Understanding and learning outcomes

Cutting off the branch on which he sits. From the Catalog of Illuminated MS at the British Library

Cutting off the branch on which he sits. From the Catalog of Illuminated MS at the British Library: BL Stowe 955 f. 15 Man cutting down a tree

I trust we can see what’s happening in this illustration, which comes from a manuscript written in the early 1500s in Europe. This is obviously a problem of considerably long standing for our species. I believe the problem emerges from the same place that our truly good ideas come from: that fascinating place we call the human brain. The situation we see in the picture is not just a bad idea–It’s almost a good idea. It’s a classic case of an insufficient dose of ingenuity.

Tricky thing, ingenuity. Sometimes anything less than a full dose is poison.

Take for example the seemingly endless fascination with “learning outcomes.” Who could argue that we should not think about what our students learn? The whole idea here is to move from a “teaching” paradigm to a “learning” paradigm. Barr, Tagg, Chickering, Bloom, Boyer, and a flotilla of other writers have insisted that it’s all about the learning. If a teacher teaches but no learning occurs, then teaching hasn’t really occurred either. This all seems painfully, even hammeringly obvious to me, but I know there are indeed professors who believe their responsibility is simply to show up and talk in a way they themselves understand as they “cover the material,” an activity something like pulling the sheet all the way up over the deceased’s head. In this case, the cadaver is both the subject of the class and the subjects in the class, both of which (whom?) become not subjects but objects.

So the ingenious idea emerges: teachers should think about what they believe should happen in the student as a result of the class. Teachers should think not about what they are teaching, but about what the students are learning. There are even extraordinary efforts to refine the idea of ‘learning outcomes” by distinguishing “learning outcomes” from “learning objectives,” as the latter are still not sufficiently student-centered.

Yet something is deeply amiss, in my view. As we seek to perfect the language and institutionalization of a culture of “learning outcomes,” it seems we are necessarily moving toward a strictly behaviorist paradigm of learning, away from what Jerome Bruner refers to as the “cognitive turn” in learning theory and ever more deliberately toward a stimulus-response paradigm of learning. This behaviorist turn can be very sophisticated and refined. The behaviors specified, measured, and tracked can be cognitively demanding “smart human tricks.” There can even be qualitatively measured learning outcomes, though it appears these are less frequent than quantitative metrics, for reasons I think are obvious. Yet these are still behaviors, specified with a set of what I can only describe as jawohl! statements, all rewarding the bon eleves and marching toward compliance and away from more elusive and disruptive concepts like curiosity or wonder: For example, here are pretty much canonical examples of learning outcomes from the University of Toronto’s Center for Teaching Support and Innovation:


  • By the end of this course, students will be able to categorize macroeconomic policies according to the economic theories from which they emerge.
  • By the end of this unit, students will be able to describe the characteristics of the three main types of geologic faults (dip-slip, transform, and oblique) and explain the different types of motion associated with each.


  • By the end of this course, students will be able to ask questions concerning language usage with confidence and seek effective help from reference sources.
  • By the end of this course, students will be able to analyze qualitative and quantitative data, and explain how evidence gathered supports or refutes an initial hypothesis.


  • By the end of this course, students will be able to work cooperatively in a small group environment.
  • By the end of this course, students will be able to identify their own position on the political spectrum.

Learning outcomes should use specific language, and should clearly indicate expectations for student performance.

I see these examples and admonitions everywhere. Students will … students will … students will … students will. (Meantime the students’ will becomes defined for them, or ignored, or crushed.) Each of the above statements assume a linear, non-paradoxical, cleanly defined world. The sun shines. Experience is orderly. Tab A goes into Slot B. Problem solved. Please note that I am not arguing against specific knowledge. I love engineering and many engineers as well. Expertise is vital. But there is more to the story than repeat-after-me. One item of specific knowledge that’s vital for all learning is the knowledge of complexity and the emergent phenomena springing from it. Another is knowledge of ambiguity and the fluidity of concepts articulated so beautifully by Douglas Hofstadter in Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies. Another is that interest, wonder, awe, and curiosity themselves are vital preconditions and outcomes of any learning experience. They shape the complex readiness (cognitive, affective, social, etc.) of students for the learning experience at hand, and that learning experience in turn shapes the students’ readiness (cognitive, affective, social, etc.) for the next experience.

The soldiers-on-parade list of “students will” statements characterizing “learning outcomes” may be necessary, but it’s also crucially, even tragically insufficient–yet that is where our ingenuity seems to be stopping as we whack away at the branch we’re sitting on.

For it turns out that two of the words we must never, ever use are “understand” and “appreciate.” These are vague words, we are told. Instead, we must use specific words like “describe,” “formulate,” “evaluate,” “identify,” and so forth. You know, action verbs that we believe we can measure with confidence. This is the doctrine, repeated faithfully across multiple contexts, that defines much of the practice of those in higher education (and K-12 as well) who seek a more learning-centered environment. Chronicle blogger and math professor Robert Talbert provides a recent iteration in his blog post about flipped classrooms in calculus:

A clear set of learning objectives is at the heart of any successful learning experience, and it’s an essential ingredient for self-regulated learning since self-regulating learners have a clear set of criteria against which to judge their learning progress. And yet, many instructors – myself included in the early years of my career – never map out learning objectives either for themselves or for their students. Or, they do, and they’re so mushy that they can’t be measured – like any so-called objective beginning with the words “understand” or “appreciate”. [Hyperlink in the original.]

Clear objectives vs. mushy objectives, the latter kicked to the curb with the scornful phrase “so-called,” because they “can’t be measured.” As he continues his post, Talbert cites the familiar Bloom’s Taxonomy. Oddly, “understanding” appears as level two of the pyramid, but Talbert doesn’t note the irony or indicate the complexities and divergences around this taxonomy, including the fact that the version he cites is a frequently cited revised version, and that it coexists with a digital version, etc. Many questions have emerged about this taxonomy. Perhaps it should be inverted? Perhaps it maps the learner’s progress toward higher-order thinking in far too linear a fashion. Does understanding really precede creation? Or does creation facilitate understanding, in a weirdly recursive way? If a writer says “I write in order to discover what I have to say,” where did she begin on the taxonomy, and where does she arrive? Or does she arrive? Is this taxonomy a pyramid or a wheel?

