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Education in "Present Shock" : An interview with Douglas Rushkoff

Note: An mp3 of this interview is available for download.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with award-winning author, educator, and documentarian Douglas Rushkoff. Our discussion focused on his new book “Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now,” his advisory role at Codecademy, and the impact of Present Shock on education.

Education Futures:

Douglas, you have a new book out called “Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now.” What is Present Shock?

Douglas Rushkoff:

Most simply, Present Shock is the human response to living in a world where everything happens now. It’s a real-time, always-on existence without a past or a future, without origins or goals. It’s just the present. This presentism, or Present Shock, really effects us on a person level, on a social level, politically, economically, and even spiritually, in terms of how we organize our experience in life.

My concern is that instead of really seizing the new now of the moment we tend to get disoriented. We respond to the insistent pings on each of our devices. We kind of chase the moment that Twitter or Facebook or one of these devices offer, forgetting that we’re the ones who are living in real-time. The devices and the software is what’s chasing us. It’s really about, how do we seize the true present that’s being offered by a digital age, by our liberation from an industrial age clock and how do we avoid the kind of faux-present of the insistent pings of the digital universe.

Education Futures:

What are the challenges and opportunities for formal education resulting from Present Shock?

Douglas Rushkoff:

Well, I mean there are a bunch. One of them, one bias of the digital age is that it gives us more choice. So rather than following the prescribed paths of the masters of the various academic disciplines, someone can go online and get the course or the information and what they want when they want it. You don’t have to go through architecture 1, 2, and 3 to get to architecture 4. And while there is some tremendous liberation associated with that there’s also something you lose in that. What you lose is the path. You become very focused as a student on the data and getting that piece of information as if that’s the thing that’s valuable and you lose the centuries of thought that went into how these things were arranged.

I was in the library and I was thinking about the card catalogue the other day, and I understand that the digital search lets you find the thing you want right away and you get the number and you go and you get it. But what you lose when you lose the card catalogue is not just an alphabetical listing of the books by title and by author, you’re also losing the subject area. You could go into a card catalogue and find the area that you’re in and look through the cards that are in that section, and they’ve been put there, they’ve found their way there over centuries of the organization of information by people. It’s not to say that it should cripple you that now you have to engage with information the way that the greats have been doing it for centuries, but there is centuries of knowledge and insight that went into that. As education becomes more à la carte as kids get what they want when they want it. As we use Spark Notes to do Shakespeare because we have authority over our time and I can decide to not really read it, but just read this paragraph. I lose a sense of the journey. It becomes very results oriented. That’s a big, big challenge.

The other biggie is, as we spend more of our time fetishizing these devices these new avenues for education, I feel like the human bonds of the classroom, actual people who are in the same room together, that loses it’s cohesiveness, it loses it’s power. The big challenge for people today is doing very simple things like maintaining eye contact, generating rapport with other human beings. Understanding how to work with others, that’s the kind of stuff you can get in a classroom and you can’t get on a Wii when you’re at home. I’m really encouraging educators not to use classroom time to have kids all staring at the SMART Board or at their iPads, and instead to use that valuable few hours of class time you have helping kids and students orient to one another in real space because 94% of communication that happens non-verbally is starting to get lost as our noses get closer and closer into our smart phones.

Education Futures:

In 2001 you hosted and co-produced the Frontline documentary “The Merchants of Cool.” The film describes the techniques used by corporations like MTV to research and sell products and lifestyles to young adults. You close the film by saying, “So is there anywhere the commercial machine won’t go? Is it leaving any room for kids to create a culture of their own? And what if they turn and fight? The battle itself is sponsored and packaged and sold right back to them.” In 2013 what is the status of “The Merchants of Cool,” and young adult’s ability to fight back?

Douglas Rushkoff:

I guess “The Merchants of Cool” are here and are bigger and better than ever. Instead of watching kids, “The Merchants of Cool” at that time were sending out little spys and scouts and kids with Polaroid cameras and video cameras to really try to record youth culture and then feed it back to itself putting the things that they found into ads and TV shows you kind of sell kids back to themselves. There was this feedback loop between the trend hunters, the cool hunters, and the kids. And now kids through social media they deliver themselves directly to the marketer. You know the marketer doesn’t need to observe them, the kids are already posting everything up there, so where in the old days, the quaint days of 2001 the marketer would have to go into the kid’s bedroom and to see what posters he’s put up on his wall and how and photograph them. Now the kid is putting these things right up on their Facebook wall so they are broadcasting everything their new form of cultural expression. And when you can see what works and what doesn’t by how many “likes” that thing is getting. It’s funny I’m just starting on an update to “The Merchants of Cool” and I’m calling it “Generation Like,” and the idea is that kids are living in a world where their own self expression now is what they like. It’s all relative in the sense that they are what they like and what they like matters to them really almost exclusively for the power it has to get them “liked” themselves. It has sort of moved into a hyper version of its former quaint self. And there’s just as many millions of dollars going into it, but now it more into the big data analysis of every key stroke that these kids make in order to predict where they are going and what they are going to be doing next.

Education Futures:

In Chapter 1 you discuss the collapse of narrative. It got me thinking about the American Dream the idea that you work hard, you play by the rules, you go to college and this is the gateway to the middle class. What does Present Shock have to say about our classical notions of the American Dream?

Douglas Rushkoff:

The American Dream is kinda over. I don’t mean that as a bad thing, I think largely it’s a good thing. We are no longer Great Gatsby staring at the green light trying to attain the unattainable. The American Dream, while on the one hand it was great for motivating the progress of the 20th century and building factories and getting us all to do lots of stuff, it was false. We are there, and we don’t have pension funds, we don’t have 401K plans, we don’t have the stock market that is going to grow infinitely into the future, we don’t have new territories to expand to, we don’t have new conquests to make. We are in a different time of a world now where we understand that growth is the Booby prize, growth is a requirement of central capital that’s lent out at interest that needs to be paid back, growth is not necessarily a sign of health. New housing starts are good for the economy the way we currently have it configured, but they are not good for the environment, and we already have more than enough houses, we need new housing starts the way we get them is by tearing down other houses that we don’t let people live in because they don’t have jobs which we can’t find for them to do because we already have more than enough stuff. On the one hand, the idea of education as a way, I’m going to do this so I can follow on this path and get this job and do that thing, that doesn’t make so much sense anymore. Because it’s false, and it’s kind of a lie and a lot of people who have gone through the whole college thing and ended up $300K in debt and without a job, or a way to pay it back, or a way to go into bankruptcy even, they understand that full well. I think what that does though is that it changes the nature of education towards something that is really frightening for educators but is, what is it about right now. Am I learning? Am I enriching myself? Am I becoming a smarter more innovative human being. That’s what’s going to serve you in the real job market of tomorrow. By the time the corporation has told the city college what skills it wants from its future workers you are going to graduate and those skills will have changed anyway. You are going to have a bunch of people coming out of college who know how to use the Excel spreadsheet when the company has moved on to Oracle something-or-other. It doesn’t really work that way. The only way to educate yourself in this world, in a world that is gonna be more and more about freelancing is to actually acquire the skill of skills acquisition, to learn how to think critically about the world and digital media environments that you are spending all this time in. So it’s a much deeper kind of a learning in some sense. It’s more Liberal Arts not less.

