite … (in)conceivable?

The anecdote in the presentation is an extract from a classic and wonderfully dangerous book titled ‘Teaching As A Subversive Activity‘ by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, written in 1971 (!). If you haven’t read it (ever or recently) I warmly recommend it.

Of course, all analogies and metaphors have their limits (and the authors acknowledge that, see below) but in the spirit of the book, the presentation is meant to be a conversation starter and generator of important questions …

Here is how Postman & Weingartner expanded on the analogy:

Perhaps our playlet needs no further elaboration, but we want to underscore some of its points. First, had we continued the conversation between Dr Gillupsie and his young surgeons, we could easily have included a half dozen other ‘reasons’ for inflicting upon children the kinds of irrelevant curricula that comprise most of conventional schooling. For example, we could have had one doctor still practicing ‘bleeding’ his patients because he had not yet discovered that such practices do no good. Another doctor could have insisted that he has ‘cured’ his patients in spite of the fact that they have all died (‘Oh, I taught them that, but they didn’t learn it’). Still another doctor might have defended some practice by reasoning that, although his operation didn’t do much for the patient now, in later life the patient might have need for exactly this operation, and if he did, voila!, it will already have been done.

The second point we would like to make is that we have not made up these ‘reasons’. Our playlet is a parody only in the sense that it is inconceivable for doctors to have such conversations. Had we, instead, used a principal and his teachers, and if they discussed what was taught during the week, and why, our playlet would have been a documentary, and not a heavy-handed one, either. There are thousands of teachers who believe that there are certain subjects that are ‘inherently good’, that are ‘good in themselves’, that are ‘good for their own sake’. When you ask ‘Good for whom?’ or ‘Good for what purpose?’ you will be dismissed as being ‘merely practical’ and told that what they are talking about is literature qua literature, grammar qua grammar, and mathematics per se. Such people are commonly called ‘humanists’.

There are thousands of teachers who teach ‘subjects’ such as Shakespeare, or the Industrial Revolution, or Geometry because they, are inclined to enjoy talking about such matters. In fact, that is why they became teachers. It is also why their students fail to become competent learners. There are thousands of teachers who define a ‘bad’ student as any student who doesn’t respond to what has been prescribed for him. There are still thousands more who teach one thing or another under the supposition that the ‘subject’ will do something for their students which, in fact, it does not do, and never did, and, indeed, which most evidence indicates, does just the opposite. And so on.

The third point we would like to make about our analogy is that the ‘trouble’ with all these ‘reasons’ is that they leave out the (patient) learner, which is really another way of saying that they leave out reality. With full awareness of the limitations of our patient-learner metaphor, we would assert that it is insane (literally or metaphorically, take your pick) to perform a pilonidal-cyst excision unless your patient requires it to maintain his comfort and health; and it is also insane (again, take your pick as to how) for a teacher to ‘teach’ something unless his students require it for some identifiable and important purpose, which is to say, for some purpose that is related to the life of the learner. The survival of the learner’s skill and interest in learning is at stake. And we feel that, in saying this, we are not being melodramatic.

from ‘Teaching As A Subversive Activity’ by Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner.

Read it – it’s a dangerous book.

Three shakes


Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dariuszka/374750916/

Shake one – Friday afternoon

A beer with “Michael”, a friend, teacher at (one of) the most ‘exclusive’, expensive, ‘high-achieving’ girls school in Perth. I have just explained what I do at Moodle these days and touched on my deep conviction against spoonfeeding students and instead giving them real responsibilities, real problems, real chances to fail and succeed.

Me: “I hate it when they look up to me to give them the answers as some kind of oracle. At 15! “Go away and don’t bother me because you can’t be bothered to figure it out  on your own, with your classmates or a person on the other side of the world – but wake me up in the middle of the night if you want to learn more or tell me I am wrong somewhere.” This is why quite a few kids, majority (wannabe) ‘high achievers’, never liked my teaching style and philosophy. But that’s life sunshine! What am I setting you up for?”

Michael: “Oh mate, you would struggle at our school. That’s exactly what I’ve been telling them for years. But… the school is all about academic results, that’s all they are really interested in. And the kids? “You are here to help us get the top marks so just tell us” It drives me mad sometimes, what are they going to do when they get the top marks, what are we really teaching them?”

Shake two – Sunday morning

A visit to another friend, another teacher and former colleague (yes, I do have non-teaching friends too 🙂 ) Let’s call her Dina.

Dina really wanted to do a bit of emerging curriculum with Year 8 kids new to school. They looked at a documentary, then a mockumentary to pick differences and the kids really ‘got’ the genre and the idea. Then it dawned on her that the kids could actually try and make one. They jumped at it! Kids were asking their teachers if they could they leave their class early so they could come to Dina’s class and work on their doco. The two AEO (Aboriginal Education Officers) assigned to her class as support remarked “you don’t need us, these kids are doing amazingly well!”