At this point the reader may object that I am introducing far too many complexities into what was intended as simple advice for professors who want to flip their classrooms. Unfortunately, these complexities matter. When confident, simple, plain, orderly advice is given about a complex matter, I hear the sound of the hatchet replaced by the sound of wood snapping as the branch I’m sitting on gives way. Again quoting from Talbert:

Bloom’s Taxonomy is a standard means of categorizing cognitive tasks by complexity, with the simplest (Knowledge, or “Remembering”) at the bottom and the most complicated (“Creating”) at the top. Go through each of your learning objectives and decide what level of Bloom they most closely correspond to. Then shuffle them around so that the higher up the list you go, the more complex the task is.

Compare this advice to the observations John Carroll and Mary Beth Rosson make in their essay “The Paradox of the Active User” (download here):

A motivational paradox arises in the “production bias” people bring to the task of
learning and using computing equipment. Their paramount goal is throughput. This is a desirable state of affairs in that it gives users a focus for their activity with a system, and it increases their likelihood of receiving concrete reinforcement from their work. But on the other hand, it reduces their motivation to spend any time just learning about the system, so that when situations appear that could be more effectively handled by new procedures, they are likely to stick with the procedures they already know, regardless of their efficacy.

A second, cognitive paradox devolves from the “assimilation bias”: people apply what they already know to interpret new situations. This bias can be helpful, when there are useful similarities between the new and old information (as when a person learns to use a word processor taking it to be a super typewriter or an electronic desktop). But irrelevant and misleading similarities between new and old information can also blind learners to what they are actually seeing and doing, leading them to draw erroneous comparisons and conclusions, or preventing them from recognizing possibilities for new function.

It is our view that these cognitive and motivational conflicts are mutually reinforcing, thus exaggerating the effect either problem might separately have on early and longterm learning. These paradoxes are not defects in human learning to be remediated. They are fundamental properties of learning. If learning were not at least this complex, then designing learning environments would be a trivial design problem (Thomas and Carroll, 1979).

One may immediately object that Carroll and Rosson are analyzing a very specific learning situation, that of someone trying to master unfamiliar software. But look again, especially at that last paragraph. “These paradoxes,” ones in which prior learning, motivation, etc. both propel and block learning, “are not defects in human learning to be remediated. They are fundamental properties of learning.” Carroll and Rosson are discussing learning, period, even though their analysis focuses on a particular learning task. Moreover, they approach the task of design for learning as a set of “programmatic tradeoffs” within a shifting field of paradoxical encounters. The last sentence quoted above is bracing and entirely to the point: “If learning were not at least this complex, then designing learning environments would be a trivial design problem.”

Much of the “learning paradigm” discussion, like the discussion around “analytics” and other current instructional interventions, treats designing learning environments as a trivial design problem. The effort required isn’t trivial, mind you. It can be hard work building out complicated environments based on straightforward design concepts. There are all these rubrics to write, all these Standards of Learning to formulate, revise, vote on, adopt, and implement. These are indeed complicated processes that take a lot of time. The effort and the time involved can convince us that we’re doing something very complex, rigorous, and highly responsible. But note that Carroll and Rosson are arguing that the problem of designing learning environments is non-trivial. It must engage with paradox, not seek to remediate paradox. By extension, Carroll and Rosson are implying that to attempt to remediate paradox (taxonomies are typically anti-paradoxical) is to end up with something far less complex than learning. In other words, when we “solve the problem” of learning, we simply substitute a simpler question for a harder question, a process mapped out by Daniel Kahneman in his recent book Thinking Fast and Slow.

Now read the advice from The Chronicle again. Count the number of times the word “paradox” is used. Hmm. Instead, there’s this voila! (or perhaps a QED):

Further down the line, the lists of learning objectives are also a ready-made topic list for timed assessments like tests and the final exam. Want to know what’s on the test? Just take the set union of all the learning objectives we’ve seen up to now.

As they used to say in the TV pitches, “it’s just that simple.”

I certainly do not intend to demonize Bloom or anyone using his ideas or anyone’s ideas deriving from his ideas. There’s plenty of demonization out there without my feeding the beast. Teaching and learning are difficult, sometimes bewildering activities, and it’s natural to want to have clarity about it all. It’s also natural, and to some extent a good thing too, when we seek accountability for our professional activities. Asking “what do we want to happen, and how will we know if we get there?” is an entirely fair and just thing to do. It’s when we’re forbidden to use “mushy” words like “understand” and “appreciate” because “they can’t be measured” that the trouble begins. And it’s when we believe that an “ordered list” will take us through the paradoxical encounters of meaning-making, curiosity, awe, and wonder so that we safely arrive at “student success” that we end up with what Ted Nelson famously termed “a forced march across a flattened plane.”

The Chronicle article clears the way for systematic learning that could easily be programmed into a sophisticated Computer-Aided Instruction machine. This means that one day it will indeed be administered by a computer:

This is far from a perfect system, but it’s a reliable way to align learning objectives with the actions you want students to perform and the means you want to use to assess them, and it gives students a key ingredient for self-regulated learning: A clear set of criteria that will tell them what they need to know and how to measure whether or not they know it.

If a thing can be automated, perhaps it should be automated. If we are going to argue that human beings who teach have an important role to play in learning, even in areas like mathematics (and why not especially there? see Lockhart’s Lament, an essay that I return to again and again), then we are going to have to engage with paradox and start talking again about “learning outcomes” that are beyond algorithms.

Without a strong view of the way in which “understanding” and “appreciation” (which I’d say means “something that gains in value for the learner because of the learning”), what can we possibly have to say about Spritz, a new instantiation of an older idea about computer-aided reading? How can we as educators mount a challenge to a learning design paradigm in which reading turns into what Ian Bogost aptly calls “Reading To Have Read“? Some excerpts from Bogost’s article (I urge you to read the whole thing, slowly):

In today’s attention economy, reading materials (we call it “content” now) have ceased to be created and disseminated for understanding. Instead, they exist first (and primarily) for mere encounter….

