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Leadership and Activism, Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

Learn or be taught

[Author’s note: I don’t cross-post often; I certainly don’t cross-post lightly. However, I thought this post from would be of interest to the communities of both sites. Cheers, C]

“…we are attempting to operate our society on obsolete code…. They are completely inappropriate to what it is we want to get done.”
Douglas Rushkoff, Program or be Programmed

A few hours after I caught sight of RSA’s take on Sir Ken Robinson’s “Changing Education Paradigms”, I watched Douglas Rushkoff’s SXSW talk, ““Program or be Programmed.” The two pieces created some useful cognitive dissonance for me that I have yet to resolve concerning how well my teaching makes room for a) creativity and b) programming.

While a focus on arts-infused work is opening avenues for creativity in our study of civics, I’m not sure that we’re applying what we’re learning, or challenging it in any real way. We’re painting portraits of citizen-artists and characters from the games of citizen-corporations – and we’re writing short expository pieces explaining how these artists and corporations fulfill the duties, responsibilities, and traits of citizenship, but we’re not yet applying ourselves as citizens to problems like those readily accessible at I don’t think I’ve problematized citizenship well enough – for myself, as well as for students – or maybe I’m making too much of an effort to connect our study of civics to the books we’re reading when I should be connecting it to local problems. What comes first? What motivates students to learn the best? How soon after students achieve comfort and confidence do you challenge them, especially if it’s taken three years to be together in the same place at the same time to enjoying reading a novel?

Some students have some service projects in the works, but art and self-expression have become the focus of class more than civic action has. I should probably take a breath and remember that it’s only October, but I want to find a way to connect curriculum, art, and action all at once.

Which brings me to another Rushkoff quote:

You move from being a passive, almost adherer of the game; not even – just a person who is in the game who doesn’t even know the rules – what can be bent and what can’t – to being a cheater, to being a writer, to being a programmer. Those are the stages our civilization has moved through.

I don’t break rules that require me to shirk my professional duties, so understand that when I call myself a “cheater” – in Rushkoff’s sense of the word – I think of myself as someone who understands the rules of public education and bends them as much as possible to build relationships of trust with students and programs of study that speak to their needs and wants. I ask for permission and let my leaders know what I’m doing.

That being said, I recognize Rushkoff’s progression in my own career. These days I feel like I’m tweaking public school for my students so they can skip a few levels ahead in re-engaging with school and enjoying learning there. I can glitch a few things (or maybe even mod them with a level editor – rather than with a set of sandbox tools – programmed for me by authors of a charter). I can’t break the game. For example, I won’t make my classroom match my vision of school in 20 years for the kids coming to my classroom tomorrow. I’m not resourced or licensed to do so; I’m not confident I could get away with it or that my students or their parents would want me to do it.

So, am I a “cheater?” Or am I one of the “programmed?” Or am I a “cheater” making a classroom that better engages resistant students in becoming “programmed?” Am I a “writer” content to noodle about in the boxes provided for me by others? I’m not a “programmer.” I’m not creating a new program, not really, not yet, though I see a lot of worth in the glitches I “exploit” and the edits and mods I attempt.

Does any of this introspection matter if I’m not actively engaged in making my students aware of their choices in learning?

In one of his guest posts on Boing Boing, Rushkoff says

…when we approach the world from the perspective of a player or cheater instead of a programmer, we tend to succumb to the values of the game rather than questioning if we are really choosing those values as our own.

How do you create a public school system that encourages programming society through civic engagement and voting? How do you create a public school system that encourages economic programming through student entrepreneurship? How do you create a public school system that encourages programming individualized learning through student-direction rather than computer-adaptation?

I see tremendously laudable and valuable piecemeal solutions – and work for some of them – all the time. I “cheat,” but have a hard time juggling multiple “cheats” at the same time. I “write,” but rely on others to self-publish. I don’t program.

How does school become a place where students and teachers are doing excellent work of lasting value all the time? How does school become a place where being programmed – or learning to “cheat” – is replaced by learning to direct your own learning, or to help others do the same? How does school become a place where self-expression isn’t boxed in a project, a rubric, or a menu of choices suggested by a teacher, or by a checklist on a walkthrough app? (My biases lean towards linguistic and visual production.)

In the same Boing Boing piece, Rushkoff says,

I don’t believe everyone has to know how to write their own software any more than I believe people have to know how to build their own cars or pave their own roads.

I agree about the software, cars, and roads, but I think students deserve more autonomy in learning and that we need to extend them more credit and value the learning they do outside of the programs we offer. Does every student need to choose every step of their educational journey? Probably not. I wouldn’t want a second-grader in the operating room, but I’d be happy if mine was choosing between going to the senior center for reading time, frosting cupcakes for a local shelter, working on a redesign of school grounds for next year’s Day of Caring, or getting help setting up a weekly individual art tutorial from a room parent. Disclaimer: second-grade has been good for my second-grader; I’m criticizing our system, not his teacher or school.

It’s tremendously difficult to provide enough age- and readiness-appropriate choice and conversation to allow student programming from one classroom, within one building, or as one division or state in a nation otherwise preoccupied.

Where is the license endorsement for innovation? The career step for edupreneurs? The sliding merit-pay based on risk and reward?

They’re not in public education.

Why not? Where else is there as much to gain and as much, surely, to lose?

To put in another way: are students and teachers meant to reach their full potential in public schools? Is school a place we go to learn or be taught?

Are we at least aware of our programmer’s biases, or even of our own?

