Nov 09

Who’s directing whom?

Photo. The cart is placed before the horse, who also looks confused.I’d like to tell you about the first time I taught children how to make webpages, which was in 1993, while a “teacher candidate” in the province of Ontario, Canada. There was an Education Resource Centre with a computer lab, an odd collection of Mac II, Mac Classics, and the last working Commodore 64s I saw for many years, and a few early Windows computers. I caught on quickly and soon landed 10-15 hours of gainful student employment each week. I was then, and remain today, an educator first and a technologist only so far as it supports the learners’ objectives.

Placed in a classroom within the (now defunct) Etobicoke Board, I needed the help of the school’s IT director to make sure each computer in the ambitious early 90s computer lab had access to the software they need during an in between my weekly lessons.

In their 2014 report, People for Education find that fewer than 1% of Ontario schools lack technology but it wasn’t the case in the early 90s.

Pause here to picture such a lab, and remember (as you can read on fact sheet 5 of the Census 2001 Highlights Immigration to Ontario Internet site) the Toronto census metropolitan area (CMA) had one of the highest proportions of foreign-born residents of all major urban centers in the world. Ontario’s public schools always reflect the faces of the immigration realities of the moment1.

My host school in 1993 had something else that was very new in those days—it had an IT Director. As it turned out, the relationship we developed revealed a conundrum that persists in organizations of many kinds to this day.

Naturally my lesson was being evaluated, and my course directors and adjunct professor expected the learning design to reflect my ideas and interpretations of such things as the anti-racist philosophy of education the Faculty espoused—and that I’d be the one directing the learning. So it was, in my very first adventures in electronically enhance learning design I quickly discovered that I wasn’t looking for an IT director — what I needed was a “facilitator,” and all the support and deference in executing my ideas the subtle distinction implies.

The third vision is a progressive one. The personal computer is used to amplify human potential. It is an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression that allows each child to not only learn what we’ve always taught, perhaps with greater efficacy, efficiency or comprehension. The computer makes it possible for students to learn and do in ways unimaginable just a few years ago. This vision of computing democratizes educational opportunity and supports what Papert and Turkle call epistemological pluralism. The learner is at the center of the educational experience and learns in their own way.
—Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.

Among his first questions to me was, why would I want to teach “these children” to write webpages? Maybe he mistook the early 90s fish-eye monitors for crystal balls, because he looked into the third graders’ future and told me they were mostly destined to be “end-users.”

As time passed, under further scrutiny he revealed that he considered his knowledge a territorial matter, requiring security, restricted access, and various other protections. So in my earliest attempt at widening the spread of code literacy I quickly learned that the control of information technology would become a powerful definer of access and privilege.

Quite clearly these attitudes are manifestations of deficit thinking. The relationship that unfolded and the conundrum were as follows: I could not accomplish my goals without him, yet I most emphatically could not let him direct.

More importantly, my grade 3 students could not afford to let him decide their computer science futures, or label them “end-users” with a derogatory connotation.

In the intervening years I’ve seen universities barter and leverage software, educational discounts and lab access in contexts ranging from educational to purely political, from departmental restructuring to instructional design. Technology is not neutral. Technology is political. It is a freedom issue, and an issue of democracy.

…leadership for equity needs to incorporate inclusive procedures such as discussion, transparency, and community involvement as well as an honest treatment of substantive issues that matter (e.g. racism and sexism) […] If we really believe in the ideal of leadership for equity in education, then we need to be aware of the nature of the deficit mentality, its pervasiveness and its dangers. (Portelli , Shields & Vibert, 2007; Portelli & Campbell-Stephens, 2009)

Educators do not need to be programmers to empower programmers. Just as technology support staff must facilitate and help implement the ideas of educational leaders, those leaders must discern and facilitate the educational aspirations of the learners in their charge.



  1. At 16%, China, including Hong Kong and Macau, was the leading country of birth among people who immigrated to Ontario in the 1990s. It was followed by India with 9%, the Philippines with 6%, Sri Lanka at 5.2% and Pakistan at 4.5%. At the time, European immigrants to Ontario were mostly from Poland, Yugoslavia and Russia. Jamaica was the leading country of birth among the Americas. Somalia was the leading birth country in Africa. (StatsCan)


Polgar, Jan Miller (2010), The Myth of Neutral Technology
in M.M.K. Oishi et al. (eds.), Design and Use of Assistive Technology: Social, 17 Technical, Ethical, and Economic Challenges [pdf]

Portelli, John P., Shields, Carolyn M. & Vibert, Ann B. (2007). Toward an Equitable Education: Poverty, Diversity, and Students at Risk. Toronto, ON: Centre for Leadership and Diversity, OISE, University of Toronto.

Portelli, John P. & Campbell-Stephens, R. (2009). Leading for Equity: The Investing in Diversity Approach. Toronto, ON: Edphil Books.

Stager, Gary (2013), Technology is not Neutral – educational computing requires a clear and consistent stance blog post

Jul 09

The Marketization of Education

red apple with a hefty price tag.The corporation-dominated Global Education Reform Movement, which renowned Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg aptly points out has spread much like the GERM it spells, is a big-money backed movement to dismantle public education for exploitation by for-profit special interests. It is an effort showing clear signs of failure on the education side of its mandate, one that’s especially interested in profit—where the GERM’s success is far more readily observable.

When the private exploits the public

The private depends on the public (Lakoff, 2014). When you research and develop something on the tax payers’ dime its rightful place is the public sphere. When Americans privatize their public education system, they turn it over to Wall St speculators, ultimately the same folks who gave us sub-prime mortgages, austerity, triple-dip recessions, worldwide economic failure, and the shakedown of the Greeks. The link isn’t hyperbole or a vivid imagination. It’s calculated and methodical (see for example Horn, 2009, “heavyweight teams”). 

Further insight can be gleaned from a famous book out of Harvard Business School, alma mater to many of the architects of economic meltdown, entitled Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns (Clayton Christensen, Curtis W. Johnson, Michael Horn, 2008), a book that can be thought of as part of the blueprint or ‘master plan’ to privatize schools. It was first presented to me by a manager, a “director” of information technology who was apparently quite impressed by the book’s “disruptive” revelations, touted on the unabashedly commercial outside jacket as certain to make the reader rethink “everything you thought you knew about learning.”

The promised epiphany turns out to be fellow Harvard man Howard Gardner’s 1981 “Multiple Intelligences” theory and a truism we learned my first day of my first class at teachers’ college in the early 90s. By now it’s an outright cliché within the teaching community that we should be the “guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.”

What other revolutionary new ideas about pedagogy and learning does the business school offer? The authors tell us students need to be motivated “intrinsically.” One hopes the disruptive innovation franchise at Harvard doesn’t believe no one published about that before 2008. However the book, in a feint designed for its target audience of venture capitalists, managers and IT directors, not educators who know the history of these things, discusses intrinsic motivation and experiential learning without mentioning John Dewey (1938), and with barely a nod to Noah Webster’s and Horace Mann’s later influence on American education, nor the important role they cast it in preserving democracy and defining the nation’s moral character.

The suggestion of bias in these omissions and distortions is only reinforced by the ahistorical presentation of Thomas Jefferson’s position on public education, accompanied by right wing talking points that evoke Frank Luntz or Rush Limbaugh.

Christensen, Johnson and Horn misrepresent Thomas Jefferson’s record and opinion on public education (2008, pp 52-3). They carefully include the famous Jeffersonian provision as governor of Virginia, which was, essentially, to groom a benevolent aristocracy or perhaps a sort of super-culture, nowhere emphasizing for their readers that this, too, was fully intended to be at public expense. Jefferson’s vision for funding, from grammar school to college, was in fact to be split between the public and private sectors, families, and communities, often much in ways that have actually come to pass across the history of U.S education. Yet these carefully picked cherries are topped by the Luntzian reminder the word “education” isn’t in the constitution. Neither is the word “markets,” nor the phrase “supply side economics.” Oops! Can you imagine extending such talk radio logic to other areas of our lives?

…shall be paid by the Treasurer quarterly on warrant from the Auditors … on the public foundation… … as [Thomas Jefferson] explained in his Autobiography, “We thought that … a systematical plan of general education should be proposed, and I was requested to undertake it. I accordingly prepared three Bills for the Revisal, proposing three distinct grades of education, reaching all classes. 1. Elementary schools for all children generally, rich and poor. 2. Colleges for a middle degree of instruction, calculated for the common purposes of life, and such as would be desirable for all who were in easy circumstances. And 3d. an ultimate grade for teaching the sciences generally, and in their highest degree” (Ford, i, 66). Within a decade after the work of the Committee of Revisors was begun, TJ regarded the Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge as the most important one in the Report (TJ to George Wythe, 13 Aug. 1786). The exalted declaration of purpose in the preamble remains one of the classic statements of the responsibility of the state in matters of education. But what was new and distinctively Jeffersonian in the Bill was not its advocacy of public education … what was new in the Bill and what stamped its author as a constructive statesman of far-seeing vision was the object of seeking out men of genius and virtue and of rendering them “by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens.” This implied the establishment of a ruling élite that would promote public happiness by wisely forming and honestly administering the laws… it saw nothing dangerous or inimical to the liberties of the people in accepting and making use of such a natural aristocracy of virtue and talent; and its unique and revolutionary feature, never yet put into practice by any people, was that, in order to permit such a natural aristocracy to flourish freely, it would remove all economic, social, or other barriers that would interfere with nature’s distribution of genius or virtue. (See TJ’s account of this Bill in Notes on Virginia, Ford, iii, 251–5; see also R. J. Honeywell, Educational Work of Thomas Jefferson, Cambridge, Mass., 1931.)

Footnotes: A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge,
© Princeton University Press.
All rights reserved.

Christensen, Johnson and Horn misrepresented a 325 year commitment to public education embedded in the U.S. Constitution (Dennis, 2000). They misrepresent the socially situated nature of learning itself by reducing education to a supply-chain in order to monetize it. They misrepresent the classroom by attempting to mold it to the image of their markets, where business provides a weak metaphor at best. Beth Goldberg, who had 20 years of experience running businesses before becoming a middle school mathematics teacher, observes employees are paid to listen to you, students are not. Employees are selected based upon a search and interview process. Teachers do not select their students. In business, an insubordinate employee is fired. An insubordinate student is merely one more challenge for a classroom teacher.

Christensen, Johnson and Horn also misrepresent the views of their Harvard colleague Howard Gardner.

What does Howard Gardner really say about schooling?

Much of Gardner’s method and the idea of learning styles have retained their traction over the decades, but the science had been widely criticized long before Christensen and company shifted their disruptive gaze from pharmaceuticals to the supply chain offered by education (Klein, 1997; Willingham, 2004). I’ve written here about what I believe may be Howard Gardner’s greater legacy, The Unschooled Mind (1992), where Gardner explained how he came to realize that “even the best students in the best schools do not understand” (p. 1).

By then the seven “intelligences” were already beginning to morph into five “minds,” introduced around the time of his (post-Peterson lectures) The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and how Schools Should Teach (1995). “The first three,” says Gardner, “can be reduced to three words: depth, breadth and stretch” (1995/2011, pg. xxiv). The fourth and fifth minds Gardner feels are “…not cognitive in the traditional sense” (1995/2011, pg. xxiv). The Respectful Mind brings tolerance and acceptance, and the Ethical Mind, while he labels it (too rigidly, I think) “outside the ken of children.” Ethics, consensus and respect are not a large part of the Christensen curriculum; they devote far more words and paragraphs to the importance of separation, fiat and coercion, the so-called “power tools” of disruption (more to follow, even more here).

What can we learn from the disruptive innovation franchise?

The fact of the franchise’s ability to sell books does not negate the relevance and significance of disruptive innovation. What the books provide educators is the set of vocabulary and strategies — “power tools” — that identify a venture’s opponents—whether union, parent group, government, or competing investor—and by which corporate reformers, with cash to pad campaign coffers, can come to dominate policy making, tilt the rules in their favor, all in the pursuit of profit. It’s a must-read for educators critical of GERM’s tactics — a seat at the campfire in the enemy’s camp! I’ve written at greater length here about the divide and conquer tactics the business school offers entrepreneurs and lobbyists who face resistance, why such top down approaches actually make wicked problems worse, why consensus building is imperative, and how to do that.

Don’t You Dare Say “Disruptive” It’s the most pernicious cliché of our time […] Christensen has not tried to rein in the word’s inflation.2 On the contrary, he has been out-punditing the pundits, publishing book after book—each with many co-authors—in which disruption theory is brought to bear first on this sector, then on that one. In the past five years, he has homed in on the social institutions—schools, public-health organizations, and the halls of government itself—he deems ripe for disruption.
—Judith Shulevitz, TNR

Setting aside more recent revelations to accept these authors’ definition of “results,” which overlooks the lengths to which some private ventures screen and cull their student body to enhance those results, there are examples offered of charter schools and other “innovative” (i.e., “not publicly funded”) programs (or questionable practices) that resulted in higher test scores and other measurables presented as positives. But in the end of the book students sit connected to terminals—not peers and mentors—interacting with commercially provided software the book’s readers are enticed to develop and provide. In the seven years since the book was published blended learning, with varied amounts of teacher direction and highest student to student interactivity, has emerged as a much more powerful model, a fact that was already being observed and predicted by education researchers at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and elsewhere, even as the business school published its free market vision.

Contrast this to the way the word “innovation” is used by a successful community outreach group, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, highlighted by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, where their primary business is teaching and learning, not profit-making (Warren et al., 2009).

The ideas espoused in Disrupting Class led to corruption and many say away from democracy. More than 15 years of rhetoric that fetishized markets while denigrating and undermining the public system in a manner (approaching libel, or slander, perhaps?) have taken a heavy toll.

