New Eyes for Education

You can’t see the future using the eyes of the past.

It is a central problem we face as we move toward some type of post-industrial society.  Our current institutional structures, based on industrial era models, attempt to re-create the past as a way to solve the problems of the future as opposed to envisioning the new.

What do I Mean by Old Eyes

What is new today?  Let’s consider complexity.  To some extent it’s the success of industrial standardization that has driven the emergency of complexity in the service economy.  With increasing efficiency, fewer and fewer people are needed to continue standardized processes, but this success has uncovered worlds of complexity not only where standardization has failed (like in education and much of the social sciences), but also in new fields such as design.  The problem is that most people today (even within standardized practices) need to address uniqueness and complexity in some way, but too much of our institutional structures are still geared towards a standardized industrial economy that emphasizes “one size fits all” solutions.

An example is NY Times columnist  Thomas Friedman’s view that we need a more highly educated population to address globalized competition.  This may be true, but what would happen if we suddenly started graduating 4 times the number of scientists and engineers.  Well, we’d soon have a lot of unemployed or underemployed scientists and engineers.  What the economy needs now is more entrepreneurialism of the type that fosters a creative interdisciplinary mindset.  We can only succeed now by envisioning and creating the world around us anew, not by growing an economy that in many ways has already become outgrown.  The educational systems is still seeing through old disciplinary eyes and training people to function in the past.  We have seen how the world we face is increasingly requiring us to deal with complexity, but as pointed out by D.H. Haley, our way of thinking, seen as a cultural artifact in our everyday activity, rejects complexity and interdisciplinary. (free with subscription to the Social Science Research Network)

. . . despite their successful interpretations and applications, they (complexity and ecology) have been accepted by neither mainstream science, nor mainstream culture.  Both of these powerful institutions have pushed such modes of thinking and being to the margins of normative knowledge and behaviour, without ascribing any real value or worth. . . . For here, I believe is the real issue, . . .  it is embedded in how our society is educated to think. Just as an athlete trains their muscles to perform certain activities in particular ways, so too, we are coached to think about particular things in certain ways ␣ it is a question of epistemology.

What Would New Eyes See

So how should institutions now be thinking and functioning differently?  I believe we need a new approach to learning and a new way to develop people and their capabilities.

A new approach to learning.

Learning has never been more important, but (as pointed out by Hagel, Brown and Davison) we can no longer predict what knowledge people will need in order to push it out to them.  Instead the learner is in as good a position as anyone to judge what knowledge is needed and needs to be able to pull that learning to themselves as needed.  (If nothing else, this is a condemnation of most approaches to curriculum development, and many forms of pedagogy.)  To achieve a “pull” model I think we will need the following:

  1. technological resources (internet, social media, applications as well as future innovation),
  2. expert guides (a new role for teachers), coaches, mentors, etc. . .
  3. peer networks that push our collaborative capabilities to new levels, and
  4. a vibrant, engaging and vigorous environments (cognitive, social and physical)

All of these elements should by intricately interwoven into each learners learning environment.

A new approach to developing people.

We need people with both breath and depth in their repertoire of personal capabilities.  Base assessment and development activities not on what you want people to know, but on what they will need and want to do.

Breath primarily means interdisciplinarity, especially as you are able to bring different capabilities from different disciplines into your own activity system.  This also means going beyond specific task capability to also include cognitive development and psychological capital development, as well as the promotion of psychological health and  wholeness.

Depth – The need for depth should be based on something like an activity system task analysis, the most important actions needed for everyday activity.  I don’t like a disciplinary view of depth only because the scope of a discipline can be unrelated to everyday activity within an activity system.  It is just that disciplines are historical artifacts with specific historical developmental trajectories, which may or may not fit with the needs of one’s activity system.

This transdisciplinarity need is where new forms of complexity enter into education.  A one size fits all disciplinary education is no longer sufficient.  We need an educational system that can easily be customized to fit individual learning / capability development needs and a system that can be extended over an individual’s productive lifetime.

So, I’m left with the question: what does this look like; what might new eyes see?

