Hacking Education

Well, I was waiting to digest this more but since Stephen and Alex have started processing it already, I thought I might make an initial stab at some thoughts on the Hacking Education roundtable. And maybe give a bit of aid and comfort to Alex as well.

First things first — the conference was a great thing. It brought a wide array of people together, smart people, and our hosts did a wonderful job of hosting and moderating. I was glad to be invited, and only hope the eventual transcript edits out some of my rambles.

Second thing — as many of you know, I’m not much a fan of the status quo in education. This comes largely from my faith in network-based systems over centralized structures, but it is also grounded in personal experience. I was bullied for a period in middle school, and recognize there is a sick element to primary and secondary school culture. I graduated at the bottom quarter of my high school class because I refused to do any homework, considering it a waste of my time (and I hated the systems that would dock me points off my 100 percent test scores for not doing the work that was meant to prepare me for the tests). I managed to get a 0.0 GPA one semester in college because I got it into my head I was going to be a folk singer, and essentially left school without telling anyone.

And most things that have helped me in life I learned outside the system. I got into educational technology b/c I wanted to replace a system that I felt was sorely outdated and ill-informed. And particularly as pertains to K-12 education, I wanted to help create a system that would expand opportunities for my daughters rather than limiting them.

That said, I came away from the conference oddly defensive of institutions.

Why? Because this is how I see the world:


Public <=====> Private



And I think I’ve realized that there is a significant portion of the Web 2.0ers that see the world this way:

Private Networks <==========> Public Institutions

It doesn’t come out right away. Initially people seem to agree quite a bit. But when the talk turns to solutions, a significant number of people support the voucher route — take the mythical x dollars spent per student, and give it to the student to spend. Let the marketplace decide.

Academically, I think one can make the point that we are conflating the supposed efficiencies of consumer-driven education with a new network pedagogy, and that they are not the same thing at all. One does not necessarily follow from the other.

But I worry about the larger picture. I am worried that the work that I do and that others do will be used not to just deinstitutionalize learning, but held up as examples in the attempts of others to reroute around the public nature of education. I’m worried that the talk about the efficiency of peer learning leads inextricably to anti-teacher rhetoric, and that consumer-driven education is a handy way to resegregate the schools, abandon the disabled (which is what will happen if everybody gets their “share” of the education money), and create yet another funnel of public money to private corporations, a version of  Bush’s failed  “Social Security Reform” for education.

Faced with that possibility, and the difficulty of pushing finely grained plans in a world of broad ideological goals, I walked away from the conference thinking we need to really talk about this in a different way, one which respects that we can not make words mean what we want to.

The institutions stay. The buildings stay. The public funding stays.  And teachers stay, in some capacity — although I agree with Fred Wilson that the situation of the modern teacher is much like that of the reporter in the 1990s — we have to rethink what it is to be a teacher, realizing that many of the core skills and talents of teachers *can* transfer to the new environment, if we approach this mindfully.

What we want to do is keep that stuff in place — much of it really is foundational to our society and economy, like it or not.

But we have to alter what happens inside those institutions — make it less industrial age, less internally institutional, more network oriented, more student-driven (which is related to consumer-driven but not the same). We have to make it less about getting docked for not doing math homework, and more about setting up meaningful contexts in which math might be naturally relevant.

In short, the conference metaphor was exactly right — we have to hack education, not rebuild it from scratch. I think where fault lines appeared in the discussion, this was the fundamental underlying difference of opinion. And for me, it was one of the lessons of the conference — that I often talk revolution, but that this is a situation where attacking our institutions too hard as bulky, increasingly irrelevant entities could lead not to their reform, but their destruction.

Thanks again to Union Square Ventures for a great conference.

29 thoughts on “Hacking Education

  1. As a College Prof who occasionally consults to the public schools in SW NH I have gathered…drum roll…one teacher who responds to my messages about innovations in the classroom. Stuff from NY Times/Bank St. online, using SKYPE to bring in book authors to interact with students, blogging, twitter to describe consciousness…all could save disenchanted students (like you in Middle School). Why do public school teachers cling to boring “chalk talk?”
    (Larry…father of bored KMS student)

  2. I agree — the system is dysfunctional, and severely frustrating. We have to get that stuff into the classroom, and we have to make sure the generation of teachers we are producing are capable of rethinking education and empowered to do so.

    What I worry is that we are going to do to education what we have done to other public ventures — we tie the hands of the system so much, with testing and detailed state standards, etc — we regulate the whole she-bang, force it to beg for money each year, and then we ask hey, why do private enterprises work so much better? Maybe we should privatize this.