If ordinary readings are read to be understood, to be pondered and discussed and reflected upon rather than to be completed or collected, then perhaps it’s best to think of Spritzing as reading that is done to have been read. Indeed, the idea of Spritzing is the apotheosis of speed reading: reading in which completion is the only goal.

Spritzing is reading to get it over with. It is perhaps no accident that Spritze means injection in German. Like a medical procedure, reading has become an encumbrance that is as necessary as it is undesirable.

The Spritz FAQ snickers a bit at the German meaning, a nasty little snicker I’d say, acknowledging that they embrace the meaning and view it as a witty little mnemonic device for effective branding. The whole FAQ has a weird hipster vibe that seems to make the whole thing into competitive eating or sack races: “Hehehehehehe! Do you know what Spritz means in German? ROFL! LMAO! One of our founders is from Munich, so yes, we know. We bet you won’t forget it though, will you?” No, I don’t suppose I will, though I will CMEO, not LMAO.

Back to Bogost:

Spritz hasn’t stepped in to sabotage comprehension, but to formalize and excuse its eradication.

In other words, Spritz avoids mushy words like “understanding” and “appreciation,” the sort of things for which one creates opportunities for pondering, discussion, and reflection. If we as educators subscribe uncritically to the typical “learning outcome” paradigm, though, how can we possibly criticize Spritz? We have sawn off the branch we’re sitting on.

In a blog post responding to Bogost’s Atlantic article (which is how I found the Bogost piece, in fact), Alex Reid poignantly notes that two questions emerge from any analysis of reading (especially if reading is broadly construed as meaning-making arising from symbolic expression):

First, an ontological one, which is what are we or what are we capable of being? And second an ethico-political one, what should we be? Inasmuch as we are intertwined with symbolic behavior, the question of how we produce and consume symbols will be involved in these concerns.

To which one might add a third question: does a learning paradigm that avoids “understanding” and “appreciation” reduce symbolic behavior to indexicality alone? Poets (and mathematicians like Lockhart, Hardy, and Hofstadter–artists all) know that symbols not only contain representation but also stimulate representation. As a Miltonist very dear to me once wrote, symbols are not simply reiterative. They are generative, too.

One metric for that generative outcome might be called “civilization.” The best kinds of generative outcomes might be called “wisdom.”

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School as Technology: A Cum Laude Talk at St. Catherine’s School

I was privileged to speak at the St. Catherine’s School Cum Laude honors induction on April 3, 2014. My dear friend and former student (yes, it can happen) Doug Bader teaches at St. Catherine’s and invited me to share some thoughts with the audience of honorees, friends and relatives, and the entire upper school. The event took place in a chapel, and the audience filled it. We sang several hymns together. I usually like to sing out, especially when I’ve got a good bass line to sing, but this time I tried to sing quietly, as there was an undeniable magic to the way these young women’s voices rang out, clear and energetic, in that space. When at the end we sang the two verses of “Jerusalem” together, the moment deepened, a “sacred and home-felt delight,” as Milton has it in A Masque.

During the talk, I looked out over the room at the faces of these teens, in school and on their way to more. I thought about the world they live in and the world they will soon be shaping, internally and externally. On a clear warm April morning, I tried to let them know how dear their springtime was to me, how important their springtime will be to the world. In my mind’s eye, I saw my teenage daughter, now a second-year student at UVa, and soon to leave her teen years behind forever. I saw my own springtime self, impetuous, brash, no doubt overbearing and facile but with such driven wonder that I could hardly bear to sleep sometimes. I wanted these young women to know that their worlds matter, and that the history of their futures is written in the dreams of the past–in this case, the dreams of human potential that bequeathed us, for better or worse, the digital computer. I hinted that the “better” part might still be something we could work on together.

Afterward, several of the young women came up to say hello. They talked excitedly about their work, their fanfictions, their networked lives and enthusiasms.

Cum Laude Selfie 1

And at the reception, even the adults got into the spirit of the event.

Cum Laude Selfie 2

A great day.

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A quick thought about web syndication

I’ve been working with some mighty stellar colleagues (including Bryan Alexander, not pictured, as few cameras can contain his multitudinousity) on a new EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative “7 Things You Should Know About…” piece focusing on web syndication. We’re closing in on the final form of the document, and it’s been very exciting to try to articulate this rich, elusive conceptual foundation to “thinking like the web.” (My best teacher in this area, as in many others, has been Jon Udell–though he bears no responsibility for my errors, of course. My errors are original.)

This thought just came to me, and I wanted to record it here:

Web syndication really does think about the web as a vast database, and each site on the web as potentially a dynamic, curated representation or slice of that database. But the database is itself constantly refreshed because the web that feeds the database of the web is the web of human curiosity, expression, and meaning-making.

Yes, recursive.

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My student asked me a question

I think of this post as a sequel to “The Reverend Asked Me A Question.” It’s even more poignant for me, if that’s possible, because there’s a certain fresh and meta quality to the question of “how did you think about teaching our class when you were teaching our class?” when it’s asked by a sophomore just one year after the class, a sophomore who’s now trying to do something of the same thing in another schooling context.

The exchange was so powerful for me that I asked the student for permission to reproduce the emails here. She has graciously consented. I’ll have a few bits of commentary along the way, but mostly I’m letting the conversation stand on its own. I think my answer to her question may illuminate some of my practices as a teacher. If so, and anyone finds that useful, that’s great. Yet for me the even greater value is emotional, or spiritual–hard to know the difference, perhaps. It’s a little window onto the heart of one part of one teacher, and even more poignantly, a window onto the heart of a student who has gone up one more meta-level, one she ascended by herself with some bread for the journey she found–helped to make–a year ago in a very special class I was very lucky to be part of.

