Blog Post

Bored with the Education Naysayers

Okay.  I'm just going to say it:  I'm bored to death with the education nay-sayers.   They come in many sizes with many targets but they wear me down and, frankly, the grousing whining complaining shouting tone does not reflect the energy, inspiration, and imagination that I encounter practically every day as I talk to teachers, professors, administrators, parents, kids, students, management trainers, and all the rest.   Do not get me wrong:  I am not fond of lots that I see in contemporary education.  I believe in innovation, inspiration, reform if not educational revolution.   But to do those things, requires trying something adventurous and new


You can't just complain all the time and hope all that negativity will inspire a revolution.


Complaining about everything that currently exists, without offering clear, practical improvements, is just playing into a mode of despair which adds to the problem.  It solves nothing.  David Theo Goldberg and I, plus a dozen others across the humanities, arts, the natural and social sciences, and technology formed HASTAC in 2002 because we wanted to connect with others who were as convinced as we were that we had to stop complaining and start connecting. We had to stop battling one another and find places where, together, we could be strong and make learning dynamic, linked to social goals, international, inventive, and inspiring.  


I'm tired of hearing what's wrong with the status quo without models of what can be right.  Even complaining about No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top and other such top-down programs doesn't work unless you offer solutions and alternatives.   It's not like all education was perfect before NCLB and RT.  Hardly!   Those policies were put into place because there were problems.   They will not be replaced until we address the real problems that exist now and that existed before NCLB and RT and offer real, practical, and also imaginative and visionary solutions. 


Maybe that's why I've been called an optimist.   Yes, the current situation has some real problems.  Almost everyone who has invited me to speak this year (I've had something like 47 face-to-face engagements since August plus every kind of internet, radio, tv, print media) agrees with my opening salvo:  "We're doing a good job training students for the 20th century." 


"We're doing a good job training students for the 20th century."    This is a historical and institutional observation.   Virtually all the apparatus of contemporary education, from kindergarten to graduate and professional school, was institutionalized as part of the Industrial Age's mandate to retrain farmers for the factory and shopkeepers for the firm.   That retraining is why the school bell became the symbol of 19th-early 20th century compulsory public education: farmers don't do things by clock time, factories do; entrepreneurs don't punch a timeclock, 20th century corporate workers did.   Think about how much in school is about the division of time and timeliness and delivering results on time, with timed tests: start at age six, go from 8-4, math for the first hour, switch to English whether or not the math is finished or understood, now geography, etc, take out your pencils, fill in these bubbles, put away your pencils.  etc.   Other ways that school retrains for Industrial task-specific attention:  Hierarchy, standardization, productivity metrics, field separation, disciplinary rigidity, two cultures binary.    None of that works very well for the interconnected, global DIY 21st century.    But don't we all know that by now?  


That's why I love the brilliant educators (some of whom were DIY interactive co-learners way before the internet!) I interviewed and profile in Now You See It.  And it is why I admire books like Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, A New Culture of Learning:  Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change.  It is why I am excited by how many universities and schools are rethinking their mission, forms, content, structures, and ideas, and why this coming week is particularly exciting.  


It starts with Rice University's DeLange Conference on the Future of Higher Education ( , which I'm keynoting with JSB, Jim Dudderstadt, Amy Gutmann, Hunter Rawlings, Charles Vest, Robert  Zemsky, Burton McMurtry, Rita Colwell, and many others on Feb 27-28.  Guess what?  All of  these prominent educational leaders  (the distinguished former presidents and directors at this Delange Confernce) and these iconoclastic innovators (JSB and myself go in that camp) are saying the same thing:  we need to stress learning, not just research, and it has to be engaged, challenging, peer-driven, technology-enhanced, CONNECTED learning---cohorts, learning circles, learning connected to the world, learning connected to activism, and ideas connected to one another.   Did you know, for example, that a hugely disproportionate number of STEM graduate and professional school students today had undergraduate degrees not at science-driven research universities but at the so-called "Oberlin 80" network of liberal arts colleges?  Why?  Because those colleges are dedicated to learning, teaching, connected knowledge . . . and you cannot divorce those from STEM without diminishing STEM.   We are connected.  It's not test scores and subjects.  It is learning together, connecting together, at all stages of life, to enhance our lives in the world in equitable, fair, just, connected ways, to solve the world's problems together.  Connected.


