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Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

Build or be bought

In this “old” SXSW clip, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff exhorts us to “program or be programmed.”

As part of his talk, Rushkoff describes what I think of as “stations of the code” – the roles a person assumes in moving from consuming programs to creating them.

  • As a “passive adherer,” Rushkoff explains, you participate in “the game” either unknowingly or without any idea of what the rules are or how to change them. People talk online outside of Facebook? Where did you get that tee shirt?

  • As a “cheater,” you understand enough about the rules to exploit code and content written by others for your own benefit. I’m gonna troll this thread. I’m gonna punk up this jacket something fierce.

  • “Writers” produce content that fits into existing programs. I’m going to start my own blog about epic moments in trolling. I’m going to sew and silkscreen myself an awesome nerd scarf.

  • “Programmers” write “the game,” or at least parts of it, through “code” – which can be (generally, but also remix-ably) social (like the law, economics, or group norms), digital (like HTML, CSS, or javascript), or material (like the schematics or structure of a printing press). I’m going to create a new kind of subdermal “ink” that uses solar energy to texturize and color skin as if it was a textile so I can look like a troll while I troll.

There can be intentional or unintentional interplay between all kinds of code depending on what programmers choose to make explicit and implicit in their designs – or depending on what programmers assume or ignore abut their work. For example, an explicit law can be informed by implicit social mores. Code that enables explicitly visual or audio interfaces can be written exclusively in text. A printing press can require specific kinds of physicality and energy to operate.

What you need to consume code is not always what you need to make it, and in that often unexplored space between requirements for consumption and creation we get unexamined and socially replicative ambiguities like those in school: if you consume all this content, cheat some, and maybe write a little bit (but no where near 10,000 hours worth), you will magically become a programmer upon graduation.

That is not how school works; not even the privileged become programmers. Privileged kids can get by as “passive adherers;” we often punish kids without privilege for cheating (the most efficient way to look like a privileged kid) or for trying to “program” against the system: we aggressively prosecute disobedience and absence; we seldom interrogate ourselves about the relevance of our own work to our kids (or to us).

We must dismantle the parts of our school system that reward passive adherence while simultaneously incentivizing and punishing cheating and programming against privilege.

Our school system should begin with writing and end with programming. We should build, or we will be bought – and we will sell our kids’ “education” to the lowest-cost bidder.

As educators, we need to join and “write” teaching and learning for new learning spaces, or else we need to program new “schools” that may not be anything like school.

As educators in schools, we need to disavow adherence and unpack cheating and programming for what they are – rational responses to a system that treats kids irrationally.

I am reminded of all this as a few of my students move from being gamers to glitters to coders to hardware designers. They are coding interfaces with cardboard, hot glue, and wiring a la MaKey MaKey. They are motivated. They are learning from peers. I am disappearing from their education, responsible more for maintaining this place (and its stock of materials) than for the pace of their learning or arbitrary grading of their work. Their determination and the nature of their work (does this complex thing work or not?) have made me increasingly obsolete, and I love it.

Cardboard joystick prototype

Cardboard joystick prototype

Hand-air-brushed Minecraft controller skin

Hand-air-brushed Minecraft controller skin

Marking the cut-outs with paint dots

Marking the cut-outs with paint dots

Applying the controller skin

Applying the controller skin

The skinned controller

The skinned controller

The question remains: for kids still trying their hardest to passively adhere to the roles school assigns them, what is the best way to help them bridge into building? To realize the stakes? To avoid being bought?


About Chad Sansing

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


One thought on “Build or be bought

  1. Truly inspirational! Just met with a teacher that is working on getting Raspberry Pi and Arduino components into his classroom. Many challenges yet, but you couldn’t be more correct. When we provide opportunities great ppportunities, they will teach and learn themselves!

    Posted by edtechstandish | February 4, 2013, 6:02 pm

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