Me: “So, what happened?”

Dina: “Well, I came one day all excited to the office and told our Head of Department [a ladder-climbing tick-a-boxer, my note] about it, expecting a “great job, how can we help” sort of thing. Instead, I got questioned and told off : “…I am concerned about this, ”documentary” is not in the Education Department’s ‘Scope and Sequence’ document for Year 8, only for Year 9.”

Shake three – Sunday evening

I had a long phone call with my brother in Slovenia.

His 6 year old son (my nephew) started Grade 1 in September. He enjoys school and learning activities, plays basketball a little and is generally a happy, yet quite an observant and sensitive child. He also carries a bit of extra weight. Recently, he developed a severe tick. It works out he has been bullied at school (won’t go into details but quite heinous).

My brother: “… and to top it all off, he comes home the other day all in tears because he made, for the first time, two mistakes in the maths test (!!!!) He came apologising, as if he somehow let me down. My heart broke I tell you.”

Excuse the swearing but have we gone fucking mental? THIS is what happens when real people are reduced to educational numbers, syllabus documents and grades.

I could write rantily or eloquently (or bit of both) on us becoming the bastards of ‘reason’ and ‘progress’ (John Ralston Saul wrote an outstandingly scathing and well-argued trilogy on this last decade, highly recommend) – but I won’t, not tonight at least.

Kiss your kids and tell them you love them. Often.  (Those who follow me on Twitter will have seen that line before and times I said it…)

Sacred cows

Miss Miller, Teacher of the Year.
Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/34053291@N05/3953923181/

While thinking about my teaching plan and the challenge for 2010, I sent out a tweet this afternoon:

Conceiving & justifying a 2010 teaching plan… keywords: rhizome, Moodle, community, challenge, ‘sacred cows’, ‘we’. Excited.

I will post details another time, but let’s just the say the “rhizome” part is informed by the original ideas of Deleuze, outlined a lot more eloquently by Dave Cormier (link) and Erica McWilliam (Meddler-in-the-middle, Unlearning How To Teach) and is something I am passionate about, read about, think about and which I have, in parts, tried already at my old school (how time flies 🙂 with encouraging success. ‘Moodle” – the plan involves students creating and managing their own Moodle course, knowing just a couple of Moodle-basics that my old classes learnt in an hour. “Community, we” – gist of the rhizome, above. “Sacred cows” – some below. Will post, promise.

Very soon, I got a reply from Olaf Elch (a fellow moodler 🙂 ) in Germany:

My t-plan is similar to yours. I left out the rhizome and changed the “we” to “I”. (It makes it more likely to actually happen. ;o)

But that kinda misses the crucial point of it Olaf… so we started a quick Twitter conversation. Two lines by Olaf particularly raised my eyebrows in further conversation:

1) McWilliam makes some VERY big assumptions. “A T[eacher] who doesn’t add value will be bypassed.” How can a pupil bypass a classteacher?


2) If you turn a teachers from an expert into a meddler or co-learner you are taking away the chief selling point of the teacher role.

Olaf then expands on the expert part, saying that as a teacher, he needs to be an expert, that his students (adult and young) expect it and ‘demand it‘, and that some of his colleagues are stimulating but have ‘faulty factual knowledge’, which makes them ‘just as useless’ as experts who can’t teach [probably meant as stimulate, since Olaf recognised the importance of teaching of how to learn and engaging students].

I opened Olaf’s question to the venerable Twittendom full of very intelligent and caring people and got a bunch of replies which Olaf no doubt read too. Another Twitter-sation success, thank you all who chipped in.