Her name is Brooke Baugher. She was one-half of the “meta team” in “From Memex to YouTube: Cognition, Learning, and the Internet,” a course I taught last spring (2013) at Virginia Tech. The course was cross-listed as a 400-level Honors Seminar as well as a 500-level graduate course in the Preparing the Future Professoriate program. We had two freshmen, one sophomore with senior-level credits earned, and two engineering graduate students. It was a truly extraordinary, transformative experience for me. You had to be there and I wish you had been–but you may (probably will) get some of the flavor of it by looking at the project the meta-team (Brooke and Nathaniel Settle) made. The course description? They wrote it, once the course was done. Or rather, they wrote them, as the course could be described in many aligned yet distinct ways. Here’s one: “4 Months. 30 Classes. 17 Readings. 6 Learners. One Mission: Take The Deep Dive.” Please note that five students were enrolled in this class, but when these two students did a headcount, they counted six. You see? Ah. Oh, and by the way, the essay on this page is one of the most brilliant pieces of student work I’ve ever encountered. Analysis, synthesis, demonstration, performance: it’s all there. I’ll leave that exploration as an exercise for the reader.

For further context, here’s the syllabus. And here’s the class motherblog.

And now here’s the exchange, which begins with this email from Brooke:

Mar. 5, 2014

Subject: haaaalllppppp

Hi Dr. C!

So I am TAing (of sorts) for a class that I took last year. I talked about it a lot in our class; I’m not sure if you remember it, but I ranted about pink time a couple times.
Brief background: it’s a project where the professor cancels class three days out of a semester, and the students are encouraged to go learn about whatever they want. Then, the next class we come back and talk about all of the projects, make connections, etc.
So I am in charge of trying to improve out of class engagement, and I am using social media. So I have a twitter account, and we have a facebook page. BUT. I am having so much difficulty getting the students to participate and ask questions between each other outside of class that isn’t a requirement.
I just have one question for you: how in the world did you make us so involved?! I am hitting a wall with what else I can do to increase this. Any advice that you have would be super greatly appreciated.
Miss you!

Brooke :)

It took me awhile to answer, as the question stirred me to the core. Eventually I regained my gumption and took the leap.

March 11, 2014

Hi Brooke,

I miss you too. :)

You’ve asked me just about the hardest question you could ask. Any
answer I can imagine would probably seem either silly or overly simple
or crazily complex. But maybe that’s just me being self-conscious. I
struggle with that.

What I always try to do, whenever I teach, is to arrange the class as
a shared project. We’re making a movie together. We’re making a record
together. We’re building a house together. The whole meta-team idea
was an extreme version of something I now recognize I’d been doing for
decades. The idea of the course as a series of meetings, all
self-contained, has always been boring to the point of hysteria for
me. I’d have a similar reaction (have had, in fact) to a PowerPoint
presentation full of inane and obvious bullet points and nothing
else–no images, no video, no sound, nothing out of the ordinary. Same
thing. All inert lists.

Over time, inert lists have come to be expected by many students,
maybe even most students. They actually come to prefer it, very often.
Inert lists make everything so much more manageable. Stuff in stacks.
I didn’t want stuff in stacks. I wanted art or mystery or eureka or
games or symphonies or laboratories or studios.

So when I teach, I try to convey, in every way I can imagine, that
this is not going to be an experience of stuff in stacks. And every
time I sense a student is going along with the idea of
no-stuff-in-stacks, I try to reward that right away with attention and
commitment and equal blends of zaniness and intensity. When one
fishes, there’s an art to landing the fish: the line has to be taut,
but not so taut that it snaps or the fish gets away somehow. It takes
a lot of patient back-and-forth and an art of the line as subtle as
how a violinist holds her bow to make the strings sing. (Not to worry:
I’m a catch-and-release kind of fisherman, though I do eat fish, I
will confess.)

What’s never worked, in my experience, is making 90% of the experience
stuff-in-stacks and making 10% “freedom to learn,” because the 90%
just overwhelms the 10%. Truth to tell, “stuff-in-stacks” can
overwhelm “freedom to learn” even at the 5% level. Stuff-in-stacks is
a poison and it doesn’t take much to kill the learning.

I don’t know if any of that is helpful. All I can say this morning is
that I try as hard as I can to help nudge the class forward in its
journey, its project, its writing-itself-into-being. I try as hard as
I can to let the class nudge me forward, too, because I’m also in it
for the learning. And I try to do this with an absolute minimum, as
close to zero as I can make it, of stuff-in-stacks. This is one of the
reasons I love the internet. The web, at least so far, is full of what
Walt Whitman calls “barbaric yawps.” These yawps can be like throwing
a window wide open in the early spring, just before it’s really warm
enough to do so, but just when you really want to because the stale
inside winter air is just too stifling. So we shiver some, and we take
in the cold air, and we smell some of the mud and early growth of
just-spring, and our brains clear and our hearts beat faster for just
a little while. And sometimes that’s enough to get everyone over the
school-as-stuff-in-stacks hump and we can get another magic moment and
recapture that feeling of determined yes.

I don’t mind syllabi or semesters. I kind of like final exams. I love
projects and highly refined and purposeful zaniness. When creative
thinking and critical thinking marry and have a child, the child’s
name is joy–it’s the same child born to Cupid and Psyche in the old
tale by Apuleius.

You’re working very hard to push a huge rock up a steep hill. When I
teach, I have the opportunity to frame the whole encounter very
differently. You don’t have that opportunity. But you do have
extraordinary shining eyes and a heart for adventure and a mind for
keen insight. So I’d say you should talk with the students, heart to
heart, and tell them what your dreams are for this experience, and
then see if anyone responds. If anyone does, then find a way to
celebrate that, and keep on hoping that the response will catch on.

Remember: shining eyes.

Dr. C.

P.S. Would you mind if I put this whole exchange up on my blog? Your
question is so powerful and beautiful, and my answer comes from the
heart and might also be of some use to other folks. If you’d rather
not, I think I will put my answer up there anyway, with just enough
context (no identifiable items though) to explain why I’m writing
this. It would be very powerful to have both up there, though, if
you’re willing.

