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Education in the Media, Philosophical Meanderings

This is Bullshit

Jeff Jarvis expresses a summary of my thoughts on schools (and institutions at large) today during his TEDxNYED talk. I find his talk cathartic, purging the staleness I feel in my own conversations about education. Maybe it’s just the swearing. Some excerpts I particularly like:

“Right now, you’re the audience and I’m lecturing.

That’s bullshit.

What does this remind of us of? The classroom, of course, and the entire structure of an educational system built for the industrial age, turning out students all the same, convincing them that there is one right answer — and that answer springs from the lecturn. If they veer from it they’re wrong; they fail.”


Good God, that’s the last thing we should want. We should want questions, challenges, discussion, debate, collaboration, quests for understanding and solutions.”

“Do what you do best and link to the rest.”

“I still haven’t moved past the lecture and teacher as starting point. I also think we must make the students the starting point.”

“I asked the students in the room what they wished their schools were teaching them. It was a great list: practical yet visionary.”

“So we need to move students up the education chain. They don’t always know what they need to know, but why don’t we start by finding out?”

“But the problem is that we start at the end, at what we think students should learn, prescribing and preordaining the outcome: We have the list of right answers. We tell them our answers before they’ve asked the questions. We drill them and test them and tell them they’ve failed if they don’t regurgitate back our lectures as lessons learned. That is a system built for the industrial age, for the assembly line, stamping out everything the same: students as widgets, all the same.”

“So if not the lecture hall, what’s the model? I mentioned one: the distributed Oxford: lectures here, teaching there.

Once you’re distributed, then one has to ask, why have a university? Why have a school? Why have a newspaper? Why have a place or a thing? Perhaps, like a new news organization, the tasks shift from creating and controlling content and managing scarcity to curating people and content and enabling an abundance of students and teachers and of knowledge: a world whether anyone can teach and everyone will learn. We must stop selling scarce chairs in lecture halls and thinking that is our value.”

“We must stop our culture of standardized testing and standardized teaching. Fuck the SATs.* In the Google age, what is the point of teaching memorization?”

“The school becomes not a factory but an incubator.”

Here’s your opportunity to call it out. What’s bullshit about schools today and what do you or would you so that the only time “Bullshit!” was yelled out was during a card game?

With joy,


About Adam Burk

Adam aims to serve the greater good; alleviate unnecessary suffering; and create beautiful, sane human communities in concert with the living planet. Recently, he has helped to rebuild local food systems in Maine in large part through school food services, organized the TEDxDirigo conference, and is a digital organizer with the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA).


17 thoughts on “This is Bullshit

  1. “So we need to move students up the education chain.”

    That’s what I want to do.

    Our schedules, structures, hierarchies, cultures, classrooms, campuses, curriculum, assessment, and instruction all need work – school is broken and harmful. However, I think that if we move students up the education chain and listen to them as agents of their own learning and healing, then we can ameliorate the effects of the other problems and perhaps find solutions better than any we can imagine to them.

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | February 21, 2011, 3:03 pm
  2. What is B.S. to me, completely and wholly, is the idea that schooling believes that competition between learners is necessary on any or all levels.

    I do not need to be better than Johnny, in order to be validated, that I am a learner. I do not need the pressure, the anxiety, the stress, the judgement or impatience with me, as a learner. Schooling sets up competition so that specific types of learners are singled out, either to be praised or to be disgraced.

    If we could end, just one idea in schooling, for me, this bullshit point would be it. We are all learners. We all have the right to our opinions, ideas and thought processes. We all learn differently. We all learn uniquely. We are to be respected for that individually, not against one another, in a system that demands that some are considered winners, some losers and some simply forgotten somewhere in between.

    Posted by educationalrevolutionist | February 22, 2011, 2:01 am
  3. This is one of the paradoxes of education that I have never been able to figure out. We do tons of research, assess anything we can possible stick a yardstick up to, and develop an incredible body of knowledge on the topic of helping people reach their potential and implement…none of it. How many times do the pundits of education have to pontificate before they listen to what they are saying? We are told that lecture format is the absolute worst way for people to learn. How do we implement professional development? lecture. We are told that learners must be valued and allowed to have a voice in their learning. How do we implement school improvement? with spreadsheets that reduce art to numbers and production quotas that harken back to the days of the sweat shops. We are told that learners learn differently, yet we are told to teach with common methods and assessments. Is it really so large a leap to realize that educators respond and learn in the same way as those we teach? If you want to see the implementation of these admittedly wonderful ideas, start by using them to help the educators reach their potiential as learners and, in turn, educators. The transformation in schools will be astounding.

    Posted by DReese | February 22, 2011, 5:12 pm
    • DReese, the job of schools is to perpetuate culture, it’s of no surprise that we can’t get out of our own way. What comes to mind is the common response from folks who are indifferent about educational change, “it worked for me,” and “I turned out alright,” are common passive responses.

