Blog Post

Let's Get Rid of Lost-and-Found Educational Thinking: A Response to Chronicle of Higher Education

In the allegorical tradition, no story is more tried-and-true than: "I was lost . . . but now I'm found."  Everyone likes a conversion narrative.  I have discovered the error of my ways!   Now, I am on the straight-and-narrow!    The status quo is restored. All is well.


I'm getting tired, though, of how often this "lost" and "found" binary plays out in journalism about higher education and any attempt at innovation.  Why?   I do not know anyone--anyone--who would say that all education, K-graduate school, in 2012 is perfect.   Yet I am constantly reading articles debunking those who, recognizing problems, are working to fix them.   Why is educational reform such an uphill battle?  


The source of my complaint today is an article about someone I greatly admire, Mike Wesch, of Kansas State University.  I've met him only two or three times, corresponded a half dozen or a dozen times, but I follow his research and his student-colalborative productions closely.   He inspires me.  The YouTube video he and his students made, "A Vision of Students Today," has been viewed over 4.5 million times--and it should be.   It highlights the problem of students who need a form of education that is not being delivered by our educational system, and that itself models a collaborative, low-tech, participatory learning (students hold up statements, backed by facts, on notebook paper, and the whole is then edited into a low-cost video).  To make the video required research and thinking and creativity, all the students colearning together.  The project is about transforming hierarchical one-way teaching into engaged, interactive learning and it exemplfies that method.   Here's the url:


So of course i was dismayed when I read this headline about Mike Wesch in the Chronicle of Higher Education:  "A Tech-Happy Professor Reboots After Hearing His Teaching Advice Isn't Working."     Really?  The same prof who a month ago had invited me to come to Kansas State for the launching of his brilliant Ed Parkour innovative teaching initiative had, in the intervening few weeks, renounced his commitment to engaged, interactive, collaborative, problem-based learning?   Ed Parkour is about "learning around, over, and beyond the walls."    Real-world learning, theory transformed to practice and community engagement, book-learning inspiring social change.   All the things that make learning valuable not for the A grade but for, to quote Anthony Appiah, helping us all with the great existential question with which we are presented:  "how to live a life."  


But negotiating that existential obstacle race, in the classroom and out, was not the subject of this CHE piece.   If I just read this piece, I'd think Wesch had been ("he was lost") the most gadget-happy technophile on earth, and that, thanks to the intervention of some wise old lecturers, he now had converted back to traditional teaching ("and now he's found").   Well, he was never tech happy and, as far as I can see from his subsequent posts, he's not now standing in front of a lecture class with fifty power-point slides lecturing on "A Vision of (Misguided) Students Today:  Or, How 4.5 Million Students Can All Be Wrong."   Not.  


If you go to the Chronicle article, you will see Mike Wesch's comment.   I'll quote some of it here:  "My main point is that participatory teaching methods simply will not work if they do not begin with a deep bond between teacher and student.  Importantly, this bond must be built through mutual respect, care, and an ongoing effort to know and understand one another. Somebody using traditional teaching methods (lecture) can foster these bonds and be as effective as somebody using more participatory methods.  The participation and "active learning" that is necessary for true understanding and application may not happen in the classroom, but the lecture is just one piece of a much larger ecosystem of the college campus. An effective lecture can inspire deep late night conversations with peers, mad runs to the library for more information, and significant intellectual throwdowns in the minds of our students."    Exactly.


And you can read two of his blog posts about the matter here:  and

The issue is more complicated and great teaching, old and new forms, is about engagement, participation, contribution, and inspiration.   What interests me, though, is how often those of us who are trying to push our colleagues to put those matters out front are parodied and reduced to a caricature.   "Davidson believes you can ONLY learn through blogs, not term papers."  On and on.   The whole point of great teaching is that it takes the obvious and makes it exciting, interesting, through engaged specialized knowledge that forces you to go beneath the surface, to probe more deeply, to think theoretically about contradiction, and then, to find ways to apply those insights in whatever "life" one leads outside the classroom---around, over, and beyond the walls, as Wesch would say.   If we don't make learning count around, over, and beyond the Ivory Tower, then why bother?  


If you are twenty-two when you graduate from college, you have, if you are lucky, a lot of years left to make the lessons count.  Every study of learning (check out Roddy Roediger's work here) shows that it is the content you hear and apply, you learn and grapple with, that you remember later and recall when you need it.   It's not about tech or non-tech.  It's about engaged participation in the world we live in now, not the fantasy of the future, not the nostalgia of the past. 