Education Futures:

Douglas, you mentioned student loan debt briefly earlier. Current estimates suggest that American students currently have somewhere between $900 billion and $1 trillion in outstanding student loans. Given that tremendous burden placed on the next generation, what are your thoughts on the cost of college, and our process of paying for it through private and federal loans?

Douglas Rushkoff:

It’s very tempting for people to say look, why do college when I can go do whatever, one of these Coursera kinda things for free. And I can just get the course and do it. On one level it’s a healthy challenge to the university’s that are costing $50K, $60K a year for what? I mean I totally get that. The real reason why university educations are supposed to cost a lot, or why they do cost a lot, is that your money is not just supporting what you are learning, it’s supposed to be supporting the research. You know you are coming to a research institution, they are doing Tier-1 research and they are using some of your money to do that. It’s hard to justify, right, because the direction we have to go in, is to really bifurcate or divide the skills acquisition nature of education from the deep nature of education. Skills acquisition, if you want to learn code or something, you can learn that on Codecademy for free right now. I’m an advisor there, it’s a great program, it’s absolutely free and you can go pretty darn deep into it, you know as much as any regular person can handle. You know, if you are then going to become a computer scientist then you might want to go to a real school for computer science and actually go into that. But we can in some sense free up the university from that basic skills creation. You know turn it into less of a consumer zone, of aww I’m going to go and get these skills and go get that job. That’s not what that’s for, that’s trade school. Or that’s what those Barrons books are for in the Barnes & Noble. You can really self-educate basic skills like that, or apprenticeship, with an electrician or someone else, or the way they train policemen, that’s not a college education, that’s something else. And it would free up these institutions for people who want to get that. It’s more, at that point, I’m sorry to say it’s either it’s going to be a luxury or it’s going to be something that is publicly paid for. I’m looking at teaching at the university now and I’m having a hard time as a I guess a Leftist and an Occupier. I’m having a hard time justifying going to some $50K liberal arts college and teaching the wealthy or the indebted. Where I can go to hopefully Queens College or City College, kids, I mean men or woman are spending $5K or $6K a year to go to a Tier-1 university. At that point how can I justify the expense. The research is being paid for by, or should be by corporations or governments anyway so I just have a hard time asking for that much money from people.

Education Futures:

I’m glad you brought up Codecademy. What have you learned so far from working on the project?

Douglas Rushkoff:

Well the biggie that people aren’t getting yet, because I’m reading like Tom Friedman and all these folks in The Times and they are writing about MOOCs, and I guess Codecademy counts as a MOOC to some extent, but Codecademy only teaches code. They are not trying to teach philosophy, you know, to teach the Socratic method online seems really sad when folks like Aristotle and Socrates were talking about how you have to be in person, conspiring with people, literally breathing with a small group of people in a room in order to get anything so I feel like it’s a site specific education place. It’s really cool for teaching code. It’s a great environment to teach code, better than a seminar room but it’s not a great environment to do a seminar I think. It’s a substitute for it. Just as it’s not a great environment to do Sabbath, or fellowship. I wouldn’t want to go to an online AA meeting. I think you got to be in the room with the people. A seminar is more like an AA meeting than it is like a lot of things, in some sense. The other big thing I’ve discovered is that the thing that being disintermediated is not the student to the teacher. It’s not like, they think that what’s happening is that we’re getting the curriculum out of the way so now students can get right to the teacher directly through all this stuff, through the Internet rather than having to go through the university. And I don’t think that’s it, I think the real possibility here is not for students-to-teacher learning to have a new venue, but to see the birth of genuine peer-to-peer teaching and learning. You know what Codecademy is, is much less of a place where people have access to a teacher, they have access to one another. You know the curriculums are written by other members of the community, so you end up with communities of learning because the Internet is a peer-to-peer place. It’s not the place to do hierarchical learning which still needs a role. You know I want to go sit in a room with Stanley Fish, you know and find out about how poetry works or how reception theory works, or someone wants to sit with me and really understand the biases of media, that’s something that happens in a room. And yes, in a lecture, which should not go out, in a seminar, in a preceptorial, that’s what those forms do and just because we have a new technology through which to disseminate information, doesn’t, and which through which to forge community, doesn’t mean it replaces every other form of human contact.

Education Futures:

In 2011 you published “Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age.” Two years later have you thought of any additional commands or revisions to your previous ten?

Douglas Rushkoff:

The big idea I want people to get from that, you know beyond the individual commands which are kind of convenient ways of talking about the biases of digital media, I want people to get that they are in command. It’s just that digital media, the word digit even goes back to the fingers, you know these are digital media, they’re media that you can kind of use with your hands, you are not just sitting with your eyes watching something like TV or some other pre-digital media, these are media through which you make things. Some of the biases I didn’t discuss because I didn’t want the book to be all Marxist, is that this is really bias to production more than consumption. The iPad maybe is biased towards consumption, the iPhone, that the newer tools without keyboards are really turning much more into viewing screens, entertainment devices, easy ways to buy things, and to stream media. But they are not these great tools of production like computers are. It’s exciting to me that there are these machines with keyboards, and printers, and uploading speeds in everybody’s homes. This is the way we can make stuff and trade stuff. So this technology is biased towards transaction, towards real people transacting, creating value, and exchanging that value with one another. And I feel like companies are intentionally repressing that bias of this media because it’s so destabilizing to the kinds of companies that really depend on us being consumers and not producers.

Education Futures:

I’m interested in your thoughts on the future of human and technological evolution. In chapter 5 called Apocalypto you discuss your skepticism of the concept of The Singularity. What is your biggest critique of The Singularity?

