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Archive for the ‘Educational Philosophy’ Category

Curriculum and pedagogy have become captives of the Machine and a few brave souls in the education world are challenging the new orthodoxy. When Leo Marx’s 1964 classic of American literary criticism The Machine in the Garden first appeared, it met with a cool reception, especially among those enthralled with the modernizing forces of the urban-industrial order. Today, that book is hailed as “the most stimulating book in American studies and the one most likely to exert an influence upon scholarship.”

Martin Robinson’s Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine (Crown House Publishing, 2019) makes a bold, imaginative and compelling case for rediscovering the foundations of a knowledge-rich curriculum. Confronting the “deep learning” supposedly facilitated by machine learning, we are reintroduced to a sadly forgotten world where knowledge still matters and teaching is about making human connections and future-proofing today’s students.  It is, predictably,ruffling feathers in conventional progressive educational curriculum circles and even sparking the odd superficial, reactive drive-by assessment.

Robinson’s latest book is a worthy sequel to his ground-breaking 2013 education philosophy and teaching classic, Trivium 21c: Preparing Young People for the Future with Lessons from the Past. Thought-provoking and enlightening books like Trivium 21c are rarities in a field littered with turgid, politically-correct and impenetrable philosophical tombs or ‘how to’ curriculum manuals designed to advance the careers of school-system consultants.  Resurrecting the trivium of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric has a way of exposing the frail foundations and ideologically-driven research sustaining the prevailing progressive consensus, seemingly threatened by the dialectic and comfortable in its presentist assumptions.

Robinson’s highly original work is so fresh that it breaks the conventional categories and binary thinking that readily applies “progressive” or “essentialist” labels to every new contribution to the field. While Trivium 21c and Athena versus the Machine testify to the centrality of knowledge and the pursuit of wisdom, it is all in the service of vanquishing machine-learning and restoring the human element in today’s classrooms.  It is a brilliant fusion of two traditions previously considered to be polar opposites and contradictions impossible to bridge in curriculum, teaching, and learning.

MartinRobinsonrED17Inspiring teachers like Robinson rarely posses the gift of being able to translate their discoveries and secrets onto the written page let alone witty, thought-provoking, elegantly-written, soundly researched books. The author, a seasoned London high school dramatic arts teacher, actually personifies what he is espousing — a stimulating, intellectually engaging, mischievous cast of mind that ignites your interest in a classroom.  Watching him in action at researchED conferences, he is a truly riveting teacher and his books further enhance that reputation.

Robinson tackles what is perhaps the central educational issue of our time — the contest between Athena (the goddess of wisdom) and the Machine (mechanical thinking and the quantification of learning). His metaphoric imagery breathes real life into the educational debate and reminds us that the “beating heart” of the school is its curriculum and it should not be subsumed by globalized conceptions of the function of education or attempts to reduce it to a vehicle for social justice. “Bringing the human back” into education has found a champion.

Reading Robinson’s book one is struck by how it is informed by, and builds upon, the cutting-edge social criticism of the late Neil Postman.  Searching for a way of reconstructing a “transcendent narrative,” he shares Postman’s despair over “life with no meaning” where “learning has no purpose.” Preparing students for success in the 21st century technological world or to challenge class inequalities fill the vacuum, but further accentuate utilitarian or instrumentalist conceptions of promoting social mobility or social justice.  Fully-educated students possessing a liberal education, Robinson argues, recognize the true value of knowledge and enjoy the significant advantage of cultural mobility.

The author delights in challenging prevailing curriculum assumptions and in tweaking educators absorbed in student-centred learning who invent the curriculum in response to passing fancy or children’s immediate interests. “Curriculum,” according to Robinson, “is a dialectical pursuit framed around great narratives” and should be respectful of our “subject disciplines” which are our “great muses.”

Parroting progressive education philosophy and echoing the popular dogma of “21st century learning” are more alike than recognized by many of today’s school change theorists, curriculum consultants and their followers.  Going along with prevailing currents associated with technology-driven learning, Robinson reminds us, means succumbing to mechanized processes that feed off quantifiable outcomes. Succumbing to the “doctrine of child-centred learning” or “project-based miasma” runs the risk of producing a generation of “little Napoleons” who are “conned into thinking that they are central to the culture in which they find themselves.”