OK, but let’s clear the air a bit here and shoot some sacred cows…

  • I am not against content knowledge. It helps to know the stuff we are talking about, have depth to it, see where it fits. I can’t ‘teach’ French if I don’t know how to say ‘Bonjour!’ and what it means (although Stephen Downes has something interesting to say on that). I am also not throwing the didactic baby completely out with the bathwater. But content knowledge to then ‘fill the vessel’ of those who don’t have it (oh, the deficit, the poor darlingsl!) – that alone is inadequate and unfair to millions and is depriving many creative, smart kids. Not to mention the implicit value of knowledge by “those who know’ (and those who don’t)…
  • A teacher who doesn’t add value SHOULD be bypassed. Let’s take a look around us… Isn’t that what networks of people do and have done for ever (just the range, speed and volume of networks has exploded in the last decade and we’re just beginning to used to it)? They do so sometimes foolishly too and it’s not always wise but … why not? Alternative? Interestingly, Olaf makes a point of people who are ‘stimulating but light on content’. Well, as far as I know, given a chance, kids would bypass those as much as the experts who drone. For now, kids resort to mischief or withdrawal, bypass of a kind.
  • On meddling. My most treasured memories of teaching were exactly the ones I was “the meddler in the middle”. We produced things that mattered to us. See our Web 2.0 Expo for the latest example. Knowledge transmission versus value creation. Chain versus network. Stable versus dynamic. Learning just-in-case versus learning-on-demand. Routine and known versus inventive and unknown. Error-avoiding versus error-welcoming. “I” versus “Us-ness”. I know where the world is heading, social, economic, educational (?) …
  • Having ‘an expert’ breeds dependency, the ‘just tell us’ attitude to learning (hm, learning?). Dean Shareski hits the nail on the head. I love the moments (much like Tony Searl, according to his tweets) where I am not the expert but the kids let fly, challenge me, teach me. I mentioned one such ‘incident’ of a colleague in my farewell speech. There were many!

Quick quiz: Which of these best describes the verb ‘to learn’: a) to be clear, certain, never fail,  b) to be confused, uncertain, fail frequently

A  breeds false self-esteem, steeped in extrinsic rewards, B is an increasingly common discomfort in our societies.  As McWilliam states “let’s take ‘lifelong learning’ seriously (or stop using it)” and not just as a nice gimmick.

And in that mess, ‘teacher’, valuable as we are, may become a placeholder for a name of a role that needs to and will change. And that’s OK with me.

Have something to say? (I) missed a/the point… Click ‘Comment’ and go for it

Why social me(dia)?

There are some pretty staggering stats in this presentation about social media. It is aimed at marketing people but since education and marketing share so many cultural spaces, its impact on education is not be discounted.

It is simply how, more and more, people live their lives.

I like social media and ‘push (for) it’ with my students and colleagues for one reason (well, at least by far the biggest!) – it is a chance for more kids to be heard & considered ‘educated’, not asked ‘which school do you go to’, only to be ranked at 20 paces.

The potential is there, the beginnings are there. “Full duplex” as the slideshow states. Nobody knows or cares online what school you go to or how rich your daddy is if you produce useful content, solve problems, create a network by being helpful to and with others. Still think this is all a passing fad?

The power of schools to assign credentials of ‘educated’ and ‘not educated’ may not be eternal…

4th century skills

Any Questions?

And that’s BC!

Recently, I have replied to a few posts by fellow bloggers with what may have seemed a bit negative attitude towards the marriage of digital technology and education (I use the word digital because chalk was once called a ‘technology’, now it’s … just chalk).

Here is the gist of my thoughts as posted on Jez Cope’s blog post titled Why use technology in teaching? (see some interesting links from comments!). Time to come clean, you be the judge:

[Why use technology in teaching?] For my 2c – it is because with technology (by that I mean digital technology you and I are using right now) we can develop not just “21st century skills” (whatever that means because we don’t exactly know how the century is going to turn out do we…) but “4th century BC” skills [corrected ☺] that some of the old Greek wise heads were talking about – democracy, participation, freedom of expression & thought, active citizenship … you know those pesky old things that never seemed to have gone out of fashion with thoughtful people [and for which millions have thought about, enacted, fought and died for over centuries].

As long as technology is used to those goals it is a professional travesty not to consider it in education. Sadly, we are often more focused on the science of technology (the ‘best version’ or ‘latest tool’ or ‘most efficient system’) to kinda forget the massive opportunity to change not what and how we know, teach & learn but what we are and become. That’s the ball game for me!

Epistemology to ontology. Knowing to being. If it sounds a bit abstract, “high & mighty” – well, it is. But it is a direction, a purpose, a possible place to ‘come home’ to. I don’t think about it all the time, just like I don’t think about my children every single moment. But I do and like to care about it.

What effects is this ever-changing chatter of class sizes, rostering, assessment accuracy, not to mention instructional technology, going to have for what we and those we interact with want to be(come) – no, I don’t mean a career.

Put another way: “What is this going to make out of us and the kids we teach?” Simply collecting and amassing the arsenal of ‘technologies and strategies’ without really answering this question is like dressing all up with nowhere to go.

We should take technology for granted but we definitely should not take technology as ‘good’ for granted. Never forget that not long ago, some of the world’s most creative, intelligent and passionate people collaborated and used the cutting edge technology to create a …. nuclear bomb.

While hugely important, the question “can we teach and learn better with technology” must always be preceded, or at least tempered with, “can we be better human beings with and because of technology”?

I reckon we can, time will tell.

PS Just as I posted this I read a story about China blocking social networking sites – ’nuff said!