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Leadership and Activism, Philosophical Meanderings

The Dark Singularity

I love science fiction. I am insanely jealous of its authors and characters because they get to spend most of their time in the future. I wish I could live to see much of what has been imagined come to life – and to see much of what we’ve done to ourselves and the world undone.

In particular, I love

Reynolds, Simmons, and Stross (though not in Halting State) write about post-singularity civilizations. The singularity is the point at which humanity creates a post- or trans-human biological or technological intelligence greater than humanity’s own which then goes on to design ever-increasingly more complex post- or trans-human intelligences with problem-solving skills that dwarf the human capacity for invention. The singularity is an “intelligence explosion.” The singularity might benefit humans with technological gifts that augment human capacities, or it might pose unforeseeable threats to human existence. It might pose benevolent threats and/or threatening benevolencies. Because of the unfathomable intelligences it unleashes, the singularity creates an unpredictable world/cosmos for humans. Or at least that’s what I gather from those authors and Wikipedia.

I’m reminded of all this by Shelly Blake-Plock (@teachpaperless) and his response to John Spencer’s (@johntspencer) post on “The Human Cost” at Tom Johnson’s Adventures in Pencil Integration.

Shelly and John are pretty amazing educators and thinkers; please read those posts for yourself. Let me venture a humble paraphrase here: both posts are about teaching students to think and learn using the tools that work for them and that more closely resemble their futures than our pasts.

We are, however, at a crucial moment in the shaping of that future, especially the future of schools.

We are at a dark singularity capable of unleashing a predicable decline in America’s economy, geopolitical influence, and standard of living for its middle and lower classes – at the point where a civilization decides to limit its capacity for invention forever.

We are at an apotheosis of industrial education.

Look at this @edReformer post by Tom VanderArk (@tvanderark). Look at the table summarized from Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology: The Digital Revolution and Schooling in America, by Allan Collins and Richard Halverson. Kirsten’s talking about the same book. I think VanderArk, Collins and Halverson trust blended learning to move us from the middle column to the one on the right.

Blended learning uses technology to let students pursue, apply, and assess their learning outside the classroom.

At its best, blended education helps students access the information and experts they need outside their classroom to learn and to affect change in their lives and communities.

At its worst, it’s a product rather than a portal. It’s a program on an vendor’s server, or a vendor’s program sitting on a division’s server.

Will our school divisions buy in to authentic blended learning, or buy blended learning from the textbook companies?

Will schools admit that there is a reason for their existence beyond standardized testing? Beyond making AYP or accreditation?

Blended learning could bring to schools the dark singularity of further enmeshing educational technology, vendor licensing, and student seat-time. Or it could bring about millions of bright singularities of learning as it evolves and becomes something centrally uncontrollable. Blended learning could make education a form of self-expression, or it could make school even more of a repressive. It could use computers to control student behavior more dispassionately than a teacher ever could in the rote memorization of scripted curricula.

There is no standardized way to measure students’ learning if blended learning is done right. There is one particularly insipid and cost-effective way to measure student “learning” if blended learning is done wrong.

Who will make the call? Administrators caught in the Catch-22 of federal funding? Principals beholden to their school report cards? Teachers evaluated by students’ test-performance?

What new coalition of the willing will recapture learning from schooling?

In all of this, I think also of Mary Beth Hertz’s (another amazing educator, @mbteach) Peoplegogy post on the fiscal politics of teacher pensions in Oregon. Here’s why:

If we teachers accept a future of dark singularity – if we are compliant in adopting blended learning done wrong so long as out contracts are safe – then we have no right to those contracts. We have no right to demand the wages we earn or the benefits we enjoy if we are content to proctor the commercial computerization of classroom instruction. The public will one day look up in unison and ask us why we’re making so much money as public employees doing tech support for proprietary educational software. We will have no allies, and, if we’re honest, we will agree that we are not teaching and should not be paid as teachers. We will accept lesser wages which will buy less as our standardized educational system makes the United States the next best place to outsource services and productions from Asia’s new innovation economies. “Capitalism never solves its crises problems. It moves them around geographically.”

If we don’t accept a future of dark singularity, if we work instead for the bright singularities of blended learning for all students, then we need to stand for something greater than ourselves. We need to make alliances with businesses doing good. We need to think of our classrooms less as places and more as metaphors for what we want learning to be like for out students. We need to stop teaching in rooms and start teaching in clouds. We need to stop arranging desks in rows and start investing resources by student. We need to think of learning as a gift economy and negotiate fair pay from a stance that is easily recognizable as civic virtue.

