Paradigm shifts in education and educational technology: Influencing the students here and now

July 6, 2020 at 7:00 am 10 comments

Back on my last blog post referencing Morgan Ames’ book The Charisma Machine, Alan Kay said in a comment, “What we have here is a whole world view and a whole different world.” I’ve been thinking about that sentence a lot because it captures what I think is going on here. A Kuhnian paradigm shift is happening (and maybe has already happened) in research around education and educational technology from the world of Papert and Bruner to the world of learning sciences. I am going to take a pass at describing the change that I see happening in the field, but I encourage you also to read the International Society of the Learning Science (ISLS) presidential address from Victor Lee here, which describes the field more authority and with more authenticity than me.

I remember asking Janet Kolodner (first editor-in-chief of the Journal of the Learning Sciences), “Why? Why learning sciences? We have educational psychology and cognitive science and so many other education disciplines.” She said that learning scientists were tired of just knowing what should happen. They wanted to get out to influence education practice and understand why learning doesn’t happen. Cognitive scientists mostly (at the time) ignored affect and motivation. Educational psychologists most often worked in controlled laboratories or experimental classrooms. Learning scientists wanted to understand and influence what was really happening in educational contexts, both formal and informal. More, they were devoted to expanding access to high-quality education. Yes, learning scientists explored cutting edge technologies to see what was possible, but even more, we try to figure out contexts that make or inhibit learning for real kids. Look at the titles of the Invited Speakers at ICLS 2020: Lost and found in dialogue: Embracing the promises of interdiscursivity and diminishing its risks, The Ed-Tech Imaginary, and Learning as an Act of Fugitivity. Words like “promises” and “imaginary” and “fugitivity” reflect a desire to change and to respond to what we thought might be, but discovered that reality is different. (Audrey Watters’ keynote is available as an essay here.)

David Feldon told me once that the field is misnamed. It’s much more “Learning humanities” than “Learning sciences.” Once you decide to study what’s going on in actual practice with actual students, you find that you’re mostly in studies with really small n. Contexts, teachers, and students vary wildly. Nobody that I know in learning sciences is trying to invent a general dynamic medium for thought, because it’s so hard to get anything actually adopted and used in an impactful manner. I see Jim Spohrer’s work in Service Science as being part of the same paradigm — how do you actually get services designed and implemented that work in practice?

This shift from the general to the specific, and from what could work to what does work is true in my research too. One of my recent NSF proposals is about working closely with a particular school district to figure out what is going to work there. What we know about Brookline or Brasil is almost irrelevant for this district. Another proposal is about inventing a dynamic medium for thought — but in a particular set of classes, in a task-specific form. I still would love to have a general dynamic medium for thought (as Alan suggests), but I believe we have to figure it out from the ground up. Over time, we will find specific notations that can work for specific tasks, and generalize as possible from there.

The majority of the literature that I draw on these days is about teachers: how they learn, why pre-service education has so little influence on actual teacher practice, and how to influence adoption. Teachers are a gateway for technology in the classroom. There are lots of technologies that could work with kids, but don’t work with teachers. In my work today, I draw on Bruner and Papert for their theoretical framings.. I draw on Bruner’s laboratory-based work (e.g., his definition of scaffolding). I draw on Papert’s descriptions of what the computer offers learners, e.g., its protean nature. But I draw less on their implementation work. Bruner’s MACOS was a brilliant project that had a catastrophic result because they didn’t consider enough what would actually work in US schools. Papert created interesting interventions that didn’t become systemic or sustained. Ames is telling me what’s going wrong in actual implementations of OLPC and may some of why it went wrong. If I want things to be actually adopted, I need to avoid the mistakes that The Charisma Machine is describing.

David’s description of what happened in Brasil in a comment to that earlier blog post is fascinating and super-useful, but doesn’t decrease the value of Ames’ description in Paraguay. I don’t agree with all of her rationalizations of why things turned out as they did (e.g., I don’t find the “technically precocious boys” perspective compelling or having explanatory power), and there are very likely things she missed. But what she describes obviously did happen. Learning from the experiences she describes informs our design processes and iterative feedback loops as a way of improving outcomes.

Like any paradigm shift, it doesn’t mean that all the work that went before is wrong. The questions being asked in each paradigm are different. They start from different world views. Papert and Bruner both offer a vision of what we want, Logo and MACOS. Both ran up against the reality of school in the US, where Thorndike won and Dewey lost. Now, how do we help every student, in real school contexts?