This era has not been good for students; nearly a quarter live in poverty, and fully 51% live in low-income families. This era has not been good for teachers, who feel disrespected and demeaned by governors, legislatures, and the U.S. Department of Education. This era has not been good for parents, who see their local public schools lose resources to charter schools and see their children subjected to endless, intensive testing.
—Diane Ravitch

Is there a vaccine or treatment against the GERM?

The GERM adapts quickly to regional and international differences, and spreads across stock markets. Some in the U.S. are developing a natural resistance to specific strains affecting their local situations. Because they present many of the same symptoms, such as PARCC testing, unfair rent and resource allocation practices, cheating scandals and segregation an agile and versatile response is indicated.

Community schools must once again serve their communities, and become hubs of community-strengthening activity and 24/7 access to public knowledge. Mark Warren and his team at Harvard Graduate School of Education urge us to look beyond bake sales and to adopt “a community-based relational approach to parent engagement in schools.” See their 3 case studies that demonstrate ways this can be done without bias of privilege and redirection of financial advantages toward a single sector.

Our teachers’ best qualities—their sense of humor, their love for the subject, their excitement, their interest in students as individuals—are not being honored or valued, because those qualities aren’t measurable.
—Tim Callahan, spokesman, Professional Association of Georgia Educators

Students must continue and expand their efforts, and teach their parents that standardized testing reduces learning time. They are not assessments of students’ mastery of a subject. Students and their parents should join the grassroots Opt-Out Movement growing rapidly in nearly every state, wherever people witness the terrifying results of the GERM experiment on their own kids’ classrooms.

Educators mustn’t look for “IT directors” but should look instead for “idea facilitators” and local experts to collaborate with on inquiries and projects. We must draw upon proven learner-centred success stories, as they did at the Harvard GSE, and mostly ignore Harvard’s BS. #KidsCanCode and #HourOfCode activities of all sorts can help kids and their teachers alike develop 21st century literacies, demystify the software, and help to level playing fields.

Design Thinking, as it influences teaching and learning today, can trace at least part of its lineage to some of the earliest research into technology-enhanced learning, the advent of ethnographic applications in the field of learning, apprenticeship studies, situated and experiential learning, and communities of practice. Those aware of at least one school of design thinking, influenced by the “wicked problems” praxis of Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber (1973; see also Why Horst Rittel Matters), value consensus as a principle of design, and have developed tools, techniques, and frameworks to achieve consensus. We’ve been slow to adopt them.

We all agree that social media and “hyperspace” have permanently disrupted our capabilities and our horizons. We agree there’s a need to nurture different competencies, and that has led may to deduce a role for new literacies. If we believe in Critical Thinking and Collaboration, then let “Consensus-building” join the list of 21st century competencies.

If you self-identify as an “instructional designer,” take a moment to consider Gráinne Conole’s important distinction between ID and Learning Design (LD), which is seen “…as a more encompassing term than Instructional Design, … is pedagogically effective and makes appropriate use of technologies. … Learning Design provides a holistic approach to the design process” (2014). Orchestrate for serendipity… design learning experiences that involve participants in ways that permit for human chemistry to create meaningful bonds with the fruits of their inquiries and projects, that are engaging because they’ve been built on the participants’ own personal stories, and because they provide a safe space and expert support for their telling.

We must command our own set of “power tools.” Use plain language and transparent strategies, engage parents and the community along with our students, and all the while make sure the situation — the learning environment, beginning with the learners (who at any given moment may also be the teachers!) — drives the selection and employment of the tools.

† Although it retains some bibliography, links and images, and perhaps a sentence here and there, this post is for all practical purposes a complete re-write of an older post with the same title, and is meant to entirely replace and supplant the earlier version.


Further reading

Christensen, Clayton; Johnson, Curtis W.; and Horn, Michael B. (2008) Disrupting Class: How Disruptive I nnovation Will Change the Way the World Learns New York : McGraw-Hill [HTML]

Dennis, Russell (2000) The Role of the Federal Government In Public Education In the United States, web site, Bucknell University [HTML]

Fouchaux (2009) graduate school paper, Disrupting Disruption, HTML

Gardner, H. (1983/2003). Frames of mind. The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: BasicBooks.

Horn, Michael (blog post: Oct 30, 2009) The power of a heavyweight team to rethink education: A quest to learn, retrieved 2009-12-06 009/10/30/the-power-of-a-heavyweight-team-to-rethink-education-a-quest-to-learn

Klein, Perry D. (1997) Multiplying the Problems of Intelligence by Eight: A Critique of Gardner’s Theory, Canadian Journal of Education / Revue canadienne de l’éducation, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Autumn, 1997), pp. 377-394.

Lakoff, George (2014) The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, Chelsea Green Publishing, 192 pages

Rittel, Horst W. J. and Webber, Melvin M. (1973), Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, Policy Sciences 4 (1973), 155-169. [PDF]

Warren, Mark R., Soo Hong, Carolyn Leung Rubin, Phitsamay Sychitkokhong Uy (2009), Beyond the Bake Sale: A Community- Based Relational Approach to Parent Engagement in Schools, Teachers College Record, Volume 111, Number 9, September 2009, pp. 2209–2254, (PDF), Accessed March 17, 2013.

The Boston Herald (Wednesday, February 27, 2013) Elizabeth Warren clocks big Ben, Hits Bernanke on bank subsidies

The Knowledge Exchange (Published: September 27, 2012) How could I miss that? Jamie Dimon on the hot seat, by Max Bazerman, Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School,

Sahlberg, Pasi (2012) Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland, NY: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.

Shulevitz, Judith (2013) Don’t You Dare Say “Disruptive” It’s the most pernicious cliché of our time,blog post at The New Republic [HTML]

“Willingham, Daniel T. (2004), Reframing the Mind: Howard Gardner and the theory of multiple intelligences, Education Next, Vol. 4, No. 3 retrieved 2012-10-10.

Apr 22

What would a 21st Century “Lesson Plan” look like?

A cartoon-like self portrait Richard did in Corel Draw 3 while in teacher educationIn teachers’ college, I was the Lesson Plans guy. I had blue-rimmed glasses, hair down to my shoulders, I wore sweater vests, and one of the first things I ever did on the Internet was to share lesson plans. One of the first collaborative projects I was ever part of—using what began as a Scarborough (Ontario) Board of Education software initiative and remains with us today as OpenText’s FirstClass—to create lessons to be tried, honed and re-shared by other teacher candidates. I quite enjoyed that activity, and I think it’s time to do it again, with the rest of the Internet.

There was collaboration on line long before words like “blog,” “wiki,” “social network were coined…”

But Intranets were closed, connections were slow, hardware was expensive and there weren’t a lot of people who owned technology—even fewer who used it well in classrooms.

We had a template, we discussed it together, tried them in our host classrooms adapted and applied it iteratively, worked lessons into integrated units, collaboratively, in practice. Master teachers contributed advice—or innovative projects to extend lessons into —but it was all entirely student-instigated, student-designed, and/or student “moderated.”

Our activities were facilitated by technology, but they were pedagogical activities.

We knew the Web had power, we wanted to be literate—we wanted to read and write the web.

A button I made from a GIF created in Corel Draw 3.0Technology was there to support an idea or activity, and when an expert was needed to make the technology work it was “facilitating a situation” and “enhancing the learning environment”, not “directing technology.” In every situation it was student-centered. But we were also teachers: of the students in our host classrooms, often of our host teachers—always of ourselves, always of each other. We call reading and writing, “literacies,” and we generally expect to acquire them in great part by a process sometimes called “schooling,” but we see that it doesn’t always work, and in fact can often be gained by “learning” in other ways, generally not called “schooling.”

Fast Forward to the 21st Century

The Internet is open, connections are fast, hardware is less expensive and there are many more people who own technology—and still, we hear, too few who use it well in classrooms. This kind of learning is messy.

Video is ubiquitous… but not very interactive… they said

Teaching the Web in the 20-teens looks different in some ways, others not so much. Popcorn.js is an exciting set of modular scripts that add interactivity and creativity to web video.

Games and Gaming

Storytelling is a primeval human activity that is quite fundamental to pedagogy. All games tell stories. Learners persevere with games; learning happens. Gamification is an immensely important trend “as a means of motivation and learner engagement” and Conole quotes Gee, 2008: “The potential of gamification, however, goes beyond promoting healthy lifestyles and marketing strategies. Gamers voluntarily invest countless hours in developing their problem-solving skills within the context of games” and says 21st century learning will reflect Gee’s ‘situated and embodied learning,’ “…meaning a student is not just being taught inert knowledge, rather using facts and information as tools for problem solving in a specific context and solving the problem (Gee 2011).”

“There’s an app for that”

Educational apps and the platforms they run on have changed. Mobile is ubiquitous and it’s not as hard as you may think to make a web-based app, even take it to the next level, make it native. The Open Educational Resource (OER) movement is founded on “The belief that everyone should have the freedom to use, customize, improve and redistribute educational resources without constraint, […] However, open education is not limited to just open educational resources. It also draws upon open technologies that facilitate collaborative, flexible learning and the open sharing of teaching practices that empower educators to benefit from the best ideas of their colleagues.” Read the Cape Town Open Education Declaration.

Learning design looks beyond instructional design

Learning design is defined as an application of a pedagogical model for a specific learning objective, target group and a specifc context or knowledge domain. The learning design specifies the teaching and learning process, along with the conditions under which it occurs and the activites performed by the teachers and learners in order to achieve the required learning objectives. LD is based on the metaphor of learning as a play instatiated through a series of acts with associated roles and resources. The core concept of LD is that a person is assigned a role in the teaching-learning process and works towards certain outcomes by performing learning activities within a given environment
—G. Conole, K. Fill (2005, pg. 5)

Learning design is an holistic praxis (Conole, 2014), the planning and executing of serendipitous situations within authentic contexts, that are controlled to enable the sought outcomes (Silver, 2011). Increasingly, the learner seeks the outcome. A learning design that includes multiple participants is increasingly expected to cater to individual learners (blogosphere, incessantly).

The Learning Design Toolkit has explored and created collaborative tools for designing active, situated learning. The short clip, (originally part of my contribution to a group presentation on cyberethics and Ursula Franklin) is meant to imply that the hard work of building shared understanding is generally worth the inevitable extra effort. Communication is a 21st century competency—why would the hard work to reform schooling be any different?

21st-century lesson plan learning design

I believe Aaron Silver, in his 2011 blog post The Fundamental design of learning activities, plotted a straight course from instructional design practices that seem overly prescriptive in the age of social networking and on-demand learning objects, to a more appropriate framework and in doing so reminded us, “learning is not a noun.” In a 21st-century learning design the activity must be at the center of everything. It appears you should start with a clear idea of what is to be achieved, and then create the situation in which that can happen, choosing participants and experiences that support the intended outcomes, and strategically placing them in order.

Graphic. Activity at the center of boundaries (conditions), content, context, and participation. 

Source—Aaron Silvers (2011)

Even documenting such activity can be much different in the 21st Century. How do video, blogs, and photo sites affect the recipe? 21st century activities might look like Heidi Siwak’s blog—like this. But if the ‘this’ is a “messy” learning activity, do a on an ‘app’ metaphor, or the bubbles of mind maps offer some helpful closets to stash our ‘mess?’

Can organizational change happen quickly enough to allow teachers such as Heidi, and students such as hers to flourish, or will she have to wait 15 years as others have?

In my post, “CompendiumLD for Learning Design,” I showed a “mind mapper” that has collaboration tools built in. In “Can (messy) mind maps enable tidy linear strategies within messy situations?” I show the danger of getting too thickly into context (top right image) and what I believe Aaron Silvers’s simple graphic becomes when you start adding real activities and participants (see images 1-6, created with another mind mapper, designVUE).

Image. mind map



Michael Faustino Deineka

The Faculty of Education at York University


Collins, Allan; Brown, John Seely; and Holum, Ann (1989a), Cognitive Apprenticeship: Making Thinking Visible, American Educator [PDF].

Conole, G.; Fill, K. (2005), A learning design toolkit to create pedagogically effective learning activities, Journal of Interactive Media in Education 2005(08). [PDF]

Conole, Gráinne (2014) Reviewing the trajectories of e-learning, blogged chapter from forthcoming publication. Or start with my shorter overview [HTML]

Silvers, A. (2011) The fundamental design of learning activities. [HTML]

Siwak, H. (2014) Creative solutions are no accident [HTML]

Jan 23

There’s still time to get edreform right in Canada, and there’s still interest in doing so

Canada’s campaign finance laws, relatively stronger unions, a slight majority of conservatives who understand the role of revenues, tradition of compassion and peace-making—I think these are some of the characteristics of a precariously perched public pride that keep, for now, an all-out US-style free-market frenzy from taking root. “Publick Spirit,” as they spelled it when the call was for 19th Century Competencies, was a virtue touted by Republicans, Federalists, Tories and Whigs throughout the shrinking Empire. @symphily, while being perhaps exceptionally articulate in his questioning, and meticulous in the quality and expression of his supporting arguments, asks immensely important questions that in my experience aren’t exceptionally uncommon amongst Canadian teacher candidates today. They are coining, learning and understanding terms such as “glocalization,” “cyber-colonialism,” “metamodal mastery.”

Just as musicianship is known to support mathematical learning, perhaps entrepreneurship might be responsibly and ethically understood in ways that support social capital, that enrich and nourish the public sphere. Practical action research, connecting theory and discourse in praxis, participatory research… these are respected techniques known for decades in Canadian faculties of education, whether or not they are associated with names like Freire, or Gramsci. Is that why Ontario teachers were able to resist and eventually overcome a neoliberal assault in ’97, to demand some semblance of evidence based assessment be included in the EQAO?

