sheep in a field surrounded by an electric fence

Learning is Not a Mechanism

 Published on April 28, 2015 /  Written by /  “do androids dream of electric sheep?” by /  8

This article was originally published on Educating Modern Learners on January 26, 2015.


“The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility.” ~ bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress

Digital pedagogy is not equivalent to teachers using digital tools. Rather, digital pedagogy demands that we think critically about our tools, demands that we reflect actively upon our own practice. So, digital pedagogy means not just drinking the Kool-Aid, but putting the Kool-Aid under a microscope. When I lead workshops for teachers interested in developing digital skills, I say right up front that I have little interest in teaching teachers or learners how to use the technologies they’ll use in classrooms for the next three years. I am much more interested in working with teachers and learners to develop the literacies that will help them use and evaluate the educational tools they’ll be using in ten or twenty years. Often, this means knowing when and how to put tools down, as much as it means knowing when and how to take them up.

Talk of teaching with technology is not altogether (or even close to nearly) new. In 1915, John Dewey wrote in Schools of To-Morrow: “Unless the mass of workers are to be blind cogs and pinions in the apparatus they employ, they must have some understanding of the physical and social facts behind and ahead of the material and appliances with which they are dealing.” The development and dissemination of educational technology has always had political, as well as practical, ramifications.

The large-format blackboard was first used in the U.S. in 1801. The vacuum tube-based computer was introduced in 1946. In the 1960s, Seymour Papert began teaching the Logo programming language to children. The first Learning Management System, PLATO (Program Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations), was developed in 1960. At the invent of each, there was fear, resistance, and the thoughtless slobber of over-enthusiasm. After the introduction of the Radio Lecture in the 1930s, Lloyd Allen Cook warned, “This mechanizes education and leaves the local teacher only the tasks of preparing for the broadcast and keeping order in the classroom.” This sentence is not all that different from the ones we’ve read about the Massive Open Online Course over the last three years, or about online learning over the last twenty five years. In the 19th Century, Emily Dickinson hinted at the mechanizing of education in her poem, “From all the Jails the Boys and Girls,” where she equates schools with jails but ultimately determines, “That Prison doesn’t keep.”

Let’s take a specific (and increasingly ubiquitous tool) by way of example. When I first taught online, I encountered the horror that is the gradebook inside most learning management systems, which reduces students (often color coding them) into mere rows in a spreadsheet. Over the last 15 years, I’ve watched this tool proliferate into all the institutions where I’ve worked. Even teachers that don’t use the learning management system for its other decidedly more pleasurable uses have made its gradebook more and more central to the learning experience for students. On its surface, the LMS gradebook does not seem all that fundamentally different from an analog gradebook, which also reduces students to mere rows in a spreadsheet. But most learning management systems now offer (or threaten) to automate a process which is, in fact, deeply idiosyncratic. They make grading more efficient, as though efficiency is something we ought to celebrate in teaching and learning.

It seems easier to far too many teachers to imagine that students do work the way machines do — that they can be scored according to objective metrics and neatly compared to one another. Schools, and the systems we’ve invented to support them, condition us to believe that there are always others (objective experts or even algorithms) who can know better than us the value of our own work. I’m struck by the number of institutions that for all intents and purposes equate teaching with grading — that assume our job as teachers is to merely separate the wheat from the chaff. And I find myself truly confused when anyone suggests to me that there is a way for us to do this kind of work objectively. For me, teaching and learning have always been (and will always be) deeply subjective.

bell hooks writes in Teaching to Transgress about her experience in graduate school, “nonconformity on our part was viewed with suspicion, as empty gestures of defiance aimed at masking inferiority or substandard work” (5). One of the problems with learning management system gradebooks, often mapped to rubrics and outcomes (which have run equally rampant of late), is that they assume students (and their experiences) are interchangeable. And they assume the same of teachers. The problem is that lesson plans and assignments can’t be expected to work exactly the same with every set of students, with every teacher, or on every given day. Both teachers and learners must approach the classroom from a place of flexibility, willing to see the encounters, exchanges, interactions, and relationships that develop in a classroom as dynamic. Grades, and the (very bizarre) notion of their systematized objectivity, stand as an immediate affront to this kind of classroom.

I recently worked with a student that admitted to stopping doing the work for the current week, because she was distracted by — “lost within,” to use her words — a subject from a previous week. My response was simple and encouraging, “sounds good, stay lost.” There would have been no column sufficient for representing this exchange in a gradebook, and this kind of exchange has been the rule more than the exception in my work as a teacher. The text in question, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, is about exactly what the student described to me, going on a quest and getting lost. This is, for me, what learning looks like — not finishing assignments, not following directions, not dotting “i”s and crossing “t”s. It’s a process of discovery that has no outcome fixed in advance. This kind of learning is about sitting (sometimes uncomfortably) with our not knowing. Grading inside a learning management system too often obscures, does not reveal, this process.

I used these systems for years, struggling to find ways to subvert their worst intentions, until I ultimately determined to simply say, “I would prefer not to.”

If there is a better sort of mechanism that we need for the work of digital pedagogy, it is a machine, an algorithm, a platform tuned not for delivering and assessing content, but for helping all of us listen better to students. And, by “listen,” I decidedly do not mean “surveil.” The former implies an invitation to open dialogue, whereas the latter implies a hierarchical relationship through which learners are made into mere data points. My call, then, is for more emphasis on the tools that help us fully and genuinely inhabit digital environments, tools like ears, eyes, or fingers. My call is to stop attempting to distinguish so incessantly between online and on-ground learning, between the virtual and the face-to-face, between digital pedagogy and chalkboard pedagogy. Good digital pedagogy is just good pedagogy.

bell hooks writes, in Teaching to Transgress, “The first paradigm that shaped my pedagogy was the idea that the classroom should be an exciting place, never boring” (7). So, I want to end this post with several questions: what kinds of tools can we find, build, or imagine that help make the work of learning “fun,” as hooks advocates? Can we imagine assessment mechanisms even that encourage discovery, ones not designed for assessing learning but designed for learning through assessment? When do we decide that a tool isn’t working, and how can we work together to set it down en masse?


[Photo, “do androids dream of electric sheep?,” by Pedro Figueiredo licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.]

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8 Responses
  1. hooks is not really saying that the work of learning should be “fun,” but rather the classroom should be an “exciting place.” I see these as two possibly quite different things.

    If learning is just “fun,” it can be perhaps trivialized. I believe learning should be a serious, strenuous endeavor, that causes one to stretch, to explore, to encounter. That might be incidentally fun, but that’s not all it should be.

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