The cost of admission to the unlearning zone

picture of dull classroom (pubic domain)I describe some of what I do as ‘unteaching’, so I find this highly critical article by Miss Smith – The Unlearning Zone –  interesting. Miss Smith dislikes the terms ‘ unteaching’ and ‘unlearning’ for some well-expressed aesthetic and practical reasons: as she puts it, they are terms “that would not be out of place in a particularly self-satisfied piece of poststructuralist literary analysis circa 1994.”  I partially agree. However, she also seems equally unenamoured with what she thinks they stand for. I disagree with her profoundly on this so, as she claims to be new to these terms, here is my attempt to explain a little about what I mean by them and why I think they are a useful part of the educators’ lexicon, and why they are crucially important for learners’ development in general.

First the terms…

Yes, ‘unteaching’ is an ugly neoligism and it doesn’t really make sense: that’s part of the appeal of using it – a bit of cognitive dissonance can be useful for drawing attention to something. However, it is totally true that someone who is untaught is just someone who has not (yet) been taught, so ‘unteaching’, seen through that light, is at best pointless, at worst self-contradictory.  On the other hand, it does seem to follow pretty naturally from ‘unlearning’ which, contrary to Miss Smith’s assertion, has been in common use for centuries and makes perfect sense. Have you ever had to unlearn bad habits? Me too.

As I understand it, ‘unteach’ is to ‘teach’ as ‘undo’ is to ‘do’.  Unteaching is still teaching, just as undoing is still doing, and unlearning is still learning. Perhaps deteaching would be a better term. Whatever we choose to call it, unteaching is concerned with intentionally dismantling the taught belief that teaching is about exerting power over learners to teach, and replacing it with the attitude that teachers are there to empower learners to learn. This is not a particularly radical idea. It is what all teachers should do anyway, I reckon. But it is worth drawing attention to it as a distinct activity because it runs counter to the tide, and the problem it addresses is virtually ubiquitous in education up to, and sometimes at, doctoral level.

Traditional teaching of the sort Miss Smith seems to defend in her critique does a lot more than teach a subject, skill, or way of thinking. It teaches that learning is a chore that is not valuable in and of itself, that learners must be forced to do it for some other purpose, often someone else’s purpose. It teaches that teaching is something done to students by a teacher: at its worst, it teaches that teaching is telling; at best, that teaching involves telling someone to do something. It’s not that (many) teachers deliberately seek these outcomes, but that they are the most likely lessons to be learned, because they are the ones that are repeated most often. The need for unteaching arises because traditional teaching, with luck in addition to whatever it intends to teach, teaches some terrible lessons about learning and the role of teaching in that process that must be unlearned.

What is unteaching?

Miss Smith claims that unteaching means “open plan classes, unstructured lessons and bean bags.” That’s not the way I see it at all. Unlike traditional teaching, with its timetables, lesson plans, learning objectives, and uniform tests, unteaching does not have its own technologies and methods, though it does, for sure, tend to be a precursor to connectivist, social constructivist, constructionist, and other more learner-centred ways of thinking about the learning process, which may sometimes be used as part of the process of unteaching itself. Such methods, models, and attitudes emerge fairly naturally when you stop forcing people to do your bidding. However, they are just as capable of being used in a controlling way as the worst of instructivist methods: the number of reports on such interventions that include words like ‘students must…’, ‘I make my students…’ or (less blatantly) ‘students (do X)’ far outnumber all others, and that is the very opposite of unteaching. The specific technologies (including pedagogies as much as open-plan classrooms and beanbags) are not the point. Lectures, drill-and-practice and other instructivist methods are absolutely fine, as long as:

  1. they at least attempt to do the job that students want or need,
  2. they are willingly and deliberately chosen by students,
  3. students are well-informed enough to make those choices, and
  4. students can choose to learn otherwise at any time.

No matter how cool and groovy your problem-based, inquiry-based, active methods might be, if they are imposed on students (especially with the use of threats for non-compliance and rewards for compliance – e.g. qualifications, grades, etc) then it is not unteaching at all: it’s just another way of doing the same kind of teaching that caused the problem in the first place. But if students have control – and ‘control’ includes being able to delegate control to someone else who can scaffold, advise, assist, instruct, direct, and help them when needed, as well as being able to take it back whenever they wish – then such methods can be very useful. So can lectures. To all those educational researchers that object to lectures, I ask whether they have ever found them valuable in a conference (and , if not, why did they go to a conference in the first place?). It’s not the pedagogy of lectures that is at fault. It’s the requirement to attend them and the accompanying expectation that people are going to learn what you are teaching as a result. That’s, simply put, empirically wrong. It doesn’t mean that lecturees learn nothing. Far from it. But what you teach and what they learn are different kinds of animal.