Having little practical business sense – or practical sense at all – it scares me to suggest that I need business.

Then again, maybe I don’t. Maybe I could pull it off all by myself. Do you recognize that notion? That feeling? Is it serving us well? Our students?

We need to connect with people doing good outside school, some of whom might just be in the business of blended learning. I don’t mean to include or exclude app developers, per se, but I’m willing to include some insomuch as they connect our kids to learning that we can’t provide on our own. I do mean to include local mentors, service organizations, and businesses wiling to take on our students as apprentice communicators, inventors, and volunteers.

Can we find partners interested in sustainable educational reform? Interested in the bright singularity of learning rather than the dark singularity of capital? Interested in making teaching and learning better? Interested in the strength of a diverse and curious culture, rather than in the exploitable weaknesses of a standardized one?

If we can, we should join up; the dark singularity is coming for our schools, regardless.

Are good intentions and Open Source education enough to fight it? Which good businesses stand ready to help classroom teachers and students unleash their bright singularities?

About Chad Sansing

I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.


12 thoughts on “The Dark Singularity

  1. This is a great blog post. Would you like to discuss it in more detail? I think though that you must be reacting to bad experiences with vendors. I often hear people talk about how the vendor doesn’t always listen to them. That’s why @edReformer we talk about putting the tools in the hands of the teachers.

    Posted by dougcrets | July 7, 2010, 10:23 am
    • Hi, Doug – thanks for reading and commenting!

      I think some of my concerns stem from traditional teacher defensiveness about accepting “outside” or private help to teach in a classroom. I don’t want to pretend that I’m free of stereotypical teacher hang-ups, but I try to limit them or react to them positively. Other concerns of mine come from the way many services and products enter the classroom – by political adoption – rather than by teacher- or student-choice. I work in a division with a great menu of literature, for instance, but with little choice about which remedial program to use (or to create) in accordance with federal intervention money guidelines. Where materials aligned to standards and testing are concerned, I think I also hold valid concerns about conflicts of interest regarding privatization, profit, and proprietary interests.

      I do appreciate @edReformer’s broad view of what makes for a good educational application or service, and I often wish there was a way for teachers to be given trust and control over which products to use with which students at which schools. Teachers generally do have input into what materials are adopted by a school division, but then experience a period of inflexibility in what they are sanctioned to use once money has been spent on a particular product. I think blended learning has a better chance to take off in the right direction with less division-wide adoption of programs and more choice protected and funded by student and classroom.

      I am less excited about blended learning providing individualized access to, say, the Common Core standards, than I am about blended learning providing access to new relationships and learning opportunities inside and outside the classroom.

      I think teachers and students should be allowed to compete with vendors.

      Of course, my most recent experience with a vendor was when she hugged me during an in-service and said students like me used to driver her crazy, so perhaps you’re on to something.

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | July 7, 2010, 11:25 am
  2. What nice writing! And thanks for the great title recommendations. I think I agree with what you’re saying– blended learning is coming, it’s a good thing, it is in fact a great thing– the transformed future– but that if we embrace it in a mindless, consumerish, bureaucratic way, we’ll just be wasting everyone’s time and money and brainpower.

    The thing I don’t understand is this: “Will schools admit that there is a reason for their existence beyond standardized testing? Beyond making AYP or accreditation?”

    It sounds like your position is that schools and teachers came up with AYP. AYP came from Washington– and every teacher, school, and professional association has been trying to change it ever since its inception. I don’t know of a single educator who hasn’t been trying to free herself from the yoke of AYP and making a very loud public case for the largeness of learning and the smallness of high-stakes testing.

    I may be reading it wrong; you may just be exhorting schools to do more to break free of the thing or to simply ignore it. It’s very hard to ignore AYP when states are legally obliged to take certain steps to “turn around” schools not making AYP.

    Anyway, good post. I have a lot of hope for blended learning environment. I wish we had more models. I wish some of our good blended teachers would just stream a video of their classes somewhere.

    Posted by Tim Furman | July 7, 2010, 10:49 am
    • Thank you, Tim, for your comments and great question about the AYP line.

