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“The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom.” bell hooks

Instead of writing a review of Different Schools for a Different World by Scott McLeod and Dean Shareski, I want to try reading it differently, from back to front. I’ll start with the last topic, equity, and then proceed to talk about: innovation, boredom, learning, economics, and information literacy. But first, I want to touch on the book’s epigraph: Seth Godin tells us to “Make schools different.”

Different is an interesting word. It’s certainly a different word from what people have used to call for educational transformation in the past. If we were to draw up teams about educational change, I’m confident that McLeod, Shareski, and I would all be against the authoritarian ‘no excuses’ strand of reform that fears student agency. We’re also for meaningful engagement over glittery entertainment.

Yet, we also part ways very quickly in how we frame our arguments. They argue that we should “adapt learning and teaching environments to the demands of the 21st Century.” Our “changing, increasingly connected world” speeds ahead, but “most of our classrooms fail to change in response to it.” I start from a different position, one that questions how the demands of the 21st Century fit with the project of equity.

6 -The Equity Argument

“Achievement gaps have long existed within measures of student learning…  Despite decades of attention, billions of dollars, and countless policy initiatives intended to close these gaps, we continue to underserve large sections of our student population.” McLeod and Shareski 

Is school broken for most – or all – children? Or, do some groups of students face systemic equity issues in schools? The introduction and last chapter of Different Schools for a Different World suggest two completely different answers. In the introduction, McLeod and Shareski quote Seth Godin – “Make school different” – who suggests that schools haven’t kept pace with the “connected revolution.” Schools just aren’t “future-proof.”1Godin uses the phrase “future proof” in note 84

However, if we begin with the last chapter of the book, a different picture emerges. Schools underserve large sections of the community, as evidenced not only by the so-called ‘achievement gap’, but also by what McLeod and Shareski call the “secondary digital divide”: “certain groups of students get to use technology in creative and empowering ways, while others primarily react to practice exercises that the computer inflicts on them.” Instead of the language of ‘gaps’ in achievement, Gloria Ladson-Billings (2006) argues that people of colour are owed an education debt. Ladson-Billings critiques deficit theories of children and the focus on short-term measures to increase test scores because they ignore the “cumulative effect” of discriminatory policies, unequal funding for schools, and large-scale socioeconomic injustices. In far too many school reform movements, “families of colour have regularly been excluded from the decision-making mechanisms that should ensure that their children receive quality education.”

If we begin with historically contextualized concerns about equity, then we don’t need to appeal to the ‘demands of the 21st Century’ when we inquire about how the digital should make a difference in schools. Will digital technology help students build meaningful agency? To properly answer this question, we must examine the larger interdependencies between people and platforms and between education and the economy. If the 21st Century demands self-sufficiency mediated by platforms – read: let’s uberfy schools and work – then we need to recognize that we are heading deeper into a neoliberal nightmare, not an equitable techno-future.2Keri Facer argues that we must build our schools around the recognition of our “‘principled interdependence’ with the people and machines ...continue

Historically, the push for technology in schools has focused very narrowly on ‘learning’, making edtech “highly frustrating for anyone who is more politically conscious and / or sociologically minded.”3Toward a Digital Sociology of School by Neil Selwyn, Selena Nemorin, Scott Bulfin and Nicola Johnson We simply can’t count on technology to arrive in our schools as a neutral tool, providing the same advantages and opportunities for all students. That ‘secondary digital divide’ is, I think, part of a larger process that Chris Gilliard calls ‘digital redlining’:

“it is the creation and maintenance of technological policies, practices, pedagogy, and investment decisions that enforce class boundaries and discriminate against specific groups. The digital divide is a noun; it is the consequence of many forces. In contrast, digital redlining is a verb, the “doing” of difference, a “doing” whose consequences reinforce existing class structures. In one era, redlining created differences in physical access to schools, libraries, and home ownership. In my classes, we work to recognize how digital redlining is integrated into technologies, and especially education technologies, and is producing similar kinds of discriminatory results.”

