I had the pleasure of listening to Jim Groom give a keynote speech at the Open Education conference this morning. I generally find listening to Jim equal parts inspiring and frustrating. Inspiring because he has a direct tap into the moral wellspring of passion for education that drew me into education in the first place. Frustrating because Jim (and Gardner Campbell, and other prominent thinkers in the school of thought formerly known as edupunk) and I haven’t seem to be able to find common ground on the meaning or value of the word “scale.” For Jim, I get the sense that scale is synonymous with industrialization. And I can guess why that might be so. If you believe that the essence of education starts with people discovering their own personal dignity, passion, and talents, it seems almost oxymoronic to talk about scaling that. You can’t mass produce personal journeys. I buy that. But I also am painfully aware of the fact that we, the human race, have so far failed to either catalyze that personal journey or provide the basic skills and practical education necessary for material comfort and basic dignity for the substantial majority of people alive on earth today. Heck, we’re failing a very substantial percentage of people alive in the United States today, despite the great wealth of this country. For me, it’s all about Archimedes. I’m looking for a large enough lever to move the world. I want to believe in scale. I need to believe in it.
And so I came to think of Jim and his friends as gadflies. Irritants, in the best possible sense of the term. Good people who are doing good work and can remind me of important things on occasion, but not the kind of folks who are going to help me find that lever.
I was wrong. And I should have known better. I had the opportunity to learn this lesson a long time ago.
The Education of Michael Feldstein
In early October of 1989, I walked into my first day of teaching, in an eighth grade science class. The teacher I was replacing had quit after a month, and I was a little nervous about what kind of shape the class might be in. I did the usual thing—wrote my name on the board, told the class my name, told them how I would teach and what I expected of them, and then asked if there were any questions. I was aware that there had been a low-level commotion brewing in the back row, among the boys, as I was talking. There was whispering. When I asked for questions, a hand shot up from that back row like a cork out of a champagne bottle. I called on the pasty-faced stick of a kid who was attached to that hand.
He asked me, “What are your credentials to teach this class?”
My mind raced. My first thought was, “My credentials are that I’m going to kick your ass.” My second thought was, “Wait. What are my credentials to teach this class?” Only after a few long and excruciatingly uncomfortable seconds did it occur to me that he was asking a perfectly legitimate question. So I answered it as best as I could and moved on. After class, I pulled the kid aside on his way out the door. “Trevor,” I said, “I have no problem with the question you asked, but I think you know that it was a little provocative to ask that of your teacher right off the bat. Why did you feel it was important to ask your question at that time in that way?” He shrugged his shoulders and replied, “Our last teacher was a dental assistant.”
So here’s the thing. Trevor wanted to learn. He wanted to be taught. And, after a painful month of not getting the education he was hungry for, he wanted to know whether I was going to waste his time. In other words, Trevor was a teacher’s dream come true. Nor was he unique at that school. During my five years teaching eighth through twelfth grades there, I found that many of my students were intellectually voracious, creatively restless, and relentlessly hard on me as their teacher. They demanded to learn. It wasn’t just that the kids happened to show up that way. There was something in the water. Something was happening at that school that was reliably—not inevitably, but reliably—transforming those kids. I saw it happen over and over again.
How did it work? In a hundred different ways. I saw my first glimpse of it a few weeks after my encounter with Trevor, when I had the opportunity to observe a master math teacher by the name of Ed Holt. At one point in his class, he asked a student how to solve a particular problem. “I don’t know how,” said the student. Without missing a beat or cracking a smile, Ed replied, “OK, but if you did know, how would you do it?” I swear, the kid got right up from his chair, walked over to the blackboard, and solved the problem. He literally did not know what he was capable of. And fortunately for us, that’s the root of the problem. We are learning animals. Learning is natural to us. Even better, learning is addictive. Once we’ve had a taste of it, we are biologically wired to hunger for more. How remarkable it is, then, that we have managed to create societies in which we manage to suppress that natural urge for so many people. It’s surprisingly easy, really. A little bit of fear and self-doubt is all it takes. But only in the beginning. Once we get our first good hit of enlightenment, that hunger becomes irrepressible. Those kids at my school, they got addicted. The hit that hooked them was different for each one of them. It might have been a math problem. It might have been a science fair or a school play. It might have been a side conversation with a teacher about something they noticed in the park. It could have been anything. But the results were reliable.
The Re-Education of Michael Feldstein
That was a long time ago. Since then, I have been on a long journey, searching for scale. Mostly not finding it. So I kept looking. When I saw Jim’s open and online class in digital storytelling class start up, I thought it was interesting and important, but not the thing I was looking for. Here’s some of what I wrote about it:
One of the most exciting things about the course, really the spark that animates it and separates it from so much university teaching, is that it presents critique as a creative act rather than a bloodless dissection. I turned away from graduate school ambitions—twice—because the smell of formaldehyde makes me retch. And I’m a relatively academically inclined individual. For students who don’t have that tweed gene, having courses that enable them to experience the inherent creativity, humanism, and joy in intellectual exploration and clear communication is absolutely essential.
The trouble is, we have relatively few teachers who know how to teach this way and even fewer who know how to do so with digital tools. The two are intertwined, I think. We’ve managed to beat academic prose into submission. It can be a more engaging experience to read your car’s owner’s manual than to read a typical academic paper on a subject that genuinely interests you. But digital media have not yet been tamed by academia. They feel like art. And in our culture, art is ineffable. It’s a gift from God. It’s a light that either shines upon you or doesn’t. Above all, it’s impolite. Public displays of creativity are about as socially accepted of Public Displays of Affection, and for the same reason. It’s not polite to rub people’s noses in something that you have and they may never have.
So great, wonderful. Beautiful. But sadly, that’s all it is. Aaaand, we’re walking, we’re walking….
Ironically, I myself came to be irritated over time by the public displays of creativity coming out of Jim’s course. The people in it seemed just so pleased with themselves. I was happy that it was good for them and all, but come on, it’s just one course. It doesn’t scale. Keep your enlightenment in your pants, please.
When hearing Jim talk about the course today, though, two details really brought me up short. First, Jim talked about “drive-by assignments” in which people who weren’t really participating in the whole course saw an assignment they liked, did it, and then moved on. Second, he talked about students creating their own assignments—and then having fifty other students decide that they want to do those assignments too. Maybe one of those students was Trevor. The point is, the hunger was there. The beast had been awakened.
It’s true that Jim’s course has a high drop-out rate. It’s true that it doesn’t reliably get the students to achieve any particular set of competencies. It’s true that there are technological skills prerequisites that many students in desperate need of better education don’t have. And it’s true that it’s a lot easier to teach digital storytelling the way Jim does than it would be to teach, say, developmental math. All of that is true. And all of it is beside the point. We need to offer many opportunities for people to become addicted to learning. No one opportunity will work for everybody. But if we can create a broad range of these opportunities cheaply, then we can get a lot of people hooked on enlightenment. Will it give them job skills they need to feed their families? Not by itself, no. Will it give them the skills to even learn whatever they want or need to learn? Probably not, in most cases. But if we can create a world in which the average community college student asks her professors what their credentials are to teach their classes, then all else becomes possible in educational reform.