Problems with unteaching

It’s really easy to be a bad unteacher – I think that is what Miss Smith is railing against, and it’s a fair criticism. I’m often pretty bad at it myself, though I have had a few successes along the way too. Unteaching and, especially, the pedagogies that result from having done unteaching, are far more likely to go wrong, and they take a lot more emotional, intellectual, and social effort than traditional teaching because they don’t come pre-assembled. They have no convenient structures and processes in place to do the teaching for you.  Traditional teaching ‘works’ even when it doesn’t. If you throw someone into a school system, with all its attendant rewards, punishments, timetables, rules and curricula, and if you give them the odd textbook and assessment along the way, then most students will wind up learning something like what is intended to be taught by the system, no matter how awful the teachers might be. In such a system, students will rarely learn well, rarely persistently, rarely passionately, seldom kindly, and the love of learning will have been squashed out of many of them along the way (survivors often become academics and teachers themselves). But they will mostly pass tests at the end of it. With a bit of luck many might even have gained a bit of useful knowledge or skill, albeit that much will be not just wasted and forgotten as easily as a hotel room number when your stay is over, but actively disliked by the end of it. And, of course, they will have learned dependent ways of learning that will serve them poorly outside institutional systems.

To make things far worse, those very structures that assist the traditional teacher (grades, compulsory attendance, fixed outcomes, concept of failure, etc) are deeply antagonistic to unteaching and are exactly why it is needed in the first place. Unteachers face a huge upstream struggle against an overwhelming tide that threatens to drown passionate learning every inch of the way. The results of unteaching can be hard to defend within a traditional educational system because, by conventional measures, it is often inefficient and time-consuming. But conventional measures only make sense when you are trying to make everyone do the same things, through the same means, with the same ends, measured by and in order to meet the same criteria. That’s precisely the problem.

The final nail in unteaching’s coffin is that it is applied very unevenly across the educational system, so every freedom it brings is counterbalanced by a mass of reiterated antagonistic lessons from other courses and programs. Every time we unteach someone, two others reteach them.  Ideally, we should design educational systems that are friendlier to and more supportive of learner autonomy, and that are (above all else) respectful of learners as human beings. In K-12 teaching there are plenty of models to draw from, including Summerhill, Steiner (AKA Waldorf) schools, Montessori schools, Experiential Learning Schools etc. Few are even close to perfect, but most are at least no worse than their conventional counterparts, and they start with an attitude of respect for the children rather than a desire to make them conform. That alone makes them worthwhile. There are even some regional systems, such as those found in Finland or (recently) British Columbia, that are heading broadly in the right direction. In universities and colleges there are plenty of working models, from Oxford tutorials to Cambridge supervisions, to traditional theses and projects, to independent study courses and programs, to competency-based programs, to PLAR/APEL portfolios, and much more. It is not a new idea at all. There is copious literature and many theoretical models that have stood the test of time, from andragogy to communities of practice, through to teachings from Freire, Illich, Dewey and even (a bit quirkily) Vygotsky. Furthermore, generically and innately, most distance and e-learning unteaches better than its p-learning counterparts because teachers cannot exert the same level of control and students must learn to learn independently. Sadly, much of it is spoiled by coercing students with grades, thereby providing the worst of both worlds: students are forced to behave as the teacher demands in their terminal behaviours but, without physical copresence, are less empowered by guidance and emotional/social support with the process. Much of my own research and teaching is concerned with inverting that dynamic – increasing empowerment and social support through online learning, while decreasing coercion. I’d like to believe that my institution, Athabasca University, is largely dedicated to the same goal, though we do mostly have a way to go before we get it right.

Why it matters

Unteaching is to a large extent concerned with helping learners – including adult learners – to get back to the point at which most children start their school careers – driven by curiosity, personal interest, social value, joy, delight – but that is schooled out of them over years of being taught dependency.  Once misconceptions about what education is for, what teachers do, and how we learn, have been removed, teaching can happen much more effectively: supporting, nurturing, inspiring, challenging, responding, etc, but not controlling, not making students do things they are not ready to do for reasons that mean little to them and have even less to do with what they are learning.

However, though it is an immensely valuable terminal outcome, improved learning is perhaps not the biggest reason for unteaching. The real issue is moral: it’s simply the right thing to do. The greatest value is that students are far more likely to have been treated with the respect, care, and honour that all human beings deserve along the way. Not ‘care’ of the sort you would give to a dog when you train it to be obedient and well behaved. Care of the sort that recognizes and valorizes autonomy and diversity, that respects individuals, that cherishes their creativity and passion, that sees learners as ends in themselves, not products or (perish the thought) customers. That’s a lesson worth teaching, a way of being that is worth modelling. If that demands more effort, if it is more fallible, and if it means that fewer students pass your tests, then I’m OK with that. That’s the price of admission to the unlearning zone.

