Higher Education Teaching

can education be abundant?

Seth Godin wrote this post a while back. I don't remember if I read it at the time, but I was picking up on it again from a Will Richardson tweet. Anyway, he proposes several "crossroads" in education and suggests that they results in eight possible futures, which are basically described as:

  • abundant, free, learning
  • abundant, free, schooling
  • abundant, expensive, learning
  • abundant, expensive, schooling
  • scarce, free, learning
  • scarce, free, schooling
  • scarce, expensive, learning
  • scarce, expensive, schooling

He suggesting that "the free, abundant learning combination is the one that's going to change the world." I think he's right. This combo will change the world…. in the nineteenth century. This is what we call public schooling. Obviously we think of this as "abundant." It is free to the student. And students do learn there. I don't think we can quibble with the abundant quality of public schools, but maybe one might complain about the "free" part. Well, I would suggest, to quote Robert Heinlein, TANSTAAFL: there ain't no such thing as a free lunch. Just look at all the "free" social media out there–the concerns about monetization and immaterial free labor. That's what I am talking about here. So "free" is relative to the user/student in this case.

Now perhaps we also want to quibble over the learning/schooling distinction. As I see it, the distinction that Godin is making here is between self-paced, learner-driven inquiry and group-based, teacher/institution-driven instruction. I don't think this is to suggest that people don't "learn" in school, but only that it isn't a great method. I know where he's coming from. Nevertheless, I have long-standing criticisms of the fantasy that Americans are going to teach themselves through self-paced online courses and a community of experts freely giving their time. However I would be willing to see this as a methodological shift in terms of pedagogy. At one point, Godin describes an MBA program he attended as scarce, free, learning, so clearly he sees this possibility.

However, while Godin seems to think the problem is schooling vs. learning (as do many others), I think the conceptual problem lies with the idea of "abundance." What exactly is abundant about education? In the case of public schooling in America, it means that every kid has access to a classroom in a public school. It also means that we will hold schools, teachers, parents, and kids accountable in different ways for "learning" (as determined by performance on standardized tests). So rooms, materials, curricula, and teachers are relatively abundant, as are tests. If we turn it over to more of a "learning" model, what is abundant then? Basically all the same things. It's just that the curricula and pedagogy are different, and maybe we get away from the standardized tests, but maybe not.

I would suggest that whatever is "abundant" about education is a commodity. It is not worth very much. And, in the end, while necessary, it is not sufficient to make a difference in student learning.

For example, in teaching writing, books and websites about grammar and style are abundant. Syllabi, lesson plans, and writing assignments are abundant. Video games and multimedia exercises to teach you grammar are abundant. Some of those things are useful and maybe even necessary. But what makes a difference in a student becoming a better writer is the attention she pays to the task and the sustained attention she receives from an experienced, knowledgeable teacher and a community of dedicated, fellow student writers. It is the attention, the cognitive demand, that is scarce. Not only b/c people may not want to do it, but simply b/c that kind of sustained attention is not abundant. It is something that needs to be learned, developed, and exercised. And that attention simply cannot be "free." It is a cost unto itself.

So, perhaps perversely, I will completely disagree with Godin and say that it is scare, expensive, schooling that will change the world, though I will slightly amend his definitions to suggest that the pedagogical methods he describes as "learning" can and should be what we find in schools. What is scarce and expensive is what is valuable. And I'm not talking about an Ivy League degree. I'm taking about the scarcity and cost of paying attention, of the difficult cognitive labor of learning anything that is worth learning or developing any skill worth having. I'm talking about attentional demands that must be paid by both student and teacher.

What is necessary is to shift the discourse so that people stop thinking of education as abundant, and as such as something that is easily acquired like fast food. We need to help students understand that an eduction requires effort and hence it is not "free." And as much as I embrace the pedagogy behind what Godin terms "learning," we need to realize that it is an error to suggest that just following your nose and interests and links at one's own pace will result in learning. I'm as likely as anyone to while away a few hours surfing blogs on the web. And I learn some interesting stuff, and sometimes I blog about it. But I also realize that such practice is only a prelim to a very different kind of learning where I must meet other people's demands and expectations, where I have to confront difficult things, and work them out.

In short, TANSTAAFL..