5 – The Innovation Argument

“Are most schools teaching students to upskill themselves so that they optimise their chances to be selected for the next gig they’re seeking? Nope.” McLeod and Shareski

McLeod and Shareski argue that it’s “a challenge to prepare innovators in compliance-heavy learning spaces”, and we need to encourage students to “adopt entrepreneurial mindsets”, to be “self-sufficient and competitive”, and to “leverage their individual interests and skill sets to out-innovate their peers.” Not only do students compete against each other after graduation, but “in a globalised world, … people and organisations across the planet compete with us at equivalent services levels and often at lower prices.”

The only way to counteract our cultural myths about innovation that link it to self-reliance, merit, and opportunity is to wade into the sociology of both innovation and precarity. On the one hand, as Mariana Mazzucato argues, innovation has been a collective endeavor, primarily funded by the government (and thus, us), while the profits have been privatised into the hands of corporations. High levels of entrepreneurship do not signal a healthy economy and overall, Ha Joon Chang argues, “there is very little evidence to support the view that increased education leads to higher economic growth.” Instead,  “What really matters in the determination of national prosperity is not the educational levels of individuals but the nation’s ability to organize individuals into enterprises with high productivity.”4In The Meritocracy Myth, Stephen McNamee explains why being an entrepreneur resonates with people: “Being self-employed exemplifies independence, ...continue

The ‘demands of the 21st Century’ are set by global capital against the interest of citizens. And calls to reform education while leaving the economic system in tact and adapting students to it runs against any project of education as hope.

Contrary to the innovation mythology, “Productivity has not come from giving people permission to think but from imposing barriers to individual initiative and control through a detailed division of labor.”5SeePhillip Brown, Hugh Lauder, and David Ashton, The Global Auction. “We should not be surprised by this because, if knowledge is a key source of ...continue As employees have lost the permission to think, they have also faced increasing precarity as a result of policy shifts in favour of a ‘flexible’ labor force.6 In The Precariat, Guy Standing recounts the fundamental role of policy rather than technology in producing what he sees as a new social class.“One ...continue

Thus, the double damage of the innovation mythology: just as reward is privatised to the hands of ‘innovators’, risk is also turned into a private struggle.7In Coming Up Short: Working-class adulthood in an age of uncertainty (2013), Jennifer M. Silva writes a counter-narrative to the neoliberal gospel ...continue Yet, while ‘future proofers’ encourage us to build the character traits in students that allow them to successfully compete in the gig economy, many of the  traits related to agentic behavior, such as assertiveness, are highly valued in white men, but not in white women or Black men. According to a report by Ross Levine and Yona Rubinstein, when entrepreneurs are ranked on the Illicit Activity Index, which highlights the “aggressive, disruptive activities of individuals as youths,” they found that “entrepreneurs tend to engage in more illicit activities as youths than those who never become incorporated self-employed.” 8 21-22 entrepreneurs mean the ones that are incorporated, which would exclude the people cleaning houses and working under the table In his perceptive analysis of the report, Jordan Weissman writes that “To be successful at running your own company, you need a personality type that society is a lot more forgiving of if you’re white.”

Focusing on the personal traits of individuals ignores the material conditions that make entrepreneurship possible. A report by Alicia Robb found that “The average women- or minority-owned business operated with much less financial capital, even after controlling for other factors including credit score.” Moreover, they were “more reliant on owner equity investments”, and “significantly less likely to have their loan applications approved.”

It’s unlikely that digital technologies will disrupt this inequality. In fact, we are encouraged to lose sight of inequalities in schools and the economy by focusing on individual stories. When Dr. Carl James began putting together the stories of individual inequities in the Toronto District School Board through statistical analysis, he found:

“For many participants, this was the first time they had seen any quantitative data on the educational outcomes for Black students. They suspected their own experiences were part of a much larger problem throughout the education system, but they were unable to provide any supporting evidence because of the lack of collection of disaggregated race-based data by school boards. Many felt that the lack of data has allowed school boards to continue to ignore their prolonged calls for systemic change by arguing that negative experiences and outcomes for Black students are isolated incidents and the result of individual issues.”9James writes, “So when Black male students engaged in relatively minor inappropriate behaviours, the behaviours were taken as more serious and ...continue

 