 

Open Whisper Systems

The Signal protocol is designed for secure, private, encrypted messaging and real-time calling. The protocol, designed by Open Whisper Systems, is used in an increasingly large range of tools (including by Facebook and Google), but their own app is the most interesting application of it. 

The (open, GPL) Signal app is a secure, private messaging and voice chat app for iOS and Android, offering guaranteed and strong end-to-end encryption without having to sign up for a service with dubious privacy standards or further agendas (e.g. Facebook, Apple, Google, Whatsapp, Viber etc). No ads, no account details kept by the company, no means for them (or anyone) to store or intercept messages or calls, the organization is funded by donations and grants. The app uses your phonebook to discover other contacts using Signal – I don’t have many yet, but hopefully a few of my contacts will see this and install it. Call quality seems excellent – as good as Skype used to be before Microsoft maimed it – though I haven’t used it enough yet to assess its reliability. One disadvantage is that, if you have more than one phone and phone number, there seems to be no obvious way to link them together. That’s a particular nuisance on a dual-SIM phone.

It needs a real, verified phone number to get started but, once you have done that, you can link it to other devices too, including PCs (via Chrome or a Chrome-based browser like the excellent Vivaldi), using a simple QR code (no accounts!) so this is a potentially great replacement for things like Whatsapp, Skype, Allo, Viber, etc. No video calling yet, though you can send video messages (and most other things).

 

Address of the bookmark: https://whispersystems.org/#page-top

Get that “new Mac” smell all the time with a $24 scented candle

Some time ago, while comparing the virtues of paper and electronic books, I predicted that the current generation would one day wax lyrical about the smell of a new iPhone much as those from my generation get gooey over the scent of old books.

That day has arrived.

Address of the bookmark: http://www.alphr.com/apple/1004449/get-that-new-mac-smell-all-the-time-with-a-24-scented-candle

Leonard Cohen Dead at 82 – Rolling Stone

Another sad piece of news in a year of much sad news.

To be fair, it does not come as a great surprise. He had been preparing for this for a long time, approaching death with the same style, creativity, and elegance as he approached his life. Cohen said in a recent interview that he was ready to die and, following much the same theme, in his final letter to Marianne Ihlen as she lay dying earlier this year –  ‘We are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon’. It pleases me greatly that, on his 80th birthday, he followed through on his long-held intention to take up smoking once more.

 

Address of the bookmark: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/leonard-cohen-dead-at-82-w449792

Original page

Commons In A Box

Landing-like software from CUNY, based on Buddypress, intended to provide a learning commons with relatively little effort or configuration. It’s a nice bit of packaging, slick, with good collaboration tools and a simple, activity-stream-oriented social network. Commons in a Box is definitely worth looking at if you need a site to support a bottom-up social community or network, and you don’t have a wealth of resources to put into building your own. 

I came across this software because it is being used in the University of Brighton’s newly reborn community site at https://community.brighton.ac.uk which, until it was killed off last year, used to run on Elgg.  I remain a fan of Elgg for building such things, which has a lot more options than BuddyPress available by default, richer access control, and a much more elegant technological design that makes customization more robust and flexible, but this seems to be a great simple solution that just works without demanding much effort, and that, thanks to its WordPress foundations, could be customized to do pretty much anything you’d want a bit of social software to do. 

Address of the bookmark: http://commonsinabox.org/

Understanding the response to financial and non-financial incentives in education: Field experimental evidence using high-stakes assessments

What they did

This is a report by, Simon Burgess, Robert Metcalfe, and Sally Sadoff on a large scale study conducted in the UK on the effects of financial and non-financial incentives on GCSE scores (GCSEs are UK qualifications usually taken around age 16 and usually involving exams), involving over 10,000 students in 63 schools being given cash or ‘non-financial incentives’. ‘Non-financial incentives’ did not stretch as far as a pat on the back or encouragement given by caring teachers – this was about giving tickets for appealing events. The rewards were given not for getting good results but for particular behaviours the researchers felt should be useful proxies for effective study: specifically, attendance, conduct, homework, and classwork. None of the incentives were huge rewards to those already possessing plenty of creature comforts but, for poorer students, they might have seemed substantial. Effectiveness of the intervention was measured in terminal grades. The researchers were very thorough and were very careful to observe limitations and concerns. It is as close to an experimental design as you can get in a messy real-world educational intervention, with numbers that are sufficient and diverse enough to make justifiable empirical claims about the generalizability of the results.

What they found

Rewards had little effect on average marks overall, and it made little difference whether rewards were financial or not. However, in high risk groups (poor, immigrants, etc) there was a substantial improvement in GCSE results for those given rewards, compared with the control groups. 