Douglas Rushkoff:

My biggest critique of The Singularity is that it’s just not true. Some of the best minds of my generation, or I guess the generation older, that slightly older cyber theorist type people, the technology theorists, they seem to have to look at this as a story. They can’t understand that technology is just here, it’s just now, it’s just what’s happening. It doesn’t necessarily have to be going somewhere. There inability to contend with a presentist world, where the world is actually happening now has led them to take the old Christian apocalyptic overlay and stick it on top of this presentist timeline. It’s going somewhere, so where is it going? Well it depends on what technology wants. They are humanizing this while they are dehumanizing us saying OK, technology is on this inevitable quest towards great states of complexity, and once it’s more complex than we are humans beings no longer really have a role. We can sort of retreat and recede into the background and let technology achieve consciousness and continue on without us. And the narrative that they are painting, the story that they are writing to try and understand what’s going on, because they’d rather have a bad story that deal with the existential quandary of real life. Their story is that information has been evolving towards greater states of complexity since the beginning of time and that human beings are just one stage in information’s inevitable journey towards higher states of complexity than we could even imagine. And to me that really has the medium and the message reversed. I don’t think information even exists without a human mind to understand it, to process it, to give it meaning. Without us it’s not information any more, it’s just is, it’s just there. So I’m trying to debunk The Singularity, and to debunk the apocalypse because it has become much easier to imagine a zombie apocalypse than it is to imagine next year. That’s troubling to me, and it’s really because we haven’t yet embraced the present. We’re finding difficult to do it without losing our sense of place, without losing our sense of meaning. And there’s other ways to find meaning, to find your place. Just begin doing pattern recognition to begin understanding the never-ending game of life, or life as an infinite game, rather than as a game that you have to win, declare victory, then see who is saved and who is damned, that you can go on, rather than worry all the time about where is this going. And that’s the real challenge of Present Shock.

Education Futures:

What are your thoughts on the future of work? Throughout Present Shock you wrestle with the challenges of our global economy. What knowledge, skill, and abilities do you think people need to be cultivated to be successful?

Douglas Rushkoff:

I mean on the one hand if we do this right, people are going to have to work a whole lot less than they did before. I’m really of the belief that we’ve gotten really good at providing goods and services for pretty much everybody who wants them. The real jobs problem that we are having today is not that we need more people to make more stuff, it’s that we need people to have jobs so that we can justify giving the stuff that we already have in abundance. There’s more than enough houses, there’s more than enough food. We are destroying houses in California as I speak. We are burning food every week to keep market prices high. So it’s not a matter of that, it’s a matter now I think of people looking at how they can contribute to really making the world a better place towards, how do I help? Look at the areas where there is real crisis, whether it’s sustainable energy, global warming, the alarming rate of kids being born with Autism and Spectrum Disorders who are going to need care takers of one sort or another. There’s so many real challenges coming up other than, how am I going to increase housing starts, or create more mortgages, or do all of these kinds of fake things. Because the fake things are going to become less and less relevant, more and more of those people are going to get laid off as the corporations that are really running on fumes lose the ability to do so. And our ability to participate not just in that big economy, but in the local economy of real goods and services, the value that you are actually able to create for other people where you live, or through the Net is going to become a much more, I hate to use a word like this but a much more marketable skill than the kinds of things that you think of currently as careers.

Redesigning the future of education in Knowmad Society: Our next steps

In case if you missed my keynote at IPON, I’m sharing slides from my talk via SlideShare:

IPON is moving away from serving as an ICT platform for education toward a platform for innovation in education. This requires a very human touch, and I aimed to reflect this aspect in my talk with an overview of Knowmad Society.

How we’ll get to the meaningful development of workers who can work anytime, anywhere, and with anybody in a knowmadic world requires significant realignment of our educational priorities. At IPON, I shared three approaches:

  1. Focus on soft skills development.In our book, Invisible Learning, Cristóbal Cobo and I explored the important roles of informal and soft skills learning — many of which contribute to elements of success in modern organizations or entrepreneurial activities. These include leadership, responsibility, managing chaos and uncertainty, and maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships. And, these are very hard for formal schools to teach if we keep on focusing on hard skills development and curricula designed to meet the needs of a society where change occurs slowly. In today’s world, change is occurring so rapidly, that the hard skills students develop may be obsolete by the time they graduate. With an appropriate mix of soft skills, they might have a better job at surviving a job interview.
  2. Attend to the creation of new ecologies of learning. This requires taking risk. We are so adverse to risk in education, that we rarely try anything new. As a result, we are at risk of failing universally. It’s time to expand the ecology of learning formats and intended outcomes, allowing learners and communities to find their own way, and develop their own pathways to success.
  3. Reinvent our relationships with technologies. Too often, schools behave as consumers of technologies, buying into ideas and practices developed by others. This is a block to innovation, and, as a result, we tend to use new technologies to do the same old stuff. It’s time for schools to rethink their relationships with technologies, and to consider designing solutions that are meaningful for them as prosumers, if not as outright full producers.

Above all, to make all of this happen, we need vision. To me, it seems we have a global crisis. We don’t know where we want to go. Our vision for the future isn’t as clear as it used to be.

Some people say we need a revolution. Others say we need to innovate. We need both. Or, as Ronald van den Hoff puts it in Knowmad Society: We need an INNOVUTION.

The university of the future: Marching toward obsolescence?

A couple weeks ago, Carlos Scolari interviewed me for a project on pedagogical innovation and disruptive practices in higher education at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Barcelona). The aim of the project is to produce a document on the “university of the future,” including diagnosis, trends, and proposals for moving forward.

With his permission, I am sharing my responses to his questions:

CS: How do you see the situation of the universities from a pedagogical point view? I’m thinking in the situation of teaching-learning processes inside these big institutions.

JM: From a pedagogical viewpoint, universities have invested too much in a monocultural approach to education. Most universities are using the same methods to teach all the same stuff. This is very dangerous as the world is changing so quickly that entire fields and bodies of knowledge risk being outdated/outmoded very quickly.

I believe that we need to start to expand the ecology of options that we have in higher education, including pedagogical approaches. Otherwise, we run the risk of failing universally.

CS: Why do you think it’s so difficult to change the teaching-learning practices in the universities?

JM: I think change is difficult within universities because we rely heavily on academic “traditions” that are built on faulty assumptions of teaching and learning. Some of most troubling assumptions (which are not based on science) include:

  • Motivation: We assume students must be externally motivated to learn, otherwise they would not learn anything. This is akin to assuming the natural state of humans is laziness and non-curious.
  • Age segregation: We assume people learn best when segregated by age or ability. We tend to compartmentalize education into certain discrete levels (i.e., primary, secondary, and tertiary education), and further segregate students by age. There is very little reason to support this practice, and evidence suggests that cross age/ability integration enhances students’ learning.
  • Power structures: We assume that the only “qualified” knowledge generators are the teachers at the head of the classroom, who download knowledge into students’ heads. In today’s world where the magnitude of change is accelerating at an exponential pace, information and knowledge is always in flux. Rather than relying on static “experts,” we need to start recognizing and attending to new power structures where we all serve as co-learners and co-teachers.

The good news is that “traditions” are things that we invent all the time. I am optimistic that we can create new traditions that are relevant to modern society.

CS: How can we improve the teaching-learning processes in the universities?

JM: I think we should look at new uses for software and social technologies to enable all participants at universities to become life-long co-teachers as well as co-learners. This means that students (and teachers) need to stop behaving as consumers of education, but become creators, producers, and prosumers. At the same time, learning needs to become more immersive and personally-meaningful (subjective experiences) to each learner. This means that we are likely to not have one master narrative for learning at universities, but we may have many different ones, enabling students and faculty to express themselves as postdisciplinary knowledge experts (possessing unique knowledge at the individual level).