Nathan Holbert and David Weintrop recently told me a great phrase that’s common in the constructionism community (variously attributed to Seymour Papert or Uri Wilensky): “Are you designing for Someday or are you designing for Monday?” Are you designing for a world that might be, or are you designing for things that can go in the classroom soon? Neither are wrong. I don’t think that they even need to be a dichotomy. In my task-specific programming work, I’m making things that can’t go in the classroom Monday, but could go in the classroom next year, which is still a lot closer than Someday. Even to be in the classroom next year, I have to start from where schools are now. There won’t be a Dewey-an revolution in schools over the next year. But maybe Someday there will.

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10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alanone1  |  July 6, 2020 at 7:27 am

    The designs needed for “Someday” are not going to come out of the pressures of “Monday”. These have to be kept fairly separate, or what’s important about “Someday” will be denatured into today’s (and Monday’s) ever lowering sense of “normal”.

    This can’t be ignored or put aside.

    Also, has anyone wanted more to influence “educational practice” than Jerry Bruner? Has there ever been a better designed curriculum for a particular age group about something really important than MACOS? Was there ever more work done to train teachers (and successfully) to teach a curriculum like MACOS?

    There was nothing in any way redemptive about who opposed it, and why.

    There was nothing to be catered to here (any more than catering to people who want to hang on to the Confederacy, its ideas, its symbols, its actions). Nor is there anything to be catered to or compromised about with regard to people who insist on being unsafe about infectious deadly diseases. Or refusing children transfusions, etc. That is not a freedom any reasonable free society should allow.

    Nor is there anything to be catered to or compromised with the deep need — of human life itself — to have enough citizens understand science so that they can participate in understanding where things have gotten to, and to be able to gather the will necessary to make the needed changes.

    You seem to be using some of the pushbacks — and especially the Ames book (it isn’t good enough for this purpose) — in a way similar to the very popular Christiansen “Innovator’s Dilemma” book in which he gives the heads of industry a pass for missing science and technology (even though what else might their jobs actually be about in the 20th century?)

    This seems crazy to me.

    Everything possible needs to be done to change schooling to a different qualitatively improved perspective. Like the US infrastructure and many other great things of the past, it has been allowed to languish for so long that much of it is not fixable without being replaced. (There are similar problems with the climate — and I fervently hope that the US government has not got to this stage yet.)

    The longer something bad is left to fester and grow, the harder and more expensive — psychologically also — it will be to fix, and the longer it will have to seem much more normal than it should be and thus perhaps copable.

    When a system is in an emergency, it will have to attend to “Monday” (and also triage if enough planning hasn’t been done) — but if no significant resources are devoted to “What is actually needed” (aka “Someday”), Someday will never happen. This is clear to any medical/biological professional (we have to spend money on primary care -and- vaccines).

    Why can’t educators deal with both of these ideas and needs, and treat them with equal importance>

  • 2. Benoît Fleury  |  July 6, 2020 at 11:01 am

    I found this documentary about the MACOS controversy very interesting:

    I don’t know if they made a caricature of the opposition in the documentary. But I would agree with Alan. There seems to be very few redeeming qualities in their opposition.

    I would be interested to hear from people who know more about the topic. What book(s) would you recommend?

    • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  July 6, 2020 at 11:11 am

      Thanks for sharing that! I look forward to watching the whole thing. I also recommend “Schoolhouse Politics” by Peter Down, the MACOS project director.

      As Bruner is quoted as saying in “Schoolhouse Politics” that they could very easily have left out the footage that so enraged some Americans in MACOS. The quality would have been just as good. The design, as we all agree, was fantastic, and there wasn’t much controversy over that. The MACOS team just didn’t bother to talk to American teachers when making the curriculum. A little bit of participatory design could have gone a long way.

      It’s really not our place to judge students and teachers, about what qualities are redeeming and who is redeemable. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” These are the teachers hired by those communities. Ronald Reagan, who de-funded education research at NSF in response to MACOS, was legally elected by the US voters. Their opinions count and have to be considered if you want to make things really work.

      If you want to educate everyone, you can’t just educate the people who agree with you. You have to work with the teachers and principals and policy makers who exist. “You can fix a clock. You have to negotiate with a system.”

      • 4. alanone1  |  July 6, 2020 at 11:53 am

        Hi Mark

        The resistance to MACOS was not from teachers at all. The MACOS project trained at least 10,000 (and more likely closer to 20,000 teachers), with considerable care about how they went about it. Howard Gardner was one of the designers and trainers.

        The resistance was a combination of forces that resemble many we see today, and likely mixed in a similar fashion between both traditional beliefs and demagoguery — mostly politicians and a few key parents.

        It is certainly the case that they didn’t consult parents and politicians when designing MACOS.