Did I tell you already how much I miss you–and our class? I learned
so very much. We had us a time.

And then Brooke responded:

March 12, 2014


I have much more to respond, but I just have a few minutes as of now-I’m heading in for my first job interview, yikes!

I wouldn’t mind at all if you shared this on your blog! But thank you so much, that definitely helps. I’m gonna keep working with what I’ve got, it seems like some of then are growing keen to the conversation, so we will see!

You should come back and visit us!

Brooke :)

Yes, I should. I hope to someday.

Thank you, Brooke. Thank you, vtclis13. Thank you, all the dear people unnamed here who made all of this possible and, against some odds, more likely. My teachers, my friends, my colleagues.

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Ash Wednesday

A first try at reading T. S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday. I’ll try to do better next time, but for now this will have to do.

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“To this day Project” and helping Humankind remember to be both. . . .

Ever notice how synchronicity and connections occur when we’re open to them?  I was lucky to have such a moment last semester.  After a seminar conversation last fall on inclusive pedagogy and diversity, an undergraduate came in to grab some late evening study time in the GEDI seminar room as I was packing up.  I heard what sounded like a spoken word performance emanating from his laptop.  He looked up and asked if he was bothering me and I said not at all.  I asked him if that was a recording of him doing spoken word.  He said no, but wished he could make a powerful impact on people like spoken word poet and activist Shane Koyzcan does.  He struck up a conversation with me about Shane Koyzcan and and hit replay on the YouTube video.  I asked him to send me the link and he did.  So, thank you, Nathan Chung, for crossing paths with me on that Wednesday evening last fall and sharing, and making a powerful impact by doing so.  If you haven’t watched this before, Koyzcan brings the pain of being marginalized and misunderstood to all of our attention in his “To This Day Project.”

One aspect of our focus on inclusive pedagogy is to provide a welcoming learning environment and to find ways to model inclusive engagement in the learning communities we create with our students.  Most of the time we hope this happens of its own accord, but I’d suggest to you that we need to be actively involved in the process.  Our pedagogical praxis should focus on how we can encourage learners to choose to be their ‘best selves’ for their own learning and in their interactions with peer colleagues.  Learning can be uncomfortable at moments, and learning that changes our world view, that has us examining new ideas, new data, new discoveries that shift our understanding of the world around us—those are powerful moments, and sometimes they are powerfully unsettling moments. . .at least initially.  Those are the times when out of fear and insecurity and discomfort around change, our ‘lizard brain’ may kick in, and we attempt to make ourselves feel better/bigger/stronger by picking on someone who appears vulnerable.  You may have witnessed, or even experienced, behavior inside and outside of higher ed.  Bullying doesn’t just occur in K-12; we have bullying and emotional hazing going on in our university classrooms as well.  Should we think that ‘victims’ oughta just toughen up, we may want to remember that affective and intellectual connection go hand-in-hand.  This is not about rigidly prescriptive politically correct behavior.  It is about being human and kind.

We are all weird, as Seth Godin declares.  Indeed!  Small amygdalas should not and shall not rule.  Celebrate weirdness–yours and others’.

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From The Oxford English Dictionary:
1. a. The act or practice of being hospitable; the reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers, with liberality and goodwill.

A quick dive into the etymology of “hospitality” reveals that it grows from the Latin word meaning “host.” A host, the OED helpfully explains, is “the correlative to guest.”

From The New Testament, Hebrews 13:2, slightly altered:
Be not forgetful to entertain [i.e., show hospitality to] strangers: for thereby some have entertained seekers unawares.

I’d have quoted a more recent translation–I’m no “AVolater”–but the prose was so clumsy in the versions I consulted that I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

From Elizabeth A. Wilson, Affect & Artificial Intelligence (University of Washington Press, 2010 — with thanks to Christine Labuski at Virginia Tech for alerting me to the book)

The following chapters present an empathic engagement with these eccentric tendencies toward artificial feeling. Readers may find themselves disappointed by a methodology that is not critical enough…. I want to be hospitable to my material. This orientation derives, in part from my immersion in the archives: the marginalia of these researchers’ lives and the density of their intellectual and emotional interconnections have generated an attachment to them governed more by curiosity and care than by cynicism. This orientation also derives from a very strongly felt intellectual conviction that engagements of an empathic kind can be immensely, uniquely effective. If that makes my analysis seem too credulous it’s a small price to pay to divert myself and my readers from the dogged approaches to critique that have become our stock in trade. On occasion I will insert a footnote to direct readers to more conventional critiques of these projects; and at times I will examine in some depth where I think AI [artificial intelligence] researchers have gone astray. In general, however, it is my intention to build a critical engagement with these men and their ambitions and their moods and their machines that is based in secure, rather than avoidant or ambivalent, attachment.

Wilson then quotes what she calls Bruno Latour’s “fiery rhetoric about the dissipation of critique.” Latour writes,

The critic is not the one who debunks, but the one who assembles. The critic is not the one who lifts the rug from under the feet of the naive believers, but the one who offers the participants arenas in which to gather. The critic is not the one who alternates haphazardly between antifetishism and positivism like the drunk iconoclast drawn by Goya, but the one for whom, if something is constructed, then it means it is fragile and thus in great need of care and caution. (Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run Out Of Steam? From Matters Of Fact To Matters Of Concern,” Critical Inquiry 30, Winter 2004)

After which Wilson notes, “Latour pleads for a mode of critique that trades in multiplication rather than subtraction and scorn.”

The word scorn is exactly right, I think. “[A] Common Romanic word of Germanic origin,” the OED says, tracing the word from 1200 to the present across many languages, all of them using this word–harsh to the point of onomatopoeia–to indicate mockery, derision, contempt. As a verb, scorn carries an even stronger sense of an attitude toward an inferior: “[t]o feel it beneath one, to disdain indignantly to do something,” the dictionary relates. “Jeer” is a synonym, as is “despise.”