CS: Could you please indicate three (3) innovative/disruptive teaching-learning experiences? They could be single practices (i.e. flip teaching) or institutional ones (i.e. Coursera).


  1. Democratic education: Educational institutions tend to run as dictatorships, and are structured to preserve themselves. By horizontalizing our relationships, and making sure to give each stakeholder an equal voice, we could see significant, positive disruption as students and faculty become co-responsible for attending to all aspects of the educational experience.
  2. Quest-based learning: Thieu Besselink wrote an excellent chapter on this in Knowmad Society:
  3. Co-teaching: This is best expressed by what E-180 and the Shibuya University Network already engage in.

CS: How do you imagine the university of the future? Please indicate three (3) characteristics.

JM: This question is perhaps faulty in that it assumes that we will have universities in the future. Maybe you should start with the question: Does the future need universities?

Let’s assume that the future does need universities. In that case, I envision near-future institutions will operate in an environment where…

  1. Any form of information delivery that can be commodified, will be. We see this today with the emergence of MOOCs, Udemy, Coursera, etc. Any non-unique content delivery (especially through download-style pedagogies) will be provided through these platforms, and through a small group of providers. This is particularly threatening to junior colleges, general education courses at mainstream universities, and perhaps also to secondary education.
  2. The gap between top tier schools and everybody else will widen. The top schools may not have superior educational offerings, but they have powerful brands. Why pay to take a course at the University of Minnesota when you can participate in a free, online experience that is affiliated with a top school, such as Stanford or MIT? My take is that the top-tier schools with powerful brand identities will “own” higher education; and, in many respects, other universities will become subscribers to their products and services.
  3. Smaller, “boutique” programs outside the formal, accredited system will boom in presence and market share. Small, but highly specialized, programs such as KaosPilots, Knowmads, YIP, Hyper Island, and the Shibuya University Network operate outside of formal education, and have each developed their own approaches to teaching and learning. In an era where mainstream society are beginning to question the value of a university degree, these programs offer alternatives, and employers will become much, much more receptive to the “graduates” of these alternative education/credentialing programs.

I think that, apart from the very few elite institutions, universities are marching themselves toward obsolescence, and they may be the last to figure it out. Remember, as Anya Kamentz pointed out in her interview at Education Futures, the Roman Senate continued to meet for several centuries after the collapse of the empire.

We need to challenge our basic assumptions of motivation in schools

Marcel Kampman (who is busy work on a brilliant design for the print edition of Knowmad Society) forwarded this KQED/MindShift article on Dan Pink’s approach to selling love of learning to students.

Having just awoken, I fired off a quick response from my iPad:

Why do we keep thinking that motivation needs to be driven externally? If we don’t tell kids what to learn, they won’t learn anything?

And, Marcel immediately sent a much more brilliant reaction:

I agree.

Intrinsic motivation by curiosity – and doing things fearlessly, bu,t of course, not unafraid, wanting to find out how things work, go, etc. has always been my motor that brought me to places I have never been before. External factors influenced my path of course, like walls I bump into, and then continue another way with even more energy than before the hit. A bit like Pong, but with the difference knowing that there is always a second or a third wall that bounces you back, unlike the game where you can miss and die. Reality always has a safety net you only learn to know about when you sometimes miss the the first wall, either by accident or choice. When you’re little you never think about “failing.” Failing is succeeding – you win that you learn. When you’ve grown up, you have learned that succeeding = “not failing,” and with that you learn nothing. Then, repetition = success, not trying something new, but something known = success. Best practises dictate everything and do not allow for new practices that require risk and the willingness to fail. Same is boring. New is energy. The thrill of jumping off a cliff by deciding to do so yourself is a high you will never have when someone will push you of the cliff. Then, you never have the same conscious experience — you’re just making sure you survive and land safely.

Should it be any surprise then that the vast majority of what we learn comes from outside formal schooling experiences?

Learning in Knowmad Society: Making invisible learning visible

Preface: Today, the Waag Society (institute for art, science and technology) released a new publication, Spelen leren, lerend spelen (“Playing games, learning games”). I have a short article article in the magazine, which was published in Dutch. Here’s an English translation:

In 1980, Seymour Papert predicted that computers would fundamentally transform education –and ultimately make schools, themselves, redundant. 30 years later, computers in schools are the norm, but we are still teaching the old way. Why?

In education, we have a hard time disentangling technologies from our conversations about innovations in learning. Too often, we place technologies in the forefront, which end up obscuring authentic knowledge formation. We often take the best technologies and squander the opportunities they afford us. Our knowledge-based societies demand a deeper change in our culture of teaching, and, particularly, in the ways in which we learn (and unlearn).

Moreover: The impacts of accelerating technological and social changes on education are enormous. Today’s stakeholders in our youths’ future must prepare them for futures that none of us can even dream are possible. We need to rethink and explore all the “invisible” (non-formal, non-certified, but equally relevant) ways of learning in a world where personal knowledge development, comprised of both tacit and explicit elements, is rapidly becoming more valuable than commodified, industrial-style information delivery. How can we create innovators, capable of leveraging their unique imaginations and creativity?

In the Invisible Learning project, we sought to research and share experiences and innovative perspectives, focused on rethinking strategies and innovative approaches to learn and unlearn continuously. We highlighted the importance of critical thinking of the roles of formal, informal, non-formal and serendipitous education at all levels – which can contribute to the creation of sustainable processes of learning, innovating and designing new cultures for a global society.

In the Invisible Learning paradigm, “just in case,” rote memorization is replaced with learning that is intended to be personally meaningful for all participants in the learning experience. Moreover, the application of knowledge toward innovative problem solving takes primacy over the regurgitation of previous knowledge or so-called “facts.”

Education in the Invisible Learning paradigm enables students to act on their knowledge, applying what they know to solve problems – including problems that have not been solved before. This contextual, purposive application of personal knowledge to create innovative solutions negates the value of non-innovation-producing regimes (i.e., standardized testing).

The purposive application of technologies can help. Our questions around educational improvement should therefore not be around what to learn, but rather about how we can learn. And, how we can make what we learned invisibly visible.

Hartkamp: "Children are like slaves of the modern age"


Editor’s note: This provocative commentary originally appeared in Heb jij iets geleerd vandaag? – Een Sudbury school perspectief op leren, a blog by Sudbury schools in the Netherlands. We present it translated into English from the original Dutch, and with updates by the original author.