Robinson has the courage to expose some oft-forgotten educational truths. Powerful, life-altering lessons should not be reserved for upwardly mobile families attuned to the benefits of liberal education. True wisdom comes from pursuing knowledge for its own sake. “Knowledge is,” in Robinson’s words, ” not a pick ‘n’ mix smorgasbord of consumerist passions” and is “understandable within contexts — for example, words are most useful in sentences, paragraphs, stories, and books” (p. 142)

Robinson’s Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine does pay homage to the wisdom bequeathed by Western civilization without making apologies for doing so. Athena is a cleverly-constructed proxy and conduit for Robinson’s own thinking on the purpose and role of education. He points out that dismissing the traditional humanist curriculum as “white or middle class” may be easy, but it is also ill-considered. The so-called Western education tradition has deep roots going back to Muslim scholars and pre-Christian thinkers. It has also been challenged, over the centuries, and proven itself capable of thriving on argument and emotion, reason and debate, and equipping students so that they can “make up their own minds.”

Martin Robinson’s new book stands out because it is so unlike the current crop of curriculum books pouring out of California-based Corwin Publishing and featured in Educational Leadership, the flagship magazine of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).  “Computer-aided inspiration,” envisioned by Seymour Papert in his seminal work Mindstorms (1980), gave way to “computer-aided instruction” and has now morphed into digital surveillance, data collection, and measurement of outcomes. That transformation goes unrecognized in too many books offering up curriculum panaceas.

The breadth and depth of  Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine sets it apart in the field of contemporary educational philosophy and criticism. It deserves to be discussed along with some of the most influential radical education texts, such as French philosopher, theologian and sociologist Jacques Ellul‘s The Technological Society (1954), Paul Goodman‘s Compulsory Miseducation (1964), Neil Postman‘s Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969), and Ivan Illich‘s Tools for Conviviality (1973). We are sometimes slow to recognize books that shatter perceptions and significantly alter our understanding of curriculum, teaching, and learning.

What makes Martin Robinson’s Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine such a compelling and original education book?   Can it be properly understood without reading and digesting its prequel, Trivium 21c?   Why is the book so difficult to categorize, label and dismiss? How does the current crop of system-bound curriculum books stack up against this piece of work? Will the book, like Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden, live on as an influential contribution to understanding societal transformation? 

 

 

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The rise of the Internet has created a new generation of edu-gurus initially showcased in TED Talks and now powered by their personal blogs and popular e-books. One of the most influential of the crop is Seth Godin, the creative force and animator famous for his rapid-fire commentaries on Seth’s Blog. Hailed by Business Week as “the ultimate entrepreneur for the Information Age,” the marketing whiz also has, since 2012, acquired a following in the education world. His TED Talks, published in an e-book as Stop Stealing Dreams, have been wildly popular with educators and shared millions of times on the Internet.

SethGodinBlogPixWatching Seth Godin in action is very alluring and entertaining, but, when you break down his performances and closely examine his bold assertions, you wonder if there is less here than meets the eye. Marketing is all about mass persuasion and pleasing your customers and some practitioners are essentially mesmerizers or worse, con-artists. In his own field, he is regarded as a star performer and has been likened to “the JFK of the blogosphere: revered, quoted, beloved.” Many in his field were likely aghast in June 2007 when one of their tribe posted a critical commentary that dared to ask What if Seth Godin was full of crap?” 

Godin is a rather unlikely guru for educators. After working as a software brand manager in the mid-1980s, he started Yoyodyne, one of the first dot.com direct marketing enterprises. His firm was acquired by Yahoo in 1998 for $30-million and the global Internet giant hired Godin as vice-president of permission marketing. He’s authored 18 books, mostly in marketing, including such attention-grabbing best-sellers as Permission Marketing (1999), Purple Cow (2003), All Marketers Are Liars (2005), and The Icarus Deception (2012).  It’s rare for a global marketing expert like Godin to find a friendly audience in the education sector.