4 – The Boredom argument

“If you ask students to describe school in a word and tabulate the most common results, it’s more than likely that boring will be near the top of the list.” McLeod and Shareski

Like most teachers, I don’t want to think of school as boring because I work hard to make it engaging, yet I’ve also been bored in school myself. For McLeod and Shareski, school is boring because students engage in “dull, trivial, and thoroughly uninspiring” work. They draw on several sources: a talk by Richard Elmore (2006), a book by Mike Schmoker (2006), a study by Robert Pianta (2007), John Goodlad (1984), and Gallup’s (2015) survey on student engagement. Several of these sources are neither reliable nor verifiable, so I will only focus on two of them.10For example, when they quotes Richard Elmore’s talk (2006), there is no link to the original study where we can verify this claim: “when [we] ...continue

John Goodlad claims that “three categories of student activity marked by passivity – written work, listening, and preparing for assignments – dominate” school. And Pianta reports that “the average fifth grader received five times as much instruction in basic skills as instruction focused on problem solving and reasoning; this ratio was 10:1 in first and third grades.” So, schools are boring because the work is passive and low-level.

What’s a reasonable amount of time to spend on high-level cognitive work for anyone, especially children? What supports the gendered assumptions that listening and writing are ‘passive’?

I don’t believe that the supposed ‘passivity’ of listening and writing, or ratios of high / low skills in tasks are fit to capture the structural problems that cause disengagement in schools. Much pleasurable and engaging work requires a facility with ‘low’ level tasks and certainly presupposes that someone does them. It’s when we lose the complementarity between skills – the prep cook who chops bags of onions for the Chef – that work becomes meaningless. There are many ways to practice skills that are pleasurable and encourage agency. Indeed, basic skills are probably central to agency.

To illustrate the complementarity of skills, imagine a project where students identify and criticize messages they receive from the media. The high level work of synthesizing ideas requires the patient investigative work of reading, taking notes, and looking for patterns. It’s not the ratio of time spent that matters, but the larger purpose of the project and the context in which basic skills are practiced.

And there’s nothing ‘passive’ about the work that goes into listening and writing, as anyone who teachers literacy knows. We desperately need to have conversations about student agency, but those conversations will remain superficial if we dismiss fundamental communication skills out of hand. As I’ve argued before, we do not face a cognitive engagement crisis caused by schools not fitting the 21st century, but a political engagement crisis caused by schools not serving groups that have historically been disenfranchised.

3 – The learning Argument 

“Learning at home, for students who have digital access, is often more powerful than learning at school.” McLeod and Shareski 

Intuitively, many cases of learning out of school strike us as ‘powerful’ because of the way that digital tools act in synergy with our passions: Youtube and recording software complement and drive our ability to learn guitar. I grew up in the age where I selected whatever VHS and books were available in my local music store, and as I finished high school, I eagerly experimented with newly emerging digital recording tools. The breadth and power of tools that I now can access – many of them are not free – constantly floors me.

Yet, there are many ‘powerful’ kinds of learning that we are unlikely to be engaged in outside of school. If we learn critical skills for media literacy or the craft of writing, it’s most likely to take place in school. And while we should pay more attention to ways to ‘powerfully’ use digital tools in schools, we shouldn’t do so at the expense of underestimating the power of what schools do uniquely well.

In a recent study about technology use in and out of school, a group of researchers found that schools are not simply “impoverished contexts” for technology. For non-school uses, “students were most likely to report “consuming content” (e.g. videos, music), “communicating” (mobile phones, messaging), “checking/updating social media” and “playing games.” Yet, in technology uses related to school, “students were most likely to report using technology to “look for information” and to “make/write/create content” for school-related purposes. Moreover, they were more likely to be using technology for these purposes when in school rather than at home/elsewhere.”11Bulfin, S., Johnson, N., Nemorin, S., & Selwyn, N. (2016). Nagging, noobs and new tricks – students’ perceptions of school as a context for ...continue

What makes for ‘powerful’ uses of technology? McLeod and Shareski frame their argument about digital technology in school around the idea that kids should be “content creators, not just content consumers.” However, too many complex and worthwhile endeavours do not fit into this capitalist and gendered paradigm. Take deep reading as an example.  This isn’t ‘consumption’ or ‘passive’, but nor is reading traditionally considered ‘creation’ either as there is no ‘product’ or ‘content’. A similar argument applies to care work, such as looking after children or caring for the environment.12See Ruth Oldenziel, Man the Maker, Woman the Consumer, as an starting point in the literature about technology and gender.