But universities will be given free SharePoint systems, corporate-stocked libraries on wheels will replace education resource centres with their specialist-enhanced collections, and venture capitalists will actively seek out in education what free-marketists call “areas of nonconsumption.” That is a turn of phrase First Nations peoples targeted by the anti-teacher, anti-public spin-off of the American for-profit venture “Teach for America” might want to critique—and might well question!

But universities will be given free SharePoint systems, corporate-stocked libraries on wheels will replace education resource centres with their specialist-enhanced collections, and venture capitalists will actively seek out what free-marketists might call “areas of nonconsumption in education” (see Christensen, Horn, and other Harvard Business School’s blogs and cookbooks). That is a turn of phrase First Nations peoples targeted by the anti-teacher, anti-public spin-off of the American for-profit venture “Teach for America” might want to critique—and might well question!

What Canada has to fear most is her tradition of complacency. What good is eschewing corporate and union capital in elections if you don’t get up and go to the polls yourselves?

I do agree with a great deal of what C21 has to say about 21st Century competencies and literacies. The SMART board is a truly engaging and open-ended tool, the kind that allows pedagogy to take wings. I think there are genuine educators at all levels of this organization, and I’ve seen them genuinely engaged. In my master’s research I was able to differentiate C21 from its American cousin P21, where a free-market feeding frenzy suggests the “p” might stand for “piranha.” But the line is all too thin and we may remind the enthusiastic Canadian publishers and education technology innovators here—you swim with sharks.

I see the words “student centred” often, and I trust that they’re written with sincere esteem. I yearn only for shared understanding of what student centred actually might look like. I think it says they get to be the ones to decide what kind of world they live in or, for a practical example, that if code is a 21st century literacy we teach kids to read and write code—not simply to buy other people’s code. The discourse and theory of disruptive innovation too can be disrupted — students and teachers adept at technology, collaboration and critical thinking will be quite capable of creating rich learning situations with or without their own choice of self-authored, open source and/or commercial products, chosen because they support the lesson—never because the lesson was designed to sell a product. Students assessed to identify strengths and weaknesses, to improve their next performance—not because there’s a contract with a far-away testing company whose CEO may expect an obscene bonus for creating numbers that will be used against them and their support systems.

With awareness, involvement and due vigilance—“jealousy” as they said when public had the extra “k”—and an understanding that democracy is a way of life, not the vote you cast every few years—genuine ITC *facilitators* of deep, thick learning, teaching excellence, and student achievement will gain favour and remain important contributors, while ITC *directors* who say they have all the answers, who employ the “power tools” of coercive disruption to push those they label “resistant to change” aside in the interest of profits and stockholder achievement, will fail and fade away.

Thank you Mr. Kierstead for your work in transforming education. Thank you Mr. Steeves for your vigilance and this essential restoration and re-framing of the critical underlying issues. Thank you also Mr. Cantor for your supporting evidence and the astute simile that inspired me to think back yet another hundred years.

Let’s protect Canadian schools and children from blind, uncritical, ideology-driven trust in innovation, and put into practice policy that rewards the genuine thickening of learning situation—differentiating informed ongoing assessment from deficit thinking and prejudice, critically evaluating whether a perceived anaemia is due to poverty, language acquisition, a learning disability, or something else—student-centred investment in students, actively learning. Investing in the supply chain that monetizes a child’s learning environment for quick gain is something that costs so very much more, and yields so very much less.


† Comment on awaiting moderation. The post is a year old; I may eventually revise or elaborate the above as a new and independent post, if after some time approval is not forthcoming. -RCF


Further thought and reflection

Morbey and class (2014) EDUC 3610: Morbey, Franklin, and Friedman. Professor Mary Leigh Morbey’s Teacher Candidates at York University consider cyberethics, comparing Morbey, Ursula Franklin and Thomas Friedman and asking, “…in light of all three writers how do we begin to think about ethics, technology, and education?” [Prezi]

Jan 03

Power Tools in use—wear safety goggles!

Dismantling public education

photo of the front cover of the book that inspired this post, changes to back cover on hover or touch-hold

In 2008 Clayton Christensen, Curtis W. Johnson and Michael B. Horn, through Harvard Business School, published a blueprint for the disruptive innovation of education. The plan was premised on the often repeated argument that America’s schools are failing, and that the 21st century, especially the world of technology, offered new ways to overcome, “disrupt” and ultimately replace the broken system with one that would not only make American students smarter and assure American dominance in all matters of prestige, but make a lot of HBS graduates (and of course their friends and associates) very rich in the process. Writing in the euphoria of pre-meltdown sub-prime mortgage feeding frenzy now known* as the “Great Recession (also referred to as the Lesser Depression, the Long Recession, or the global recession of 2009”) they could barely contain their excitement at the imminent demise of everything they believe stands in the way of a lucrative and rewarding educational experience: unions, tenure, and if technology delivers on all its promises, potentially that peskiest anti-learning agent of all—teachers!

“What are “Tools of Cooperation and Change?”

4-item Venn-like diagram set inside chart plotting degree of agreement on cause/effect vs that on solution/way forward. Overlay suggests strategies for dealing with each situation.

Fig 1. Organizational change — Level of agreement on cause/effect vs that on solution/way forward; overlapping interests; strategies for resolution from Christensen, Johnson and Horn (2008)

Two factors of great concern to profiteers in any arena are regulation and resistance to change. In North American education, regulation is represented mainly by state and provincial standards, and teacher unions (pg. 142); resistance to change is fundamentally “entrenched” in the cultures of all established systems. Every organization at some point faces the need to implement change. Building on prior work (Christensen, Marx & Stevenson, 2006), the authors plot an “Agreement Matrix” (Fig. 1) to illustrate where various organizations can fall along two dimensions: the extent to which people agree on what they want and the extent to which they agree on cause and effect, or how to get what they want.

“Don’t force it… just get a bigger hammer!”

According to Christensen, Johnson and Horn (2008) “Different quadrants call for different tools. When employees share little consensus on either dimension, for instance, the only methods that will elicit cooperation are “power tools” such as fiat, force, coercion, and threats” (2006, abstract). Hundreds of studies of cases falling on all points of the matrix have yielded a collection of such tools that can be used to successfully implement change. For example, sometimes people disagree because they’re trying to explain things in ways the other side can’t understand. In such a case agreeing upon a “common language” can help the parties to reach consensus. The authors rightly note that education discourse in the USA today falls in the lower left quadrant, where fiat, threats and coercion are their recommended strategies for change. “Separation” is indicated if parties’ disagreement is so fundamental they can’t compromise and can’t be coerced — dividing the conflicted parties into separate groups so they can be in strong agreement with those in their own group and remain isolated from other groups (pg. 190). But walking away is a cop out in any situation. In education especially, failure to engage from the outset is a sure sign the entire lesson will fail.

Schools, say Christensen et al., most often fall in the lower-left quadrant of the model, meaning stakeholders disagree strongly both about what they want and on what actions will produce which results. “People have tried democracy, folklore, charisma, salesmanship, measurement systems, training, negotiation, and financial incentives. All have failed. We see only three possibilities: common language, power, and separation” (Christensen, Johnson and Horn, 2008, pg. 192). It quickly becomes apparent they have no further use of the first as it may pertain to education reform. But Jeff Conklin (2006) has shown that solving problems is an iterative process. He concurs with Christensen and company that a common language is fundamental to the shared understanding that must precede transformational change, but he’s more tenacious and persistent, bringing with his stronger resolve and deeper commitment to achieving consensus a tried and true method that can be called the whip and stool of would-be wicked problem tamers. Dialogue and arguments can be mapped using successful, well documented, transparent and inclusive strategies. Just as many governments have begun to recognize (see for example Commonwealth of Australia, 2007; NCCHPP, 2012) Horst Rittel said all matters of public policy—social problems where the intersecting rights and responsibilities of multiple stakeholders might challenge an ethnographer’s skills to untangle—are “wicked problems,” and thus problems that “…are never solved. At best they are only re-solved—over and over again” (Rittel and Webber, 1973, pg. 160).

Undermining democracy

Christensen, Johnson and Horn likely wouldn’t be surprised by many of the decidedly undemocratic actions and ideas their 2008 manifesto may have inspired. But sticking only to the strategies they list, not only is it thoroughly discredited and deeply cynical to say all those methods have failed—it’s an outright, bold-faced lie.

Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) is built on wrong premises. … GERM has acted like a virus that “infects” education systems as it travels around the world. The infection can be diagnosed by checking the state of the following five symptoms.

First is increased competition between schools that is boosted by school choice and related league tables offering parents information that helps them make the right “consumer” decisions. Second is standardization of teaching and learning that sets detailed prescriptions how to teach and what students must achieve so that schools’ performance can be compared to one another. Third is systematic collection of information on schools’ performance by employing standardized tests. These data are then used to hold teachers accountable for students’ achievement. Fourth is devaluing teacher professionalism and making teaching accessible to anyone through fast-track teacher preparation. Fifth is privatizing public schools by turning them to privately governed schools through charter schools, free schools and virtual schools.

—Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish educator

Finland is among the most commonly touted successes of financial incentives, negotiation and charisma, closer to home is Ontario, where even data-positive reformers like Michael Fullan stress the need to go beyond the agreed first step of building shared understanding to consensus. Pasi Sahlberg says “To prepare young people for a more competitive economy our school systems must have less competition.” The authors of Disrupting Class encourage attitudes and approaches that have led to the vilification and dismissal of seasoned professional teachers, union busting, and legislating various degrees of privatization in order to accomplish reform.

By eliminating public schools, as Arne Duncan and Rahm Emmanuel have been doing in Chicago, and as hurricane Katrina accomplished more effectively (and honestly) in New Orleans, disruption creates new markets. We see that notion realized in the web of for profit education networks being established by such corporate operatives within education as Michele Rhee, and nurtured and furthered from within the US Department of Education by Arne Duncan. But the grassroots group Rethinking Schools says “Chicago’s model of school closings and education privatization […] The impact of those policies includes thousands of children displaced by school closings, spiked violence as they transferred to other schools, and the deterioration of public education in many neighborhoods into a crisis situation.”

Corporate solutions in education?

Today’s business and education elite …argue that a data driven management approach to oversee teacher performance should be used to reform the education system. This approach is both naive and problematic on many levels.

After a twenty year career in business, I decided to become a mathematics teacher. … I quickly learned that teaching students was far more complicated than managing adults. Why, you may ask? There are three simple reasons that I would like to share with the business intelligentsia.

  1. Your employees are paid to listen to you, your students are not.
  2. In business, employees are selected based upon a search and interview process. Teachers do not select their students.
  3. In business, an insubordinate employee is fired. An insubordinate student is merely one more challenge for a classroom teacher.
Beth Goldberg, Middle School Mathematics Teacher

Alfie Kohn (1996) exposed 4 myths of competition, finding it actually undermines individual growth and development, as well as human relationships, hindering goal attainment as it enables only one party to reach the goal at the expense of others. Christensen et al. inadvertently establish the case for holistically building consensus, a process that everyone agrees takes considerably more patience and commitment. The complex stakeholder relationships even such purposeful disrupters as Christensen, Johnson and Horn cannot deny are nothing like the employer-employee relationships to which their experience is limited. This was articulated brilliantly by Beth Goldberg, a Middle School Mathematics Teacher at Linden Avenue Middle School in Red Hook, NY and quoted by Diane Ravitch here. Teachers can not fire their students, some teachers and school administrators are also parents, schools must answer the needs of many communities of practice, not just business… “Failing to recognize the “wicked dynamics” in problems, we persist in applying inappropriate methods and tools to them” (Conklin, 2010).


As Paul Thomas points out in this article worth reading in its entirety, “The real problem with the perpetual failure of journalism and education reporting is that credible and smart analyses of educational research is now easily accessible online—for example, Shanker Blog, School Finance 101 (Bruce Baker), Cloaking Inequity (Julian Vasquez Heilig) and the National Education Policy Center.” Connected educators, students and parents must use the Internet to avoid the biased corporate narrative, which claims schools are failing and the tools or tests they’re selling are the only cure.

Christensen and his fellow disruptors are making a category error. Not all civil services need to be hyper-efficient and bargain-basement and in a state of permanent revolution… What the institutions of a democracy should do is attend to their many disparate constituents as effectively and inclusively and openly as possible without getting creatively destroyed in the process.
—Judith Shulevitz, The New Republic

Allowing corporations to lead education reform is wrong-minded from the outset. It’s completely irrational to apply Harvard Business School’s trademarked top-down disruption strategies within a sector that has no top! It’s up to students, parents, teachers, and other defenders of the Public Sphere to don safety goggles and steel-toed boots and pick up some power tools of their own. Common language and shared understanding can work both ways.

Updated: 2013-01-03. This post has been slightly edited for clarity, and to correct typos discovered after first publication. […] The (Rittel & Webber, 1973) citation was corrected: the reference was not listed but a different one, not quoted in the text, was. As the latter is available on line, rather than remove it I’ve added the link. I’ll call it ‘suggested reading.’ Updated: 2013-01-05. See Paul Thomas’s excellent suggestions for a 2014 Educators’ Agenda. [@plthomasEdD] scores EQAO Level 4 for his exemplary demo of what I mean by “donning steel-toed boots.”


* Quoting Great Recession From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. The script I wrote to do the drop caps strips all the other HTML from the first paragraph—my New Year resolution is to fix it using Ben Alman’s perfect solution.