    If you want to change the school system, change can’t come from sporadic parent interaction — it has to be supported and engaged by the system — and to do that there has to be a commitment that what we are moving to maintains some of the key components — public funding, shared community facilities and infrastructure, and a place for teachers that are willing to make the transition to new modes (and a place, frankly, for those who don’t — since the public school is not all about education, and even in an environment where zero is learned we are still talking a challenging job).

    If we can’t start with that reassurance the choice quickly becomes to either blow the whole thing up or keep it indefinitely. I don’t think that’s a helpful array of options.

  3. Thanks for the real and honest post. I appreciate the tension and tenor of what you are dealing with. I also experience the forced decision of it being an either/or approach, when really it can be a both/and approach. We can do all the new stuff and the old stuff at the same time.

  4. I’ve tried to start this reply a few times now, because it’s hard to respond with sense to this huge issue. There is so much wrong with the public education system that it’s hard to know where to begin to change it. I don;t think throwing more money or administration is the answer. Maybe instead of creating even more rigorous assessment in the form of multiple choice tests, we could appoint a PTA czar to (forcefullly) encourage family involvement in the education process, whatever it morphs into. Too many hands are in too many pockets. My school district is required by the state (Florida) to choose and purchase (they call it adopting, isn’t that sweet?) a new set of textbooks for each subject (reading, math, social studies, science) every six years. It’s a crime what an incredible waste of money that is. I teach Florida history in 4th grade. You can believe that preglacial to the 19th century Florida history hasn’t changed much. What would be terrific is if I could get handheld technology into my students’ hands so they can use web-based or updatable software-based technology rather than finding a place to bury–that’s right, bury– the old books when we “adopt” the new series.

    More importantly, there needs to be communication, real communication, between families and educators. The students who show the most academic and social growth in my classroom every year are the ones whose families I know the best. I’ve been trying for years to figure out how to reach families who are reluctant to come to a school to meet with me. I agree it is a community effort, so I attend sporting events that my students are involved in just so I can have a conversation with the parents. I had a parent teacher conference at the grocery store, because that’s where the students’ mom works, and I couldn’t get her to come to talk to me at school. Perhaps I should start sending emails to my state DOE with my brilliant suggestions 😉

    • You know, belated reply Cindy, but I think the other thing re: family involvement is this — regarding I think the kids that aren’t in the suburban schools — parental involvement in those cases is often an indicator of a different problem.

      There is no educational justice without economic justice. The best way to get parent involvement in a school is to rebuild the community around it, and that takes money. You need jobs training, placement agencies, incubators, improved social service centers (run in conjunction or even out of the schools). You need low-cost loans for community development, usable parks and walkable streets.

      For more advantaged kids, the best parental involvement is really that they not be anti-intellectual in their nature or attitude. Kids pick up on that. My sense is you could go to every parent teacher meeting there is, but if your world view is that there are egghead losers and “real men” — or that there are nerdy girls vs. popular ones — well, it won’t matter. The biggest hurdle to many of our kids is they are told to succeed in school while their parents openly mock any display of intelligence in adults. That’s a horrible mixed message.

      The saving grace is that nerd culture has begun to creep into the mainstream, particularly among our kids. We’re behind them on this.

  5. Nice post – nice reflection. I like the idea of hacking public education as opposed to attacking or reforming “increasingly irrelevant entities.”

    In my years teaching, there wasn’t much we couldn’t accomplish by paying inspired people well to connect individually with students. There is nothing more important for us to spend on. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in issues like textbook funding, teacher qualifications/tenure, accountability, family involvement, standardized tests, building costs. Those debates are missing the point.

    Our schools need the freedom to hire great people who can in turn adapt pedagogy as they work to reach students as best they can. The more we legislate and standardize education delivery in a state like NH, the more students and families slip through the cracks of a system that has ceased to meet their needs. States like Maine and Vermont seem to have begun to grasp this, with their open portfolio methods and (relatively) flexible curriculum.

    Great teachers are the magic bullet for 90% of what ails our society. I hate to see them under-resourced, and not paid like or treated as professionals. Let’s face it – most of us only pay them any mind when we are fighting to keep their salaries or benefits down or when badly supervised ones wind up in the news for some possible malpractice or impropriety.
    We still have some great ones out there – it’s too bad we handcuff so many of them in the name of holding them accountable for pushing our kids through such a narrow vision of intellectual and moral development…

    • Willy — I missed this excellent comment way back — thanks for it. Sorry it took months to approve.

      I think we both agree that the increase of restrictions on what teachers can teach in terms of subject matter (all in the name of standardizing curriculum) has negatively impacted the real teaching and learning that goes on in the classroom. The people that survive in the post-NCLB post-Spellings environment are not necessarily going to be the best teachers.

      I think/hope the tide may be turning on that, but time will tell I suppose.

  6. This was a really awell-written post. I learned several of new things by reading it. Thank you so much for sharing this information it was a true pleasure to read it.

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