To What Avail…?


I was rereading the blog of Prof. Paul L. Thomas the other day when I came across the quotation below.  (But first, massive props for Prof. Thomas’ work with pre-service teachers.  We need more people like him in those positions.)



Thomas quotes Dewey:

What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worth while, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur? (Experience and Education, p. 49)

I’d not encountered/remembered this quotation from my previous readings of Dewey.  I wonder…is it problematic?  Does it merely draw attention to the war that’s been ongoing for so long around content and skills, between the conservative wings of pedagogy and the more romantic/progressive wings?

As well, Dewey seems to indicate that winning that information comes at the cost of losing one’s soul.  I wonder if it isn’t possible to gain information and yet retain the soul.  I sure as heck hope so.  Though, I suppose what Dewey’s reacting to is a system that so champions acquisition over meaning and human growth as to suck the soul out of the very natural act of learning itself.

I think about these kinds of situations a lot, especially now that I’m working on a class, inNOVAtion Lab, in which I’m employing a rhizomatic approach to learning, an approach that champions the community as the source of the curriculum.  I’m still navigating the difficulties of moving from a curriculum map to a community that maps the curriculum itself, but if your curriculum map is anything like the ones I have to deal with, I’d rather have the community map the curriculum any day.

I’m not sure what my point is here.  I’m drawn to the work of David Cormier around Rhizomatic Learning, as well as to the writings of Ira Socol around similar topics, and, though I find it far more prickly, the writings and ideas of Gary Stager that stick a knife deep into the concept of curriculum in general.

Certainly a first-world problem, though, given how old “learning” is when compared with “teaching” and the school system itself, maybe not so first-world after all.

Just add water–Is Instant Curriculum in Your Future?

Splash Water Glass Just Add WaterIt’s not an overstatement to note that most curricula in American Public High Schools are bloated.  There’s too much to learn and so our toxic love affair with memorization and regurgitation continues, and only those students who like to play the memorization game feel loved by the system, and those who don’t find themselves jilted or just plain lost.  And while I note that the AP system has made strides to move away from content cramming and into more concept-based classes, the notebooks I’ve seen from students in certain AP classes read like the copied pages of an encyclopedia.

Now, there’s something to be said for the ability to memorize and retrieve information.  Indeed, I’ve benefited to some extent from having such a mind. My two appearances on TV game shows and the infinite nights of bar trivia I’ve attended evidence at least one benefit.  And, of course, there is the cognitive benefit that the more one knows, the more one is capable of knowing.  

But as most every pundit of education has noted for better than 15 years, drowning the brains of captive children with information is a poor goal for education in the digital age.  With the world’s libraries and all their stores of information in our pockets and at our fingertips, information is (clichéd phrases coming…) “ubiquitous,” and that means it’s no longer “what you know, but what you can do with what you know” that matters.  It’s the compelling stories you can tell with the information that will matter more than the knowledge of the information itself. * 

This is, of course, not entirely true.  Doctors, politicians, plumbers, engineers…we would agree that possession of a standard body of knowledge is crucial for them (and us).  However, for most of us, knowing the process of mitosis by heart, or the economic deficiencies of a banana republic…for most of us, those things are not (and here I’ll adopt David Perkins’ standard from his book, Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World) “lifeworthy.” That is, they are not “likely to matter, in any meaningful way, in the lives learners are expected to live.”  

And so, when I read a recent article by Alden Wicker on Vox about the movement to remove water from many of the cosmetics and cleaning products we use (to reduce packaging, plastics, and shipping costs), I got to thinking, thanks to the musing of Paul Haluszczak of Education Reimagined, about how a concentrated curriculum (focused on vital competencies) could be reconstituted by each learner through his or her own liberal application of “water” which Haluszczak suggests might be learner agency or interest–a sort of “autodidacticism via starter formula,” if you will.  


This concept is reminiscent of an idea I encountered on the website of consultant Christian Talbot–Minimum Viable Curriculum.  An MVC is “centered on just enough content to empower learners to examine questions or pursue challenges with rigor.”  As they explore, they will invariably encounter spaces where they need more information, and so they will grow the curriculum, with teacher assistance, of course.

As such a model would have to be project-, design- or challenge-based, the learning would occur mostly on a “just in time” basis rather than following the “just in case” model we use to stuff so much irrelevant information into our children’s heads.   It would also help focus our pedagogy on the act of learning itself, rather than mere transmission of content.  I doubt there’s a teacher alive who wouldn’t admit that what they seek most for all their students is that they learn how to understand and best manage their own learning processes.  A model like what I (and many others) am scratching at here seems a reasonable and prosperous starting point for such a goal.

I’ll continue to add water to this idea and see what (re) constitutes.  Hopefully, more such posts will emerge.