Addenda and general rambling on…
Updated: I’ve also expressed similar ideas in much the same language here and here. I’ve also written about a superior approach to going beyond mere “common language,” instead using argument mapping in search of “shared understanding,” here and here. I first wrote about this book in grad school in 2009, and I acknowledged the authors’ professed concern for children’s learning, which I still have no reason to question, just as I see no contradiction; maybe I’ve come to a deeper understanding of the solace and redemption the inherent amorality of The Market must provide its flock. Men like Christensen & Co., Bloomberg, Gates… genuinely believe they are benevolent dictators, doing good, spreading wisdom. I’ve little problem with finding and filling so-called “areas of non-consumption,” it’s their intentional and wanton creation, nearly always at public expense, that I believe must be resisted at all cost. Here I point out that Americans have always sought quality snake oil, and can discern between cunning card-sharps whom they traditionally respect, versus villainous card cheats and overdressed, know-nothing “riverboat dandies.” The difference today is too many seem willing to invite the latter back to the table. I’m calling for something quite a bit short of hanging—but let’s stop talking to the Tony Bennett/Michelle Rhee crooks and cheats, the Arne Duncan/Jeb Bush snake oil charlatans and John King riverboat dandies of education reform.

“Where-ever publick spirit is found dangerous, she will soon be seen dead.”
— Thomas Gordon, Cato’s Letter #35, 1721.

Here’s one, although I think it’s more a case of intellectual dishonesty than inconsistency. Christensen, Horn and Johnson, somewhat apologetically almost, point to Howard Gardner’s eroded Theory of Multiple Intelligences, in part I believe to support their argument for apps in the classroom (pg. 31). They do not discuss any of Gardner’s ideas for reforming education. See Gardner, Howard (1992b) Assessment in Context: The Alternative to Standardized Testing in Changing Assessments Alternative Views of Aptitude, Achievement and Instruction, Bernard R. Gifford, Mary Catherine O’Connor, editors, Volume 30, 1992, pp 77-119. Also Gardner, Howard (1995/2011), The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and how Schools Should Teach, 21st Anniversary edition (2011) NY: Basic Books, 322 pages. [Read online]


Christensen CM, Marx M, Stevenson HH. (2006) The Tools of Cooperation and Change, Harvard Business School: Boston, USA

Christensen, Clayton; Johnson, Curtis W.; and Horn, Michael B. (2008) Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns New York : McGraw-Hill

Commonwealth of Australia (2007) Tackling Wicked Problems: A Public Policy Perspective, [Archived]

Kohn, A. (1996). Beyond discipline: From compliance to community. Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Conklin, Jeff (2005) Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems,

Conklin, Jeff (2010) Summary of available CogNexus Institute, Web site, California USA, retrieved 2011-10-10. Chapter 1 available as PDF retrieved 2012-03-02.

Duncan, A. (1987), The values, aspirations and opportunities of the urban underclass, Boston, Harvard University

National Collaborating Centre for Healthy Public Policy (2012) Tackling Wicked Problems in the Built Environment: Of Health Inequalities and Bedbugs [Workshop details]

Oppenheimer, Todd (2003) “The Flickering Mind: Saving Education from the False Promise of Technology”, Random House. See also this Oppenheimer article, San Francisco Chronicle, Wednesday, February 4, 2009, “Technology not the panacea for education” HTML retrieved 2012-03-02

Rittel, Horst W. J. and Webber, Melvin M. (1973) Dilemmas in a general theory of planning, Policy Sciences (4) 1973, 155-169.

Rith, Chanpory and Dubberly, Hugh (2006), Why Horst W.J. Rittel Matters, Design Issues: Volume 22, Number 4 Autumn 2006 [Online versions].

Sahlberg, Pasi (2012) Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland, NY: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.

Shulevitz, Judith (2013) Don’t You Dare Say “Disruptive” It’s the most pernicious cliché of our time,blog post at The New Republic [HTML]

Smith, M. K. (2003, 2009) ‘Communities of practice’, the encyclopedia of informal education,

Dec 21

Can (messy) mind maps enable tidy linear strategies within messy situations?

Graphic: a very messy mind map of a complex project.My research into educational, mostly open source software tools identified ones that have proven multi-tasking abilities within “authentic” learning situations (Conole and Fill, 2005; Conole, 2008). Among these, the so-called “Mind Mapping” tools stand out for what I think are several very good reasons. The image to the right, a “mind map” of a recent research project, shows the good, the bad and the ugly.

the rules common to all information systems do not cover the messy, ambiguous, and context-sensitive processes of meaning making, a form of activity in which the construction of highly “fuzzy” and metaphoric category systems is just as notable as the use of specifiable categories for sorting inputs in a way to yield comprehensible outputs.

—Jerome Bruner (1996 in Illeris, 2009, pg. 162)

It seems under-researched maybe, but I believe I saw indications, and I certainly have anecdotal evidence, that mind maps may lack meaning to people who for whatever reason(s) must solve problems in predominantly linear ways. In at least one case I’ve seen a mind map—the one of my research project at the top of the post—elicit genuine anxiety in a person with clinical anxiety disorder!

Messiness: the face of authentic learning

It’s certainly true that mind maps can get confusing. Connections become interwoven in admittedly “messy” ways—which, I argue, makes them particularly suitable to solving exactly the types of messy problems we increasingly face—although they often appear in ways that can understandably throw self-identified “linear thinkers” quite literally for a loop. It’s small wonder many people believe mind maps don’t, won’t, will never work for them. However, the same solutions cartographers have applied for centuries work in these maps too (Buckingham Shum and Okada, 2007), and are available in free tools with powerful multitasking abilities. Messiness is a fact of authentic learning situations (Collins, Joseph & Bielaczyc, 2004, pg. 19). Clinical settings and attempts to eliminate messiness can even be counter-productive (pg. 20). Describing the linear step pattern shown below in Fig. 1 (red line) Patricia Seybold says, “…we keep trying to shoehorn” Wicked Problems into that linear approach” (2013, pg. 3). I think what I’ll call linear imposition, the imposing of a linear framework or template on a non-linear situation, is at the root of Jean Lave’s “paradox” she says often causes institutionalized learning to fail (Lave, 1993, pg. 78). I believe ethnographers such as Lave have had an important impact on design thinking in education research and instructional design because of their “attempts to characterize relationships and events that occur in different educational settings. …ethnographic research produces rich descriptions that make it possible to understand what is happening and why” (Collins, Joseph & Bielaczyc, 2004, pg. 21). By “rich” descriptions Collins, Joseph & Bielaczyc mean “‘Thick,’ as in Geertz,” and by mapping these connections we contribute to the design of ‘thicker’ learning situations we hope result in deeper learning.

designVUE: lining up the non-linear

The problem is, while we may place things on lists and in lines to organize and sequence an approach, those things may have their own interconnections and internal organizations, especially if the “things” are groups of people with competing rights and interests. And so the line we draw prior to achieving full understanding of a problem is actually an imposition that changes the nature of the existing problem and causes new problems to arise. As Conklin has shown, solving problems is an iterative process.

How Humans Solve Opportunity-Driven Problems

graph plotting a linear step by step solution (red) overlayed by a process actually observed in practice (green)

Figure 1: From a 1980’s study at the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation (MCC) that looked into how people solve problems. Each peak in the green line can be understood as heading “back to the drawing board,” yet each return to the drawing board carries all the experience of the previous attempts. Source: Conklin, 2006 ©2006 John Wiley & Sons, 2013 CogNexus Group. For an excellent discussion, see also Seybold, 2013.

Mitigating Mind-Map Anxiety

Mind-map anxiety might be mitigated by applying well understood principles of cartography. Buckingham Shum and Okada (2007) say the analogy to cartographic representations of physical space is valid, providing “…an ‘aerial view’ of a topic by highlighting key elements and connections,” and calling mind maps “vehicles for summarising and negotiating meaning” (pg. 27). designVUE is one college design department’s enhancement of another university’s contribution to the open source software world and visual understanding. I think designVUE’s quick formatting tools and presentation mode lets us do some of the things map makers do. Some of these things are, or should be, in grade-level curriculum requirements—perhaps giving students hands on access to free tools like designVUE might support the teaching and learning of many.

Map coloring is the act of assigning different colors to different features on a map. There are two very different uses of this term. The first is in cartography, choosing the colors to be used when producing a map. The second is in mathematics, where the problem is to determine the minimum number of colors needed to color a map so that no two adjacent features have the same color.
—Wikipedia article

There’s nothing more linear than a time-line; as the first image shows, a mind-mapping tool makes it easy to display linear progression, so if this is the only objection, it soon crumbles. In designVUE you choose the colour scheme (“fill,” “line,” font “style”) and shape.

With the Quick Prototyping tool draw a line of bubbles in a quick succession of clicks…

mind map bubbles in a line

Image 1. In VUE you can use the Prototyping tool to draw a line of bubbles with a directional arrow between, or with standard tool place the thought bubble on a line or arrow.

Any individual “bubble” in the map may consist of much messier activities. Brainstorming, for example, is a spiral of ideas, questions, answers, and arguments. In designVUE you can use colour to visually set an activity apart, but you can also create pathways that hide and reveal specific sets of bubbles—overcome cognitive overload. Or group bubbles within each other as I’ve done here with a question, answer and pro/con set that illustrate IBIS1, a system that often goes hand-in-hand another highly successful application of mind-maps: “dialogue mapping2.”

mind map bubbles of a new color added in a spiral

Image 2. Part of a brainstorming session suggesting a circular and iterative process, shown in a different colour. With “Pathways” you can hide entire sections and choose different sequences.

But wait! Yes, there’s more! In these days of collaboration linear thinkers and their strategies are as important as ever. designVUE has a presentation tool that allows teams to construct linear pathways through maps of even the most complex dialogues, in order to gain clarity, reach consensus, and explain decisions to others. designVUE also does metadata in OpenCalais, allows you to store resources and documents in the bubbles, share maps as interactive HTML documents, reuse the same maps in multiple other maps… I’m only scratching the surface.

Image 3. Showing Pathways in the workspace. Also shown are the IBIS icons for question, idea, pro and con arguments.

The Pathways panel allows you to create standard (linear) PowerPoint-like slides and bullet points, though not as effortlessly as the commercial product. VUE’s true power as a presentation tool takes some time to appreciate and master, but if your goal is to enhance a learning situation by creating memorable and meaningful visual connections between the content, and then using the same tool to convey those ideas to an audience this tool might be what you’re after.

mind map bubbles of a new color added in a spiral

Image 4. The Pathways panel allows you to show and edit more traditional PowerPoint-like slides. In effect VUE’s “Pathways” can be separate but related presentations, or audience-specific variations on a theme.

Panel closeup. The images can be sized, additional ones and text added to each slide that need not be shown in other views:

Image 5. Closeup of the expanded Pathways Panel. The order and whether it’s shown is determined here.

In Presentation mode, hitting Enter can shift to yet another view of the groups of ideas in the presentation. There’s definitely a learning curve but my early impression is this can potentially change the way you do presentations. I highly recommend this VUE tutorial for ideas and examples.

Image 6. In Presentation mode, hitting Enter can shift to yet another view of the groups of ideas in the presentation. See this VUE tutorial for examples (note the PDF for download beneath the video player).


The types of 21st century problems we increasingly understand need taming—as they defy solving by their very nature—are “wicked problems.” This necessarily includes nearly all matters of public education, indeed of public policy as a whole, where the conflicting and intersecting rights and responsibilities of multiple stakeholders is always …messy! Governments are coming to recognize this. See the Australian Public Service Commission site for one well explained example (Commonwealth of Australia, 2007). In Canada Quebec and New Brunswick have already discovered the importance of understanding certain problems’ ‘wickedness’ in these ways. “As distinguished from problems in the natural sciences, which are definable and separable and may have solutions that are findable, the problems of governmental planning—and especially those of social or policy planning—are ill-defined; and they rely upon elusive political judgement for resolution. (Not “solution.” Social problems are never solved. At best they are only re-solved—over and over again.)” (Rittel and Webber, 1973, pg. 160).

Mind mapping, undertaken thoughtfully and with purpose (see Jeff Conklin’s video: The Limits of Conversational Structure), has proven its value in all aspects of teaching and learning. As a teacher I used it much as John Budd did here, and as an instructional designer I use it as a graphic organizer. When mapping strategies are used to both record, and then map dialog to describe real situation, and when that’s done openly and collaboratively as in situations such as Conklin has described and reproduced in practice for years it can lead to shared understanding and conflict resolution.

I don’t think it’s fair, or rational, to presume that everyone is going to instantly drop PowerPoint and buy into a mindmap-based workflow, and that’s not what I’m suggesting. While dialogue mapping can handle wicked problems, it can also do meeting minutes, so consensus can be achieved and documented by the most mutually comfortable and practical means—and the cartographers have a single one stop tool to gather and document the entire process, or to communicate it to others.


If we embrace all the 21st century models, or “competencies” seen emerging, the primary and inescapable one at the base of many others is asynchronous collaboration via digital networks. Can it not simply be that the divergent thinkers map their thoughts in collaboration with linear thinkers who further delineate the why and how of their musings? Taking up perhaps the next most agreed upon 21st century learning objective, critical thinking, it seems likely we can seek solutions to simple problems and taming strategies for wicked ones, discerning the difference. Mind mapping tools are web enabled and metadata ready. A strategy for taming wicked problems that uses mind maps, argument mapping or Conklin’s trademarked Dialogue Mapping, keeps track of pros, cons, and rationale, and documents decisions making around simple problems, but offers a powerful tool for the building of the shared understanding that must precede consensus around the taming of wicked ones. Formal training can be found, but the VUE, designVUE and various Compendium software sites themselves, Conklin’s and YouTube are probably the place to start—to get an, ahem… visual understanding of what mind maps and mind mappers might bring to which ever debate you’re having.