Children: Like slaves in the modern age

by Dr. Christel Hartkamp, staff member at De Kampanje Sudbury school in The Netherlands

Foreword: In the Netherlands, by law, all children must attend a by state approved school in the ages between 5 and 18. Home schooling is not allowed. Parents, who keep their children home, are criminally accused. During the trial of the Dutch Sudbury schools (private schools), the verdict of the Council of state that Sudbury schools are no schools, makes clear that there is no Freedom of Education in the Netherlands, and that there is one vision on education prevailing: The State-Pedagogy. Parents from the Sudbury schools now face criminal prosecution. With this background, the following article was written. Note that: “I do not have the intention to hurt or being rude to a particular cultural, political or religious group or people in general, in using the word ‘slave’.”

Slavery in the modern Western world has long been abolished. A slave, as I want to refer to in this article, is “a person who is forced to work for another against his will” (World English Dictionary).

A girl of 8 years old in our Sudbury school replied lately to the question what the difference was between her previous traditional school and our Sudbury school: “At my previous school, I felt like a slave. Here I feel free. I feel like a lion that has broken loose.”

My opinion is that children are treated like slaves in our modern times. And very subtle, this form of slavery is unfolding before our eyes, but nobody sees it. Even parents don’t recognize that their children are being enslaved by the state education system.

The Netherlands has an estimated 2.5 million children of school age, who are forced every day to go to school where they are required to work. All this we accept because we are told that it is for their own good, and then it is apparently not so bad.

Some of the reasons I heard for forcing a child into this situation are that they have to get used to accept some sort of labor later in life (conformism). But one forgets that as an adult, you have the choice to stay in a situation you don’t like, there is nobody forcing you from outside – it is truly your own choice. A child does not have the choice to leave school, it is forced to remain in a situation that is unnatural, it’s like being in prison. When the child gets sick of the situation and stays home, and as a result of stress and pressure, has become depressed, apathetic, tired of life: then the attendance officer of the municipality threatens with a big stick: with an order for truancy and / or with a complaint with Child Protective Services. A child (and often also the parents) are stuck, they are literally driven into a trap. This situation cannot be healthy in a “free democratic society”. Children are indeed not without reason sick from school; nature has ensured that certain defense mechanisms start to work when a person is placed in unnatural conditions of long lasting pressure or stress. It is a defense mechanism of the body and the mind.

There were two types of illnesses that manifested only in slaves: Drapetomanie (the tendency to flee) and Dysaethesia Aethiopica (a state of apathy, totally immune for impulses from outside).

Don’t we see the same diseases in our youth today? Is ADHD not a modern kind of Drapetomanie or Dysaethesia Aethiopica? Or what about Hikikimori, and what about demotivation, lack of concentration, apathy, ADD? I don’t want to say that these are equivalents to those diseases, but they might be equivalent in the effect of the circumstances children are facing today.

We were impressed when this student of 8 years said: “At my previous school, I felt like a slave. Here I feel free. I feel like a lion that is loose.” It was her first week in our school. After the weekend her mother told us, “I have my own daughter back again”. A Sudburyschool is a special place where children are regarded as full human beings, who are treated with respect and trust, and with the same rights as everyone else in the school. Several students have said: “There is no stress” and “Here you are not bullied.” The basis for a good development is a safe environment free from stress. An environment where you have influence in those things that are important to you. That is living in a direct democracy, living with your own choices, living with the consequences of your choices.

Any form of unsolicited or imposed interference, patronizing, guidance, assessment or observation is a violation of the right to individual freedom and make your own choices. The right to be treated as a fully-fledged human being. Children are not treated as slaves in a Sudbury school!

Notes and resources

‘School Is A Prison!’ – Psychologist Dr. Peter Gray Interviewed on Freedomain Radio:

Hikikomori (literally “pulling inward, being confined”, i.e., “acute social withdrawal”) is a Japanese term to refer to the phenomenon of reclusive adolescents or young adults who withdraw from social life, often seeking extreme degrees of isolation and confinement. In other countries there is another designation such as social phobia, avoidant personality disorder, autism spectrum disorder, agoraphobia, burnout or depression.

Review: Generation on a tightrope (by Arthur Levine and Diane R. Dean)

Book: Generation on a tightrope: A portrait of today’s college student
Author: Arthur Levine and Diane R. Dean
Publisher: Jossey-Bass (September 4, 2012)

If, as the saying goes, our understanding of the past is 20/20, capturing the zeitgeist of the present — and, in particular, of a group outside of your own — can be tricky. Arthur Levine and Diane Dean took on the challenge, and produced a vivid portrait in Generation on a tightrope: A portrait of today’s college student.

From the introduction:

Today’s undergraduates and students who attended college before them were optimistic about their personal futures, pessimistic about that nation’s future, committed to the American Dream, little involved in campus life, disenchanted with politics and government, more issue oriented than ideological, engaged in community service, utilitarian in their goals for college, weak in academic skills, beneficiaries of inflated grades, heavy users of psychological counseling services, consumer-oriented regarding higher education, and partial to sex and alcohol, among other things.

Levine and Dean engage in a discussion of findings gathered from a number of studies, including Dean’s ongoing Portrait of today’s college student study, and the book is intended to complement Levin’s studies on previous generations: When hope and fear collide (1998), and When dreams and heroes died (1980). Generation on a tightrope is based on new research of 5,000 college students and student affairs practitioners from 270 college campuses.

At first glance, the book appears to work with the familiar theme of generational attitudes toward the digitalization of society. Rather than emulating Marc Prensky’s binary perspective of youth and technology (digital immigrants vs. digital natives), however, Levine and Dean provide a much more credible viewpoint that the variables involved are numerous and sometimes contradictory. Moreover, they recognize that tremendous socioeconomic change is still underway. This provides for a more fluid interpretation of the present that is informed by its past, tries to understand itself today, and looks toward the future.

By looking at strengths and challenges within the current generation of college students, the authors take a pragmatic view that they should be undervalued compared to previous generations, but rather:

[…] this generation requires a different brand of education that will enable them to attain their personal dreams and to serve the society they must lead. The education we offered to previous generations, whether successful or not, will not work for these students. (Chapter 8)

Will universities take on the challenge?

The bottom line: Generation on a tightrope provides a snapshot of the present that is informed by our past. The strength of the book is reflected in the depth of discussion of many dimensions shared by today’s college students. The resultant snapshot should be used to inform university administrators, policy makers, parents, and students as they build universities that are relevant for the future.

Note: The publisher provided a copy of the book for review. Please read our review policy for more details on how we review products and services.

The Singularity and schools: An interview with Vernor Vinge

Note: An mp3 of this interview is available for download.

Last week, I spoke with Vernor Vinge [Wikipedia | website], a retired San Diego State University professor of mathematics. He is better known as a five-time Hugo Award-winning science fiction author. His works include True Names, Fast Times at Fairmont High, and Rainbows End. Most importantly, his 1993 essay “The Coming Technological Singularity,” argues that accelerating technological change will bring about the end of the human era as we know it, and that the world will become so complex and foreign to human observers, it will be impossible to predict what will happen next.