As I see it, the typical out-of-school uses of technology are no model for what we should be doing in schools. That being said, schools have a long ways to go, especially in cultivating critical and caring uses of technology.

 

2 – The Economic Argument

“In short, if workers today want higher wages, they’d better have high skills levels to match.” McLeod and Shareski

While McLeod and Shareski write that “school shouldn’t just be about preparing corporate worker bees”, some form of ‘preparing children for work’ shows up in almost every chapter, and motivates the that idea schools need to create creators. In the early 20th century, the argument over ‘social efficiency’ – adapting children to work – divided the progressive movement. John Dewey lost this argument to David Snedden.

They pose a question about work that heavily guides their argument about relevance in schools: “What value do human workers in the developed world add that software, robots, or less-expensive workers from the developing world don’t? It’s imperative that we answer this question if we want to prevent our students from joining the ever-increasing pool of graduates who don’t have the necessary skills to do higher-wage, irreplaceable professional work.”

Most of their sources run to the neoliberal end of economics (Richard Florida, Tony Wagner), or depoliticised accounts of automation (Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, David Autor). People will be left behind; don’t be one of them.

There’s no evidence that there is a ‘skills gap’ that education needs to solve, or that we must accept an economic fate shaped by technology. As initiatives like the LEAP manifesto show, it’s policy decisions all the way down.

 

1 – The Information Literacy Argument 

“In the early 21st century, a twelve-year-old may be able to reach the same potential audience as a major media company. The implications of that for schools are enormous and almost completely unrealized.” McLeod and Shareski

McLeod and Shareski begin their argument with what they see as the benefits of the digital revolution, such as the “collapse of time and distance” and the flattening of hierarchy. Our job is to “help students master the dominant information landscape of their time”, which is “decentralized, borderless, and highly distributed” and characterized by sharing and openness – “free content becomes a business model.”

I think they largely overplay the possibility of openness and mastery of the landscape to the exclusion of understanding the mechanisms of surveillance capitalism. We need to teach students to navigate a digital world that tracks and targets us in a broader political climate where we are encouraged to see social problems, such as employment, as personal issues. Self-reliance becomes the solution. Platforms are here to help.

As a critical scholar of this narrative, Chris Gilliard writes that “It’s essential to note that the personalized nature of the web often dictates what kind of information students get both inside and outside the classroom. A Data & Society Research Institute study makes this clear: “In an age of smartphones and social media, young people don’t follow the news as much as it follows them. News consumption is often a byproduct of spending time on social media platforms.”

A recent Washington Post article uncovers the depths of how Americans were targeted on Facebook by Russian interests. According to the article, the research of Jonathan Albright reveals that Facebook feeds were targeted by news articles that were “tailored to fit seamlessly into the ordinary online conversation of their particular audiences — politically activated African Americans, gay women, Muslims and people concerned about illegal immigration, Texan heritage or the treatment of veterans.” This propaganda works differently from Breitbart and Info Wars in that it did not spread lies about Hillary Clinton, but worked to “dampen support for voting at all.”

While we need to address platform literacy, the larger illiteracy we face is about the long battle to depoliticize social issues, which has been waged by the elite against the rest of the population for three decades now. Henry Giroux argues that we suffer from a new kind of illiteracy that leaves us “incapable of dealing with complex and contested questions” and with an “inability to see outside of the realm of the privatized self.” The whole post-industrial fantasy and Thomas Friedman’s ‘flat world’ are one of the single largest disinformation campaigns that we need to be literate about. Writing over a decade ago, Doug Henwood argues that we are witnessing the “latest incarnation of an old elite desire to put workers and the ugly things that sometimes come with them out of sight. We’ve been hearing about post-industrial society for at least thirty years; if it had come about, would we have to worry about global warming?”13If you go back and read Doug Henwood’s After the New Economy (2003), you will find a critique of the post-industrial globalisation ideology that ...continue

 

Introduction

“Make school different.” Seth Godin

What makes McLeod and Shareski’s take different from the long history of arguments about schools? Here’s their answer:

“In some respects, the concerns in this book are no different from the concerns of the authors of A Nation at Risk… We agree schools need to change, but that change should have to do with a school’s relevance, not just with its achievement scores.”