Maybe “Can messy mind maps enable tidy linear strategies within messy situations?” isn’t the right question. In my experience it still requires steps and sequencing to deal with the issues, but the graphic organization—the visual understanding—provided by maps in programs like VUE and Compendium, in the right hands, can really help you get a grip on the situation. It very well may need both types of thinking, and that well may require collaboration. Maybe the question to be asking is, “Are there any concept and conversation cartographers in your workplace or your PLN?”


Read more about mind maps


  1. Issue-Based Information System (IBIS) was invented by Werner Kunz and Horst Rittel as an argumentation-based approach to tackling wicked problems – complex, ill-defined problems that involve multiple stakeholders. (more)
  2. Dialogue Mapping™ is trademarked by Jeff Conklin & CogNexus Institute, who describes it as “…a radically inclusive facilitation process that creates a diagram or ‘map’ that captures and connects participants’ comments as a meeting conversation unfolds. It is especially effective with highly complex or “Wicked” problems that are wrought with both social and technical complexity, as well as a sometimes maddening inability to move forward in a meaningful and cost effective way.” (more) [Demonstration PDF]


the assumptions proposed here amount to a preliminary account of what is meant by situated learning. Knowledgeability is routinely in a state of change rather than stasis, in the medium of socially, culturally, and historically ongoing systems of activity, involving people who are related in multiple and heterogeneous ways, whose social locations, interests, reasons, and subjective possibilities are different, and who improvise struggles in situated ways with each other over the value of particular definitions of the situation, in both immediate and comprehensive terms, and for whom the production of failure is as much a part of routine collective activity as the production of average, ordinary knowledgeability.
—Jean Lave

More VUE

The Visual Understanding Environment (VUE) is an Open Source project based at Tufts University

VUE is very well documented. The English user guide is here.

designVUE is a branch of VUE. It is an open source project based in the Design Engineering Group of the Mechanical Engineering Department at Imperial College London.

CompendiumLD is either fierce competition… or you can do as I do and use both! See the Learning Design-specific “stencils” in the screen shots. They’re easily ported to other Compendium flavours, and you could apply the concept in VUE with your own icons and very little extra trouble.


Bruner, Jerome (1996) Culture, mind, and education in Contemporary Theories of Learning – Learning theorists … in their own words, Knud Illeris ed., 2009, NY: Routledge; Edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2009.

Buckingham Shum, Simon and Okada, Alexandra (2007). Knowledge Mapping for Open Sensemaking Communities. In: Researching open content in education – OpenLearn 2007, 31 Oct 2007, Milton Keynes, UK.

Collins, Allan & Joseph, Diana & Bielaczyc, Katerine (2004), Design Research- Theoretical and Methodological Issues, The Journal of the Learning Sciences, Vol. 13, No. 1, Design-Based Research:Clarifying the Terms. Introduction to the Learning Sciences Methodology Strand (2004), pp.15-42

Commonwealth of Australia (2007) Tackling Wicked Problems: A Public Policy Perspective, [Archived]

Conklin, Jeffrey (2006) Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons., Ltd., 242 pp.

Conklin, Jeff (2006b) Dialogue Mapping Demonstration, [unspecified journal, citation incomplete] CogNexus Institute, pp. 249-251 [Demonstration PDF].

Conole, G. and Fill, K. (2005). A learning design toolkit to create pedagogically effective learning activities Journal of Interactive Media in Education 2005(08). [PDF:]. Gráinne Conole and Karen Fill, University of Southampton. Page 1 Published 26 September 2005 ISSN: 1365-893X [uses CompendiumLD]

Conole, G. (2008). Capturing Practice: The Role of Mediating Artefacts in Learning Design. Handbook of Research on Learning Design and Learning Objects. (Eds.) Lockyer, L., Bennett, S., Agostinho, S. and Harper, B. ISR Press. [Pre-print of learning design chapter on using compendium].

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning. Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Lave, Jean (1993) The practice of learning in Contemporary Theories of Learning – Learning theorists … in their own words, Knud Illeris ed., 2009, NY: Routledge; Edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2009.

National Collaborating Centre for Healthy Public Policy (2012) Tackling Wicked Problems in the Built Environment: Of Health Inequalities and Bedbugs [Workshop details]

Rittel, Horst and Melvin Webber (1973) “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences 4, Elsevier Scientific Publishing, Amsterdam, pp. 155-169.

^ Seybold, Patricia B. (2013) How To Address “Wicked Problems” – Use Dialogue Mapping to Build a Shared Understanding and Evolve a Group’s Thinking, book review, [HTML | PDF]

Nov 09

Thinking “tanked…” the riverboat dandies of education reform

ABSTRACT: “Think tanks” can mean a large number of a wide range of advocacy groups. They advocate causes that might be of interest to groups large or small, powerful or weak. They vary by ideological perspective. In a critically thinking democratic society, education has been seen as an underlying necessity, a prerequisite to matters of character, citizenship and civilization. Education must be geared to differentiate between ideologues who engage in wishful thinking, and those who form opinions by rational, dialectical synthesis of opposing arguments based on their merit — those who engage in what we call critical thinking. Critical thinkers owe it to themselves, their neighbours, and their fellow citizens to engage in good faith within the public sphere. Serious educators, devoted to research-based learning and teaching, have at least a 4-decade head start in the learning theory department. That’s roughly as long as “free market” neo-liberals and neo-conservatives have been building a powerful anti-public rhetoric. But there’s simply no point engaging with ideologues who may be science deniers and the people we can refer to as free-market “fetishists” or “obsessionists.” Milton Friedman’s conflation of Freedom and Greed contributed to the immense disconnect from traditional Revolutionary values that typifies the “unfettered free markets” discourse. The Founders and the People shared a love of science, the arts and learning—and a deep understanding of its vital role in democracy—that underpinned a 300-year commitment to public education.

“Tanked” thinking — 100 years, 4 waves (makes and models)

photo of two old riverboats, fades into two tanks

Diane Stone [Marie Curie Chair & Head of the Public Policy Program, Central European University] in her 2005 report “Think Tanks and Policy Advice in Countries in Transition,” prepared for the Asian Development Bank Institute says the term ‘think tank’ originated at the RAND Corporation. She presents a 100-year overview, and tells us they are not the same in the East and West. We in the west regard think tanks as “…relatively autonomous organizations with separate legal identity that engage in the analysis of policy issues independently of government, political parties and pressure groups” (Stone, 2005, pg. 3). Over roughly the last century they have presented in at least 4 waves of growth: think tanks prior to WWII, were predominantly Anglo-American [e.g., Brookings Institution, the Russell Sage Foundation. In the UK, the Fabian Society…]. These “…First generation think-tanks were responses to practical problems spawned by urbanization, industrialisation and economic growth early in the 20th century” (pg. 3).

From WWII to the 1970s think tanks spread throughout the liberal democracies of Europe. The New Deal and the Great Society were, “…a boom-time for ideational actors…” among them the Urban Institute. These tanks were characterized by “…the proliferation of foreign policy institutes, centres for the study of security and development studies institutes, in an era defined by the Cold War, superpower rivalries and the emergence of Third World issues” (pg. 3).

Since the 70s think tanks have spread across the globe in response to economic and political changes and turmoil. They’ve become an industry, drawing increasingly on corporate funding and, quite predictably, advocating and developing policy that entrenches those interests. Says Stone, “The rise of the so-called ‘New Right’ think tanks also illustrates how policy uncertainties provide a window of opportunity for these institutes to help execute the paradigm shift away from Keynesian policy making to what is regarded in other parts of the world as elements of the Washington Consensus. That is, privatisation, financial liberalisation and deregulation” (pg. 3). The Heritage Foundation and various Charles and David Koch activities belong to this opportunistic group.

The 4th Wave is qualitatively different. It is characterised by “…new modes of interaction that are propelled by the forces of globalisation and regionalisation” (pg. 4). This doesn’t imply an entirely new set of players. It means those with the most practice—and dollars—can focus and refine a message padded by decades of ground work, while there’s no shortage of snakes in suits willing to read any script.

In the tinkle of “Trickle Down”

Think tanks are a profitable industry. “Western style think tanks emerged in large numbers and many have prospered. The challenges of transition to build viable economic and political systems in the wake of communism and the increased complexity of governance created real opportunities for young policy entrepreneurs in the new think tanks…” who often framed the demise of Soviet communism as the total triumph of unfettered market capitalism.

Others might call that wishful thinking on the part of those positioned to turn fast profits. Stone continues, “…Too quickly western analysts have equated the rapid development of independent think tanks with teleological assumptions of ‘transition’ towards democratic institutions, pluralism, healthy civil societies, market competition, liberalism, privatisation and consumerism. Instead, the communist legacy persists in the organisational structures, values and research ethos of old institutes alongside the transition think tanks.” (Stone, 2005, pg. 6). This just means we can’t tell the players without a program.

I won’t attempt to provide a Who’s Who of think tanks. I pay special attention to two I think exemplify a particular type of fourth-wave behavior, and put considerable energy into influencing the debate on education reform. We see this involvement increasingly characterized by the use of what Christensen et al. (2008) call “Power Tools.” The Heritage Foundation promotes the “parent trigger” and vouchers approach (updated); the Cato Institute prefers to tout the benefits of “choice.” As we’ll learn shortly, the authors of the genuine Cato’s Letters would quickly recognize this as some of the “worst of things recommended by good names” (Trenchard, 1721, more below).

Think tanks have widely diverse methods and motives. “Some think tanks are ‘academic’ in style, focused on research, geared to university interests and in building the knowledge base of society. Other organizations are overtly partisan or ideologically motivated” (pg. 6). It makes sense to know who is seated across from you at any table. When you’ve got cards in the game it’s also good to know if the dealer has a reputation for stacking the deck.

The Round Table, the poker table, and those seated at the Education Reform table

Antique photo: Cowboys in the west playing poker in a saloon.

King Arthur’s Round Table was created, as it was believed in the 12th century, to prevent quarrels among those who wouldn’t accept a lower place at the table than others (Kibler, 1991). Over centuries came about habeas corpus and what became known as common law, and we’ve generally come to see these ideas as fundamental aspects of civil society. In the Old West, cheating at the card table could be fatal, the stuff of legends. The pros pretended to be one thing in order to take advantage of a “sucker,” but charlatans and cheats, once caught, often did not get second chances. Why then, in our era, do we sit at the table with those we’ve caught cheating and hiding the truth?

While perhaps one suspects a careful reading of Samuel Johnson is the appropriate lens through which to inspect their patriotism, in genuine American tradition (Weiser-Alexander, 2013), the lucrative think tank industry continues to foster charlatans and “dandies”. In 2013 The Heritage Foundation tapped a white supremacist to do policy and number-crunching with predictably dishonest results. The Cato Institute works Twitter, spinning current events, working with others to discredit climate scientists, spreading partisan acrimony. Machiavelli has written, “But it is necessary to know well how to disguise this characteristic, and to be a great pretender and dissembler; and men are so simple, and so subject to present necessities, that he who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived” (1532, Ch.XVIII, par. 2). John Trenchard called it, “The Arts of misleading the People by Sounds” (Trenchard, 1721). He said, “Yet even in countries where the highest liberty is allowed, and the greatest light shines, you generally find certain men, and bodies of men, set apart to mislead the multitude; who are ever abused with words, ever fond of the worst of things recommended by good names, and ever abhor the best things, and the most virtuous actions, disfigured by ill names.” George Orwell called it, “doublespeak”. He wrote 1984.

Cartoon from 1940s, snake labelled Standard Oil and and Oil can, destruction and pollution pictured in background.

The Heritage Foundation is a think tank founded by corporate CEO Joseph Coors, of the Coors beer empire, and Richard Mellon Scaife, heir of the Mellon industrial and banking fortune. It’s considered among the most influential 3rd wave think tanks pioneering 4th wave ways and means. Kochs, Coorses, Heritage and Cato are by no means the only ones clearing their new unfettered markets wilderness; they are exemplary, and their behaviour is worth scrutinizing. The Heritage Foundation stands accused of ties to Asian espionage, they’ve supported tobacco interests for decades, and support the privatization agenda in education reform, promoting vouchers as the best strategy to “dismantle” public education (by stealth) spelled out in 2002 in a speech given at the Heritage Foundation by Dick DeVos. While far right columnist Jennifer Rubin may be concerned Heritage’s recent lurches even further right under Jim DeMint might blow its cover, it’s already hard to reconcile Heritage’s influence with its unabashed bias.

The Cato Institute is another 3rd wave think tank with a clearly emerging set of 4th wave tactics. Whatever their beginnings, their current mission is apparently nothing short of the redefinition of libertarianism itself, and a rewrite of its place in early American political thought in order to support the unfettered-free-markets agenda. As I’ll show in the paragraphs that follow, this likely has more to do with the thinking of the Institute’s corporate donors than the colonial Americans with whom they wish to associate their image. Cato’s executive vice president David Boaz’s book provides a distorted take on the subject; it’s a study in Locke et praeterea nihil, “Locke, and nothing but,” which I will unpack shortly. Ironically perhaps, a better description of Cato’s mission is hosted on their own discussion forum/blogging network, Cato-Unbound. See Corporations versus the Market; or, Whip Conflation Now, by Roderick T. Long, a “…self-described Aristotelian/Wittgensteinian in philosophy and a left-libertarian market anarchist in social theory” who, as a founder of the Alliance of the Libertarian Left, is also a genuine preserver of libertarianism’s true heritage.