From there, I go to San Francisco.  On Tuesday, there's a match up of the finalist institutions and finalist developers who are thinking about badges and badging systems.   On Wednesday, the judgest will be listening to their lightning-fast pitches and will be selecting winners for the Badges for Lifelong Learning Competition.   Bottom line:  not every organization or school or learning institution needs badges.  If you have a good system, why change?  But right now education is a disaster, worldwide, because it is driven by standardization via bubble tests rather than high standards.  Nothing could be more "disConnected" than a bubble test from real life, real learning.   You cannot change systems, without changing how those systems are assessed.  So badges are a crucial step in re-Connecting the way we learn and teach to the way we live our lives, from Kindergarten to the end of life, one to the other, globally, locally.  And, if we are lucky, we will have twenty or thirty dedicated learning institutions working with innovative Web developers to publicly, on line, with commentary and webinars and seminars and blogs and tweets every step of the way, be showing us all working, worked examples of new systems of evaluation and accreditation for a full "showcased" and explanatory year that we can all learn from.  At the end, we might say "nah, not for me!"   But let's not start out that way, okay?   This is potentially a paradigm changer.


After the Badges Competition, we go to a  science fair and the incredible 2012 DML Conference:  Beyond Educational Technology:  Learning Innovations in a Connected World ( ).    That's March 1-3, in San Francisco.  Over 1000 people have pre-registered.   We'll be announcing the winners of the Digital Media and Learning Badges for Lifelong Learning Competition there.  And will be talking about them on panels, but will also be talking about all the different ways we can learn together, connected, in the world.  


And on February 29, we'll be cheering at the launch (by Oprah, inspried by Lady Gaga) of the amazing Born This Way Foundation and the student-led BORN TO BE BRAVE MOVEMENT.  It reverses the awful "victim" language, letting youth lead the celebration of real courage, revealing the cowardess of bullies, but, mostly, empowering youth.  Connected learning does not stop at the classroom door.    Here's the url:     Special kudos to our DML colleagues John Palfrey at the Berkman Institute at Harvard and danah boyd at MIT for their contribution.  


At HASTAC we have two mottos, "learning the future together" is one, supplied by one of our HASTAC network members, Steve Burnett.  The other, first said by HASTAC Scholars Director Fiona Barnett, is "Difference isn't our deficit.  It's our operating system."   When new ways of learning together to address the world's problems are being championed by the President of the American Association of Universities and by Lady Gaga, you know change is in the air.  A paradigm is shifting.


The whole point of our CONNECTED LEARNING movement is you cannot divorce learning from society, you cannot divorce outcomes from learning, you cannot divorce learners from teachers, and you have to use technology---not be used by it---as a connector that can motivate lifelong learning and mobilize social engagement.


That is just one tiny slice in one week of what is happening right now.   There is a world of educational innovators dedicating themselves to better ways of learning together.


I know what I'll find at these events, because I've been seeing it everywhere I've gone this year:   there will be energy and vision and conversation and practical, working examples of people doing things, now, in their classrooms, in after-school programs, at universities, and training the next generation of K-12 and university teachers.   


And that is why you can call me an optimist. 


THOUSANDS of educators--and just about anyone who is still a student--knows perfectly well that the educational institutions invented for the Industrial Age need to be re-imagined for a connected, interconnected, global present. 


Those of us who are training students for the 21st century get stronger, more powerful, more vocal, and more connected every day.  It's not just an idea, it's an energetic, visionary movement.   And we WILL succeed because, well, duh, it's not the 20th century anymore.   The Internet does exist. 