I think that relevance is exactly the right word, but we must ask relevant to what?

Their answer is the “demands of the 21st Century” that come from “shifting from an industrial mode to a global model and innovation model.” In Godin’s book, he presents the data center as a source of individual opportunity. While that can be true, the number of well-paying jobs at Google and Youtube stars will always be limited. Freedom of expression and civic participation can’t flourish in an age of economic precarity.

So what are the alternatives?

Jennifer M. Silva writes a counter-narrative to the worship of self-sufficiency and competition, and exposes “the hidden injuries of risk”, which often lead to isolation, a hardening of the self, and tragedy. One of her interview subjects died because she lacked affordable health-care.

What Silva finds is that “working-class young adults… feel a sense of powerlessness and mystification towards the institutions that order their lives. Over and over again, they learn that choice is simply an illusion.” Writing in a global context, (2014), Alcinda Honwana gives a name – waithood – to this experience of youth who are “no longer children in need of care, but … are still unable to become independent adults.” Honwana explicitly rejects the idea that waithood represents a “failed transition on the part of the youth themselves,” and she carefully documents the agency of the youth she interviewed in South Africa, Tunisia, Senegal, and Mozambique.

“Young people I interviewed showed strong awareness of the broader socio-economic and political environments that affect their lives. They are acutely conscious of their marginal structural position and they despise and rebel against the abuse and corruption that they observe as the elites in power get richer and they become poorer … They are critical of unsound economic policies that focus on growth but do not enlarge the productive base by creating more jobs.”

There’s no sustainable future in Western countries measuring educational success by the extent to which they out-compete the globalized Other. In her conclusion, Silva presents Wally, who is like her other working-class interview subjects in every respect except his political activism, as a token of hope. Instead of privatizing his problems, he is able to translate them into political issues. The alternative lies not in making schools different, but making the world ‘different’, sustainable, and just.

References   [ + ]