A Propagation Model of Learning and Acting

This post is to clarify some thoughts on a model of knowledge and development (adapted from Vygotsky’s model of an activity) that underly this previous post.  There are three inter-related components to this model: a subject, a mediator and an object/output all of which always operate within specific contexts and culture considerations.  They all orient toward activity, that serves as the unit of analysis.  This model comes from observing people.  All people are constantly active and involved in socially relevant activities.  In order to compete these activities they depend on many higher mental functions, much of which we often refer to as knowledge.  They are doing things like memorizing facts in preparation for a test, organizing projects for work, planning a family outing or doing the myriad types of activities we do everyday.  If you look at the surface structure of the knowledge involved, much of it may be similar.  But this is not the case if you observe how the knowledge is functioning in the activity.  Consider first each part of the model.

The Subject

The subject is a person with a history.  When you look at their development and participation in any activity system, you see what mediators they are able to use, what outputs they are capable of producing, and how all 3 parts of the model are related to the contextual factors at play.  When I think of the development of the subject, I’m thinking of the subject gaining abilities in using mediators, in producing outputs, and in working in different contexts.


I think of knowledge in activity for its mediational properties, that is, how it allows subjects to actively produce outputs.  I think it is more constructive to think of knowledge as enabling you to do something, as opposed to simply knowing something.  What exactly does it mean to know something.  Outside of the ability to act,  the meaning is nebulous.  Wittgenstein spoke of how language has more of a use than a stable meaning as expressed in this quote from John Shotter.

To state now explicitly the well-known Wittgensteinian slogan: in everyday life, words do not in themselves have a meaning, but a use, and furthermore, a use only in a context; they are best thought of not as having already determined meanings, but as means, as tools, or as instruments for use in the making of meanings . . .  (p.78-79).

Knowledge operates in a similar fashion in that it does not have an internal stability like a calculus, but has a use in enabling context specific activity.  Said in another way,  Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist give a similar account of the psychological implications of this dialogic way of looking at things when they quote M.M. Bakhtin saying:

(T)here is no reason for saying that meaning belongs to the word as such.  In essence, meaning belongs to a word in it’s position between speakers . . . meaning is realized only in the process of active, responsive understanding. . .” (p.232)

Similarly, there is no reason to say that knowledge is embodied within specific content or concepts that would allow you to know something, but knowledge finds its meaning in its functional purpose within activity; knowledge is for acting.  When you demonstrate knowledge on an assessment, you are using knowledge to engage in an assessment activity, but that knowledge, though it may apear similar on the surface or from an abstract point of view, it is different and  differently formatted than it would be in different context and for different functional purposes.  What I am attempting is to flesh out Edgar Morin’s perspective when he says:

The need for contextualization is extremely important.  I would even say that it is a principle of knowledge (p.15).


Output is the primary focus guiding activity.  When assessing activity, looking at output is how we judge success.  We can only assess the developmental level of a subject or their ability to use knowledge by watching them in activity.  But, output is often found in the form of an artifact.  When we want to improve something, it is often the output that we want to improve.  This is usually done by furthering the development of the subject or the knowledge (mediation) available to the subject, but the improvement is usually seen in the object.

(Note – Outcomes are often the final product we are trying to achieve.  The output should lead to the outcome desired, but this is not always the case.  Science exist in some ways to help us judge whether the output of activity are in fact achieving the outcomes we desire.)

Inter-relationship within the Model

The inter-relationship in this model are also critical.  In example, knowledge must be molded to match the capabilities of the subject to appropriately use the knowledge and both must be joined in a way to meet the output requirements.  Also, the subject must be sensitive to and must make all aspects of the activity conform to contextual and cultural needs present.  This is a complex model of activity and its complexity is one of the reasons that I have generally abandoned transfer as the primary metaphor in learning.  Instead I often think of a propagation metaphor.  What we transfer are seedlings or cuttings, but these are not useful in activity until they can be grown into mature plants within the garden that is the mature subject in the cultural context of this activity system.

#PLENK2010 Thoughts on Fiedler and Väljataga’s Paper, Personal learning environments: concept or technology?

I agree with Sebastian and Terje’s paper on this point:

“The development of Personal Learning Environments represents a significant shift in pedagogic approaches to how we support learning processes” . . . “(and it) is not a separate space on the internet, it is an essential part of the users’ workspace”.

