Tag Archives: Learnificaion

Disrupting Innovation

The buzz word everywhere is “innovation.”  You can’t avoid it.  And who wants to?  It means positive change, connotes growth and goodness.  It’s a wonderful word.  Who can possibly be against innovation?


So last week I went to the Michigan Innovative Schools Conference.  (The conference was at least partially hosted by the Michigan Center of Innovation for Education.)

Let’s call it a growth experience.

The main speaker was Michael Horn, the author of Disrupting Class, who spoke on the “need” for “disruptive innovation.”

Please feel free to go more deeply into Horn’s ideas.  They are readily available as applied to the private sector and, because they are now boundary hopping into the public sector, are ideas educators need to become aware of.

Horn, obviously an education expert- he has an MBA from Harvard, spoke for a while on such things as the importance of educational areas of “consumption” vs “non-consumption,” and “input” vs. “output.”  Most importantly, he ended with a plea towards policy that will allow state funding to “follow the student.”  At this point in his talk, deep into my growth experience, I wasn’t surprised.  (Remember Skunkworks?)

What did I learn?

That all too often, the way “innovation” is spoken of in education refers  to nothing new in terms of  learning theory and offers no groundbreaking approach to working with students. Rather, it refers to a disruption of funding mechanisms aided by shifts in technology and by weakened support of public funding.  The intent in using the language of innovation is to address the supposed “necessity” of “thinking differently” in this time of weakened funding.  The argument goes that schools must begin to think differently about how we serve students because we have much less available funding, and technology makes this all the more palatable.  What it fails to consider is that this decreased funding is not a necessity, it is a choice.  And this move towards disruptive innovation is another choice that will exacerbate the disappearance of public spaces, and one that decidedly ignores the impact of poverty.  What these educational innovators all too often are referring to is not improving public schools, but increasing the number of charter schools and further privatizing the public.  It is pattern we are  familiar with.  (See more here.)

Profit motive anyone? 


Let me unpack this a little more.

There is absolutely nothing new in the way students learn.  Any student-centered approach towards education begins with John Dewey and has been around for close to 100 years. So any focus that marks student-centered approaches as innovative is naively, or intentionally,  ahistorical.

I delineate at least three differences between Deweyian, historical conceptions of student-centered  vs. “innovation” as it is branded in education today:

1. Dewey proposed an education for the purpose of the development of citizens (not consumers or status seekers) that is thus entrenched in, and strengthens, community.  “Innovation,” an individualized/privatized conception as it used, allows for children to be used as a source of profit and thus destroys community.  Note that “innovation” is void of an intended purpose for education beyond the language of “necessity,” a tell-tale sign market fundamentalism. Also note that “any time, any place, any way, any pace” necessarily imagines learning as simple content acquisition, and abstracts concrete relationships in favor of virtual reality.  It is the worst of what I’ve written of previously in regards to learnification.

2.  Dewey’s understanding of learning was not only student centered, but constructivist.  Current brands of innovation limit their understanding of learning to content acquisition, which can be easily measured and compared for in the never-ending competition called “quality control.”  (This what Horn was referring to when he spoke of “output.”  Others call this form of measurement and comparison “high stakes testing.” )  It is a highly constricted way of imagining learning, and one that doesn’t serve children well.  So, though the current innovation brand emphasizes “choice” and student centered approaches, it does so via a menu limited to content rather than offering an authentic vehicle for student transformation.

3.  Technology is certainly different.  Technology does allow students to make real world connections in ways that were previously impossible.  It has the potential as a wonderful resource that strengthens the power of Dewey’s approach.  It also has the ability, if used incorrectly, to be a means of undermining community and strengthening the power of those who seek to profit from the untangling of the sanctity of the common good as represented in public spaces.  Note that the positive use of technology is not necessarily disruptive, but is an extension of what has existed for a long, long time.  It is important that we remember our history.

The person who introduced to Michael Horn at the conference was David Seitz.  Seitz has a long history in educational policy and helped write NCLB.  He has many Republican connections in the state of Michigan.  He also sits on the Board of Directors of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.  His current employment is as  market strategist for Apple.  (I’m not sure why Seitz was chosen to introduce Horn- transparency is clearly over-hyped.)

Why would Apple want a person influential in educational policy and many political connections as an employee?  Why would Seitz invite Horn, (I’m assuming Seitz had something to do with the invitation) who would then use his talk as an attempt to influence policy from a conference located just outside Michigan’s’ capital?