“Cato Cato bo-Bato, banana fana fo-Fato…” …the What’s in a Name? Game

Founded in 1974, the Charles Koch Foundation primped in 1976 by tapping John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon’s once significant, as it turns out dangerously forgotten Cato’s Letters (1720-1724). The Institute performed no contract research and did not accept government funding (Cato, 1977; 1994; 2001); The Kochs provided about 4 percent of Cato’s revenue during the past decade (Forbes, 2012-03-11).

In Vicksburg, Mississippi, the citizens rage had become so increased by 1835, five cardsharps were lynched by a vigilante group. It was soon after this that many of the gamblers moved onto the riverboats, benefiting from the transient riverboat lifestyle.

—Kathy Weiser-Alexander, 2013

Just as in 1720 the authors of the genuine Cato’s Letters called for the South Seas “stock-jobbers” to be trussed up and hanged (Gordon, 1720), citizens of Vicksburg, Mississippi, lynched five “cardsharps” in 1835 (Weiser-Alexander, 2013). Thus present day Cato and other corporate-financed, ideology-promoting think tanks have spent decades, working the riverboats as it were, stealthily establishing credibility, prepping the narrative. They produce public filings, testimony and legal briefs, a canon of pseudo-scholarly literature, devoted to a meme, which they use to sway legislators and influence the Supreme Court.

Photo: antique bottles of snakeoil.

What I’ve referred to asLocke-jawed” free-market ideologues, often holding PhDs and other credentials provided by the think tank that employs them, have generated reams of articles and books, such as those of James A. Dorn and others, dubiously appropriating history, even taking the title “Cato’s Letters.” Dorn’s 1996 Cato’s Letter #12 is an archetypical example of what Robert E. Shalhope (Shalhope, 1972) labelled Locke et praeterea nihil, “Locke, and nothing but,” which he called the “orthodox” position on American republicanism. Dorn declares Locke the single Authority on property rights on page 7 of neo-Letter #12. Every neo-letter from Cato acknowledges Trenchard & Gordon’s genuine Cato’s Letters’ influence on Revolutionary thought (pg. ii) but you’ll have to actually read them to appreciate Cato Institute’s truly Orwellian reversal of their meaning. You might turn to genuine historian Clinton Rossiter (1953) (or a Wikipedia article that cites him) to learn their greater importance relative to Locke’s: “No one can spend any time on the newspapers, library inventories, and pamphlets of colonial America without realizing that Cato’s Letters rather than John Locke’s Civil Government was the most popular, quotable, esteemed source for political ideas in the colonial period” (pg. 141). Robert Shalhope provides many more names. Dorn’s premise is questionable from the outset, but I’m only just getting started.

Shalhope points to the work of such historians as Neal Riemer and Caroline Robbins as exemplifying what has slowly and steadily nudged the literature towards a deeper understanding of American Revolutionary thought. “The origins that Neo-Whig historians Bernard Bailyn, Richard Buel, Jack Greene, and Gordon Wood have discovered are not simple and Lockean, as once believed, but complex and atavistic growing out of the rich English intellectual traditions of the Dissenters, radical Whigs, Classical Republicans, Commonwealthmen, Country party, or more simply, the Opposition” (Bailyn, 1967).

… corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.
—Abraham Lincoln, letter to Col. William F. Elkins, Nov. 21, 1864

The fourth-wave think tanks that promote free markets have Locke-jaw. The Charles Koch Foundation/Cato Institute’s name game grounds a one-sided retelling of history in faux-intellectual relevance. They use incendiary language, demagoguery, a feigned and self-righteous piety, and deceptively simple rhetoric (“talking points” or “sound bytes”) framed in moral imperatives. Dorn’s oft-republished Cato’s neo-Letter #12 (Dorn, 1996), academically trite and historically vapid, is an example of a canon of free-market propaganda that, one naïve to the role of unfettered money in public policy might think ‘quite astonishingly,’ has gone virtually unchallenged. Seeking to vilify the Progressive era while romanticizing a mythical predecessor, “The Rise of Government and the Decline of Morality” offers an incomplete picture of turn of the century social safety nets, tells a viciously dishonest distortion of the history of Baltimore, and reinvents the Polish-American immigrant in the author’s own free-market image. These are deceptions. The media and academics have failed their duty, which is to expose such lies. As Sheldon Richman, a senior editor at Cato Institute wrote at American Conservative (in an article demonstrating Cato also knows (or once knew) how to write in a genuine academic vein, keepers of those I believe a good reading reveals to be the historically genuine “libertarian”—Trenchard and Gordon Whigs by another name (other than rejecting “a Manichean division of the world into light and dark” as do Whigs)? They describe their line of thought as “freed market anti-capitalists” who “…see post-Civil War America not as a golden era of laissez faire but rather as a largely corrupt business-ruled outgrowth of the war, which featured the usual military contracting and speculation in government-securities” (Richman, 2012). See my fuller analysis of Dorn’s snake oil, further corrections and citations here.

This is but one example of over 4 decades of literally manufacturing legitimacy, cherry-picking historical fact, juxtaposing it with emotional appeals, wielding agenda biased rhetoric, many by now perhaps believing it themselves. Where Richman (2011) uses regular and left libertarian, I suggest neo and classic may be better (I’m not planning to compare Trenchard & Gordon’s economics to the Austrian school touted by Rothbardian left libertarians any time soon, but you’ll find neo-Whigs and neo-libertarians are compared by The New Independent Whig here; regardless, genuine libertarians descend from leftist/anarchist origins). Perhaps in response to a perception that liberal education and universities would lead to a democratization of property and wealth, those who had the most of those things already created a counter-knowledge production factory—attacking science itself if it suited their purpose. Corporate funded think tanks like Cato and Heritage took an ideology and turned it into a library of talking points and “sound bytes” to be mixed and matched by snake-oil salesmen far and wide, an American tradition older than the Constitution.

Neo-libertarianism as a front for lobby groups, dynasty-building

Recent revelations, therefore, that the junior senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul, is a serial plagiarist should be no more a surprise than the source of his material: the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. Note well, the link Paul copied from is self-proclaimed ‘fuzzy’ and/or anecdotal research to begin with, stating, “…This book is not an investigative book. Many of the stories told and information reported represent work already done by others. Rather than endlessly noting multiple sourced items mixed in with personal conversations and research, we have included here other sources of information for the stories presented.” (par. 17).

In March, and again in April of 2012, the Koch’s sued the Institute and attempted to reverse “what they called a ‘board-packing scheme’ to weaken their influence.” (Bloomberg, 2012-04-10) This more than irked Robert A. Levy, chairman of Cato’s board, who knew well that skewing brand-name research and scholars in support of political advocacy groups is what the Kochs do (NYT, 2012-03-06, par. 4). Think tanks began taking extra care publicly to distance themselves from Koch influence, even as they take Koch money.

dem·a·gogue also dem·a·gog US (dm-gôg, -gg)     n.
1. A leader who obtains power by means of impassioned
    appeals to the emotions and prejudices of the populace.

In 2012 the Koch’s infamously funded then-climate-change-skeptic Richard Muller’s Berkeley Earth Project, apparently thinking it would provide evidence to back their long time assertion climate science is a fraud, a conspiracy, a hoax. Have they changed their minds? A genuine look at the threat of climate change by the academic think tank, the Miller Center of Public Affairs (University of Virginia), concluded the solution is to “Take Federalism Seriously. The remarkably diverse body of state experience gives the federal government a unique opportunity to fashion policy on the basis of real-world lessons, including models of best practices. It also establishes a foundation for an intergovernmental partnership on climate change in the best traditions of American federalism…” (NCCG, 2008, pg. 9). The Cato Institute Store still appears to be peddling climate denial literature “by means of impassioned appeals to the emotions and prejudices of the populace” [1, 2, 3].

fet·ish·ism also fet·ich·ism (ft-shzm, ft-) n.
1. Worship of or belief in magical fetishes.
2. Excessive attachment or regard.

Cato’s message of free-markets, as antithetical to the values of Trenchard & Gordon the Whigs as it is to those of Franklin and Paine the Patriots and Lincoln the Republican president, is fetishistic. The mechanisms of which the genuine Cato’s Letters warned almost 400 years ago saying “…under every government, particular men may be too rich,” which we see in the plain light of day result in wealth disparity and poverty, will somehow magically create prosperity and growth? Maybe, but only for those positioned to benefit, those who fund the think tanks and provide the amplification.

Advising the British Parliament in 1744 Dr. Samuel Johnson said, “…disseminating discontent, and propagating reports of secret influence, of dangerous counsels, of violated rights, and encroaching usurpation. This practice is no certain note of patriotism.” The post-Muller Institute hounds “Obamacare” and affirmative action (the latter employs a straw man argument in doublespeak: ‘trickle down civil rights’), derides the president and his office, and hawks their annotated versions Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States—the same tired demagoguery as the TEA party, the 112th and 113th congresses, Freedom Watch, and other Koch ventures, which led to multiple pointless votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, brinkmanship around the debt ceiling and a government shutdown that has already cost Americans taxpayers at least $24 billion as of late October 2013.

infographic, The Wealth Gap and One Approach to Fixing It

In her “Brief Audit of Bill Gates’ Common Core Spending” Mercedes Schneider tells us, “In total, the four organizations primarily responsible for CCSS — NGA, CCSSO, Achieve, and Student Achievement Partners — have taken $147.9 million from Bill Gates. “This first post also includes a list of think tanks and major education organizations that received funding from Gates to promote the CCSS. Although “libertarian” think tanks like Cato have philosophical differences with Common Core, ironically the policies they promote benefit men like the Kochs, Gates and Coors (Microsoft has donated to Heritage Foundation).

Riverboat dandies of ed reform

Riverboat dandies of ed reform, such as DeVos or Cato operative and one-time climate science-denier Neal McCluskey, whose brief career as an English teacher led to a long record of ideology-driven conjecture on the subject of education. McCluskey came to my attention Tweeting about about scary “government schools” and “choice,” but never answered when I asked if he also walks in “government” parks, borrows books from “government” libraries, and drives on “government” highways? Trenchard and Gordon, in the genuine Cato’s Letters of US history, used the word genuine people still use today, although they spelled it, “publick.” They were opposed to one who “…sets up an interest of profit, pleasure, or pomp in himself, repugnant to the good of the publick…” (No. 37. Saturday, July 15, 1721). While I’ve not read Mr. McCluskey’s book, the promo reeks of the same disconnect from fact and history displayed when Charles Koch Foundation appropriated the name of Trenchard’s & Gordon’s famous pre-Revolutionary pamphlet for their Cato Institute.

The good Education of Youth has been esteemed by wise Men in all Ages, as the surest Foundation of the Happiness both of private Families and of Common-wealths. Almost all Governments have therefore made it a principal Object of their Attention, to establish and endow with proper Revenues, such Seminaries of Learning, as might supply the succeeding Age with Men qualified to serve the Publick with Honour to themselves, and to their Country.
—Benjamin Franklin, 1749

McCluskey implies Thomas Jefferson hated government, or maybe “big” government, an assertion that fails† US History 101. Jefferson, in his first inaugural address said, “We are all republicans — we are all federalists;” genuine historian Peter S. Onuf would say Mr. McCluskey is a writer “…complicit in an interpretation of [Jefferson’s] political career generally that systematically discounts and misrepresents his principled commitment to the American experiment in federal republican government. …and we certainly continue to draw inspiration from Jeffersonian conceptions of the natural and universal rights of individuals. But when Jefferson called himself a “federalist,” he meant what he was saying. …Jefferson did not privilege “republicanism” over “federalism” (as we may), nor would he be willing to distinguish or dissociate these “principles.”” (par. 10) and reminds us “Jefferson’s obsessive fears of “power,” “corruption,” his notions of “liberty”, “virtue”, personal and political “independence”, and “equality” were all embedded in a view of the world astonishingly unfamiliar to modern readers…” Onuf argues here “…that “federal principles”, the preservation of the framers’ “more perfect union,” was as important to Jefferson as vindicating republican government”. McCluskey claims the Founders voted down public education. Even Christensen’s lazy summary of Jefferson’s long-known and deeply held belief in public education correctly places the blame on Virginia plantation owners and their anti-tax allies of the day (Christensen, Johnson & Horn, 2008, pgs. 52-53). It’s either legend or myth that some wanted to make George Washington king. They were sternly rebuked: “If you have any regard for your Country, concern for yourself or posterity, or respect for me, to banish these thoughts from your Mind, and never communicate, as from yourself, or any one else, a sentiment of the like Nature,” was the response, says a PBS lesson plan. Joyce Appleby (1973) tells how Adams found that in France the populist constitution of Franklin’s Pennsylvania was compared to his own aristocratic one. Yet they both lost. It’s yet another irony of the day that our self styled tea party patriots still support the aristocrats and do the bidding of the would-be king makers. Virginia’s Miller Foundation explains, “…Washington’s balanced and devoted service as President persuaded the American people that their prosperity and best hope for the future lay in a union under a strong but cautious central authority. His refusal to accept a proffered crown and his willingness to relinquish the office after two terms established the precedents for limits on the power of the presidency.”

“Jefferson recognized the supreme importance, for a democratic government, of universal education. And this education must above all things teach men to think clearly and independently, for only by so doing will they be able to perpetuate a democracy.”
—Norbert Sand (1943)

Norbert Sand (1943) says much more about Jefferson and education in fewer words: “Jefferson recognized the supreme importance, for a democratic government, of universal education. And this education must above all things teach men to think clearly and independently, for only by so doing will they be able to perpetuate a democracy.” Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Paine all wrote at great length of their belief in education and its role in American democracy. Alexis de Tocqueville spoke of American sense of community and warned of individualism’s—not government’s—ill effect on morality: “…it is difficult to foresee to what pitch of stupid excesses their selfishness may lead them; and no one can foretell into what disgrace and wretchedness they would plunge themselves lest they should have to sacrifice something of their own well-being to the prosperity of their fellow creatures.” There was only one antidote. “Educate, then, at any rate, for the age of implicit self-sacrifice and instinctive virtues is already flitting far away from us, and the time is fast approaching when freedom, public peace, and social order itself will not be able to exist without education” (de Tocqueville, 1840).