        As you know, I knew Jerry Bruner very well for many decades, and had quite a few conversations with Peter Dow as well (hard to find a more even-handed human being).

        In 1975, MACOS was already removed from all its schools, and Adele and I gathered up all the curriculum materials and hired several of the MACOS teachers to teach it to our research group that summer. We thought it was the best curriculum we had ever seen — a masterpiece of work.

        <I’d like to insert a picture of this learning session at Parc here but the @#$%^ UI of WordPress offers no clues …>

        Reagan was not President until 1981, many years after the downfall of MACOS. However, MACOS is remembered to this day in both NSF and in the Dept of Education because both have rules about early years curricula that were backlashes from the MACOS teardown.

        “All men are created equal … etc.” but under law, not with regard to ability. This is constantly misunderstood. Let me just point to my remarks earlier about public opinion vs science, deadly diseases, vaccinations, public safety, etc. The “equalities and freedoms” that need to be furnished and preserved do not include the rights to endanger others.

        It is always important to negotiate with human beings, but the time required can’t impinge on (say) letting more than 100,000 people die for no reason except ignorance and weak thinking (pro-rate the cases and deaths in New Zealand to deeply understand this point of view). I would call what’s happened in the US “negligent homicide” if physicians were in charge. I think politicians need to be deeply accountable for incompetence as well — what they have been doing has a tight causal chain to thousands of deaths.

        If we just stick to the teaching of science in K-12, I can see “negotiation” as a good start — and plenty has been tried — but it is against what science is all about to compromise on how tough it has to be when going about its business — that’s part of the deal.

        So in this case, the non-scientific or anti-scientific backgrounds of people who oppose it or want to modify it, can’t count any more than similar backgrounds wanting to deny vaccination or blood transfusions. Democracy can’t work with ignorance and stupidity plus a universal right to vote. That’s Dunning-Kruger spread over the entire country (and we can see it manifestly right now).

        Our brains can’t do much more than have opinions and beliefs — but what’s interesting and important about science is how well our weak mental abilities can be supported and augmented by its methods.

        In other words, it is not just another belief system or another set of opinions, and the US has to start dealing with this deep fact — especially in education.

        • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  July 6, 2020 at 1:01 pm

          Hi Alan,

          I’m careful about interpreting education research. The only reports we have about teacher response to MACOS come from Bruner and Dow. They are great, honest, and well-meaning people, but human and therefore biased. Given the size of the response to MACOS, I don’t believe that all teachers were on-board, but we have no data other than from the MACOS developers (unless you know of other published reports?). I have friends in science education who deal with whole communities (science teachers included) who reject evolution. You have to move forward from there because you can’t simply wipe all those teachers away. The MACOS teacher professional development may have been great, but Dow’s report (in the chapter “From Widener to Wichita” of “Schoolhouse Politics”) suggests that it was uneven, and there was no external evaluation of efficacy.

          The tie from MACOS to Reagan isn’t my invention. Dow makes this claim on page 238 of “Schoolhouse Politics.”

          Completely agreed that not everyone is equal with respect to ability or with respect to access to high-quality education that allows them to evaluate scientific data. But it’s the “by law” that’s important here. Is Trump correct in his claims about Covid-19? By science, no. However, by law, he can keep repeating them, and many people will believe him. He and his administration might be charged for “negligent homicide,” but I can’t imagine a court convicting him. He has that right.

          OF COURSE, I agree with you about vaccinations, about the quality of MACOS, and about what should be done in the face of a pandemic. Your comment “Democracy can’t work with ignorance and stupidity plus a universal right to vote” may be right. It may not be working well, but the system exists, and we have to deal with as it is.

          I’ve been a professor for 27 years now, and an education researcher for longer. There are a lot of beliefs that have been held by my administrators and colleagues which I believed were wrong in the face of the evidence base. I tried to convince them to consider the science. Sometimes I succeeded. Much more often, I failed. I annoyed a lot of people, which was a factor in why I’m now at Michigan. I’m trying to be more careful and politic now. The people who disagree with me are protected in their positions, e.g., both as academic leaders and in terms of academic freedom. Just pointing out how they’re wrong doesn’t help. I have to work with where we are now.

          We simply can’t get to Someday without working from Today, and passing through Monday. ABSOLUTELY, I agree with your earlier comment — we can work on both Someday and Monday. I see Learning Sciences as moving more toward Monday than Someday, but both paradigms are valid, and the research questions are important.

          • 6. alanone1  |  July 6, 2020 at 2:39 pm

            Hi Mark

            I understand where you are coming from — but when you say “you can’t just wipe those teachers (the science teachers who don’t understand evolution) away” — I say that you just have to.

