I somehow missed this when it was first posted, despite fairly avidly following OLDaily and keeping my eyes wide open for commentary on How Education Works. My only excuse is that I was travelling the day this was posted, and it was a hectic few days after that.
I’m very pleased that Stephen has some nice things to say about the book, and that he picks up on the fact that it is indeed as much about technology (and our deep, intrinsic intertwingularity with it) as it is about education. Absolutely.
I’m quite attached to the soft-hard metaphor that Stephen is lukewarm about but only, as he hints, because of what it implies about the dynamics of technology. When I started writing the book I used to talk a bit simplistically of soft and hard technologies. I still think that can be a useful distinction and there’s still plenty on the subject in the book. However, any soft technology can, in assembly, be hardened, and any hard technology can, in assembly, be softened, so it is really just another (I think slightly better) way of thinking about affordances of technologies, not about the technologies as they are assembled. For similar reasons, it is only slightly less fuzzy than existing theories of affordances, offering a framework for explaining technologies but not much that is predictive. The thing that led to the first of many rewrites of the book was my growing realization that the more important distinction is between soft and hard technique (the subset of technologies that are enacted by humans). The thing that matters most is the extent to which we are part of a pre-set (hard) orchestration, or we are the orchestrators, in any instantiation of an assembly of technologies. That is a much more precise distinction that both explains and predicts, and it is the basic distinction that (I think) is implicit in most social-constructivist models of technology in society, including Franklin’s distinction between holistic and prescriptive technologies, Boyd’s dominative and liberative technologies, Pinch & Bijker’s interpretive flexibility, and the dynamics of actor-network theory. Understanding the interplay between the rigid and the flexible in any given technology provides us with the means to control what should be controlled, to think about how we are being controlled and, if the hard components lead us down unwanted paths, ways of leaving those paths. And, of course, it is primarily technique (soft and hard) that education explicitly seeks to develop, so it gives us a very useful tool for understanding the complex nature of education itself.