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 http://disruptingclass.mhprofessional.com/apps/ab/2 009/10/30/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, http://bit.ly/nYwbjK (PDF), Accessed March 17, 2013.

The Boston Herald (Wednesday, February 27, 2013) Elizabeth Warren clocks big Ben, Hits Bernanke on bank subsidies http://bostonherald.com/business/business_markets/2013/02/elizabeth_warren_clocks_big_ben

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, http://www.sas.com/knowledge-exchange/risk/integrated-risk/how-could-i-miss-that-jamie-dimon-on-the-hot-seat/index.html

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 http://educationnext.org/reframing-the-mind/ retrieved 2012-10-10.

Jan 28

Tools, Practices and Actions – From Information to Knowledge

Screenshot of CompendiumNG

CompendiumNG allows stakeholders to quickly create visual maps on a topic using nodes and links. In this example different ideas regarding a problem are collected for assessment. It is possible to adjust the appearance of links and node labels. Source: www.CompendiumNG.org

Prior to a recent workshop a question was circulated that looked as if it was tailored to get my response. I stumbled on some great answers to this question over the course of my master’s research into project-based learning design: “Compendium; Dialogue Mapping; Let’s Do It!” I said, and they asked for more information. I replied by pulling some key points from the best articles I have into the following message and sending it with the full articles to my colleagues who posed the question. Where will this lead?

Question, brainstorming on Effective Communication

What tools, practices, or actions could facilitate greater collaboration and cooperation between units?

To Whom It May Concern:

At the recent workshop I mentioned tools, practices and actions we can take right away to address communication issues raised in previous meetings and surveys. You asked me to send you more information. Thank you for this opportunity. Please see below:

There are many resources on this tool on line. It’s open source and has been branched by various groups of educators. CompendiumLD is specifically for learning design, but CompendiumNG, aspires to be the Next Generation of Compendium. N.b.: The Compendium tool is suitable for mapping external “focus group” type dialogue involving many stakeholders, a small meeting, or anything in between. The object is to “…work together to build a shared picture with all the stakeholders that accurately represents what we “know,” what different people assert, what we can try and learn from, and what we currently think are the relevant options” (Seybold, 2013, pg. 5).


List of potential uses for CompendiumNG:


Practice—Dialogue Mapping:

Dialogue Mapping “… has been used for over three decades to help the different stakeholders in large, complex projects achieve alignment, make decisions they can own, and move forward” (Seybold, 2013, pg. 1). It is related to other forms of argument mapping, for example the Toulmin Model of Argument (see for example, Intel, 2006), but uses an icon-based graphic organizer to denotes the parts of the argument, called Issue Based Information System (IBIS), “…a notation invented by Horst Rittel and Werner Kunz in the early 1970s. IBIS is best known for its use in dialogue mapping, a collaborative approach to tackling wicked problems (i.e. contentious issues) in organisations. “At the heart of IBIS’s power is the amazing capability of questions, when framed in an open and systematic way, to create new distinctions and new clarity out of the fog of social complexity and collapsed meanings,” says Patricia Seybold (2013, pg. 11). It has a range of other applications as well – capturing knowledge is a good example…” (Eight to Late, 2010). This article continues by quoting the first sentence of the abstract of Rittel & Kuntz (1970, pg. 1).

Issue—Based Information Systems (IBIS) are meant to support coordination and planning of political decision processes. IBIS guides the identification, structuring, and settling of issues raised by problem—solving groups, and provides information pertinent to the discourse.

IBIS was to be “…the type of information system meant to support the work of cooperatives like governmental or administrative agencies or committees, planning groups, etc., that are confronted with a problem complex in order to arrive at a plan for decision…” (pg. 1). It can be said, “From the start, then, IBIS was intended as a tool to facilitate a collaborative approach to solving …or better, managing a wicked problem by helping develop a shared perspective on it” (Eight to Late, 2010, pg. 2).

A Brief Introduction to IBIS (Source: Eight to Late, 2010)

The IBIS notation consists of the following three elements:

  1. Issues(or questions): these are issues that are being debated. Typically, issues are framed as questions on the lines of “What should we do about X?” where X is the issue that is of interest to a group. For example, in the case of a group of executives, X might be rapidly changing market condition whereas in the case of a group of IT people, X could be an ageing system that is hard to replace.
  2. Ideas(or positions): these are responses to questions. For example, one of the ideas of offered by the IT group above might be to replace the said system with a newer one. Typically the whole set of ideas that respond to an issue in a discussion represents the spectrum of participant perspectives on the issue.
  3. Arguments: these can be Pros (arguments for) or Cons (arguments against) an issue. The complete set of arguments that respond to an idea represents the multiplicity of viewpoints on it.

