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Learning at its Best

Poverty: Is there an app for that?

“Development is the gradual emergence of a problem-solving system.”

via Poverty: Is there an app for that?.

If you substitute “learning” for “development” , then you have one of the most profound and simple definitions for what it is that teachers must become–guides to the idiosyncratic and utterly customized problem solving system that is a child’s mind.

The authors are speaking from an NGO’s stance and a long term one at that.  So much failure in ‘developing’ countries has been the result of  what has been referred to as the ‘carpenter’s dilemma’–every problem looks like a nail.  And the hammer, while tres handy, cannot cement a foundation or glaze a window or feed a mother and child.

Kentaro Toyamo, a UC Berkeley ICT development expert, critiques this single-minded strategy this way according to blogger Tate Watkins,

Anyone imagining that a day or two of hacking will produce solutions to development problems, even in some small part, is either a technologist drunk on her own self-image who believes that she’ll solve a mindboggling social challenge with technology, or a World Bank officer drunk on his own self-image who believes that he’ll solve a mindboggling social challenge by motivating some technologists. In any case, it seems clear they are the kind of folks who don’t learn from history.

Every educator must confront the similarity of the problem in school settings and ask themselves wherever they are, “What am I doing to encourage the gradual growth of an emergent system that permits and promotes problem solving?”

The fact is that most of us are not doing much most of the time, especially edtech pedagogues, to humbly acknowledge its limits.  That is called hubris.  Hubris brought us the BP Oil Spill, the Iraq War, credit default swaps, and apparently the modern classroom.

Just as there is no app for poverty there can be no app for the learning.  It, too, needs to emerge wherever and whenever it is needed.  I am appalled every time I reflect on the grimy wisdom of this video from a 2007 speech by Dr. Richard Elmore that I think supports what Kentaro and Watkins so simply and elegantly assert: it’s the default culture, stupid.  (Scott McLeod has gathered together these threads very conveniently and considerately at Big Think in his blog there, Dangerously Irrelevant.)

And the failure of the default culture is just as devastating in the first world as it is in the third.  And our hubris is to assert that there is an app for the failure of that default culture.  Elmore’s solution to this is a leap of faith in the redemptive power of our children and our communities,

I wonder, finally, what would happen if we simply opened the doors and let the students go; if we let them walk out of the dim light of the overhead projector into the sunlight; if we let them decide how, or whether, to engage this monolith? Would it be so terrible? Could it be worse than what they are currently experiencing? Would adults look at young people differently if they had to confront their children on the street, rather than locking them away in institutions? Would it force us to say more explicitly what a humane and healthy learning environment might look like? Should discussions of the future of school reform be less about the pet ideas of professional reformers and more about what we’re doing to young people in the institution called school?

Reminds me of the Simpson’s episode (s02 e09) where Marge succeeds in banning “Itchy and Scratchy” and at the end of the episode all of the children pour into the  streets to play to the strains of Beethoven’s “Pastoral”.  A goosebump moment of the strangest order I have to say.  Isn’t that what Elmore is asserting–get out of the kids’ way and be ready to help them when they ask for it, but you better be damned sure when they ask you because when it comes down to it we have made an assumption that is at heart wrong and destructive:  students learn because they are taught.  That’s it.  That’s where we went off the rails.  An assumption like that becomes an institutional imperative over time (perhaps the imperative assumption).  After that, we paint and wallpaper over the foundational cracks that inevitably form as the ground shifts.  Make no mistake.  The ground has shifted.

About tellio

This website will be dedicated to the miscellany of living la vida English. The audience will be weblog companero: students, teachers, and fellow travellers down this road barely trampled. I will be adding occasional posts about where I am going, where you might be going, or wherever I please. The map ain't the damn territory. I am doing this because I know it makes me feel better about the trip if I have a notebook along with me. All the better to make it digital and public.


6 thoughts on “Poverty: Is there an app for that?

  1. I can’t wait to share this! Wow… I want to process and I will give a more in-depth comment…Way to come back with a bang!


    Posted by dloitz | May 18, 2011, 4:06 pm
  2. I’m right there with you on the shift and the need to free students, Terry. Are small groups of people, technologists or not, powerless to affect change? Enough change?

    I like to think of my school as a hack – I know it doesn’t exist outside the system, but I also know it that while it stays in what is allowable, it does not conform to other schools in the division. I am unsure of how successful we’ll ultimately be in exporting what we do, but I will try to export it as much as possible. Am I doomed to failure until the system tries to do something different as a whole?

    Is it seismic shifts or small groups of dedicated people or both? What is the authority or power of what we do? I am an optimist in my answers, and I look forward to hearing yours.

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | May 20, 2011, 11:44 am
    • I don’t think I would be a part of CoopCatalyst if I did not believe change could happen. It is schools like yours that are the saving remnant. The only lasting change is local like your school. Local successes are the counterfactuals to hiearchy. In complex systems one never knows whether a school like yours isn’t the tipping point for change. Nor does one know whether that change will be better than the status quo. Yet we must hack away. You are not doomed to anything. Miles Davis said it best, “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.” The status quo makes the tragic assumption that is making none. As another favorite musician once said (Frank Zappa), “Without deviation from the norm, no change is possible.” All I can say is keep on building those parallel tracks and someday they will carry most of the freight.

      Posted by tellio | May 21, 2011, 7:29 am
  3. Love this post! Thought-provoking, necessary questions that not enough people are asking.

    As a teacher in an urban, low-income school, I get infuriated when there is a lack of respect for the local culture, an arrogance (and refusal to admit fault) from the power culture and a sense of imperialism within the “missions.”

    Posted by johntspencer | May 20, 2011, 1:28 pm
    • Yes, and I am sure pressure from parents who want their children to enter the default culture. I worked in a rural, low-income agricultural community. Admittedly the culture was based on tobacco, but it was very independent-minded. In twenty years our friends in Washington pulled the rug out from the economy and now it is a meth befuddled landscape peopled by folks who in the last primary election last week turned out at the unthinkable turnout of 9%.

      The local culture has become a bizarre cargo cult for its youngest members who pick up the most passionately stupid and disconnecting remnants of popular culture (fill in your own example here) and treat them like gods, vicious gods. The few who remain have become retrenched, dead enders who blame change for everything. They are the remnants that make up my tragic land of Dumbfuckistan. The schools that they have reflect the miserable difficulty I describe. They can’t work and the best thing for it is allow them to become churches. (Around here the bottom of the rental food chain is a church. If every business has failed in a building, then put a church in it.)

      I know this seems a bit savage. That’s because it is savage out here with a veneer of civility that is easily scratched off. Yet, and I know this seems crazy, I am optimistic. Given true awareness, change is possible, even inevitable. I don’t see that happening until grass grows in the parking lots of our singularly desolate schools. After that happens, well, we’ll see won’t we.

      Posted by tellio | May 21, 2011, 7:15 am

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