      What happens in higher education as the predominant mode of “teaching” particularly in teacher training programs is downright awful. You are right to point out that teachers are learners and need to be empowered as such too. I had the privilege of attending Goddard College, which did just this for me.

      Change has to happen at all levels k-PhD and in most ways, there is no way to “phase it in.” Disruption is necessary to break our habits.

      Thanks for highlighting this important point. Now the question is what are you going to do about it?

      With hope,

      Posted by Adam Burk | February 22, 2011, 11:14 pm
  4. This is bullshit too:

    “Schools are broken”.
    “Lectures are bad”.
    “Student-centered versus teacher centered”.

    Why is it crap? Because it is overly general and dangerously silly. If the research on it were worth a damn, it would start by questioning the premise. What is a lecture? How many different kinds of lecture are there? How efective is each type of lecture? Who lectures? Why do they lecture? How often do they lecture? In general, we know schools are not functioning worse than they have in the past, so what is “broken”? Student-centered” is today’s “teaching to multiple intelligences”. Why can’t we just say lessons need to be interesting for everybody?

    Putting a label on a can of vienna sausage doesn’t make it gourmet cooking.

    Posted by Bob Calder | February 22, 2011, 6:06 pm
    • Bob, thanks for your comment and suggestion to examine the idea of lecturing more critically. Many of us love TED Talks. Obviously, there is a time, place, and learner for the lecture. I, for one, object to continuing a school system that promotes a monoculture of lecture and exclusively adult control of content and instruction.

      Just because schools aren’t functioning worse than they have doesn’t mean that they aren’t broken. Schools enroll many more students than they did in the past, but they still serve to sort kids and separate those with the background knowledge and acculturation to sit still. From its inception the American comprehensive high school has been set up to maintain privilege, promote the promoted, train workers, and washout the rest of the kids. School has not solved the problem of what it doesn’t do well – it doesn’t acknowledge, value, or represent the diversity of learning, work, and inquiry tasks we face in our day-to-day lives, jobs, and hobbies.

      School – as a system – needs to recognize different kinds of teaching that are good for different kinds of learning. Several kinds of lessons should be available to interest students. School should be as customizable as possible to help students learn to set and achieve goals for themselves and their communities, not just for their lecturers.

      When do you think a lecture is most effective? When is it better to teach and learn differently? How should students who struggle with learning from lectures supplement their learning or advocate for something different, especially in higher education, where they are consumers paying to be taught?

      Best wishes,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | February 22, 2011, 7:29 pm
    • Bob, thanks for throwing out a critical voice. That’s welcome here. What’s your vision for education?


      Posted by Adam Burk | February 22, 2011, 11:22 pm
      • Adam and Chad,
        My objection is mixing political speech: “schools are broken” with measurement and research. It obscures real progress. Second, refusal to acknowledge good research is a political fantasy.

        One thing we could do is acknowledge the research progress in other countries and join them in cooperative measurement. In 2008 we skipped the TIMSS Advanced that would have given us an opportunity to update or understanding past 2005 which is the benchmark we are still boo-hooing over. When we look at high performing entities like Singapore and analyze them – as has been done – then make changes as ONLY MA and MN have and gotten good results as they have (top ten); we need to acknowledge it in our discussions and quit talking about bullshit solutions that are not based on anything save dreams.

        On the other hand, we need to acknowledge the political reasons we do certain things and acknowledge the effect they have on our outcomes. The percentage of an age cohort on an academic track in Europe is about 60. That leaves 40% of high school students ignored for comparison purposes.

        Hardly anyone “lectures” extensively any more. As a general rule, it’s over. Are we having a political discussion? It’s OK to speak with rhetoric exaggeration if that’s true. But if we are trying to frame progress in terms of making changes that will have positive effects, we need to drop the political discourse.

        Politicizing education got us where we are now. Unions didn’t do it. Bad teachers didn’t do it. Schools as institutions do what society asks.

        Posted by Bob Calder | February 23, 2011, 7:27 am
        • Thanks for the clarification, Bob – I get it and I agree that we as a school system do a lot for political reasons. Do you think we’re measuring the right things? Progressing in the right areas? Like Adam, I’m curious about your vision for schools. I like to follow MA and MN in particular, as well, especially for their charter scenes.


          Posted by Chad Sansing | February 23, 2011, 9:02 pm
  5. What this talk could have done when he talked about his son’s attending a traditional university is explore the problem of credentialing. The other points are well taken, but they are hard to realistically explore without also addressing the idea of how the learner gets a credential, and a credential recongized by the community of importance to the learner. We attempted to explore that here and created the “4 strategies” diagram here to look at the traditional vs a community-based model

    The talk calls into question some of the “stack” of practices that characterize the traditional university and imagines university as incubator. The missing piece is the product of that incubation needs to be the credential, it needs to be what learner and teacher are striving to create.