Profit motive anyone?

Maybe I’m paranoid.

But be aware.  Be very aware.

The Importance of the Teacher: Learnification Part 2

I continue to think about the role of teachers in this new age of content availability. If content is available to anyone at any time, in any place, what is the role of the teacher? If we think of the role of teachers as providers of content via instruction, then clearly this role becomes obsolete. We need to imagine teaching in a much broader way.

Gert Biesta is one of those who is helping me think through this issue. He has written an important piece called Giving Teaching Back to Education: Responding to the Disappearance of the Teacher. Biesta criticizes ‘learnification,’ and carefully analyzes the important role of teachers. Biesta shows that, despite the increasing availability of content, the role of the teacher necessarily remains central to education. (For a recent example of learnification on steroids, see Sugatra Mitra’s Ted Talk. I don’t want to discount all that Mitra says, but clearly learnification is at work when teachers are so irrelevant that they can be replaced by British grannies. Be sure to read this excellent analysis of Mitra’s talk by Audrey Watters.) Biesta writes, “The quickest way to express what is at stake here is to say that the point of education is never that children or students learn, but that they learn something, that they learn this for particular purposes, and that learn this from someone. The problem with the language of learning and with the wider ‘learnification’ of educational discourse is that it makes it far more difficult, if not impossible, to ask the crucial educational questions about content, purpose and relationships.” In other words, the language of ‘learning’ allows for the assumption that the relationships between learner and content, learner and purpose, and learner and teacher are irrelevant. Parker Palmer puts it another way in Good Teaching: “‘Truth is an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline.’ Good teaching, whatever its form, will help more and more people learn to speak and listen in the community of truth, to understand that truth is not in the conclusions so much as in the process of conversation itself, that you want to be ‘in truth’ you must be in the conversation.” Purpose here is assumed in ‘things that matter.’ Content is organized around a ‘truth.’ And relationship occurs all over- between the learner and teacher in community, and between the community and its search for truth. The learner here is not an individual unmoored from purpose or community, as many of our current corporate reformers would have it, but a student deeply embedded in purpose and relationship with others.

The language of learnification obscures these relationships. It privileges learning as a process without recognition of the context it necessarily must occur within, the nexus of relationships that connect us to each other, and to ‘truth.’ The danger of this is that this language makes teachers disposable. Because the language of learnification obscures these relationships, it creates a void that allows for the ‘extractivist’ mindset. Because the questions around purpose, content and relationship are hidden, we are left with only seeing the ‘learner’ from the embedded neo-liberal paradagim- that is, the market as the only measure of value. (Please see this wonderful article which deconstructs extractivism, Dancing the World Into Being.)

Biesta continues in addressing the core task of the teacher, that is of helping a student work through his/her resistance to the ‘other.’ Biesta writes, “Teaching ‘works’ with something that is strange from the perspective of the student, not because what is given/received s necessarily incomprehensible, but because it is something that is not a projection of the student’s own mind, but something that is radically and fundamentally other. The encounter with something that is other and strange- that is not of one’s own making- is an encounter with something that offers resistance (and we could even say that it is an encounter with the very experience of resistance).” Left to his/her own accord, the learner will likely resist this encounter with the other, will not grow through this encounter, will not widen perspective enough (or learn) to let the other (object) become incorporated (subjectfied). The teacher’s task is to help the student work through this resistance. This task is complex, it can’t be done merely via technical means. Technical answers (i.e., teacher ‘skills’) are always enacted by living people, and as Bill O’Brien has said in a quote that I love, “The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervenor.” Who the teacher is matters- there is no way around this if we imagine learning as anything more than the regurgitation of content. And this is the core issue that education reform avoids. Most education reform is simply a misapplication of technical answers to a very complex, difficult human issue. (And note that I did not use the word ‘problem’ at the end of that last sentence.)

Biesta puts it this way, “…the research that sees teaching as an intervention working towards the perfect production of certain pre-specified outcomes seriously misses the point of what I have suggested teaching is about. The problem with these lines of thought is that they miss what I have suggested to be at the very heart of teaching, which is the need for concrete situated judgments about what is educationally desirable, both with regard to the aims of education and with regard to its means…and while certain competencies may constitute a necessary condition for good teaching, they can never be a sufficient condition as there is always a need for judgement about which competencies should be utilized in each particular and unique educational situation.” (Emphasis added)

This need for judgement is tied to the need for wisdom, “…a quality of or ‘excellence’ that permeates and characterizes the whole person.”

