Tag Archives: Will Richardson

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.

Grade Harder? Wrong Question

This morning I read a newspaper article on the horrors of grade inflation. (Easy Grading Fails to Serve Students’ Education The idea that we need to grade with more “rigor” is rampant.  It is the motivation behind NCLB and Race to the Top.  And it certainly ties into our overly masculine, puff your chest out, win at any cost culture.  I guess my problem with it, though, is that, in terms of learning, it really doesn’t make much sense.

Let’s construct, and then deconstruct this view of “hard” grading briefly.  To construct:  The idea is that students need to be motivated and grades are the motivation.  Grades provide both positive reinforcement, good grades are the carrot, and negative reinforcement, poor grades are the stick. And if we want students to work hard to show their achievement, then the standards must be high and difficult to meet. With difficult standards, and only a small percentage able to meet them, all are motivated to work as hard as possible in order to be one of the few with high marks. The job of the teacher is to maintain that high standard in order to force students to maintain their effort. On the surface this seems to make sense.

However, when we address some of the assumptions, it begins to make absolutely no sense.

To deconstruct:

First of all, the idea of public schools functioning as a sorting mechanism is very conservative in that it serves to maintain the status quo.  Those who start with much will continue to benefit the most.  Students from highly professional backgrounds whose basic needs are met, whose parents are educated, who come from professional, high socioeconomic backgrounds have a huge head start in this view of education as a race to the top.  The fact of the matter is that these advantaged students start at the top, and will mostly like not lose this advantage over the course of their education.  Those who start at the bottom, due to poverty and/or other obstacles, are likely to stay at the bottom.  If education is, at least ostensibly, about giving everyone an equal opportunity this is certainly a move in the wrong direction.  An important point, but not the one I want to focus on here.

For the purpose of this post, I want to look more deeply into the assumptions of learning that underlie the “grade harder” approach (a corollary of the “no excuses” approach that Paul Thomas writes of).  This view assumes that learning is not something that people find valuable or important or motivating, and they therefore need to be driven by extrinsic motivators.  This is where grades come in.  They are the motivator.  The assumption is that people wouldn’t do this kind of activity unless they are driven to do so for some purpose outside of themselves, and providing this purpose is the function grades serve.  Why else would students do work sheets, read from text books designed for schools and no other actual place or purpose, sit obediently in straight rows and have their focus reduced to a person speaking at them?  Of course grades are necessary to manipulate students to do what is believed to be necessary in such an environment!

“Grade harder” misses the point of learning while it reinforces an obsolete view of schooling.

The more we need to emphasize the importance of grades, the less meaningful the work must be. 

I hope it is obvious now that  ramping up the importance of extrinsic motivators points to the need to artificially increase student motivation (might “manipulate students” be a more accurate description?)  Grades, then, function to make students do what they wouldn’t do otherwise.  Discussions about the difficulty or ease of a grading system is a distraction from the real question, which is, what the hell are we having students do in schools?

In addition, focusing on grades not only hides the question of the relevancy of the work, it damages students’ attitude towards the potential for real learning .  In The Case Against Grades, Alfie Kohn convincingly shows 3 main problems with grades:

1. Grades tend to diminish students interest in whatever they are doing.

2. Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task

3. Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking.

(Just as relevant, read Kohn’s Confusing Harder With Better)

So, by increasing the emphasis on grades we are also exacerbating these negative effects as a direct function of the misleading idea that humans need to be coerced into learning. And we know this misleading idea simply isn’t true. When learning is relevant, when students have choices, and when there is an opportunity for mastery, there is no need for coercion. The human brain is intent upon pattern making .  Under conditions where our needs are being met, we can’t help but learn, to ask questions, to push boundaries, to tire of the old and reinvent to create the new. (If you don’t believe me, ask Dan Pink.) The traditional school view has simply stifled students, and continues to do so.

The next step is to realize that if students are doing real life, meaningful work, the issue of rigor changes substantially. If students are doing meaningful work, then they are actually trying to make some kind of difference in the world. They are trying to become creators rather than passive recipients. Students engaging their worlds in this manner don’t wonder so much about the grade they receive, rather they wonder, did my creation (project, service, etc.) have the effect I wanted it to? Did I meet my goal? Did I accomplish what I wanted to? Did my effort make a the difference in the world that I wanted it to? These are the standards that become the measure of success.

The right question is, how can we begin to shift away from an emphasis on grades as a motivator towards the work itself as a motivator?  How do we involve kids in real life, meaningful work, work that they will do even without a grade?  (And the challenge for the group of teachers I work with is exactly this-  Are we engaged with students in such a way that they are involved in work that they would choose to do even if there weren’t grades?)