Next year, behavioral economist Dan Ariely and I will be co-teaching a course called "Surprise Endings!  Social Science and Literature," about how we can use the experimental method to find out a little more about what makes humans tick--but we still have to tell the story, to find a narrative to put into context the results of the quantitative, empirical research we do.   Dan and I are interested in how the narratives we make up about ourselves, derived from the narrative scripts of our culture,  sometimes lead us into thinking we think things we don't really think.  That is the "predictably irrational" of his bestselling book.   We make the same mistakes over and over because we believe we aren't making them.  We cannot see ourselves until someone shows us the contradictions between what we actually do and what we believe we do.    In Now You See It, I deconstruct a Cymbalta ad that uses the "I was lost, but now I'm found" conversion story to compel us to call our doctor to ask for Cymbalta to solve all our problems ("I'm Saved!") even as we are hearing the long litany of side effects that have been experienced by some other users of Cymbalta.   We want to believe the conversion story.  Despite the evidence to the contrary.

I would like to challenge journalists to think about their own storytelling.   If every innovation is a story of doom waiting to be converted back to the status quo, and yet every story about education is about how students are failing, education costs too much, education doesn't prepare students for the complex world and job market they will enter, education is antiquated, educators resist change . . .    You know the score!   It's lose lose, and the conversion stories send us right back to the status quo that, according to the other stories, is recalcitrant, unresponsive, resistant to change.   That doesn't exactly inspire anyone to try, damned if you do, damned if you don't, and a lot of Schadenfreude for the person who dares to be bold and then pulls back a bit and reconsiders. 

Chronicle of Higher Education writer Jeff Young is one of my favorite writers on education.  He's written many fair, balanced, incisive articles on education and so it's fine if he gets one wrong occasionally.   But I need to say this:  I really dislike this piece on Mike Wesch--it does Mike an injustice and is a disservice to dedicated teachers everywhere who want innovation, relevance, participation, and who care about the difficult challenges their students face in the world.    There are much better stories to tell.  And, if we are going to make education responsive to the demands of our world, we have to find those better stories.   I hope, together, we can not only find those better stories but make more and more of them for ourselves and our students.



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, .

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Though journalists are not perfect, and I'm certainly not, I'm not sure what the main concern is here. You say that my article did Mike Wesch an "injustice," but he wrote me a nice note saying he appreciated my story. The subject line was "Thanks for the great article." The narrative here was one that Mr. Wesch told to me, of his own gradual understanding that he should emphasize the importance of the relationship and bond with students over the technology. I tried to represent that in the article, and perhaps you are reacting more to the headline than the piece itself. I defend both as accurate and hardly an example of "gotcha" journalism.


It's tough being a journalist these days---no one will deny that.  And it is tough being the person written about.  I have no doubt that Mike thanked you.  I thanked Matt Richtel for the "blogs v term papers" NY Times piece because I was well aware that it could have been so much worse.   And I sympathize with the gotcha headline.


The problem is that readers and, worse, school administrators and parents don't understand the gotcha convention, and so they are left with a dilemma. We all are.   Most articles on education are about how we are failing, falling behind, undercutting our kids and students. . . . or about innovators who are singular, heroic Knights in Shining Armor working against all the institutions of a terrible, failing educational system . . . or articles, like the one about Mike Wesch, that have someone trying something innovative and then recanting it.   Well, that's not a good series of choices, and it falls into exactly the kind of cultural script that Dan and I are looking at next year in our "Surprise Endings" course.  


It would be so easy to recast the Mike Wesch story as a brilliant teacher who is constantly improving his game, testing the limits, finding what works, finding what doesn't work, trying something else, testing that---and in that process of learning from failure, pushing too far and then pulling back, exploring what might work even if it doesn't, and being honest with his students about a co-learning process of participation and engagement . . .  In other words, that is what Mike does as a teacher, what he talks about in his public lectures (I've heard three of them), and practices in Ed Parkour.  He models practice and learning from failure . . . that is so different than the "I was lost and now I'm found" conversion story.  