When Jon Udell went to his alma mater, the University of Michigan, to urge academics there to narrate their work by blogging on the open web, he met with considerable resistance from those who couldn’t imagine putting what they called “half-baked ideas” onto the Web for all to see. Compare that response with Michael Nielsen’s poignant story in his Reinventing Discovery: The Rise Of Networked Science:

A friend of mine who was fortunate enough to attend Princeton University once told me that the best thing about attending Princeton wasn’t the classes, or even the classmates he met. Rather, it was meeting some of the extraordinarily accomplished professors, and realizing that they were just people–people who sometimes got upset over trivial things, or who made silly jokes, or who made boneheaded mistakes, or who had faced great challenges in their life, and who somehow, despite their faults and challenges, very occasionally managed to do something extraordinary. “If they can do it, I can do it too” was the most important lesson my friend learned.

What’s important then is that blogs make it possible for anyone with an internet connection to get an informal, rapid-fire glimpse into the minds of many of the world’s scientists…. It’s not just the scientific content that matters, it’s the culture that is revealed, a particularly way of viewing the world. This view of the world can take many forms…. The content ranges widely, but as you read, a pattern starts to take shape: you start to understand at least a little about how an experimental physicist views the world, what [he or she] thinks is funny, what [he or she] thinks is important, what [he or she] finds irritating. You may not necessarily agree with this view of the world, or completely understand it, but it’s interesting and transformative nonetheless. Exposure to this view of the world has always been possible if you live in one of the world’s intellectual capitals, places such as Boston, Cambridge, and Paris. Many blog readers no doubt live in such intellectual centers. But you also routinely see comments on the blog from people who live outside the intellectual centers. I grew up in a big city (Brisbane) in Australia. Compared to most of the world’s population, I had a youth of intellectual privilege. And yet the first time in my life that I heard a scientist speaking informally was when I was 16. It changed my life.

Who are the academics willing to be present in this way? Academia reserves a particular scorn for the informal expression of one’s thoughts, which has among many other dreadful results a terrible chilling effect upon many professors’ willingness to reveal themselves as learners, let alone seekers, in front of their students.

Who will dare to be a learner, a seeker, a yearner in the face of such hostility? Many academics insist that the withering, contemptuous varieties of critique are like a refiner’s fire, purging dross from gold, making our arguments more rigorous and our conclusions more sound. I wonder. Others wonder as well: see, in addition to Wilson and Latour, Alex Reid’s notes on the ethics and limitations of “critique.” Be sure to read the comment stream that follows, in which hospitality emerges after a great and admirable struggle to walk away from the more usual paths of academic exchange.

One of the things I enjoyed most about my first days in the world of “edtech” (for want of a better world) was the hospitality I was shown by folks who’d been blogging, using wikis, exploring mobile technologies, and working within virtual worlds for a long time before I arrived on the scene (conference debut as an attender: MIT, fall 2003, AAC&U topical meeting). That hospitality was challenged rather severely when the conversation became fragmented over edupunk. My own capacity for hospitality shrank, which I truly regret, but hospitality and punk seemed so antithetical (still do, to me) that I was mostly just torn up inside. I recognized the urgent need for reform, but I couldn’t see my way to these means, though of course I worried that too might be a failure, either of hospitality or of outrage. Hospitality has also been strained in the current storm over MOOCs and the future of higher education. Ironically, this is the very moment in which we need to grow and employ more hospitality than ever, if only to demonstrate the value of carving out a space for college, the place where colleagues share intellectual devotion that is hospitable even to sharply defined, but collegially (even cordially) expressed disagreements.

I keep hearing Elizabeth Wilson’s voice: I want to be hospitable to my material. More curiosity and care, less cynicism. It’s a poignant insistence, given the challenges she evidently anticipates in response. It’s a necessary insistence, I believe, given the openness and zestful curiosity that we need to entertain each other, and our conjectures and dilemmas, in community. Henri Nouwen reminds us that “the time has come to realize that neither parents nor teachers nor counsellors can do much more than offer a free and friendly place where one has to discover his own lonely way” (Reaching Out, special edition, 2006). Not much more than that, perhaps, but not any less than that, either.

In response to my last post, my friend Louis sent me a link to a marvelous exploration of hospitality by Leonard Cohen. Louis is patiently opening the world of this artist to me–and doing so very hospitably. In the comment below the clip, Louis writes,

Here’s a transcript of Cohen’s interview comment on the song, so it’s easier to follow: “I think that kind of imagery can be discovered all through the literature. The Persian poet Rumi [13th century] uses the idea of the guests a lot. The festival, the feast and the guests. It’s almost impossible to talk about that seed moment of when a song begins. It could be the soul comes into world. There is some notion the soul has that there is a feast, that there is a festival, that there is a banquet. It strives to experience the hospitality of the world. It doesn’t achieve it. It feels lonely, this is everybody’s experience. It feels lost. It stumbles around on the outskirts of the party. If the striving is deep enough or if the Grace of the host is turned towards the seeking guest, then suddenly the inner door flies open and he finds himself, or the soul finds himself, at that banquet table. Although no one knows where the night is going, no one knows why the wine is flowing. No one actually understands the mechanics of this grace except that we experience it from time to time.” It’s a clip from a 1979 documentary called *The Song of Leonard Cohen.*

It’s a good place to pause for now.

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Conjectures, Dilemmas, Hospitality, Humility

I’m going to try to get started on some thoughts that have been weighing pretty heavily on me over the last couple of months. The four nouns in this post’s title are markers of the general direction. In fact, here’s the executive summary, a genre I’ve been getting more practice in of late:

The process of discovery thrives not only in establishing facts, but in lively, interest-provoking encounters with the conjectures and dilemmas that inform human inquiry.
Each academic discipline changes and reframes itself not only on the basis of new knowledge, but on the basis of those conjectures and dilemmas, themselves the result of a process of discovery not unlike that which uncovers, discovers, and constructs knowledge. Problem finding, every bit as important as problem solving, requires respect and eager openness toward conjectures and dilemmas above all, since here we find the thinker, the researcher, the experimenter, the practitioner most vulnerable, most tentative (i.e., most engaged in trying, in the essay of the thing). Our necessary practice of problem finding, of uncovering and sharing conjectures and dilemmas, thus requires a sense of hospitality toward real questions and toward those who advance them. While claims advanced as fact benefit from critique and challenge, the core of conjectures and dilemmas in our shared endeavors suggests that hospitality must also be present if we want to encourage inquiry. This hospitality also requires a certain humility, which is not self-abasement so much as a zestful yearning for problem-finding in community, a shared appetite for conjectures and dilemmas, not that action will not be taken–far from it–but so that neither argument nor action ossify into authoritarianism. (Authority and authoritarianism are two different things, I believe.)