*(Note here I’m not saying that there is less value in knowing things.  Only that flooding students with content at the expense of building skills in self-driven, self-determined learning is, anymore, little better than treading water in order to cross the English Channel.)

What if…We Didn’t “School” Kids This Way?

I’ve been looking at the man in the mirror for a long time now, and truly, from a professional point of view, I have no idea who’s looking back at me.  I used to say I was a teacher, but I don’t know.  I never had the self-image of “the teacher.”  Standing in front of the classroom, lecturing, pontificating…puffing up my chest intellectually in front of those who were, obviously, gathering the pearls of wisdom that dropped from my lips?  None of that suited me.

I cut my educational teeth on Postman, Gatto, Gatto (again), Kohn, William Glasser…on readings deep and wide in the field of creativity–Michael Gelb, Roger von Oech, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Paul Torrance, Synectics, Michael Michalko, Tony Buzan, et al.

I grew up with computers, had my hands on the first Apple IIe in our districtapple2-100009966-orig

I bought an Atari 600xl  wAtari-600XL-PCith money from cutting lawns and taught myself Basic programming.



And while I chastise my children for all their screentime, I spent full afternoons in a dark basement, this cheap computer hooked up to an old Magnavox console TV, typing programs in binary code from Gaming magazines, saving them to a cassette tape drive, and cursing when one or two of the numbers were transposed and we had to go back and reread all the code…just so a simple precursor to a game like would appear in chunky, blurry graphics on the screen.

What I was doing then, as now, as always, was teaching myself.  And even though I can’t point to the teachers who led me to understand I ought to do that, there were a few.

So I’m not the teacher you might think of when you think back on your own experiences.  My classroom is ever more student-centered, inquiry-driven, and a place of where freedom to learn rules the day.  But none of that comes freely.  There’s not one day where I don’t go home and second-guess myself, not one day when I’m not banging my head against the wall thinking about how much easier it would be if I just had straight-out lessons, with common activities, and single right answers to grade.  Of course, that’s my own problem, a personality disorder perhaps.  I know what feels right, but I also know what the system says, what the data says, what the powers say needs to be done.

And then Carol Black goes and writes something like this:  A Thousand Rivers.  I’m not going to lie.  It’s a long read.  But Carol Black does something unusual in her analysis of schooling and discussion of unschooling.  She goes outside the cultural paradigm of “Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic” (WEIRD) nations and looks at how the other 90% educate their children.  This multicultural perspective challenges the data culled by WEIRD Social-Scientists–No offense to psychologists, sociologists, economists and other in the soft-sciences… it’s just, you know, you can’t help it…you’re WEIRD people who ask questions from WEIRD perspectives, about WEIRD people, in WEIRD institutions.  You get it.

Look, I’ve pretty high standards for most of what I read, and I’m telling you that in terms of its focus on education, Ms. Black’s post is beautiful and brilliant.  It’s long, but it’s just a wonderful application of the kind of ethos I ask my own students to engage in, which is to ask two main questions about their world and the systems they are part of:  “Why are things the way they are? and How can we make them better?”

Ms. Black’s inquiry into answering the first question is deep, somewhat biased, but deep and, as I noted above, culturally broad.  Her suggestions for answers to the second question are rather rogue and brash–“just let them go” might be a good summary, and certainly in line with what Unschooling suggests.  But I cannot deny the appeal and the results of this kind of “guided freedom.”  In my own and thousands of other classrooms teachers and learners of all types are allowing students to explore their passions and follow their genius in projects like “genius hour” or “20 Time Projects”  While this is not “Unschooling” it is certainly something that flies in the face of what students and many adults expect “school” should be.


I have a child who is labeled ADHD, and he fits the descriptions given by Ms. Black to a “T.” Not only that, his experience in school has been one where he is the focus of almost universal “hospital” or “deficit” perspectives.  That is, he is looked at as a child to be “cured” or “fixed.” So I know of what she speaks, and I know this child, like so many I’ve taught, like so many I grew up with, could be much better served in a system that worked differently.

The name of this blog was originally “Big Styrofoam Things: It All Matters” because it all does matter, everything we do, every person, every action…it all matters.  Nothing is disposable in and of itself, everything we make is made with intention, and every human being acts from intention, whether conscious or not.  When we ignore or never even try to understand intention, or when we allow systemic intentions to go unquestioned or to become so buried in bureaucracy as to “disappear,” we reject the very humanity those systems are created to serve. 

I strive to buck that system in my classroom and district at every turn, and truthfully, I’ve never been wrong, because my actions were always undertaken with an understanding of my users, with empathy for them and an understanding of what they needed.  Such a human-centered design process is not beyond the means of our system, indeed, numerous schools are following such a process to great success.  (Check out the Mount Vernon Presbyterian School, Design 39, High Tech High, Science Leadership Academy, Design-Lab Delaware, Quest to Learn, to name a few.)