The Industrial Age has been supplanted in every part of our lives by the Digital, Connected, Global World.  It is not the future.  It is now.  It is here.  We better be preparing for it. And, for those who resist, please, please move out of the way!   There are plenty of fabulous, forward-looking would-be young educators who want to get in there and do a better job.   They don't want to complain about what is in order to return to what was.


Nor do they think throwing educational technology at the problem or corporatizing schools takes away the problems.  I'm talking about bolder, interactive, personal, inspiring ways of teaching, learning, doing research, publishing, collaborating, thinking and knowing, theorizing and making, doing and building, and taking education outside and beyond the walls of the school or the university to engage with the world we live in now, online and offline.  That's it.  Now we see it.  A new culture of learning.  Connected learning.  Now.



Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and  Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press). She is co-PI on the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions.   NOTE:  The views expressed in Cat in the Stack blogs and in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of HASTAC, nor of any institution or organization. Davidson also writes on her own author blog, [NYSI cover]






1 comment

Part of the problem of education is that it is all about transitions, and will always be so since students become adults, teachers, and invent a new world continuously. Yet the way this problem plays out in educational jargon is as if there were big bumps, dramatic shifts, cataclysmic innovations - whether those innovations are printing or email, scrolls or social networks.

My real professional fascination is with how little might we do to make how much change. Levers. And, as I age, I see more levers than ever. Technology is but one. Time, schedules, interaction, trust, values, multiculturalism, self, and inspiration are just a few of the others. Surely they can be orchetrated into dramatically different institutions, and we can innovate the hell out of 'em. But is it not more interesting, more replicable, and more accessible to both teachers, kids, parents, and communities if we look more closely at how small changes can have great consequence?

Your badging approach is one such lever. It targets assessment and feedback, expressive and inspirational achievements with recognition and some kind of transferrable certification. I, frankly, think it's a little elaborate to hope that a badge from a school will empower a kid across many other situations, but, at least it is a scalable innovation, and echoes traditions well founded and respected.

I think, however, that at least several flowers can bloom and several hundred worlds unite (to periphrase our change language). My preference is to ask kids what they do best, and to show that achievement to peers, parents, and teachers - in eportfolios, or in show-and-tell, on a website or facebook page, in a college app, in a job or promotional piece, or in whatever is most convenient. That preference does invoke some rigor - since I regularly return to the SCANS reports and Arnie Packer's eight skills in his Verified Resume model - and to make that rigor at least oblique if not really external to the "moment of instruction." It hardly achieves "objectivity," but it does give achievements a little "perspective," which, I think again, is the best we can do in a world of saturated media.

Incidentally, I think the real flaw in education is neither technology nor its lack, neither Common Core or constructivism - since all, eventually, coexist. I think it's that we don't celebrate what students contribute - to each other and to us, as their mentors, compatriots, and co-explorers in a changing world. One of my former students, now facing his transition from community college to university and career, reminded me of this the other day. He thanked me for inspiration:

I respect you Joe. I respect you a lot. Not because you choose to help me on a more personal level in a teacher to student sense but because you have taken up a demanding task and you have been actively engaged at it. You reek of a bittersweet smell - its your ongoing desire to identify and resolve the issues with our nation's education system. You've been tackling it for decades! It's not just because you're a teacher or because you participate in professional development meetings of that sort - you introduce innovative ideas and you employ them. For this, I want to sincerely thank you. I don't regard your attention or fascination (ignore it if you find it pushy) of me in any respect of me as an individual. I believe that you are helping me because you want to help the nation.

I'm no different than the student beside me. In front or behind me. I grew up believing that it was the students - the students are flawed! They simply don't care enough and that's why the teacher is having such a hard time. As I grew up, I began to realize that it wasn't entirely the student's fault. Something made them act the way they did - there was an underlying tick that kept them itchy. And I see a clear solution: the teacher must have the ability to adapt to the students and their specific needs. If a student doesn't want to learn, we can't force them. If a student doesn't want to learn we'll try different methods until they will cooperate.

That's why we teach, and ultimately why we have schools.