            You can’t have doctors practice medicine who aren’t up to it (this is against the law), you can’t have teachers teaching who aren’t up to it (it should be against the law). They simply must be up to it.

            One of the biggest epistemological problems that science brings with it is the unwillingness to compromise (you just can’t do science and compromise). It has to be tough to do its work (it has to fight what people want and would prefer, etc. including the scientists themselves).

            This is especially critical in the softer sciences, especially the social ones. The softer the area, the tougher you have to be. (In the soft area of my own work, we had to do experiments for more than 25 years to get what I thought were consistent positive results — that’s the way it goes when you draw a line.)

            The Peter Dow quote on page 238 is “The Reagan administration brought to power the conservative forces that attacked MACOS”. This was years after MACOS had been torn down. The Reagan administration then did tear down what the Carter administration had tried to set up, and further regressed US schooling, and especially government support for curriculum development, and especially in the early grades.

            I think the main point is that we actually don’t have to deal with the system as it is. There is no need to gratuitously ding it, but there is plenty of need to change many things.

            Here’s a way to ponder this: in the 21st century, in what it likes to think of itself as the leading “top of the worlds” country, is there any possible excuse of any kind for allowing what has happened in the pandemic, to allow what is happening with the climate, and to let the K-12 educational system off the hook for not educating the public?

            I don’t see how there can be any excuse in any reasonable system.

            I don’t see how the educational system can be given a pass here. They are simply not coming close to doing their job (part of which is to even be able to understand what their job needs to be).

            This is the Dunning-Kruger cartoon of the passenger standing up in the plane and saying “I don’t like the way the pilot is flying this thing: how many of you think I should fly the plane?” And most people raise their hands …

  • 7. Gary Stager  |  July 6, 2020 at 2:35 pm

    Hi Mark,

    Perhaps there is a simpler hypothesis worth consideration. The “shift” you describe may just be a generational one – fighting to relevance or legitimacy. “We are our own heroes!” Such movements are often quite Oedipal. The rise of solutionism makes the need to assert new thought leadership all too predictable.

    As for asserting the dominance of Bruner and Papert, I have two observations.

    1) While Bruner and Papert may captured the imagination of the tiny ICLS community, their influence on educational technology is barely perceptible with a microscope. If you surveyed 1,000 teachers under 50 years-old, I would hazard a guess that barely any of them could use Bruner or Papert in a sentence. Peruse the survey texts used in edschools, look at the state, national, and international edtech conference programs (not ICLS), and look at the products actually being peddled. Despite Papert’s best efforts, edtech is a marketplace, not a set of powerful ideas.

    2) To the best of my knowledge they Bruner and Papert shared little in common except for Alan Kay liking both of them.

    In my conversations with Bruner, admittedly he was 99 at the time, I found him to be the quintessential academic. He was quite disinterested in how his ideas were implemented in schools.

    With all due respect, I find the Monday/someday tautology to be mischaracterized in your post. Papert said that is Ok for a teacher to worry about Monday as long as what is done on Monday points in the direction of what she hopes to do one day. This wasn’t offered as a binary decision. It was an acknowledgment of the difficulty of school change and a caution to avoid the common pitfall of compromises being a detour or distraction, rather than path towards a better option. More importantly, this was advice for teachers whose decision-making processes are often caricatured as “But what do I do Monday?” Papert was masterful at turning popular tropes inside out. (My understanding is that if the term doesn’t originate with Papert, it might be credited to Harel)

    The use of the term “design” is a curious choice by a constructionist. In Papert’s work, the learner is engaged in the process of design. The impulse for learning design, curriculum design, or teaching design is actually more instructionist, than constructionist.

    “What kinds of megachange might one anticipate in school? How should one think about the possibility of such change and the circumstances under which it might happen? Well, first I want to elaborate on the sense in which I think school is a technical act by focusing on how the teacher is cast in the role of a technician carrying out procedures set by a syllabus or curriculum designed hierarchically (from on top), and dictated to the teacher. Of course this is a simplification of what actually happens. In each classroom there is tension and compromise, a dialectical struggle between the role of technician in which the system tries to cast as the teacher, and the fact that the teacher is really a natural human being who loves and relates to people and who knows what it is to learn and to encourage development in a nontechnical spirit. Very few teachers fall completely, purely into the technician mold. The technician-teacher is an abstraction. But this is the mold into which the system tries to force the teacher. The abstraction helps us define the nature of the system. As we’ve heard recently in Britain, somewhat in America, and I believe here in Australia, whenever politicians get excited about the fact that something is wrong with the education, they start shouting “accountability,” “tighten it up,” “more hierarchical control,” “let’s have national tests.” Why do they do it? You can say that this is what conservatives always do. But I think that it is helpful to have more theoretical, even if therefore more speculative, characterizations of an underlying process. I am suggesting that it is useful to think of what is happening as the system striving to define teaching as a technical act. This serves conservative purposes in many dimensions. It fits the conservatives’ preferred mode of social organization. It fits the conservatives’ preferred epistemological orientation. And, of course, in the most local sense, it suits the school bureaucracy to define the teachers’ job as carrying out a technically specified syllabus following a technically specified teaching method