      I am certainly guilty of oversimplifying the issue, but I kind of crave a simple response from public schools: a refusal to play along with policy to which public schools object. It’s a clear and laudable rhetorical goal of public education to help students demonstrate learning that is deemed excellent by any measure; however, I think we compromise that rhetoric more often than we compromise adherence to federal policy. It’s difficult for teachers to prioritize things like project-based learning, community service, and inquiry, despite spot-on rhetoric, when their careers and the ways in which they’re allowed to teach are determined by test results. I would like building-, division-, and state-leaders to create unambiguous space for teachers and students to pursue authentic learning – space that is protected from, evaluated separately, and weighed evenly with test results.

      Perhaps I’m overly sensitive because I am a middle grades educator. I see my students tested very year across at least 3 subjects. In Virginia, neither elementary schools nor high schools test so ritualistically or give students and teachers so little time between tests to explore learning as something more than schooling. I try to do this and am supported by my division in that work, but I would be lying to say that I don’t fear test results for my students, my school, and my career. I just try to use that fear as a useful anxiety in posing questions about the status quo and resisting it.

      Schools and teachers did not come up with AYP, but we could do more to problematize it if we are willing to risk our jobs. I think our jobs will no longer resemble teaching if we don’t resist it. We are the largest part of a system designed to ensure that some of us fail for the sake of standardized testing’s validity. I do think there are traditional public schools, as well as charter schools, that are heavily invested in their test scores.

      I don’t know if any of them will be any good, but to work around changes in staffing at my school I hope to make and share out some language arts and civics modules this year. Look for them, or links to them, on

      Thanks again for the push, Tim!

      Best regards,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | July 7, 2010, 11:12 am
  3. Chad, A couple of things really stand out to me here:

    1) “We need to stop teaching in rooms and start teaching in clouds.” I love this as a metaphor, and as a way of thinking about reimagining the work. I am depressed by all the millions of teachers around the country who will, in a few short weeks, start getting their “rooms” ready for teaching: arranging bulletin boards, setting out textbooks, pre-writing classroom rules. The place I am in is: Let’s just tear down the building. It’s no good, and the work we do here in these classrooms has such a long shadow of Industrial past hanging over it, we need to move onto the playground, into the woods, into…the clouds. I love this.

    2) Thinking of the profession as a “gift economy.” That’s a great image and set of associations, a powerful ethos for thinking about the work. What a gift from you.

    But actually, I have a little crankiness about your post. And since I love you so much I’m just going to say it: I think it is too dualistic, too light vs. dark, too are-we-going-to-stand-up-ish Hollywood story in its framing of the issue(s). I completely agree that the pull towards commercialization is a powerful dark side of the potential of technology to change instruction, but I think you’re not getting to a fundamental point. The free access of information in our new era means that learners themselves are moved out of hierarchical positions in relation to what they want to know…so what is the role of the teacher? What value do you bring to your students in relationship to them and their learning? When the institution isn’t there anymore at all, what do you Chad bring to your relationships with kids that will be of value to them? Full on with technology and all its potential that we can see right now?

    I want to hear you on that question. I think about this all the time.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | July 7, 2010, 11:30 am
    • You definitely caught me in a dualistic mood this week, Kirsten. But, hey, come on – I’m advocating an alliance with business!

      So, let’s look at education, post-blended-learning singularity.

      There’s no school, no classroom, no chief teaching officer.

      What do teachers become, if they even exist?

      Story-tellers? Guides? Virtual Athenai? Sponsored, entrepreneurial travelers who mark up the world with augmented reality links and commentary? People who teach the embedded, human side of content in the physical world via YouTube, Google Earth, and little geotags and QR stickers left on special posts at famous sites? 1:1 Anthony Boudrains for the brain? Maybe.

      Contract-learners? Do teachers become students so others don’t have to? Do they dedicate their lives to learning via subscriptions to which they return what they learn? Send a self-addressed, secure URL and PayPal money order to I will customize calculus for you via our technologically mediated relationship? Is this any better or different than buying class notes or visiting MIT Open Courseware? Perhaps.

      Tropospheres? Do teachers become atmospheric features in which clouds form and gather to interface? Do teachers become purveyors of home-bases, tools, and contacts that further clients’ learning or help clients form new alliances, collaborations, and resource pools? Do we package learning kits or help Web 3.0 neophytes learn the ropes of learning? What happens when there are no neophytes? What happens when the semantic web does a better job of this than people? Does it already? Possibly.