1. Godin uses the phrase “future proof” in note 84
2. Keri Facer argues that we must build our schools around the recognition of our “‘principled interdependence’ with the people and machines with whom she is connected. Principled interdependence implies a recognition of the extent to which we are dependent upon other people, wider institutions, environment and tools to be able to act in the world; and of the extent to which our own actions therefore also have implications for other people and for their agency in turn.”
3. Toward a Digital Sociology of School by Neil Selwyn, Selena Nemorin, Scott Bulfin and Nicola Johnson
4. In The Meritocracy Myth, Stephen McNamee explains why being an entrepreneur resonates with people: “Being self-employed exemplifies independence, initiative, self-reliance, rugged individualism—virtues held in high regard in American society.” These virtues are extolled by the neoliberal ideology from Oprah to The Economist, but the focus on entrepreneurs privatizes what should be a public problem. This myth ought to be popular amongst the uber-successful entrepreneurs because it justifies their huge financial returns. America has very few entrepreneurs compared to the rest of the world, and its been in decline: “Self-employment as a percentage of the total labor force has plummeted from an estimated 80 percent in 1800 (Phillips 1958, 2), to 34 percent in 1900 (Wright 1997, 124), to 18 percent in 1950 (Hipple 2004, 14), to just 7.3 percent in 2006. Ha Joon Chang thoroughly debunks the idea that high levels of entrepreneurship signal a healthy economy. “According to an OECD study, in most developing countries 30–50 per cent of the non-agricultural workforce is self-employed (the ratio tends to be even higher in agriculture). In some of the poorest countries the ratio of people working as one-person entrepreneurs can be way above that: 66.9 per cent in Ghana, 75.4 per cent in Bangladesh and a staggering 88.7 per cent in Benin. In contrast, only 12.8 per cent of the non-agricultural workforce in developed countries is self-employed. In some countries the ratio does not even reach one in ten: 6.7 per cent in Norway, 7.5 per cent in the US and 8.6 per cent in France.”
5. SeePhillip Brown, Hugh Lauder, and David Ashton, The Global Auction. “We should not be surprised by this because, if knowledge is a key source of company profit, then the task of business is not to pay more for it but to pay less.” Instead, corporations found a way to extract knowledge from their employees and turn it into profit. “Digital Taylorism enables innovation to be translated into routines that might require some degree of education but not the kind of creativity and independence of judgment often associated with the knowledge economy. To reduce costs and increase control, companies are eager to capture the idiosyncratic knowledge of workers so that it can be codified and routinized, thereby making it generally available to the company rather than being the property of an individual worker.”
6. In The Precariat, Guy Standing recounts the fundamental role of policy rather than technology in producing what he sees as a new social class.“One neoliberal claim that crystallised in the 1980s was that countries needed to pursue ‘labour market flexibility’. Unless labour markets were made more flexible, labour costs would rise and corporations would transfer production and investment to places where costs were lower; financial capital would be invested in those countries, rather than ‘at home’.” As Standing emphasizes, “This [shift in policy] was not technologically determined.” page 6
7. In Coming Up Short: Working-class adulthood in an age of uncertainty (2013), Jennifer M. Silva writes a counter-narrative to the neoliberal gospel that privatizes risk and reward, suffering and happiness. Silva interviewed 100 people in their twenties and thirties who have in various ways be caught in the transition to adulthood and are unable to reach the landmarks of coming of age in America such as work and marriage. Silva exposes “the hidden injuries of risk” (144), which often lead to isolation, a hardening of the self, and tragedy. One of her interview subjects died because she lacked affordable health-care. Since youth are told that virtue lies in making it on their own, youth then construct ‘therapeutic narratives of self’ in what Silva calls the ‘mood economy’ “that locates dignity in emotional self-management rather than in traditional accomplishments such as marriage or work.”
8. 21-22 entrepreneurs mean the ones that are incorporated, which would exclude the people cleaning houses and working under the table
9. James writes, “So when Black male students engaged in relatively minor inappropriate behaviours, the behaviours were taken as more serious and used to push these boys out of regular classrooms or to push them out of school altogether through the use of suspensions.” A similar pattern of expulsions and suspensions also affects Indigenous students.
10. For example, when they quotes Richard Elmore’s talk (2006), there is no link to the original study where we can verify this claim: “when [we] code classroom practice for level of cognitive demand… 80 percent of the work is at the factual and procedural level” and that “[teachers] will do low-level work and call it high-level work.” Similarly, Mike Schmoker cites a study with no author and that does not seem to have published as peer-review research: Learning 24/7 (2005, April 7). Classroom Observation Study. Study presented at the meeting of the National Conference on Standards and Assessment in Las Vegas, Nevada.
11. Bulfin, S., Johnson, N., Nemorin, S., & Selwyn, N. (2016). Nagging, noobs and new tricks – students’ perceptions of school as a context for digital technology use. Educational Studies. https://doi.org/10.1080/03055698.2016.1160824
12. See Ruth Oldenziel, Man the Maker, Woman the Consumer, as an starting point in the literature about technology and gender.
13. If you go back and read Doug Henwood’s After the New Economy (2003), you will find a critique of the post-industrial globalisation ideology that needs to be replayed: The fantasy was that “ideas had replaced things as the motors of economic life, the world had become unprecedentedly globalized, work had become deeply meaningful, and mutual funds had put an end to class conflict. Even to conventional minds, a lot of that sounds embarrassing now. … [the] New Economy moment was a manic set of variations on ancient themes, all promoted from the highest places. Presidents and treasury secretaries restructured economies, encouraged by Wall Street analysts and Alan Greenspan. Techno-utopianism is an old theme in American culture. Bill Gates’s fantasies of the frictionless economy – spun out, it’s said, with the assistance of thirteen ghostwriters – were the latest incarnation of an old elite desire to put workers and the ugly things that sometimes come with them out of sight. We’ve been hearing about post-industrial society for at least thirty years; if it had come about, would we have to worry about global warming?”
I footnotes