    So, the aspect of change that is moving to center stage in this discussion is releasing education from its technical form and releasing the teacher from the role of technician. But why am I talking about this here? This is a conference on computers in education. It is not a conference on “humanistic education”– computers are technology. Well, it might seem paradoxical–indeed is paradoxical–that technology should be the instrument for the achievement of a less technical form of education. But this is my goal, and I believe that such a trend has begun. I believe (and again I mention Kay as one who understands this in real depth) that the only plausible route to a “humanistic” education in the near future involves extensive use of computers. Technology can undermine technocentrism.[2] Specifically, having a strong technical infrastructure (e.g., in the form of computers as media of expression and exploration) allows the system to be less technical in its methodology (e.g., in laying down a centralized curriculum).”

    Papert, S. (1991). Perestroika and Epistemological Politics. In I. Harel & S. Papert (Eds.), Constructionism (pp. 13-28). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

    Papert did not confine his work to “learning science.” His work was broad and multi-facitated, with a long life committed to social justice.

    I shall refrain debating the Ames book because life is just too short.

    Hope you are remaining safe and sane.



    • 8. alanone1  |  July 7, 2020 at 1:55 am

      Hi Gary

      No question that Papert and Bruner have been lost wrt teachers today (but so have so many other things — this is a very pop culture kind of enterprise these days — and rather military like — or as you say “technician-like”).
      Actually, I knew both of these guys quite well, and there were important overlaps, especially in what both wanted and hoped that children could be helped to do and think. I think it’s quite fair to claim that Montessori was the spiritual predecessor of both (she certainly has been for me),

      Seymour unfortunately saw Jerry as a rival, whereas Jerry was much more above all of that — he was one of the most urbane of human beings — and he liked quite a bit of what Seymour was doing. The disconnect marred the possibilities for many more synergies.

      Jerry at 99 was less together than for the previous 98. But, in fact, his heart and soul was deeply invested in MACOS being successful in schools and with teachers. When the shit hit the fan in the US, he eventually decided to sail his boat to England, where he stayed for about 10 years at Oxford before returning. To his credit, he never complained publicly about how MACOS was done in (maybe he should have, but that was not his nature).

      I quite like the substance and the sentiments of the rest of your comment (and I hope all is going well for you these days!)

      • 9. Gary Stager  |  July 7, 2020 at 6:34 pm

        Hi Mark,

        I don’t wish to speculate as to people’s motivations.

        I found Bruner’s ego hilarious. I can share an example if interested.

        The most interesting thing Bruner said to me was about he built boats and raced them on the Hudson as a child. That might have interested Papert as much as anything else Bruner did.

        One major difference between Papert and Bruner is how/when/where they focused their energies. Papert was working with kids and teachers up until the time of his accident. MACOS was more than 40 years before Bruner’s death and he spent a couple decades in the law school, I saw Papert teach kids – a lot. My doctoral research was as the PI on his last major institutional research project. After that, he helped Maine kids get laptops and then worked on OLPC, all while maintaining a lot of Media Lab responsibilities and working on other K-12 projects.

        It would be interesting to convene a discussion/conference on MACOS and constructionism.

        As for Montessori, the older I get, the less I am a fan and the more questions I have about what she actually believed. I suspect that Papert had similar misgivings. He did after all give a blistering keynote address at the American Montessori conference.

        Bruner’s affection for Montessori is “interesting” as well since he was a purported big fan of the Reggio Emilia Approach. (an area of my scholarship) The Reggio folks are not fans of Montessori and their pedagogical practices share very little in common.

        “Montessori” gets used a lot as a catch-phrase for any approach that deviates from cells and bells. It has the patina of being progressive without any of the pesky liberation. That’s why China has thousands of “Montessori schools.”

        • 10. Gary Stager  |  July 13, 2020 at 7:06 am

          I overlooked another obvious difference between Bruner and Papert, at least as suggested by your post.

          MACOS was a curriculum. Papert didn’t create curriculum.


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