Final Thoughts on “Failure to Disrupt”

I wanted to start my last blog post with the same quotation that I used in the first, because I believe that it feels like the missing link in educational technology:

My contention is, first, that we should want more from our educational efforts than adequate academic achievement and, second, that we will not achieve even that meager success unless our children believe that they themselves are cared for and learn to care for others.

Nel Noddings, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education, 1984

This quote was written almost 40 years ago, yet how many technological tools have we ever seen which enable or amplify caring relationships in the classroom? While I thoroughly enjoyed Reich’s book, I believe he skirts, but does not explicitly address, two specific questions related to technology-based learning:

  • How do people learn? What does “learning” even mean? Reich addresses the measurement of knowledge, the “trap of routine assessment”, and the failures of standardized testing, but I think that defining learning itself is a crucial topic to delve into if one is discussing learning tools. As I have noted elsewhere, and Noddings implies above, I believe that learning is all about connections – to prior knowledge, to peers, to home culture, to the teacher, etc. It is only with such a basic definition that we can then begin to inspect and evaluate technological learning tools
  • Why do people learn? Reich also talks about learning motivation (career advancement, grades, money, etc) in relation to MOOCs and other technologies, but does not directly address this fundamental question. I believe this is a separate question from “why does a person take a specific course,” which can be answered relatively trivially and factually and analyzed with data. Much harder to answer, and possibly more important for designing learning technology is “what makes people want to learn at the neurological level?” We have research, of course, that shows that learning new things and achieving new goals releases endorphins in the brain, but it must be more complex than that. Some people simply love learning and are curious about everything. Some people are curious about very little and are content with their knowledge. Until we can understand what separates these people, what motivates one and not the other, we are in large part shooting in the dark when it comes to teaching and learning tools.

All of that being said, we can not simply stop trying to create better tools and better experiences simply because we don’t know the answers to those questions in advance. I completely and fully agree with Reich that “tinkering” is the best way forward. Despite marketing claims, there will never be a silver bullet. But we do not live in a culture in which tinkering in education is encouraged (and sometimes is not even allowed). Despite what superintendents and principals may say about encouraging “project-based learning”, “culturally relevant pedagogy”, and the myriad of other tools and methods that we know are highly effective, it has been shown over and over that worksheets and memorization are just as effective (if not more so) for teaching to standardized tests. As long as standardized tests are the gold standard for evaluating teachers, schools, and districts, there is absolutely zero motivation for tinkering. Until we are meaningfully measured on aspects of learning that can not be memorized, there will be no motivation to change.

Finally, education (both secondary and post-secondary) relies on a monolithic experience for all students (age-based grade levels and implied ability, identical work for all students in a class, standardized tests, etc, etc). This is the fundamental flaw that carries over to MOOCs and other online experiences. We know (as teachers, parents, students, and people) that we do not all connect the same way, learn the same way, or even experience the same way. Because of this, any major advances in educational technology, no matter how revolutionary, can only benefit the subset of students for which it is targeted. The constant hyperbole does not do any favors to the adoption of technology, but fundamentally, until teachers are allowed (encouraged, (forced?)) to explore what works best for their own specific students at the expense of the monolith, we will always see some section of students fail. And since it is most profitable to target rich kids, and since rich kids have the most resources to adapt to new technologies, they will always be the most successful. And thus the cycle continues.