As S&T point out, many people are already experiencing a self-directed life in the digital realm, often with an essential PLE workspace, and they are finding that traditional institutional power and pedagogical relationships are incompatible with this new world.  Just from a practical point of view, PLEs are usually embedded in users workflow and daily routine.  Classroom activities are not and can seem contrastingly irrelevant to one’s daily activities.

In addition to the specific socio-historical incompatibility that Sebastian and Terje point out, I also think that there are more incompatibilities lurking behind the academy’s veil.  Higher Education pedagogy was never intended to be vocational training in line with the expectations of most students.  (Professional schools with substantial practice components, like medical schools with residency requirements are the exception.)  Higher education was designed to make a class distinction, whether you were headed for the nobility or the clergy.  Higher education in modern times made entry into business management or the military’s officer corp the primary path for graduates.  Those with less education were expected to do the grunt work.  This changed when college degrees became common and the diploma no longer assured one of entry into a “high class” well paying job.  To that extent, higher education no longer serves the same goal and people are not willing to submit to something that no longer has a traditional end-game.  In contrast , PLEs are a natural adjunct to one’s everyday activity systems and in some ways may prove more directly relevant to people’s life goals when compared to traditional pedagogical forms.

I also agree with their concluding remarks:

A simple collection of potential resources (artefacts, natural objects, people) does not make a “personal learning environment,” if there is no personal model of intentional learning activity in the first place, or if people run on out-dated models from previous times.

So we need to move toward a learning model that is appropriate for the digital realm, one that re-envisions how learning functions in our everyday lives and how we are able to grow our ability to act in productive ways.

P.S. A small pet peeve.  I don’t like the way they refer to (adult) learning.  We can speak of adult activity systems, adult expectations for learning, or how learning occurs in adult activity systems, but I’ve never seen a convincing explanation of how the process of learning differs by age.  See Wikipedia’s critique section on andragogy.

Knowles himself changed his position on whether andragogy really applied only to adults and came to believe that “pedagogy-andragogy represents a continuum ranging from teacher-directed to student-directed learning and that both approaches are appropriate with children and adults, depending on the situation.

#PLENK2010 Knowledge is for Acting; Schooling is for Development

Premise: Knowledge Enables Acting, While Schooling Leads Development

  1. The ability to act in specific contexts is limited by one’s capabilities and by one’s ability to acquire knowledge that is an appropriate fit to that context.
  2. Schooling is not about acting in specific situations, but is about developing capabilities along a specified developmental trajectory as a foundation for future action.

In light of this weeks discussion of PLE in the classroom I will restate my view that we should make a distinction between learning and knowledge on one hand and development and capabilities on the other and the differing purpose served by each.

Learning and knowledge are for acting in specific contexts. Useful knowledge is highly linked to the situations for which it is devised and it makes no sense to attempt to acquire that knowledge before you are in the situation.  Inevitably, the knowledge gained in this way will not be a good fit for the situation.  Learning and knowledge is therefore inherently tied to acting and is a lifelong need.  Knowledge, to be useful, must be fit to the contexts where it is used.

Schooling is for the development of human capabilities. Using language, calculating, participating in debates, discussing important cultural topics, engaging in scientific experimentation, etc. . . .; these are all capabilities that schooling should develop in students.  We know what they look like beforehand, we know of processes to build these capabilities and we can assess successfully acquired capabilities.  Yes, studens will need to acquire specific knowledge to complete the actions specified by our assessments and classroom activities, but that knowledge will be incidental to the assessment or activity.  Using the capability in new situations will require different knowledge (even if it is only slightly different) every time.  My point is that assessing a students capability and developmental trajectory makes sense.  Assessing the knowledge he/she has acquired does not, because that knowledge will not be relevant to the student’s future; although their developmental trajectory will be highly relevant.

Knowledge is important for acting and PLEs are needed.  From birth, until we take our final breath, we need to acquire knowledge in an ongoing manner.  PLEs should be part of schooling because their development is an important capability. Likewise George’s (4) student centered items in this list are (I believe) about capabilities not knowledges.  The problems come when we mistakenly take knowledge as the reason for schooling instead of capability development.  It is usually not particularly hard to acquire the knowledge we need in any given circumstance if we already posses the requisite capabilities.  Unfortunately, most educational assessments are oriented toward measuring knowledge when they should measure capabilities and the developmental trajectory the student is following.  If they would do that, they would be a much better guide for teacher’s practices.