I’ll start with Jerome Bruner, from whom I have learned so much over the last fifteen years, ever since the Roving Librarian brought home a book called The Culture of Education. I’ve returned recently to one of my favorite Bruner volumes, Toward A Theory Of Instruction, because of a lovely moment in Bret Victor’s notes on his “Future of Programming” talk. At the very end, Bret refers to his own reading of Bruner, and to Alan Kay’s advice:

Lastly, here’s some advice Alan Kay gave me (as I was going through a small personal crisis as a result of reading Jerome Bruner’s “Toward a Theory of Instruction”):

I think the trick with knowledge is to “acquire it, and forget all except the perfume” — because it is noisy and sometimes drowns out one’s own “brain voices”. The perfume part is important because it will help find the knowledge again to help get to the destinations the inner urges pick.

So following my nose and my inner urges, I returned to Bruner and found again these words:

For the question opens up the deep issues of what might be and why it isn’t…. It is such conjecture … that produces rational, self consciously problem-finding behavior so crucial to the growth of intellectual power…. I would say that while a body of knowledge is given life and direction by the conjectures and dilemmas that brought it into being and sustained its growth, pupils who are being taught often do not have a corresponding sense of conjecture and dilemma. The task of the curriculum maker and teacher is to provide exercises and occasions for its nurturing. If one only thinks of materials and content, one can all too easily overlook the problem…. The answer is the design of exercises in conjecture, in ways of inquiry, in problem finding. It is something that the good teacher does naturally at least some of the time. (From “A Retrospect On Making And Judgment,” in Toward A Theory Of Instruction).

This of course is the very opposite of what I call the bad Sunday School technique of education, in which the teacher poses an essentially rhetorical question and waits until the good student produces the foregone conclusion: “because he loves us.”

Reading Bruner’s words again, I am reminded of what feeds curiosity and interest, according to researchers: novelty (things that fall between categories), uncertainty, conflict, complexity. I note that “clarity” doesn’t make the cut. Of course clarity is important, but without conjectures and dilemmas, “clarity” can easily become “certainty,” interest will become compliance, and as surely as night follows day, students will do what the rubrics say to do, for that is what the teacher wants.

I think with particular unease of the moment at the recent AAC&U meeting in which a panelist, understandably frustrated by the thin quality of student reflections in one of his classes, spoke out forcefully on his plans to double down on the instructions and tell the students exactly what he meant by reflection. I believe he was sincere in his desire to improve their learning, but I worry that his plan of action will result in compliance of the most persuasive sort, the kind that allows everyone to say that the mission has been accomplished when exactly the opposite has happened.

For it seems to me that we are tempted to imagine reflection as a process of discovering and affirming lessons learned and problems solved, when anyone who has spent a moment in reflection will realize, I believe, that the depths of that practice awaken conjectures and dilemmas. (Reflection is neither capstone nor cornerstone.) Too much of school teaches learners to fear or mask conjectures and dilemmas. My students tell me they raise their hands when they have answers, not when they have questions.

I continue to think about hospitality as the great and charitable soil of conjectures and dilemmas. Those who entertain conjectures and dilemmas might also be called seekers.

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Happy New Year: Here’s Our Challenge

On December 9, 2013, Doug Engelbart and his work were honored in a memorial gathering at the Computer History Museum in San Jose, California. The tributes, with a panel discussion following, are up on YouTube. If you’re at all curious about Doug’s vision and the legacy it offers us, I urge you to watch the video. It’s two hours very well spent.

There are several challenges in the video, not just one, but the one I want to highlight here comes from the tribute by Elizabeth “Jake” Feinler, who worked with Doug for several years at the Augmentation Research Center (ARC) and went on to become the founding director of ARPANET’s Network Information Center after. Her tribute starts at 30:12 into the video.

Ms. Feinler had many great memories of Doug and ARC, but the part that resonated most deeply with me came in words she quoted from Doug himself.  The words illustrated Feinler’s experience of ARC as well as her intense admiration for Doug’s vision and humanity. Here’s what Feinler read, from an essay titled “Working Together,” written by Doug and Harvey Lehtman (also of ARC) and published in the December 1988 issue of Byte magazine.

We thought that success in tools for collaborative knowledge work was essential to the necessary evolution of work groups in increasingly knowledge-rich societies and to increasing organizational effectiveness. Until the recent growing interest in CSCW [computer supported collaborative work], most developers limited their analyses to technical issues and ignored the social and organizational implications of the introduction of their tools; such considerations were, however, key to our work.

There is growing recognition that some of the barriers to acceptance of fully integrated systems for augmenting groups of knowledge workers may be more significantly social, not solely technical. The availability of rapidly evolving new technologies implies the need for concomitant evolution in the ways in which work is done in local and geographically distributed groups.

ARC [the Augmentation Research Center] experienced this phenomenon continuously. The bootstrapping approach, so important to the continuing evolution of the system, caused us to constantly undercut our world: As soon as we became used to ways of doing things, we replaced platforms to which we were just becoming accustomed. We needed to learn new roles, change attitudes, and adopt different methods because of growth in the technical system we ourselves produced.