    Posted by Nils Peterson | February 22, 2011, 6:06 pm
  6. Hey Adam, I think I found this Jarvis talk right before I was preparing for a big keynote, and I too was totally refreshed. How I wish I had been able to just say, right at that moment–the whole paradigm sucks. Let’s forget it. This is bullshit.

    So speeding ahead. One of the great ironies, the complexities, the paradoxes of my own learning life is that I completely disregard and disrespect the old paradigm of the knower and those who are to know, that it is appropriate to sit at the feet of the knower and be told. I also don’t love the many knowers I see, in the role of head talker, embracing the role of “not knowing”; they still feel they cannot credibly embrace “not knowing.”

    AND, to add to this ironic picture, I really do enjoy a good lecture every once and awhile, and I’m really good at learning this way, having adapted to it during decades of conventional schooling. Yep, I’m great at taking notes, being in dialog with myself about what the lecturer is saying, arranging for ways for me to recall the material and remix and reuse it, and I’m totally about stealing anyone who’s got a good jam at the talking…

    So allowing for the complexity of responses is part of what I think the comments get at?

    And, in my experience, when I go out and give a talk, many of the audiences I speak to WANT to sit there and listen. They are not happy with being asked to jump in, to initiate, to speak, to share, to know along with me (I’m talking about a biggish talk).

    So what you make of that?

    Posted by Kirsten | February 23, 2011, 10:07 pm
  7. Get a copy of this: Patrick Gonzales NCSE talk: Highlights from TIMSS 2007 – Mathematics and Science Achievement of U.S. Fourth- and Eighth-Grade Students in an International Context. Their charter schools have little to do with it. Every time anyone tries to replicate conservative ed funded research the results evaporate from what I understand. For instance, the Gates Kane study gives a ridiculously low rate of correct choice when firing a “bad” teacher according to

    Gentlemen, I don’t know who “we” is and I don’t understand what “we” is measuring. *grin*

    Posted by Bob Calder | February 23, 2011, 11:31 pm
    • Bob, I’ve read about German and Japanese teaching approaches in mathematics as related to their TIMSS scores – I’m a fan and avid reader of Bruce Baker’s blog, as well. I don’t know how charters are related to the argument here, but, then again, my take on charters is skewed by my work in a charter school for non-traditional learners who struggle with relationships and/or finding relevance in traditional school settings.

      I’m still curious to know if you are a fan of such educational systems or of ours or of something completely different – are we educators/teachers/public school systems in the United States set up, in your mind, to teach the right curriculum with the right methods and assessments? What do you think we should be set up to do and how do you think we should measure schools’ work? I guess I’m asking for your philosophical take on the purpose of public education in the United States.


      Posted by Chad Sansing | February 24, 2011, 5:06 am
      • Chad, I am not a fan of other countries as such. Singapore has plenty to offer because it has a model of teacher effectiveness and a math curriculum path that introduces concepts with precision and relevance to deep understanding of material *that is tested*. They make sure every math and science teacher has a subject degree. Students that don’t demonstrate mastery transfer to a special remedial school after their cohort has graduated. That’s a good model for achieve ment under a testing scenario. MA and MN have adopted the curriculum portion and have experienced improvements. That’s all I know. It’s all I need to know to realize vast stretches of education reform have been falsified as a result.

        Schools in the US teach many things in many ways because their communities demand it. I don’t think measurement is a solution. It is a problem in and of itself and a “necessary evil”. Extending the power of testing is probably destructive to the system. Measurement is the most destructive way of improving a process because it is incapable of distinguishing the good from the bad in things that are not explicitly measured.

        If you want a social narrative, here’s mine. What we are dealing with here is people’s fear of other and their inability to do anything about the future. Their inability to understand scale exacerbates fear and “common sense” solutions are used to barricade them against looming eventualities. This is why education is “broken”. As a community we take symbolic control of the future by shaping the input – students. Dependent variables are ignored in a complex system. This means ed reform is driving on the freeway with its eyes closed. It may be possible to drive across the street that way, but the longer the distance, the more unlikely you will arrive in one piece. Sorry about mixing metaphors in a literary sense, but changing metaphors frequently is healthy thinking.

        What does that leave us with? Not much except more questions. That makes me happy as a scientist but I understand it makes people that need a perfect idea to put on a pedestal extremely unhappy. For Tea Party enthusiasts, the Constitution is the perfect idea. For Creationists, the inerrant word of God is perfection. I happen to believe we improve over time by making incremental improvements. We are better and smarter today than we were yesterday.

        I see IQ scores rising and SAT scores rising. I see knowledge expanding at an inconceivable rate. I am not particularly worried unless it is by people that want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

        Posted by Bob Calder | February 24, 2011, 11:52 am


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