The Seven Question Types at the Heart of Issue Mapping (Source: Seybold, 2013, pg. 11):

  1. Deontic: What should we do?
  2. Instrumental: How should we do X?
  3. Criterial: What are the criteria for success?
  4. Factual: What is X?
  5. Conceptual: What does X mean?
  6. Explanatory: Why is X?
  7. Contextual: What is the background?

Issue Mapping can be used effectively for everyday business and personal decisions, but its potential is vast. Through the skillful use of questions, an issue map has unlimited capacity to represent and clarify diverse points of view, conflicting interpretations and goals, inconsistent information, and other forms of complexity…”
(Cognexus Institute website: www.cognexus.org/)

Compendium is a freeware tool that can be used to create IBIS maps… In Compendium, the IBIS elements described above are represented as nodes as shown in Figure 1: issues are represented by blue-green question marks; positions by yellow light bulbs; pros by green + signs and cons by red – signs. Compendium supports a few other node types, but these are not part of the core IBIS notation. Nodes can be linked only in ways specified by the IBIS grammar as I discuss next.

Figure 1: IBIS elements

The IBIS grammar can be summarized in three simple rules:

  1. Issues can be raised anew or can arise from other issues, positions or arguments. In other words, any IBIS element can be questioned. In Compendium notation: a question node can connect to any other IBIS node.
  2. Ideas can only respond to questions– i.e. in Compendium “light bulb” nodes can only link to question nodes. The arrow pointing from the idea to the question depicts the “responds to” relationship.
  3. Arguments can only be associated with ideas– i.e. in Compendium “+” and “–“ nodes can only link to “light bulb” nodes (with arrows pointing to the latter)

The “legal links” are summarized in Figure 2 below.

Figure 2: Legal links in IBIS

Yes, it’s as simple as that.

(pp. 2-3).

Facilitate Group Meetings Using Real-time Dialogue Mapping (Seybold, 2013, pg. 17-18).

The place that Dialogue Mapping really shines is in a face-to-face group design and/or strategic planning session. It’s a much richer tool to use than capturing ideas on flip charts. Don’t forget, however, that just displaying the flow of the conversation doesn’t really add a lot of value. Getting people to validate the ideas that are captured, to build on them, and to really own the map as an active part of their design process is where Dialogue Mapping really shines.


Continue to Evolve the Group Discussions/Maps Over Time

Today’s design activities are far from “one and done.” Usually you kick off a design project with a vague idea about the appropriate solution and, over time, through the shared dialogue, experimentation, and learning, you evolve your collective thinking and come up with better and better solutions through trial and error.

Asynchronous Mapping In Between Group Meetings. In between group meetings, participants can add to their section of a group map on their own time. They can add links and documents to the map as ammunition to bolster a pro or a con. They can add new ideas, along with sketches, text, or videos to provide really great examples for other team members to absorb at their own pace.

Capture Institutional Memory. One of the beauties of Dialogue Maps is that they can be time- and date-stamped and added to over time. You can then see a history of how your collective thinking evolved. Many of Jeff Conklin’s clients really value the institutional memory that these maps provide over a long period of time.

From Mapping project dialogues using IBIS – a case study and some reflections (Awati, 2011)

: This practice note describes the use of the IBIS (Issue-Based Information System) notation to map dialogues that occur in project meetings.

Design/methodology/approach: A case study is used to illustrate how the technique works. A discussion highlighting the key features, benefits and limitations of the method is also presented along with a comparison of IBIS to other, similar notations.

Findings: IBIS is seen to help groups focus on the issues at hand, bypassing or avoiding personal agendas, personality clashes and politics.

Practical Implications: The technique can help improve the quality of communication in projects meetings. The case study highlights how the notation can assist project teams in developing a consensus on contentious issues in a structured yet flexible way.

Originality / Value: IBIS has not been widely used in project management. This note illustrates its value in helping diverse stakeholders get to a shared understanding of the issues being discussed and a shared commitment to achieving them.

Action: Identify an interested working group to continue investigating applications of dialogue mapping [here at work].


Awati, Kailash (2011) “Mapping project dialogues using IBIS: a case study and some reflections”, International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, Vol. 4 Iss: 3, pp.498 – 511. [PDF]

Buckingham Shum, Simon; Selvin, A.M.; Sierhuis, Maarten; Conklin, Jeffrey; Haley, C.B. and Nuseibeh, Bashar (2006). Hypermedia support for argumentation-based rationale: 15 years on from gIBIS and QOC. In: Dutoit, A.; McCall, R.; Mistrik, I. and Paech, B. eds. Rationale Management in Software Engineering. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, pp. 111–132.