For starters, see the work of Ron Berger

Joe Bower does a fantastic job of diving deeply into the  of grades  here.

For a transition into this, start with David Perkins’ Making Learning Whole

This article is about an alternative school in Seattle that is working to knock down the walls of school in order to access the world.

Be Human in This Most Inhuman of Ages

All schools have an explicit curriculum, one that is intentionally taught and measured in some way. They also have a “hidden curriculum,” the curriculum through which students learn about things like the power structure of the school, who matters and who doesn’t, values, etc. Sometimes this hidden curriculum is addressed explicitly and consciously by schools and teachers, usually it is not. As schools move towards more standardization, more testing and more measuring, students are learning, via the hidden curriculum, that the power to make decisions lies with others; that is, choices about what is studied, how this is assessed, and even why it is important, are beyond their agency. Their ability to engage with content in a way that makes sense to them is beyond their agency. Their ability to choose content is beyond their agency. Students become trained in passively receiving bits of information rather than being creators of their worlds. Will Richardson recently addressed this concern here, and Yong Zhao here.

An additional, subtle, yet important, idea that is taught by the hidden curriculum is the message of what it means to be human. Although recently the idea of the hidden curriculum’s effect on relationships (which is the means through which we learn what it is to be human) has gone a bit out of fashion, this is because of the framing of educational topics by the corporate ed reform movement rather than any inherent truth. (And for a crucial analysis of this frame, see Paul Thomas’s “Giving Power a Pass”.) Relationships create the context for “instruction,” and context matters. As clumsy examples:  Students learn that it’s okay to bully when teachers use their power to manipulate students to do what they want. Students learn that who they are is clearly not important when teachers don’t know their names after a week in the classroom. Alternatively, students learn the value of being heard when teachers ask them how their day is going, and then stop to actually listen. After a recent surgery, my daughter learned the importance of consideration when her basketball coach stopped by the house to check on her. She knew that she was more than a “thing” to her coach.

Here is another example that I’m not proud of. A few years ago the schools where I work were under some pressure to pass AYP. We had some trouble with this NCLB measurement (you know you’re heading for trouble when the acronyms start popping up) because certain categories of students didn’t have a high enough percentage being tested. I was to make sure that our special education population was fully tested. Unfortunately, this put me into direct confrontation with the wishes of Crystal (a pseudonym), who had no desire to be subjected to 3 days of mandatory testing. Why? These tests were boring, and were a painful reminder of all of the things Crystal wasn’t good at. They were a source of shame for her, and she fought me. I was actually proud of her, but I wasn’t proud of myself. In order to get that AYP, I wheedled, begged and pressured Crystal into finishing the test. She did, and still resents me for it I’m sure (although we maintain a good relationships years after this incident), and Crystal promptly skipped the next week of school.

Who was going to benefit from Crystal taking the test? Not me. Certainly not Crystal. In fact, when you look at the shame she was put through combined with the loss of esteem from “giving in,” combined with the loss of the 3 days of learning, combined with the loss of the week of skipped classes, it’s easy to see that Crystal certainly didn’t benefit. The benefactor was this abstraction, the high schools trying to pass AYP.

So the hidden curriculum lesson for Crystal was that she had no value outside of the data that she could provide. The personal battles that she was fighting, the healing that she was attempting, her own sense of self-worth, none of this was important in the face of this data that needed to be collected. And I was a simple bureaucrat acting in support of a faceless institution.

The greatest danger of the corporate education movement may be in its tendency to encourage those in power to see abstractly, to see human beings as data, the way I saw Crystal. This may also be its most insidious effect. As Diane Ravitch writes,

“I was certainly influenced by the conservative ideology of other top-level officials in the Bush administration who were strong supporters of school choice and competition. But of equal importance, I believe, I began to think like a policymaker, especially a federal policy maker. That meant, in the words of a book by James C. Scott that I later read and admired, I began “seeing like a state,” looking at schools and teachers and students from an altitude of 20,000 feet and seeing them as objects to be moved around by big ideas and great plans.” (Italics are mine.)  The Death of the Great American School System (2010)

One of the most important tasks for us mired in the struggle for a liberating view of education is make sure that maintain our humanity, and to act first of all from our humanity. One of my heroes is Thomas Merton, who wrote, “You are not big enough to accuse the whole age effectively, but let us say you are in dissent. You are in no position to issue commands, but you can speak words of hope…Be human in this most inhuman of ages; guard the image of man (sic) for it is the image of God.”

Foregoing the religious reference, remember that, ultimately, we are in a struggle over what it means to be human.

Please add your story to the “comments” here. Show how abstract data affects concrete human lives.