Ray Kurzweil and others have since contributed to the popularization of the Singularity, but the conversation has been centered on technological determinism. In a world that is consumed by accelerating change, what are the implications for systems that are at risk of being outpaced — namely, human systems? And, what are the implications for how we will learn and work in the near future?


I got this sort of vision where the human workplace is scattered in both space and time, and for a single career, it’s not a merely a matter of changing your career every couple years, it’s a matter of actually changing your point of attention on smaller time scales.

What can science fiction tell us about our future?

According to Vinge, a lot. He helped introduce the cyberpunk genre in the early with his 1981 Novel, true Names. He says, “the technological situation we have now is very similar to what was described in True Names, which actually was implicitly targeted in the year 2014,” but much of that can be attributed to pure luck.

The future authors of the genre have envisioned, he argues, has emerged today as a mix of expected and unexpected dystopian and hopeful elements. Society of today, he believes, has not changed much since the early 1980s. Corporate dominance in government, for example, is still at the same level as it was before, and our views on technology shifted since 1984:

Before the year 1984, people generally looked at computers the way George Orwell did in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. After 1984, people had these great visions of computers freeing the people from tyrannies, and that is still a real possibility… and it is a possibility that has come true in large parts of the world. But, I would say the jury is still out as to what the ultimate effectiveness of computers and communication automation favors tyranny or favors liberty. I’m putting my bets on liberty, but I would say it’s not an obvious win in either direction.

It’s been nearly 20 years since the Singularity was introduced at the NASA VISION-21 Symposium. What’s changed?

I’m still where I was in my 1993 essay that I gave at a NASA meeting, and that is that I define the Technological Singularity as being our developing, through technology, superhuman intelligence — or becoming, ourselves, superhuman intelligent through technology. And, I think calling that the Singularity is actually a very good term in the sense of vast and unknowable change. A qualitatively different sort of change than technological progress in the past.

He still believes four pathways could lead to the development of the Singularity by 2030:

  1. The development of computers that are “awake” and superhumanly intelligent.
  2. Large computer networks (and their associated users) may “wake up” as a superhumanly intelligent entity.
  3. Computer/human interfaces may become so intimate that users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent.
  4. Biological science may find ways to improve upon the natural human intellect.

When asked which one is more likely, he hinted that he sees a digital Gaia of networks plus people emerging:

The networked sum of all the embedded microprocessors in all our devices becomes a kind of digital Gaia. That qualifies, as an ensemble, as a superhuman entity. That is probably the weirdest of all possibilities because, if anything, it looks like animism. And, sometimes I point to it when I want to make the issue that this can be very strange. I think that actually the networking of embedded microprocessors is going like gangbusters. The network that is the Internet plus humanity, that is also going with extraordinarily surprises, if you just look at the successes in the various schemes that go by names like crowdsourcing. To me, those have been astounding, and should give people real pause with how to use the intellectual resources actually that we have out there. So far, we do not have a single computer that is really of human-level intelligence, and I think that is going to happen. But, it is a kind of an amazing thing that we have an installed base of seven billion of these devices out there.

What does this mean for schools?

Vinge believes talking about post-Singularity situations in education are impractical. In theory, is impossible for us to predict or comprehend what will happen, so we should not focus our attention on worrying about post-Singularity futures. Rather, we should focus on the ramp-up toward the Singularity, our unique talents, and how we can network together to utilize them in imaginative ways:

Talking about the run-up to the Singularity makes sense for several different reasons. One is, we have to get through it. The other is that it is our opportunity, as the chief players… it’s our opportunity to make things turn out safely and happily. In the meantime, at just the level of just getting one’s job done, I think there are real changes that are going to be happening in education and more broadly in training issues. I think one thing that is going to become more-and-more evident is the fact that we have seven billion people out there who are variously good … very good … at different things. And, there are ways of enhancing and amplifying that by collaboration. And, when I say “collaboration” […] it is a very good thing. But, if you look at some of the group mind projects and crowdsourcing projects, there is very great imagination that can be exercised in making collaboration effective. One thing is to interface people who have very different skills — that can actually be helped a lot by the network.

When dealing with unknown futures, it remains unknown how to prepare people best for these futures. He states that the best pathway involves teaching children “to learn how to learn” (a key theme in Fast Times at Fairmont High), and that we need to encourage the development of positive futures by attending to diversity in our learning systems. We need to not facilitate the formation of diverse students, but we also need to abandon a monoculture approach to education and attend to a diverse ecology of options in teaching and evaluation.

Most importantly, to meet the individual needs of students, he believes, we need to focus on “shifting the emphasis from intense attention to process and having the process of the teaching right … shifting that attention to having independent rating agencies that are not so much interested in process as they are in giving reliable rating information to people who have to judge the results of the money that is being spent on the education.”

Teacher 3.0: Sharing, creating, and connecting knowledge

In this year’s issue of Villa Onderwijs by APS, Erno Mijland and Rob Mioch present their views of what “Teacher 3.0” might look like (extended from the 3.0 paradigm shared at Education Futures previously). With the authors’ permission, we provide their translation of the original Dutch text into English.

Teacher 3.0

Authors: Erno Mijland and Rob Mioch

Share knowledge, create and connect

Teaching is one of the finest professions you can find. Teachers play a crucial part in preparing new generations for the future. Never before has there been so much uncertainty about what that future will look like.

An invitation to the dialogue about the consequences of these developments for the role of the teacher.

Moores law isn’t just about transistors anymore. The developments in scientifical research, the introduction of new technologies and the expansion of new ideas is going increasingly faster. Digitisation, globalisation, new knowledge about the working of the brain… all matters that run deep into the way we live, learn and work together. Also, the appeal to take responsibility for sustainable development and the reinforcement of our society, accentuate the central role that education has in equipping young people. Professional competences are currently recalibrated.


In this theoretical experiment, we combine several inspiring angles. Following the linear way of thinking, we could have chosen for 2.0. However, that might give the impression of a ‘next version’, an upgrade of the former version like we know from the world of technology.

3.0 focuses on the very core of the profession of teaching in the first part of the 21st century. With this magazine ‘Villa Onderwijs’ (trans.: Villa Education) we would like to give individual teachers and teams at schools the opportunity to engage in conversation about this topic.

Where we refer to the teacher as “he”, we also mean to include the female teacher.

1. The teacher 3.0 has an eye for the future

Children will have to find a place for themselves in a society with increasing risks and uncertainties. The teacher 3.0 will go into trends and scenarios and will weigh the consequences. In case it is relevant, he will make a translation of his findings to knowledge and skills in his professional area and the world of professions for which he prepares his students.

2. The teacher 3.0 offers students a home base

The teacher 3.0 views the school as a society that connects with the surrounding world. He teaches his students to take responsibility for their own lives and the environment they are part of. He teaches them a flexible attitude. That way, he gives shape to the ambition to create – through education – an environment fit to live in.