We brought in psychologists and social scientists to serve as observers and facilitators. They were as important to our team as the hardware and software developers. The resistance to change, which we soon realized was an essential part of introducing new technologies into established organizational settings, and the psychological and organizational tensions created by that resistance were apparent in ourselves. We were required to observe ourselves in order to create appropriate methodologies and procedures to go along with our evolving computer technologies. [my emphases]

This language, shifted only slightly, applies equally well to the process of education itself. True learning generates both increasing complexity and, at a meta level, an increasing awareness of the nature and potential uses of that complexity–i.e. strategies of mindfulness. A university is an augmentation research center, is it not? And yet how much time do we spend in fruitful self-observation, in bootstrapping ourselves into higher levels of mindfulness and invention despite the fact that by doing so we inevitably, constantly “undercut our world”? “World” means not the planet or civilization, but the structures and organizations that inevitably choke new growth. These “worlds” must serve the values we profess, not the other way around. These “worlds” and ourselves as their architects and inhabitants must evolve and grow even as we struggle to keep up with the change we have set in motion. “Undercut” is one way to acknowledge the struggle–but “reinvent” is also apt, for it points to the essential goals of learning.

What is the alternative? Bureaucratic self-defense? Does the world need more lessons in that?

2014 is likely to be a full-on year of Engelbart activity for me. The cMOOC I’ll be teaching with Jon Becker (with the able disruptive ingenuity of Tom Woodward) will explore topics central to Doug’s vision and work. There will be at least two Engelbart Scholars among the VCU students who take that course (more details coming soon). And as always, I will be doing my level best to bring Doug’s ideas and the ongoing work of the Engelbart Institute to the conversation about networked learning, wherever I can find it (or it can find me).

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Two birthdays, an anniversary, and a brief lament

First, the birthdays.

Happy birthday to the author I’ve studied and delighted over for the last thirty-three years: John Milton, born 1608.

John Milton, busted.

I never imagined I’d spend my life reading and thinking and writing about this writer. Just goes to show. (Show what? I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.)

Happy birthday wishes also go out to Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, the mother of COBOL, a fountain of wit and wisdom, and a pioneering genius of computer science. I first learned about Admiral Hopper from Dr. David Evans’ Udacity course CS101. (Yes, Udacity. It just goes to show.) Dr. Evans linked to her famous interview with David Letterman, and I was an instant fan.

“Grace Murray Hopper at the UNIVAC keyboard, c. 1960.” From Wikipedia.

The anniversary: 45 years ago today, Dr. Douglas Engelbart sat on a stage in San Francisco and, according to one awestruck observer, “dealt lightning with both hands.” The event has come to be known as “the mother of all demos.” There’s a very nice remembrance of Doug and his demo in The Atlantic today. I know there’s also a memorial happening right about now in San Jose, as his daughter Christina and many of Doug’s family, friends, and admirers are gathered to remember the demo and Doug, who passed away this year on July 5.

I talked to Doug for about an hour, back in 2006. I met him and shook his hand in 2008 on the night before the 40th anniversary of the mother of all demos. I am humbled to be working with Christina on a project for this summer and beyond. I am so very grateful to be linked in spirit and work with Doug’s vision. When there are dark or confusing days, I try to remember how lucky I am to have found that vision, and to have thanked that visionary, while he was still with us.

Here’s the first part of the mother of all demos:

And here’s a version my wonderful student Phillip Heinrich did for a final project in my second-ever “Introduction to New Media Studies” class, what eventually became “From Memex To YouTube: Cognition, Learning, and the Internet” (and will have another morphing this summer at VCU and worldwide–watch this space):

Phillip’s work is a conceptual mashup of Doug’s demo and Michael Wesch’s “The Machine Is Us/ing Us.” Even four years later, Phillip’s work still dazzles. Apparently Doug himself saw it at one point, which makes me very joyful.

I write these words from a hotel room in Atlanta, where I’m attending the annual meeting of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. I’ve heard some inspiring speakers and learned a great deal about more of the vast machinery of higher education. At the same time, I’ve seen many folks whose eyes are on fire with a passionate devotion to learning and teaching. I honor them, and salute their survival despite the vast machinery that exists, in part and sometimes ironically, to support them and their vocations.

The lament is for the ways in which the notion of “technology” that surrounds me here is untouched by the vision of either Grace Hopper or Doug Engelbart. When I hear a presenter say that a survey couldn’t include questions about “technology” as part of its core because “technology changes so rapidly,” I groan inwardly. In addition to the (typically) underthought use of the word “technology,” the speaker obviously has confused computing devices with computing. In the latter sense, “technology” has not changed substantially since the introduction of networked, interactive, personal computing, with the possible exception of mobile computing. But the confusion here keeps “technology” questions in a different survey “module,” and keeps educators from learning or even asking what they don’t know. (And eventually we all suffer.)

Similarly, when I hear another presenter say “we didn’t know technology would eliminate jobs the way it has,” then offer a list of “technology improvements” for the organization that include new computers and monitors, new office software, etc., I have to gnash my teeth (quietly, but still). How can we be in 2013 and still be so far removed from even the outer edges of the bright light shed by the visions of Hopper and Engelbart, among many others? How can we call ourselves educators and be content not only to remain in darkness, but to spread it through inaction and (I’m sorry, but it must be said) ignorance?

More than once at this conference I’ve heard presenters talk about “technology” in the same breath that they lament how old they are and how strange youth culture seems to them. Sometimes the lament is mingled with a little of that “kids, get off my lawn” curmudgeonliness. We all get to be a little prickly as we age, I guess, but methinks we do protest too much. Doug Engelbart and Grace Hopper didn’t surrender their visions as age overtook them. We do ourselves and our students no good service to remain in the shallows we have created for ourselves, the shallows we continue to excuse and extend. As Janet Murray writes, “When will we recognize the gift for what it is…?” Or as Doug Engelbart asked on that San Francisco stage forty-five years ago today:

If, in your office, you as an intellectual worker were supplied with a computer display backed up by a computer that was alive for you all day and was instantly responsive to every action you had, how much value could you derive from that?

Both Murray’s and Engelbart’s questions remain unanswered, and that itself is worth lamenting. The real grief comes, for me, because the questions are almost never asked, even among those who pride themselves on the arts of inquiry.

A sad case, but there is still hope. My students have taught me that.

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