Eight to Late (WordPress blog: Archive for the ‘Issue Based Information System’ Category, (2010), https://eight2late.wordpress.com/category/issue-based-information-system/ .

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

Intel Corp. (2006) Teach To The Future, Showing Evidence Tool Resources, Appendices [PDF: www.schoolnet.org.za/twt/09/M9_argumentation.pdf]

Kunz, Werner and Rittel, Horst W. J., Issues As Elements Of Information Systems (1970) [PDF: www.cc.gatech.edu/~ellendo/rittel/rittel-issues.pdf].

Seybold, Patricia (2013), How to Address “Wicked Problems” Use Dialogue Mapping to Build a Shared Understanding and Evolve a Group’s Thinking, [PDF: http://dx.doi.org/10.1571/br05-23-13cc]

There are shortcomings in the notation and maps can get unwieldy. While it’s easy to get started, dialogue mapping requires considerable practice to perfect (Awati, 2011, pg. 14). These and some other factors have slowed adoption. Some of these factors certainly exist in my workplace. We’ll soon see if the apparent awakening to the existence of different strategies to build more effective communication gains enough momentum to catch on and spread.


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 C21Canada.org 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, http://cognexus.org/id42.htm retrieved 2011-10-10. Chapter 1 available as PDF http://cognexus.org/wpf/wickedproblems.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, www.infed.org/biblio/communities_of_practice.htm.nj

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: jime.open.ac.uk/2005/08]. 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]

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 (webducate.net)

Stanislav (2011), Why Hypercard Had to Die, blog post, http://www.loper-os.org/?p=568

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 [‘webducate.net’ website/blog] (2012), Twitter in learning and teaching – literature review http://webducate.net/2012/08/twitter-in-learning-and-teaching-literature-review/, retrieved 2012-12-03

Wenger, E. (2006) Communities of practice, a brief introduction, http://www.ewenger.com/theory/, HTML retrieved 2011-11-03 or http://wenger-trayner.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/06-Brief-introduction-to-communities-of-practice.pdf, 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 16

What would a good PBL planner look like …on the Internet?

That’s the question that started to form in my head as I watched one 21st-Century teacher’s project take shape and grow over the past few weeks. She used at least 3 or 4 “Web 2.0” applications, gathered relevant resources from diverse sources, and tied it together with a Google doc. She used social media to engage parents and experts. It’s an impressive and organically evolving body of work, and I can’t help but think a mashup? of easily obtainable freely available open source tools could make it even easier for more educators to design and execute such rich and engaging learning experiences.

So what have I got?

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Mar 20

Just an idea I’ve been getting

UPDATED 2012-03-27: What’s with all the icons and rollover pop-ups? They’re based on Compendium, which I’ve written about before. While they may not be appropriate for every everyday blog post, I’m asking you to have a look and leave a comment. Do you see a role for them within other web-based contexts you may be familiar with? If so, which? Leave a comment!

I’m trying to get experience design into my thinking about online learning, using the simple technologies I know and love: computers and various digital mobile devices, web browsers, HTML, CSS, JavaScript. For some time I’ve been headed towards the position  that documents are becoming obsolete. While I was thinking about that a teacher who is part of my Twitter PLN was putting together a wonderful Project-Based Learning experience with her grade 6 class, their parents and many others from the PLN. This led me to have an idea .

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Mar 12

Taming wicked problems, planning projects, designing learning—try Compendium

UPDATED: Have a look at some more advanced Compendium maps.

Compendium, its stewards at The Compendium Institute say, “is a software tool providing a flexible visual interface for managing the connections between information and ideas.” Wicked problems, as I’ve written recently, contain social complexity, so solving them is a fundamentally social process requiring many people. Compendium software allows a person working alone, or people in a group, to bring together visually the diverse ideas, assertions, arguments, and resources that might contribute to the “taming” of a wicked problem. Continue reading

Mar 04

Wicked Problems

Horst Willhelm Jakob Rittel taught design and architecture for over 30 years but never designed a building. Horst Rittel matters because he saw a connection between science and design and was able to articulate it to designers. He recognized that the definition of a problem is subjective and comes with a point of view. When you think this through it reminds us all “stake-holders” hold a stake in any problem’s outcome. The more diverse the stakes, the more fluid definitions become, and ultimately the harder it becomes to define the problem. It’s a problem of moving goal posts and answers that lead to further questions. Rittel named such problems wicked problems, problems that are not so much “solved” as they are “tamed” (Rith & Dubberly, 2006). Continue reading