Jeff, I meant it when I said you were one of my favorite journalists on education and technology.  You wrote one of our best stories on badging--balance, multiple perspectives, thoughtful.  And badging is a very, very tough subject.  I'm not being critical of you as much as the cultural script for educational writing and how hard it is to break out of that script.   If it all stinks---and innovation does too, then we're back to the SuperMan logic of the singular, valiant heroic individual.  That does not allow for systemic change.  On the contrary, the valiant hero is also a cultural script.  Think Achilles.  And we know what happened to him . . .


Thanks for taking the time to think throught these issues together.   I appreciate that.   It's a sign of how exceptional a human being and journalist you are.   We all learn, over and over, and this is a great process and I'm grateful for your openness to it. 


I'd like to bring up something that I tried to work in my blog posts on this piece, but couldn't. I think "A Vision of Students Today" does a great job of helping faculty see the limitations of the traditional, one-to-many, one-size-fits-all educational model. What I don't think it does is provide faculty with strategies for confronting that problem. So your comment here that the video not only clarifies the problem but offers a solution struck me as interesting.

You're right that the video itself is an example of the kind of authentic, interactive, collaborative work that can overcome the limitations of the traditional learning model. But--here's the rub--I don't think many faculty who aren't teaching digital culture would pick up on the fact that the video itself offers a solution. I can imagine a faculty member in history or chemistry or nursing viewing the video and struggling to imagine ways to apply the "solution" the video offers to their own teaching. What's the equivalent teaching strategy for math? Or law? Or health and wellness?

These are the faculty development questions I'm always asking as a staff member at my teaching center. It frustrates me when they're not asked at educational technology conferences. (Which is why I like to ask them on the Twitter backchannel at these conferences, even when I'm not at the conference!)  Just as we should seek to understand our students and help them build on their own knowledge in the courses we teach, I think it's important that we take a similarly learner-centered approach to helping faculty develop and refine their teaching skills.


Hi Derek,  Thanks for this.  I think that is right.   I think the video is about a problem, enacts a solution to the problem (engaged students making a collaborative video in a very large lecture class--the biggest obstacle for many teachers--that shows engagement), but doesn't necessary teaching other teachers how to do this.   I agree that that is a next step, workshops for teachers that help them understand these issues.     The faculty development question is enormous and it is one reason why we keep doing workshops all over for teachers, especially early but not exclusively new teachers, on the "how" . . . many get the "why" but don't know how to enact it or where to begin.


Fiona Barnett, Director of the HASTAC Scholars Program, and I did one just yesterday for twenty people where we began with a collaborative exercise using nothing more than notecards and conversation---a technique I use in most of my public addresses, even when there are 1000 people in the audience.   I start with a timed exercise.  Then I have them turn to someone next to them that they do not know and look at what one another wrote and come up with the best of the possible answers and circle that one.   This takes no more than 4 minutes!  I then have them think about the way the room felt in each instance . . . and ask people why they worked on the first question alone when I never once specified it had to be something they did alone and in silence.   (If the people I am working with happen to be 6 or under, they do the first exercise I give them with others and talking.  By 7 or 8, they do it alone and silence.)   So then I talk about the timed, silent, individual test . . . and how WEIRD  it is, given the long stretch of human history and education, that we would now think of the timed, silent, individual test as the be-all and end-all of educational achievement.  Throw in multiple choice or One Best Answer testing and, well, Galileo or Leonardo would be shocked to hear that is what humanity had come up with in the Industrial Age as the measure of intellectual excellence . . . in fact the inventor of the multiple choice test would be shocked by that.    


In other words, I help people to see that the way we do things is highly idiosyncratic in the long reach of human history and that means that we can change it. So many of the things we think of as "school" and "work" have really been around 120 or so years.   Frederick Winslow Taylor not only invented "scientific labor measurement" (with extrinsic production quotos) but he went to Tuck, the first graduate business school, and created what I call "scientific learning management," the whole apparatus of standardized, individual, measurable, quantifiable achievement (and ability and disability) that we now think is the norm but that Leonardo, et al, would think of as the lemmings having gone over humanity's cliff.   It is so important for us to know how recent and how outlandish, in larger historical terms, our Industrial Age institutions are . . . and how little they meld with interactive, global, Webby world views that should be about collaborative, process, problem-solving innovative thinking.   Even the very simple intellectual exercise with the cards (which I do at the beginning of just about every class session) is collaborative, low tech, but helps break a paradigm of end-of-grade multiple choice standardized individualized achievement.   And it is a very very low bar of entry for anyone wanting to shake things up.


Thanks so much for writing.   And for your blog and your research and work on this topic.