Before any great things are accomplished, a memorable change must be made in the system of education and knowledge must become so general as to raise the lower ranks of society nearer to the higher. The education of a nation instead of being confined to a few schools and universities for the instruction of the few, must become the national care and expense for the formation of the many.
John Adams,

Men like Dorn and McCluskey are disingenuous. They work for Cato Institute and the neo-liberal agenda, thus we can’t expect their representation of American history to be genuine. Think tanks employ mostly white men, help them pursue PhDs and relevance, and continue quoting from the reductionist script. They employ hyperbole and loaded language (“[scientists] proclaiming the sky falling…” “a desire to sponge off of others”) and euphemisms (great federal slimdown of 2013…,” emph. mine), paint all scientists everywhere as whiners. Completely oblivious to the outside world’s view of the miscreants McCluskey praises for shutting down the government, he links to Canadian Kate Allen’s article calling it an example of researchers ‘sponging’, even while proclaiming a love of science and its many benefits (elsewhere McCluskey article).

Frank Luntz is described as “a Republican strategist and one of the nation’s foremost experts on crafting the perfect political message.” Luntz is responsible for changing “taxing” the rich, which Americans support, to “taking from” the rich. Luntz has been largely successful in removing the word “entrepreneur” and substituting it with “job-creator.” At the Republican Governors Association in 2011 Luntz feared, especially after Occupy Wall St., that Americans were changing their views on capitalism, seeing it as “immoral.” “I’m trying to get that word removed and we’re replacing it with either ‘economic freedom’ or ‘free market,’ ” Luntz said. Is there any reason at all to expect Neal McCluskey’s Luntz-scripted “Feds In The Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples, and Compromises American Education” (2007) to be qualitatively or substantively different from James A. Dorn’s Luntz-scripted “The Rise of Government and the Decline of Morality” (1996)? One wonders if these are educators or salesmen.

Martin Wolf (2010) unmasked the “political genius” and economic voodoo of supply side economics some years ago, quoting Alan Greenspan and George Mankiw. But in the free-market fetish business thinking has tanked, and in business people say anything to close the deal.

Don’t engage with disingenuous ideologues

“The system of unfettered capitalism doesn’t work for the ordinary citizen,” says Chris Hedges, he continues [it…] “means they’re all back to these speculative games, and that’s what they are, they don’t produce anything, they bet against things…” Now they bet parents and teachers can be overwhelmed by dollars and a discourse that is false. James L. Huston (1993) points especially to seventeenth-century republican theorist James Harrington and says, “…Americans believed that if property were concentrated in the hands of a few in a republic, those few would use their wealth to control other citizens, seize political power, and warp the republic into an oligarchy. Thus to avoid descent into despotism or oligarchy, republics had to possess an equitable distribution of wealth…” (pg. 1079).

Drawing of snakeoil salesman, fades into Rand Paul

They produce phony research, subvert and suppress report after report showing their assertions of American public school failures are damned lies, and their ideas for fixing them are snake-oil. Chris Christie gives the public’s money to his campaign donors and says openly he “doesn’t care what the community thinks.” Parents should return the tests, teachers should defy their principals, principal should stand with students, teachers and parents against their boards and the corporations invading children’s classrooms, testing their marketing ideas on children, building customer lists for their products, collecting numbers and destroying learning.

I would like to find reformers who share common ground with me and with the nation’s teachers on the issues of child health and nutrition, on the issue of the malevolent effects of poverty on children’s lives. I would like to find reformers who want to collaborate–not compete–with the community public schools.
—Diane Ravitch, September 15, 2013

Diane Ravitch presents some strong arguments for excluding the disingenuous and the self-interested from the debate in this impassioned rebuttal to Sam Chaltain’s (frankly patronizing and condescending) review of her book, “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.” Having tweeted my overall support for Ms. Ravitch’s response I’m very appreciative Mr. Chaltain tweeted to me that he was not suggesting sitting with ALEC, I’d like to know if he thinks Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, The US Chamber of Commerce, Bill Gates, or even Arne Duncan is any different, and if so, why?

A prince, therefore, ought always to … be a constant inquirer, and afterwards a patient listener concerning the things of which he inquired; also, on learning that any one, on any consideration, has not told him the truth, he should let his anger be felt.
—Niccolò Machiavelli, 1532

Those who seek profits in education are disingenuous at best but when they claim to put children first, many of them are lying to themselves and others. When think tanks deny the consensus of research they are channeling the card sharks and snake oil sellers of the Old West. “What they have amply demonstrated if they don’t care about poor kids or closing the achievement gap, only maintaining the status quo,” says Ravitch.

The free-market dogma of the Cato Institute is distantly removed from the spirit of the Cato’s Letters of Trenchard and Gordon, which are widely regarded as representative of pre-Revolutionary Colonial American political thought (Bailyn, 1967). Philosophically and politically, the Fathers of the American Revolution were nothing like the so-called Libertarians of 21st century North America, who have much more in common with the “tyrants” “boasters” and “knaves” Trenchard and Gordon regularly disparage for their greed and lack of “publick spirit” (e.g., #35). They did not despise government, only tyranny of the minority, and factions that would divide the people against each other for their own gain. The “publick spirit” of which Trenchard and Gordon wrote inthe 1720s was a fundamental piece of American political thought in the early United States of America, as Thomas Paine wrote in Agrarian Justice:

The rugged face of society, checkered with the extremes of affluence and want, proves that some extraordinary violence has been committed upon it, and calls on justice for redress.
—Thomas Paine (1797/1894)

American revolutionaries thought long and hard about limiting government—it should be in the people’s hands. They thought a great deal about limiting the accumulation of wealth. They thought a great deal of associating together, to lift all the people up, and very little of taking personal gain at the expense of the weak. They believed in education, and all who knew them acknowledged its importance to maintaining the American experiment.

I do not think that the system of self-interest as it is professed in America is in all its parts self- evident, but it contains a great number of truths so evident that men, if they are only educated, cannot fail to see them. Educate, then, at any rate, for the age of implicit self-sacrifice and instinctive virtues is already flitting far away from us, and the time is fast approaching when freedom, public peace, and social order itself will not be able to exist without education.
—Alexis de Tocqueville, 1835


When it comes to America’s 3 centuries of commitment to public education, the riverboat dandies, card sharps and snakeoil salemen (and women) of ed reform prefer that you know less than half the story. They want you know the first paragraph of this famous de Tocqueville quote, but not think critically about the implications of the second, and probably prefer you not read his summary of his feelings on the matter in the two paragraphs that follow, which he reported as the American experiment in progress, at all:

The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent …they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, … it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people.

[…] This does not satisfy me: the nature of him I am to obey signifies less to me than the fact of extorted obedience. I do not deny, however, that a constitution of this kind appears to me to be infinitely preferable to one which, after having concentrated all the powers of government, should vest them in the hands of an irresponsible person or body of persons. Of all the forms that democratic despotism could assume, the latter would assuredly be the worst.

[…] when the sovereign represents the nation and is dependent upon the people, the rights and the power of which every citizen is deprived serve not only the head of the state, but the state itself; and that private persons derive some return from the sacrifice of their independence which they have made to the public. To create a representation of the people in every centralized country is, therefore, to diminish the evil that extreme centralization may produce, but not to get rid of it.

—Alexis de Tocqueville, 1840
emphasis mine

The Education Reform movement must learn to differentiate between ideology-driven strategists serving corporate interests, and life-long educationists who form opinions by rational, dialectical synthesis of opposing arguments based on their merit — who engage in what we call critical thinking. Critical thinkers owe it to themselves, their neighbours, and their fellow citizens to engage in good faith within the public sphere. Serious educators, devoted to research-based learning and teaching, have at least a 4-decade head start. There’s simply no point engaging with ideologues who may be science deniers and the people we can refer to as free-market “fetishists” or “obsessionists.”

De Tocqueville is also famously quoted as saying, “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money,” and it may one of the few times his usual prescience failed us. American democracy endured until corporate-industrial-military complex discovered it could buy the government outright with the public’s money.

—Richard Fouchaux



Appleby, Joyce (1973) “The New Republican Synthesis and the Changing Political Ideas of John Adams”, American Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 5.

Abowd, Paul (2013) Koch-funded charity passes money to free-market think tanks in states, The Center for Public Integrity [HTML]

Bailyn, Bernard (1967), The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Harvard University Press, reprinted 1992, 396 pages.

Cato Institute (1977) Articles of Incorportion, archived at D. B. A. Press retrieved 2012-06-22.

Cato Institute (1994) Restated Articles of Incorportion, archived at D. B. A. Press retrieved 2012-06-22.

Cato Institute (2001) 2001 Annual Report retrieved 2012-06-22.

Christensen, Clayton; Johnson, Curtis W.; and Horn, Michael B. (2008) Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns New York : McGraw-Hill

Conklin, Jeff (2005) Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems,

Conklin, Jeff (2010) Summary of available CogNexus Institute, Web site, California USA, retrieved 2011-10-10. Chapter 1 available as PDF retrieved 2012-03-02.

Dorn, James A. (1996) The Rise of Government and the Decline of Morality, online, Cato Institute [PDF] retrieved 2012-06-23

Duncan, A. (1987), The values, aspirations and opportunities of the urban underclass, Boston, Harvard University

Gordon, Thomas (1720) in Vol. 1. Chapter: NO. 2. SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 12, 1720. The fatal Effects of the South-Sea Scheme, and the Necessity of punishing the Directors. [HTML].

Johnson, Samuel (1774), The Patriot, Addressed To The Electors Of Great Britain, [HTML].

Huston, James L. (1993) “The American Revolutionaries, the Political Economy of Aristocracy, and the American Concept of the Distribution of Wealth, 1765-19000” The American Historical Review, Vol. 98, No. 4, pp. 1079-1105.

Kibler, William W. (1991). “Round Table.” In Lacy, Norris J. (Ed.), The New Arthurian Encyclopaedia, p. 391. New York: Garland.

National Journal (Chris Frates, 2012-06-19/20), Koch Brothers, Cato Institute Ending Dispute [HTML].

National Conference on Climate Governance [NCCG] (2008) Climate Policy Blueprint December 11–12, 2008 Charlottesville, Virginia Presented by the Report of the National Conference on Climate Governance [PDF]

New York Times (Eric Lichtblau, 2012-03-06) Cato Institute Is Caught in a Rift Over Its Direction [HTML].

Oppenheimer, Todd (2003) “The Flickering Mind: Saving Education from the False Promise of Technology”, Random House. See also this Oppenheimer article, San Francisco Chronicle, Wednesday, February 4, 2009, “Technology not the panacea for education

Richman, Sheldon (2011) Libertarian Left Free-market anti-capitalism, the unknown ideal, blog post, American Conservative, February 3, 2011 [HTML].

Rith, Chanpory and Dubberly, Hugh (2006), Why Horst W.J. Rittel Matters, Design Issues: Volume 22, Number 4 Autumn 2006.

Rothbard, Murray (1998) The Ethics of Liberty, New York University Press. [HTML]

Smith, M. K. (2003, 2009) ‘Communities of practice’, the encyclopedia of informal education,

Powell, Jim (2012), The Cato Institute Controversy: Why Should Anyone Care What Libertarians Think?, [ Op/Ed]

Saez, Emmanuel (2013) Striking it Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States (Updated with 2012 preliminary estimates), UC Berkeley [PDF]

Sand, Norbert (1944) The Classics in Jefferson’s Theory of Education The Classical Journal, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Nov., 1944), pp. 92-98.

Shalhope, Robert (1972) Toward a Republican Synthesis: The Emergence of an Understanding of Republicanism in American Historiography,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 22 (1972) 49-80.

Stone, Diane (2005), Think Tanks and Policy Advice in Countries in Transition, Section 1, Think Tanks: Definitions, Development and Diversification, Asian Development Bank Institute (ADBI)

The New Independent Whig (2012) On Libertarians, Progressives & Whigs The Problem, blog post, Thursday, February 9, 2012 [HTML]

Weiser-Alexander, Kathy (2013), Gambling in the Old West, Legends of America, website,

Wolf, Martin (2010) The Political Genius of Supply Side Economics, blog post [HTML]

Yahoo News (Moody, Chris, Dec 1, 2011) How Republicans are being taught to talk about Occupy Wall Street [HTML].

Oct 03

Where learning happens, there shall ye find teachers

It’s hard to imagine anyone arguing that the digital age, social networking, animation, other event timing software (from Adobe Captivate to Mozilla’s Popcorn & Butter) and 24/7 access won’t change—haven’t already changed—the way teaching, learning, and schooling are done in the 21st century. But I’m becoming increasingly vexed by those suggesting technology will replace teachers, that for-profit social networking platforms will replace professional development—or that either of those propositions is a good idea.Wordle including 21st Century Skills and other current terminology

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 1:9

I’ll dispense with the obvious semantic argument right away: even in self-guided learning there is a teacher—we say “I taught myself!” If informal learning is truly “a spontaneous process of helping people to learn” and it really “…works through conversation, and the exploration and enlargement of experience…” if its “…purpose is to cultivate communities, associations and relationships that make for human flourishing…” then not only do I hope we all find and fill that role almost every day—I shake my head in bemusement at the eagerness with which many, perhaps even TVO’s perspicacious and typically uber-informed Steve Paikin, seem to be anticipating teaching’s impending doom.