3. The teacher 3.0 establishes dialogue

Children of today have access to the same sources as their teachers do. Apparently professional knowledge is significant but above all, the teacher 3.0 makes his students go through the experience of learning from each other. The traditional division of roles (the omniscient teacher vs the unlearned student) is no longer relevant. He will initiate the dialogue with his students. Pedagogic skills will be an important tool for the teacher. He will learn more about the experience, the way of thinking and the behaviour of young people. Conversation with colleagues, parents and the world around him, will give him access to a diversity of information, inspiration and ideas.

4. The teacher 3.0 is a catalyst for student talents

Students live in a competitive society. There seem to be plenty of opportunities but there is a risk of ‘unwanted inequality’. The teacher 3.0 will look for possibilities to bring all children to great achievements. He pays attention to the complete child and its total development. He views the intrinsic motivation of the child as the base of his guidance. By working together with his collueges and his peer, he will be able to adjust his actions in order to match the abilities of the students.

5. The teacher 3.0 explores

Through his exploring attitude, the teacher 3.0 tries to get a grip on the unsteady reality around him. Where ever needed and if possible with the help of others, he will search for creative solutions for the – occasionally tough – everyday practice. He will continually work on the effectiveness and efficiency of his teaching. He is not afraid to experiment with innovative methods, technologies and different sources. He will connect these experiments to practice-based research. He will translate the findings of this research to distinct improvements which will be tested and evaluated.

6. The teacher 3.0 is a role model for ‘life long learning’

The half-life of knowledge becomes increasingly short. Knowledge and learning is more and more about the ability to find solutions for new issues. That’s why the teacher 3.0 will have to actively keep learning. This will partly be done in a self-taught manner. It is easy to have access to countless high quality sources through the internet. The teacher 3.0 studies, reflects and arranges to get feedback on his work, for instance through supervision and group intervision. He will remain working on his personal development in a self-steering and enterprising manner. This way he can excel in view of his own professional career, but also for the benefit of his students and the organization he works for. This also makes him a role model for his students.

7. The teacher 3.0 is not afraid to share ánd to ask

Developments go fast. It is impossible to do and to invent everything by yourself and to keep up with everything. That is why the teacher 3.0 actively uses his network where he can ask questions, shares his knowledge and contributes to joint projects. The present times offer unprecedented opportunities to make our knowledge and ideas accessible, for instance through networks and the Internet. Where ever relevant, the teacher 3.0 will contribute to joint products for education. This makes him an active member of a co-creating society. That is the power of being connected.

8. The teacher 3.0 uses technology based on his vision on learning

New technologies and media (like digital black boards, games and social media) offer a lot of learning facilities. However, the teacher 3.0 will not be directed by hypes. With his vision on learning as a starting point, he will critically assess the possibilities and will creatively translate them to the goals he wants to achieve with his teaching. When ever technology doesn’t actually add anything valuable, he is not afraid to say “no” to it. This will not always be easy, because you cannot always know in advance what it is exactly that you are turning down. To make conscious, deliberate choices may well be one of the most important new competences of today’s teacher.

9. The teacher 3.0 works smartly

Technology should make your job easier. The teacher 3.0 uses opportunities to computerize his tasks in order to be able to spend as much time as possible on activities that really matter: direct contact with students. Whenever possible he will use digital testing methods or video recordings of his lessons as a reference work for his students.

10. The teacher 3.0 focuses on his passion and his talent

The life of a teacher 3.0 uses up a lot of energy. There is so much to keep up with, to think about, to try out… and you are never done. Never done? You can only keep that up when you are motivated by passion. The teacher 3.0 is genuine and credible, an important criterion for working with today’s students. He realises that external influences may constantly distract him from his passion. For instance by new regulations, protocols, shifting in activities. Sometimes he will have to stand up for himself and set limits. He will look for the meaning of his work, and will question himself about his true motive. He is aware of which activities he truly enjoys. He finds happiness in his work, in working with students and collueges and in sharing his passion with his peer.

11. The teacher 3.0 is not afraid to be unique

In every school there is a need for wide oriented specialists, ánd specialized generalists. The teacher 3.0 views his profile as a capital T: imagine the specialism to be the vertical line going into the deep and the horizontal line being the widening. The teacher takes authority from his specialism, his expertise. One can get unique, profound knowledge from him. He will think cross curricular. He knows how to make the wide connection between his expertise and the developments in his environment. With his ‘T-profile’ he will contribute to his school in a unique way.

12. The teacher 3.0 takes pride in his profession

As a teacher, you may sometimes feel like a drop in the ocean. But even Einstein, Gandhi and Picasso at one time started out as little boys at a random school, somewhere in this world. Society can have high expectations of education. It is time to stop the blame and shame. The teacher 3.0 knows he makes a difference. He takes pride in his profession.

Erno Mijland is a journalist/writer, and trainer/speaker on learning and technology. Rob Mioch is managing director of professional education at APS national center for innovation and school improvement, the Netherlands.

Roger Schank on Invisible Learning: Real learning; real memory

With the free release of Invisible Learning (Aprendizaje Invisible), I am pleased to share the original English version of the epilogue, penned by Roger Schank.

The full Spanish-language text of Invisible Learning may be downloaded directly from

Epilogue: Real learning; Real memory

by Roger Schank

What do people need to learn and how can they learn it?

Every curriculum committee and every training organization has at one time or another convened a committee to answer this question. Their answers are always given in terms of telling about subjects: “more math,” “leadership,” “risk management,” “company policies.” But subject matter is far less important in learning than one might think.

Consider medicine. What should a doctor learn? Doctors take courses in anatomy and immunology and so on, and certainly we want any doctor who treats us to know about these things. But, what skill do we want him to have above all? We want a doctor to make a proper diagnosis of our problem.

Now consider a car mechanic. We want him to understand how an engine works and such. But what do we want him to know more than anything? We want a mechanic to make a proper diagnosis of our problem.

The same is true of business consultants, architects, financial planners, and most other professions. We want people who can do diagnosis. But, when do we teach diagnosis? Typically we teach it within the confines of a particular subject, way at the end, after all the theories and facts have been explained. This is exactly backwards.

What is harder to learn, proper diagnosis of an illness or the names and functions of all the body parts? Most anyone can learn body parts, but diagnosis is a seriously important skill. You would never choose a doctor based on their ability to name the body parts quickly.

But, if diagnosis is difficult to learn, that implies that one needs a lot of practice in doing it. And, if it is important to learn, that implies that one ought to be practicing it very early on in life.

Other critical skills include determining causation, making predictions, making plans, and conducting experiments.

How can we learn these skills?

People learn diagnosis by doing diagnosis. This means that learning occurs when people have to do diagnosis. They might have to do diagnosis in order to figure out why they are losing a video game or why they always eat too much. While diagnosis is, unfortunately, not a subject in school, it is a process that everyone practices. They practice it without help most of the time and unless they have a parent who can help they may well be lost and might not get better at it.