Today’s educators know Godin through Seth’s Blog, his personal platform generating a steady stream of posts and tweets, some of which venture into education. He made his name in the field with an October 2012 TEDxYouth Talk entitled Stop Stealing Dreams – The School System and a subsequent YouTube Interview on Education Reform. “When we put kids in the factory we call school, the thing we built to indoctrinate them into compliance,” he stated, “why are we surprised when they ask ‘what’s on the test’?” Comparing work with art, he used his rhetorical skills to make the case that schools were monolithic in their structure — not only factory-like but trained kids for “compliance” and “obedience” rather than meaningful, engaged lives.

Godin poses a Big Question – “What are Schools For?” and that raises expectations that he will be providing a fresh perspective. Much of his system analysis lacks depth and is derivative. He encourages us to freely “steal ideas from others” and, in this case, he offers up simplified versions of John Taylor Gatto (factory system and weapons of mass instruction), Sir Ken Robinson ( find your ‘creative’ element), and Alfie Kohn ( gradeless schools, learn at your own pace).  He’s either oblivious to, or dismissive of, more firmly grounded answers to that question, including the highly original formulations of Mortimer Adler ( The Paideia Proposal), Kieran Egan (Getting it wrong from the beginning), Martin Robinson ( Trivium 21c), and Paul A. Kirschner (future-proof education)

As a former dot.com executive, Godin put tremendous faith in technology to transform schools and learning.  “For the first time in history,” he proclaimed, ” we do not need humans standing in front of us teaching us square root.” His technology-driven agenda set out eight proposed education reforms, many now parroted by his followers. His key tenets were:

  • Flip the classroom by exposing students through homework to world-class speakers on video at night and devoting class time to face-to-face interactions and discussion of concepts and issues;
  • Open book, open notes all the time, based upon the belief that memorization is pointless in the Internet age;
  • Abandon grade-level and subject knowledge progression in favour of access to any course anywhere in the world, anytime;
  • Measure experience instead of standardized test scores and focus on cooperation rather than isolation;
  • Precise, focused education instead of mass, batch-driven education;
  • Transform teachers into coaches;
  • Life-long learning with work happening earlier in life;
  • Depth of study in college rather than attending famous ‘brand name’ universities.

Stepping back and zeroing-in on Seth’s education reform agenda, it becomes clear that most if not all of these reforms embrace what is known as “21st century learning” and are prime examples of “romantic progressivism.” Furthermore, it is mostly technology-driven and bound to undermine the remaining autonomy and disciplinary expertise of teachers.

SethGodinPictogramA more recent July 2019 Seth Godin post, “Pivoting the education matrix,” reaffirms his  well-known ‘meta-model” and reform agenda. Schools and classes, Godin continues to insist, “do not teach what they say they teach” and still focus on inculcating “obedience through comportment and regurgitation.” That would seem to imply that most student-centred methodologies featured in PD sessions and model constructivist practices posted on Edutopia are either just for show or figments of the imagination.

His proposed menu of skills is rather odd, like a grab-bag of ill-defined options. Most surprising of all, Godin utterly fails to draw a distinction between the proposed curricular skills (cooperation, problem-solving, mindfulness, creativity and analysis) and the implicit or hidden curriculum (management and obedience). Buried in the curious mix is one nuanced, evidence-based idea: “teaching domain knowledge in conjunction with the skill, not the other way around.” 

TED Talkers like Seth Godin are quickly becoming passe and facing increasing challenges from educators far better versed in school settings, evidence-based research, and what actually works in the classroom. His view of the contemporary school system, in my view, is a rather crude caricature and his reform proposals come off as amazingly facile. His regular Blog posts likely do provide fodder for career-building administrators and needed sustenance to those pursuing the latest educational fads.

What explains the success of Seth Godin and Seth’s Blog in the educational space? Does his simple caricature of the school system appeal to those looking for a neat, clean and uncomplicated picture? Where exactly do teachers as professionals with disciplinary knowledge fit in Seth’s ideal school? Where’s the research in cognitive science to support any of his claims about the process of student learning?  

 

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