Screenshot of Hypercard from a 1980s era Macintosh Performa

Screen shot of 1980s era Macintosh Performa and Hypercard, technology that “changed the way we learn” over 30 years ago. Source: Stanislav (2011)

Fortunately, I don’t believe the host, nor any of the panel members in this thought provoking series actually believe this rhetoric; in places like Canada where the commitment to public education is for the time being less precarious than many other places, this can still be said with tongue-in-cheek. Overall, throughout the musings of this panel the vital role played by teachers, mentors, coaches, and guides was implicit. The skills, creativity and imagination professional educators bring to the situations they design and create for the purpose of conveying the knowledge they need to share, was celebrated openly. Overall there was full recognition of the approach most strongly suggested by the literature and research—and who can be seen to have been doing the “thickest” (à la Clifford Geertz1) research for decades. [Update: yours truly on Geertz.] I was schooled in the public school system of Bethlehem, PA, USA in the 1960s. My teachers sat us in circles, let students lead reading groups while they circulated giving individualized instruction, we split into groups and did jigsaw investigations, returned and taught our classmates how to put the pieces together. Tropes and talking points, pompous assertions around “industrial” or even “agrarian” paradigms notwithstanding, throughout history educators, including teachers in the trenches, have always led the search for ways to improve and enhance the process of helping people to learn.

The Cognitive Apprenticeship framework of the 80s identified elements of the mentor/apprentice relationship (e.g., “scaffolding“) that have been essential to teaching and learning for centuries, and educators ever since have been mapping these to specific strategies and the software that supports them.

A tool such as Twitter can be a useful tool, even a powerful one in the right hands. But it’s absurd to think a platform limited to messages 140 characters, blocked by governments and firewalls, adopted thus far by a trivial percentage of teachers would be a good pick to “replace professional development,” as one person on the #Learning2030 hashtag asked Wednesday night. Leave alone the fact Twitter’s priority is making money for its shareholders, and that we don’t know what this corporation may do, or not, to protect privacy. About 80% of messaging on Twitter is self-promotion—researchers coined a new term for such Tweople, “Meformers,” in contrast to “informers” (Naaman,Boase,& Lai, 2010). While I agree teachers should try Twitter, I see Twitter being used as a hub, the water cooler in the staff room around which informal learning happens, contacts, connections and preliminary plans to make plans. Just like pencil and paper, Twitter’s the right technology for many jobs. Use it for what it does well.

Several panels have noted how kids “intuitively” adapt to new technology, but I heard none remark that human-computer interface designers have been striving to design “intuitive” interfaces since there have been computers to design interfaces for. A book written on the topic in 1987 was still in use in 2010.

It’s wonderful to be in Ontario having important and fruitful conversations with genuine reformers, so sincerely devoted to student engagement, deep learning and the new possibilities awaiting discovery by all of us. There’s no need to believe we are the first to have these conversations, nor will we be the last.


  1. For many decades, forward-thinking, innovative educators have been engrossed with the exploration of applications technology. See, among many examples, posts in my own Cognitive Apprenticeship category and the various works in their reference sections. For evidence of the extensive range technology-enhanced-learning-focused 20th century collaborations across disciplines, look no further than R. G. Segall (1989), Thick descriptions: a tool for designing ethnographic interactive videodiscs, ACM SIGCHI Bulletin, Volume 21 Issue 2, Oct. 1989 pp. 118 – 122. While doing so please remember, there’s nothing new under the sun.

Further reading

Ghefaili, Aziz (2003) Cognitive Apprenticeship, Technology, and the Contextualization of Learning Environments, Journal of Educational Computing, Design & Online learning Volume 4, Fall, 2003.

Harkinson, Josh, (September 24, 2013), Here’s How Twitter Can Track You on All of Your Devices, Mother Jones, retrieved 2013-10-03

Junco, Reynol; Elavsky, C. Michael and Heiberger, Greg (2012), Putting twitter to the test: Assessing outcomes for student collaboration, engagement and success, British Journal of Educational Technology (2012) 1-15. (Wiley Online Library)

Lave, Jean and Wenger, Etienne (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lave, Jean (1996). Teaching, as Learning, in Practice, Mind, Culture, and Activity (3:3) pp149-164.

Lowe, Tony & Lowe, Rachael (2012) Twitter in learning and teaching – literature review (

Stanislav (2011), Why Hypercard Had to Die, blog post,

Naaman, M., Boase, J. & Lai, C. (2010) Is it really about me? Message Content in Social Awareness Streams. Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, February 6-10, 2010 in Savannah GA (PDF).

Webducate [‘’ website/blog] (2012), Twitter in learning and teaching – literature review, retrieved 2012-12-03

Wenger, E. (2006) Communities of practice, a brief introduction,, HTML retrieved 2011-11-03 or, PDF retrieved 2011-10-03.

Richard studied music as a teenager with Trevor Payne at John Abbott College and attended Berklee College of Music in Boston. He has performed across Canada with full-time rock bands since the early 80s. He’s been a teacher of rock, jazz & classical guitar, first as a sub for his own private teacher, formally at the now defunct Toronto Percussion Centre, and taught at The Arts Music Store in Newmarket, Ontario, for 6 years. He holds the degrees of Bachelor of Fine Arts Music (Special Honours), Bachelor of Education, and Master of Education from York University, plays guitar and trombone, and taught grade 6-8 band, math and computers (HTML and yes, Hypercard!) at the Toronto District School Board and North York School Board.

Apr 07

Learner Privacy

Heidi Siwak has what strikes me as a very important post on student privacy, that really extends to participants of any kind in all kinds of online learning situations. She’s shared the slides from a presentation she did for the Association for Media Literacy that raises some important issues, and makes some important arguments. I highly recommend her post and presentation, linked above with a direct link to Information and Privacy Commissioner/Ontario’s Operationalizing Privacy by Design: A Guide to Implementing Strong Privacy Practices.

A lot of research is still required here, but it will become easier when those in the know have compiled some practical lists of things we may want to do, and best practices for addressing learning participants’ privacy. I have this contribution to the list.

Quite recently I was responsible for posting a set of learning videos that are streaming from YouTube onto my own organization’s Web site as “embedded iframes.” I instinctively chose the high-privacy URL pattern from the choices. Heidi’s post vindicates my gut feeling, which falls under Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner/Ontario’s Foundational Principle #2, Privacy as the Default Setting. This should be considered a “best practice” for educators.

The pattern is (irrelevant pieces faded)…
Two parts of that are for the end-user’s protection: https sends information in an encrypted format, and is a domain YouTube—to their credit—has set up for privacy by not using cookies to read and write to your hard drive, exposing information about your surfing habits.

A third part worth noting is the ?rel=0 at the end. That protects my organization and the end-user from random “Related Videos” after the video, that may or may not be appropriate. If your YouTube link for any reason already has a ?anything=anything you should leave that intact and add &rel=0 to the end, e.g., ?x=y&rel=0.

The other part of the URL is the video ID. If you follow that link it takes you to the first video in a series of 5, on YouTube. We “embedded” them on our own site because there’s much more to it than that, so if you’re interested in that content, the entire series (Working Together: The Ontario Human Rights Code and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act) is here.

Please feel free to comment, and leave any tips you may have for preserving Privacy By Default.



Further Reading

Association for Media Literacy
HTTP Secure (Wikipedia)
Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario



Mar 17

Reforming Education Reform

Educators can be leaders in Education Reform, but one sector, whom no one denies is a needed stakeholder, just wants to throw money at the problems—and at defining the problems and overwhelming the Public’s perception of problems. They venture to extract even more money by solving the problems, and to that end they’ve invested in a system of collecting numbers that “prove” the problems persist. skewing the outcome towards a single perspective. As the array of multinational conglomerate logos in the images show this is part of the landscape across the world, in North America in general, but it’s especially true in the United States, where the textbook, testing, school supplies industries are entrenching a new status quo. Logos of corporations and others interested in reforming education.

A retiring principal in New York state recently said,

Apple! McDonald’s! Microsoft! Starbucks! Google! None of these endeavors or companies were started by excellent test-takers! I fear that our present cadre of educational reformers – the non-educators noted above – are creating children who are great little test-takers, who can select A, B, C or D as an answer with the best of them, and whose performance can be placed onto a nice little spreadsheet. But we must ask ourselves, at what price?”
(Don Sternberg, 2013, quoted on Diane Ravitch’s blog)

But there’s a flaw in Dr. Sternberg’s statement as written: educational reformers do not create children, are not in classrooms, and won’t be the ones hired to create engaging alternatives to classrooms, or powerful digital enhancements to classroom instruction, or plan how to use all those things effectively in authentic projects then do so. Parents create children. Educators educate them. I argue these two groups have the most invested, both in tax dollars and in interest in the outcome, and therefor must remain strong allies. Corporate strategists must also believe this, as some go to great lengths to divide parents and teachers, and conquer each group separately.

The only counter to this is a truism: The Private needs The Public in order to survive.

Such an assertion requires evidence, and educationists are the ones to provide it. (Rodríguez-Romero, 2008)

The education sector can find its own cohesion by encouraging and promoting use of Public Buildings. The president’s jobs plan includes rebuilding schools. Be active, and support activists in your community by making noise, let everyone know you want to build and rebuild schools in your area. Build them as optimized Public Spaces, usable 24/7 if your neighborhood can benefit from that, at cost-recovery prices or less, during hours that attract the most people in your locality. Invest in putting Kids, Students, Parents, Communities—all the local experts—first.

We can tell it’s the right way to look at it because the people who use the system most, all those I just named are 1) both main users & main investors in system (taxes) 2) the experts on how and what works and what is needed first 3) the ones whose daily lives and futures are affected by the decisions being made.

We all stand to profit from a Student/Parent/Community-centric approach. Local Business knows dollar profits mean nothing when Talent goes undeveloped, withers, becomes easily undercut from outside, is forced to move away. We all can understand that not all value and profit is in dollars and cents. Democracy thrives in knowledge—nurtured by scholars, and sense.

Teachers need to stay focused on good pedagogy, but even those many great teachers who are still too busy to Tweet and blog now need to add some level of social networking and DIY technology. It’s not just about time spent teaching, but more practical, as communication with Parents and Community. A teacher who collaborates with the school and community to expose the exciting learning situations that are happening, make the thinking behind them transparent and visible, see the Learners and their Learning recognized, applauded and celebrated, is the best advocate for public education anyone could hope for. A parent who is a programmer, mechanic, shop-owner, assembly-line worker, a lawyer or any local business that does Something Kids Find Engaging—a potential career path, hobby, or even passing fad—all of these are valid 21st century situations where learning is already taking place. How do we tap in, without skipping a beat or losing stride?

DIY tech, like your class blog or web page, projects you share in real time on the Internet, all these are ways to bring people into your classroom, into your building and into a growing sense of sharing a common purpose. Just do it. We’ve talked for 40 years about “situated” learning. It’s time we start thinking about learning situations and the situations where learning happens—and then create them and share them Publicly.

Kids and Parents can once again come to think of the School as a place that’s good to go evenings and weekends, to meet friends, be in clubs… again, there are too many places where total renovation is required first So be it those are real jobs that people could count on and real investments that benefit ourselves and future generations.

I believe we have to rely even more on our own agency. Don’t just cultivate a personal learning network (PLN), try to join and grow a Community of Practice (CoP). It’s a subtle difference in the role of give and take, a slightly different take on the value of ideas that may be at the periphery of your main interests, but I think a meaningful one. It’s especially meaningful in

Be the best teacher you can be but don’t do it alone. From the ground up, advocate for technology and uses of technology that bring more energetic, engaged and engaging people into your situation. Class trips and parent visits are two-way now, either can be virtual or physical, and your classes’ videoed presentations can be viewed from the business meeting in Ottawa or when mom gets home tomorrow morning after night shift.

When parents view themselves as a collective group and their families as a community bounded by similar interests and desires, a foundation to act collectively and to become more powerful agents in the school emerges. Relationships are at the core of bringing this power to parents.
Warren et al., 2009
[Can the same not be said of any stakeholder group in education? And isn’t the thing about corporate reformers that irks us not so much their money but the way in which many of them have gone about spending it, siphoning and harvesting, rather than planting and growing? –RF]

Then, corporate reformers and venture capitalists will be forced to compete with the kind of value we’ve Pulled From Within Ourselves. It forces them to spend their money on the things the true leaders have demonstrated work, are working, and that get People Where We Are Going . History shows—Public spirit shall overcome.



  1. educationist [ej-oo-key-shuh-nist] noun
    “a specialist in the theory and methods of education…”
    …but that doesn’t really do justice to the way it’s used nowadays. For me the word connotes a certain devotion to teaching and learning that goes beyond theory, into truly transformative pedagogy. Praxis is about changing behaviors in meaningful ways, expanding not only knowledge, but renovating views and beliefs that were held before the new knowledge was obtained.

Reference and further reading

Rodríguez-Romero, M. (2008), “Situated Pedagogies, Curricular Justice and Democratic Teaching”, in OECD, Innovating to Learn, Learning to Innovate, pp. 113–136, OECD Publishing.

Rittel, Horst W. J. and Webber, Melvin M. (1973), Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, Policy Sciences 4 (1973), 155-169. [PDF]

Don Sternberg, Ed.D. Principal, February 26, 2013, letter to parents

Mark R. Warren, Soo Hong, Carolyn Leung Rubin, Phitsamay Sychitkokhong Uy (2009), Beyond the Bake Sale: A Community- Based Relational Approach to Parent Engagement in Schools, Teachers College Record, Volume 111, Number 9, September 2009, pp. 2209–2254, (PDF), Accessed March 17, 2013.