My thoughts

The only thing that does surprise me a little is that so little effect was seen overall, but I hypothesize that the reward/punishment conditions are so extreme already among GCSE students that it made little difference to add any more to the mix.  The only ones that might be affected would be those for whom the extrinsic motivation is not already strong enough. There is also a possibility that the demotivating effects for some were balanced out by the compliance effects for others: averages are incredibly dangerous things, and this study is big on averages.

What makes me sad is that there appears to be no sense of surprise or moral outrage about this basic premise in this report.

dogs being whipped, from Jack London's 'Call of the Wild' It appears reasonable at first glance: who would not want kids to be more successful in their exams? When my own kids had to do this sort of thing I would have been very keen on something that would improve their chances of success, and would be especially keen on something that appears to help to reduce systemic inequalities. But this is not about helping students to learn or improving education: this is completely and utterly about enforcing compliance and improving exam results. The fact that there might be a perceived benefit to the victims is a red herring: it’s like saying that hitting dogs harder is good for the dogs because it makes them behave better than hitting them gently. The point is that we should not be hitting them at all. It’s not just morally wrong, it doesn’t even work very well, and only continues to work at all if you keep hitting them. It teaches students that the end matters more than the process, that learning is inherently undesirable and should only done when there is a promise of a reward or threat of punishment, and that they are not in charge of it. 

The inevitable result of increasing rewards (or punishments – they are functionally equivalent) is to further quench any love of learning that might be left at this point in their school careers, to reinforce harmful beliefs about how to learn, and to further put students off the subjects they might have loved under other circumstances for life.  In years to come people will look back on barbaric practices like this much as we now look back at the slave trade or pre-emancipation rights for women.

Studies like this make me feel a bit sick. 

 

Address of the bookmark: http://www.efm.bris.ac.uk/economics/working_papers/pdffiles/dp16678.pdf

Sole and Despotic Dominion

Cory Doctorow is on excellent form discussing the evils of DRM and the meaning of ownership. The title is lifted from William Blackstone, referring to what it means to own something –  “that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe.” Doctorow’s central argument here is that, at least in the US (where DMCA 1201 denies people the right to break DRM locks), the presence of copyrighted DRM’d code in almost every object manufactured, from books to rectal thermometers, means that they cannot ever be owned by anyone other than their manufacturer, protected by law and unaccountable to anyone. 

“DMCA 1201 gave publishers and movie studios and game companies the power to make up their own private laws and outsource their enforcement to the public courts and police.”

Among the results of this are that security researchers cannot reveal flaws that may be dangerous or even deadly (think cars, insulin pumps, etc, not to mention the Internet of Hackable Things) while criminals can exploit them freely. It means that companies like Volkswagen can conceal cheating on emissions tests, that makers of thermostats can prevent you from controlling heat in your own home, that books you bought can be taken away from you on a whim or an error, that printer manufacturers can introduce code to break your printer if you don’t use their cartridges the way they want you to use them, that security agencies can demand that manufacturers let them use your webcam to spy on you, that abandoned games on a long extinct platform cannot be ported to modern hardware, that your watch will stop working if its manufacturer goes bust, and so on. It means that, mostly without our consent or knowledge, we no longer own what we own. As Doctorow puts it:

“There’s a word for this: feudalism. In feudalism, property is the exclusive realm of a privileged few, and the rest of us are tenants on that property. In the 21st century, DMCA-enabled version of feudalism, the gentry aren’t hereditary toffs, they’re transhuman, immortal artificial life-forms that use humans as their gut-flora: limited liability corporations.”

Address of the bookmark: http://www.locusmag.com/Perspectives/2016/11/cory-doctorow-sole-and-despotic-dominion/

Talky

Very interesting – a real-time, largely browser-based video, audio, chat, screen-sharing, etc system requiring no sign-up, no fees, no persistent data. Just pick a URL for a web meeting (webinar), and share it with 15 or more other people. It’s not exactly Adobe Connect, but it has all the main features needed for quick, easy web conferencing with no need for proprietary plugins.

There are no ads, it runs on most browsers that support WebRTC (best on Chrome, Firefox, or one of their many derivatives) and there are mobile apps for it. It’s not just a connection service for WebRTC – there are TURN and STUN servers involved too, so this costs a fair bit for the company to develop and run. It took me a while to figure out how they ever intend to make any money but I think it seems to involve a model much like that of BigBlueButton, with paid-for services like recording, app integration, broadcast etc available through TalkyCore. 

Like all WebRTC implementations, much depends on the browser and router, so this might not work for everyone all the time, but I think it looks very promising, especially now that Firefox has removed Hello from its browser.

Address of the bookmark: https://talky.io/