That is something that increased test scores, more virtual learning, or a charter school just can’t address

Learnification Part 1: Making Bank Off the Banking Concept

I first read the term ‘learnification’ when reading Corey Steeve’s paper, (De/Re)-Constructing Teachers and Their Work. Steeves quotes Gert Biesta in defining the concept: “Biesta described the discourse of learnification as ‘the translation of everything there is to say about education in terms of learning and leaners.'” ‘Learnification’ occurs whenever discourse reduces all of the complexities of ‘education’ down to the simplicity of ‘learning.’ And doesn’t this seem fairly harmless? At first, I rebelled against ‘learnification’ as a negative concept. Who can be against learning or learners? For instance, I have spent much of my time arguing that we educators need to design experiences that allow students to own their learning. Now all of a sudden that’s a bad thing?

On deeper thought, though, it is clear that the discourse of learnification is a huge problem, mainly because the assumptions it hides are very dangerous. Steeves continues, “Biesta argued that learning is an ‘individualistic concept.’ Whereas the concept of education ‘always implies a relationship: someone educating someone else and the person educating thus having a certain sense of the what the purpose of his or her activities is.'”

So Steeves (and Biesta) points out the differences in the discourse between ‘learning’ and ‘education.’ Learning is individualistic and abstracted from the context of purpose. Education is communal and situated in connection to a purpose.

Now, you may be asking yourself, so what? What is the purpose of making these angels of theory dance on the pin heads of educational reality? Why? Because it makes a political difference, meaning a difference in our lives together. Stay with me now.

Traditional teaching is simplistically and conventionally imagined as the transmission of content. (A la Freire’s banking concept.) Teachers instruct students in such a way that students have an understanding of the content being transmitted. Back in the pre-tech olden days, teachers were the main, or only, source of this content. We all know that content now is available ‘anytime, anywhere.’ So if a teacher’s job is to serve as the source of content, then teachers are becoming obsolete. ‘Learnification’ works under this assumption, while, at the same time, hiding it: Teachers are the delivers of content+ content is available anytime, anywhere= teachers are obsolete. Under this formula, the learner and his/her learning are abstracted from the context of both relationship and purpose. So the question of ‘learning for what purpose?’ becomes irrelevant. Will Richardson’s question of ‘why school?’ becomes irrelevant. And teachers, those whose task, I would tentatively argue, is to master the skills of relationship and continually help students to situate content within context, become irrelevant. The discourse of learnification allows humans to be replaced with any of the variety of on-line content delivery systems that operate much more ‘efficiently’ (i.e., cheaper) than your average teacher, and they don’t require health care or retirement benefits. The idea of ‘common good,’ of learning for citizenship, ( for that matter, of learning for any greater purpose other than of the economic benefit of a self) in such an individualistic conception of learning becomes irrelevant.

The problem with learnification is not in allowing students to direct their own learning. It is in allowing students to direct their own learning in a vacuum– and we all know that a vacuum is a space asking to be filled. In the case of learnification, the vacuum is filled by corporate entities, the free market of neo-liberalism, that has its own agenda. That agenda is the making of money. Students then become a source of income, and this income is unquestioned through the process of learnification, and the mantra of ‘any time, anywhere’ which reifies content abstracted from context, has room to grow like cancer. (Please take some time to read up on the scary way how this concept of ‘anytime, anywhere’ is being translated politically in Michigan here.)

Just as importantly, learnification allows for the assumption (allows because it assumes no assumptions) that the purpose of schooling is for the benefit of our economic system. Alternative ways of imagining education- the development of the whole person, including the social and emotional aspects of being human, the development of the dispositions needed in a civil democratic society, and the ability to critically analyze a topic along with the context in which it appears- simply disappear. Such visions aren’t necessary when the goal is simple stamping that will certify a student for participation in our economic society. (And, because economic health is the ultimate value abstracted from all other contexts, there is no need to ask the question of, for instance, economic health for what/whose purpose?) Again, this way of imagining education fails to understand context- that economics, culture and the overall social good are all connected.

Yes, the discourse of learnification matters. It’s not by accident that it literalizes the banking concept.