Consider experimentation. We think of this as being something scientists do, when in fact, two year olds do it constantly. They try out experiments about what is good to put in their mouths, what annoying behaviors they can get away with, and what happens when they smash a favorite toy.

When we assess someone’s intelligence we can forgive lack of subject matter knowledge much more easily than we can forgive lack of diagnostic ability. Here is a Sarah Palin supporter responding to a question about Palin’s foreign policy:

I don’t know much about her foreign policy but the state that she did govern was right across the street from Russia. You know so I’m not saying that she ever had to deal with Russia but I’m sure she had boundaries issues she had to deal with. We have boundary issues right now with Mexico now.

Clearly this man has no ability to make an effective diagnosis. He does not understand causation either. In short, he seems stupid not because he doesn’t know about Palin’s foreign policy, but because he has diagnosed “illegal immigration” as something one would certainly be an expert on if one had governed Alaska. The critical issue in learning is learning to think more clearly.

How can technology play a role in teaching diagnosis and in teaching thinking in general? Or, to put this another way, why is it that courses rarely work the way I am suggesting (diagnostic issue first, facts and theories later)?

When you teach a course in a classroom, it is not so easy to start with a diagnostic problem. Such problems require real thought, hard work, recovery from errant hypotheses, and mentoring focused on creating new ways of looking at a problem. In other words, teaching diagnosis is facilitated by one-on-one interactions between teacher and student. We can do this easily online (or at home with our children), but it is very hard to do in the classroom. One value of technology is to enable one-on-one teaching in a world where people can no longer afford personal tutors. And, of course, we can model physical situations virtually. These situations can be richly elaborated and allow for exploration and discovery. It is much better to diagnose a virtual patient (or a business or an electrical problem) than a real one.

To understand why learning needs to happen this way it is important to realize that all human beings have a dynamic memory, one that changes in response to new experiences. The popular conception of memory is a static one, more like a library in which what one puts in stays there unchanged until it is needed again. This popular conception of memory causes schools to try to pour in information and test to see if it is still there. And, it causes parents to worry if their child doesn’t seem very good at either acquiring information or retaining it.

Human beings do not have static memories. They can change their internal classification systems when their conception of something changes, or when their needs for retrieval changes. For the most part, such changes are not consciously made.

Despite constant changes in organization, people continue to be able to call up relevant memories without consciously considering where they have stored them. A dynamic memory is one that can change its own organization when new experiences demand it. A dynamic memory is by nature a learning system.

People use the knowledge structures created by this memory, the ways of organizing information into a coherent whole, in order to process what goes on around them. What knowledge structures does a child have and how do they acquire them? They have knowledge structures about their own worlds: what the people they know are likely to do, how the stores and parks around them function, and they ask questions endlessly to find out more.

Understanding how knowledge structures are acquired helps us understand what kinds of entities they are. A script is a simple knowledge structure that organizes knowledge we all know about event sequences in situations like restaurants, air travel, hotel check in, and so on. We know what to expect and interpret events in light of our expectations.

If something odd happens to us in a restaurant, how do we recall it later? We would recall it if we entered the same restaurant later on, or if we had the same waitress at a different restaurant, or if we ate with the same dinner companions (assuming we ate with them rarely.), or if the food was extraordinary, or if we got sick. An incident in memory is indexed in many ways. Those indices are about actions, results of actions, and lessons learned from actions.

People can also abstract up a level to organize information around plans and goals. To put this another way, if the waitress dumped spaghetti on the head of someone who offended her, you should get reminded of that event if you witness the SAME KIND OF EVENT another time. The question is, what does it mean to be the same kind of event? Whatever this means, it would mean different things to different people. One person might see it as an instance of “female rage” and another as an instance of “justifiable retribution.” Another might see it as a kind of art.

The key issue is to learn from it. Any learning that occurs involves placing the new memory in a location in memory whereby it adds to and expands upon what is already in that place. So, it might tell us more about that waitress, or waitresses in general, or women in general, or about that particular restaurant, and so on, depending upon what we previously believed to be true of all those things. New events modify existing beliefs by adding experiences to what we already know or by contradicting what we already know and forcing us to new conclusions. Either way, learning is more than simply adding new information.

A child’s mind is acquiring and abandoning scripts. A child is wired to create patterns by expecting something to happen after something else because that is the way it happened last time. A child is set up to make generalizations, have them fail because his expectations were not met, and then create a new generalization.

And then, there is school. No actual experiences, except those about school itself, are had. So a child easily learns how one is expected to behave in school and how school functions, but he may not want to behave that way or function in that way. Reading, writing, and arithmetic, actual skills, can be taught because they are the new experiences the child is wired to seek. But other subjects, ones that are not themselves experiences, i.e., scripts that can be practiced, are much harder for a child to learn because they are not offered up by schooling, typically.

As a child gets older, he begins to understand implicitly that it is his goals, and his plans to achieve those goals, that drive his learning. While the child seeks to make his script base larger and to clarify the expectation failures he has had and to find new stories to tell or hear stories that will help him make sense of his world, the school takes a passive, librarian’s view of knowledge as something you can just deposit.

In school, all children are seen as the same, and the goal is teach them all the same stuff. But, a child processes new information in terms of the memory structures he already has. Since those are different than those of the child sitting next to him, he literally will not hear the same thing that a teacher is saying, in the same way.

The people who are in charge of schools completely misunderstand the inherently experiential nature of learning.

Students who are wired to learn from experience will have a hard time learning from static information that does not clearly relate to goals they have. Curiously, little children learn very well until they meet up with school and its arbitrary standards. They have experiences and they learn from them. The more varied their experiences, the more they can be said to know. The more they have interesting people to discuss their experiences with, the more excited and comprehending they become about their own knowledge.

Not only does school ignore what we know about how human memory and learning work, it is also concerned with teaching subjects that have nothing to do with everyday life. So students learn the wrong stuff in the wrong way.

young men grow up such blockheads in the schools, because they neither see nor hear one single thing connected with the usual circumstances of everyday life

That was written by Gaius Petronius in the Satyricon although it is just as true today.

We need to re-think our very conception of learning. What we have now simply doesn’t work. It’s time for a new model.

Dr. Roger Schank is the CEO of Socratic Arts and Managing Director of Engines for Education (a non-profit). He was Chief Education Officer of Carnegie Mellon West and Distinguished Career Professor in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University from 2001-2004. He founded he renowned Institute for the Learning Sciences at Northwestern University in 1989 where he is John P. Evans Professor Emeritus in Computer Science, Education and Psychology. From 1974-1989, he was Professor of computer science and psychology at Yale University, Chairman of the Computer Science department, and Director of the Yale Artificial Intelligence Project. He currently works with La Salle University in Barcelona on developing new online degree programs.