      I think that in the short term, teachers should become project managers. Teachers should become expert at helping students find out what it is that students really want to do, and then teachers should customize the processes that help student achieve their dreams. They should be advocates, agents, and assistants to their students and students’ learning, mindful to point out opportunities and challenges that student might not otherwise see until they are experienced project managers capable of directing their own learning and realizing their own goals. Teachers should teach the skills students need to learn and help assemble content until students can assemble content independently or interdependently amongst their own. Teachers should embed learning in real-world, service-learing problems to create interdependencies and mutual valuation between students and their communities.

      As classrooms and schools disappear, I hope teachers find roles as mentors who work much like artists, authors, historians, and scientists to explain what it means to be human in the context of the all the trivia we’re producing. I hope they will be narrative time-travelers and protectors of our relatively-shallow deep-memory. I think of Lowry’s The Giver, of the fallacious assumption that there can ever be a single Utopia, and of the stark contrast in Lowry’s book between the adults at school and the Giver. I hope teachers will be valued for passing perspective to their students. Will they be necessary? Any more or less so than they are now? Any more or less arbitrarily valued? I don’t know. So long as there is someone left to explain a joke.

      A question for you: if learning becomes a gift economy, will teachers be gifted their livelihoods?

      Beneath the woad of #edreform,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | July 7, 2010, 12:08 pm
  4. Wow, I had so much to say, then my wireless went out, and I lost what I pasted on to my clipboard.

    What I wanted to say before was that I don’t think classrooms are going to disappear, but certainly the function of what a teacher does is going to change. And I think what troubles me is how far removed teachers are from what students interact with online, from what I have been told by educators and students. Why can’t we just completely modify a part of the day so that it’s more in line with what will be rather than what is? Not as entirely new age as it sounds.

    How many teachers know basic coding?

    Posted by dougcrets | July 7, 2010, 12:55 pm
    • I’m not sure that many of us know basic coding, but slightly more of us understand the concepts behind it. Certainly platforms like Scratch can help us educators, as well as students, understand the kinds of decision- and rule-making that go into programming. Playing enough video games helps, too.

      I’m not sure that many students understand what goes on in the guts of their computing devices and apps, either, which is something we should learn together if for no other reason than to think critically about the choices we make in consuming and producing media and hardware. I think an app-development, STEM summer school would be an awesome opportunity for co-learning. Expert teachers and students could facilitate it and student-teacher teams could attend and use what they learn together at school the following year to make apps for their classmates regarding the content they have to master. @BeckyFisher73 and @ChadRatliff and I have talked about this. You kindly tweeted on the PLC model I suggested for work like it.

      Toward your broader point: there are deep-seated school, student, and teacher self-images in our country and media that encourage us to take up adversarial stances towards one another. It’s been this way for decades – and this drives my concerns about blended learning done wrong and adaptable software. We can’t mistake technology that reinforces our obsolete notions of one another’s roles as an innovation in and of itself, thought it’s tempting to do so. Software that ties students to desks and chairs while delivering traditional content is an “innovation” that mainstream media and its consumers can readily understand. However, such software doesn’t really change a thing about how we teach or answer why we teach. I don’t think federal policy does, either. Real disruptive innovation in education will get students and teachers outside the classroom and comfort zone of educational traditionalists – a group that includes many educators, politicians, tax-payers, and school-conditioned students. If we wind up with adults approving software that doesn’t change the nature of teaching we give traditionalists another opportunity to say I told you so about kids these days: “We gave them computers, and they still won’t learn!”

      I don’t think this is just about students vs. teachers or kids vs. adults. It’s about change; it’s about the people vs. the man. It’s about the kids who tell the other kids to put their cell phones away, can’t you see he’s teaching?! It’s about the teachers who tell other teachers that all hell will break loose if you let your kids use cellphones in your classroom! It’s about the public- and private-school parents whose brows crumple in pity when they find out oh, you’re home-schooling your kids? Students are removed from what their peers are doing. Teachers are removed from what teachers are doing. Reformers are removed from what reformers are doing.

      The real, joyful chaos of blended learning at work to promote inquiry and service is an anathema to our pop iconography and media-goggled memories of our own schooling. We love Dead Poets Society. We have yet to greenlight Blended Learning Society.

      How many Americans know how learning looks outside school? Many. Apprenticeship, entrepreneurship, and corporate learning are alive and well. Why aren’t more adults interested in backwards mapping this to school? How do we blend CTE, inquiry, PBL, and service with 1:1 academic learning? That’s my big question.

      We need some brave kids and adults willing to help school break loose, and we need freemium open source and good business partners ready to help them at the student and classroom levels.

      What do you think, Doug?


      Posted by Chad Sansing | July 7, 2010, 3:08 pm


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