Let’s think a bit, “cheat” a bit, write a bit, and look for the chance to program something new inside our system. Maybe some good ideas will collide, escape the bounds of our collaboration with the system, and catch the eye of a programmer.

While I’m here: is self-expression citizenship enough (is creativity programming), and would you accept and assess a student-created video-game level based on the theme of sacrifice in place of an essay on the same?


About Chad Sansing

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


5 thoughts on “Learn or be taught

  1. I know you read him, but what do you think Ron Berger would say…. I will send him this post and see if I can get him to respond….. but I am having the same discussion as I craft my philosophy of Human Scale Education.

    Here is a short rough draft of one of the questions that has come for me…. (note * Bridge Living Learning School is the name of future school I hope to open)

    One question which I need to examine more and keep in my mind is,

    are human-scale schools for parents, teachers and the community as a way to heal themselves or hide from the realities of the largeness of the problem, a way to not solve it, retreat from it, leave it for someone else to solve?

    This tension will continue to guide me as continue to move to creation of the Bridge Living Learning school. It is a tension that speaks to all society change movement, be it in education or communities. If the school is truly for the community, than both the children and the adults interest most be balanced.

    While I understand this, I believe the children most always be at the forefront of this conversation, if the school creation is more for the parents than the children we eliminate the co-creation that is human-scale education, we limit the growth of both community and the children.

    It will still be a form of oppression even if it is for what we think is there own good.

    I seek to limit this form of oppression by remembering to always ask the “why”, and to deconstruct our values from both an adults perspective and the child’s perspective.

    I think this will be challenging, but one that I personally believe is of utmost importance to the ultimate growth of the community of adults and children in any school.

    While withdrawing from or “cheating” the system can be powerful to both weaken the traditional mind set and to create or experiment with more human-scale alternatives, we must do it by design, we can not just hope it happens. The very act of removing ourselves or cheating is no longer enough in my eyes. We need to be more vocal about our dissent and not in a hero stance, but as a way to open up the discussion. I am dissenting, not because I believe you are wrong….but because I think we can be doing something better…. I think WE can solve the problem, create something different,…. but we can’t every co create if we are always hiding our cheating or only sharing it with other cheaters. Never now who else might want to cheat or have a new way to cheat you never thought of…….

    I also think we can’t allow only the most opportunistic to minster to the need for transformation. We need to empower ourselves and others to open schools and create spaces in existing school for change. We need to support the right kind of schools, be it in the private sector, the public, independent, charter, unschooled, homeschooled, or otherwise. We need to start promoting the schools,teachers, students, communities, business, pedagogy, curriculum, project, tech, 21st century/ 20 century schools and start saying this isn’t cheating this is growth…this is (re)evolution of a system that is truly for the purpose of helping us make sense of the world.


    Posted by dloitz | October 20, 2010, 10:22 pm
    • I empathize with many of your frustrations, David, and continue to wonder what a public school classroom teacher should do. I share your belief that we can do something better. Human scale schools would be a start, but you’re right that there are larger systemic problems. Numbers, whether we call them dollars and cents or teacher-to-student ratios, rarely solve human problems of motivation, pedagogy, and relationships in positive and sustainable ways.

      Here’s an numbers issue with which we’re all familiar: time. I’ve been thinking about the #edreform debate in terms of minutes and hours lately. No only do the current movement’s leaders have money, they have time. Teachers are not resourced in the same way. They get money for using their time to perform very prescriptively assigned duties. I think about us edu-bloggers calling for change. Some of us work in settings where we have the time to effect the changes we desire. Some of us work in settings that suggest to us the changes we desire. Should more of us leave public school classrooms to work in settings that provide us with better levers for change? Should we write less and organize local action more? Train more teachers than we imagine read our blogs? What’s the right balance of message and action for teachers working in classrooms? Not everyone needs to lead change efforts in the same way, but clearly classroom teachers are at a chronological disadvantage in effecting change, at least compared to #edreform foundation types and DOE personnel who work at #edreform.

      Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but programs like KIPP don’t take off just because teachers think they are great; they take off because someone with money thinks they’re great and buys the time for teacher-leaders to lead more than teach, in the occupational sense of the word.

      Teachers who want a different kind of reform similarly need more time – or they need more allies, which means there needs to be a narrowing of the credibility gap between teachers and those they choose to follow or from whom they accept the gift of time.

      I imagine that Ron Berger would try to help; being where I am rather than where he is – in all kids of ways – I’m unsure of how far I would follow his advice.

      But who has time to lead?


      Posted by Chad Sansing | October 22, 2010, 1:25 pm
  2. Chad, as per usual your post is incredibly rich. For now I will choose one passage to reflect on:

    “So, am I a “cheater?” Or am I one of the “programmed?” Or am I a “cheater” making a classroom that better engages resistant students in becoming “programmed?” Am I a “writer” content to noodle about in the boxes provided for me by others? I’m not a “programmer.” I’m not creating a new program, not really, not yet, though I see a lot of worth in the glitches I “exploit” and the edits and mods I attempt.”

    My thought is that we never entirely one of these categories. Just like the natural systems we are a part of, our human systems exist as nested systems. In the current metaphorical context that means that in some aspects of our lives we are “programmed,” and others we are cheaters, writers, and programmers.

    So for you, I see that you flow between these “levels” in your work at school.

    All the best,

    Posted by Adam Burk | October 22, 2010, 11:12 am
    • Thanks, Adam – I appreciate that perspective. It could be that school is like a blog service – a container for expression and investigation. How can that be its standard level of service for students? Lots of great questions in great metaphors. I’ll work to look through the living system lens more often –

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | October 22, 2010, 11:34 am


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