Deconstructing is Not Enough in Education: We Must Be Willing to Construct as Well

As Americans (and many others in the world), we are increasingly interested in deconstructing pretty much everything. We point out the internal inconsistencies. We surface bias, prejudice, and bigotry. We minimize the claimed significance of ideas and people. We are skilled at undermining the structure of the world around us. Not that we necessarily do this with any neutrality (we’ve long since deconstructed the idea of neutrality along the way), but this act of deconstructing is something that people value, even celebrate.

I find it hard to deny the benefit of deconstructing. It gives us a reality check on some historical figures. Where we once celebrated certain figures as bastions of character, we now often come to surface their far more complex and conflicted traits. We learn that they are indeed people who accomplished certain things that we deem noble while also making mistakes, struggling with inner demons, and embracing less noble thoughts and practices as well. The act of deconstructing, in that case, becomes a reality check.

Like many others, I’ve read Derrida and many others influences by his ideas. Of course, most of what we call deconstructing is not informed by his ideas and work. For most, it has just turned into a critique of tradition, a skepticism of existing systems and structures, and a recognition that there is almost always more to the story. I do not need to agree with everything that Derrida taught or wrote to see that a discerning and critical eye in society has value. Deconstructing is part of modern life and society.

This is true in education as well. In fact, some might argue that my analysis of the affordances and limitations of various practices and innovations in education is a form of deconstruction. I challenge the value of the letter grade system. I argue that the credentialing monopoly of higher education includes a dark side worthy of our reconsideration. I contend that an education done to people instead of with people might not achieve our goals of nurturing an engaged and more democratic approach to society. I critique some traditional teaching practices as enabling students, preventing some from developing a growing sense of agency. I challenge Utopian visions of the big data revolution (while also recognizing some of the promise). I am one the more outspoken critics of how we approach education policy. For those who read my blog and books, or listen to my podcast, you could probably add another dozen items to this list.

Deconstructing has a good and important. However, I am increasingly convinced that deconstruction itself has plenty of limitations. I will focus on one. When I was a kid, I loved to take things apart and see how they work. I took apart old record players, remote control cars, walkie talkies, a shotgun, a lawnmower or two, a weed eater, electric drills and saws, a couple of old computers or peripherals, a small pinball machine, and many more such items. I thoroughly enjoyed taking these things apart. It was the discovery of what was beneath the surface and sometimes figuring out how things worked. I think that I also just enjoyed destroying things sometimes. Only many of those items never came back together. Or, when I needed one or wanted to use it, I did not get it back together with the same care as its original construction. Sometimes these were broken in the first place, so I had nothing to lose, but other times I managed to turn a functioning item into a pile of parts. That is my concern. When we focus exclusively on deconstructing, we can soon find ourselves living in a pile of parts.

This is why it is important to resist the temptation to stop at deconstructing. In fact, when it comes to education, it may well be irresponsible or even unethical to stop at deconstructing. At minimum, it is often unhelpful. Instead, deconstructing in education brings with it a responsibility. If we are going to take something apart, we need to be willing to do more. If we take it apart to point out problems, sometimes we are wise to make sure that we can put it back together until there is something better. In other cases, it is our task and call to explore viable and better alternatives, and to help make those a reality. Not only that, many aspects of education are intertwined. As such, when we take apart one thing, it leaves other parts impaired or non-functioning. We must take care to consider these repercussions.

If the goal is just to tear things apart and turn the education system into a scrapyard, then perhaps there is no need to worry about such things. Only, that is not my goal, nor is it the goal of most with whom I speak. As such, I offer a simple proposition for those of us involved in education reform. If we deconstruct something, we must be willing to help with constructing something equal or better in its place.

Only those of us who find joy or justification in deconstructing are not always willing to join in the constructing. It is hard work. We also stick our necks out, making us vulnerable to some of the deconstructing attacks that we used on others and other ideas. James Bryant Conant, a former President of Harvard, once said “Behold the turtle. He only makes progress when he sticks his neck out.” If we are interested in progress, improvement, well-being, justice, or some other preferred state, then tearing things apart is not enough. We have to stick our necks and help move things forward.

On the Role of the Classics in a Digital Age Education

I recently spent the day in Concord, Massachusetts. We visited Walden Pond, Old North Bridge, The Old Manse, The Wayside, as well as Louisa May Alcott’s house. American intellectual history is one of my deep and persistent interests. I am inspired and challenged by reading great American works that fueled movements and moved people to action. As such, visiting physical spaces where Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Alcott wrote undeniable American classics triggered musing about their ideas as well.

In one location, I came across a quote by Thoreau about the role of the classics in one’s reading. I included an extended version of that quote below.

“Men sometimes speak as if the study of the classics would at length make way for more modern and practical studies; but the adventurous student will always study classics, in whatever language they may be written and however ancient they may be. For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles which are not decayed, and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave. We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old. To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem.

Sometimes people mistake me as a champion of progressive education, but if you pay close attention to the “why” behind what I write, you are likely to see some significant differences. For example, even as I am a champion for nurturing agency, project-based learning, and learning by experience; much of what led me to value such practices did not come from progressive influences. It actually comes from a study of how people learned throughout history. I study and learn from education in Greek and Roman eras. I look at education in the rabbinic tradition. I learn from the modes of learning in the early Christian church, the simulation learning in Sparta, the apprenticeship models that span Western Europe, Native American education, African education in the context of community life as well as myriad of experiential learning also influence my thinking.

I look around the world and find that there are rich and fascinating lessons that we can learn from diverse education practices throughout history. At the same time, I am not neutral. Each practice in education has benefits and limitations, it amplifies certain beliefs and values over others. I proudly champion those approaches to education that best align with my core convictions, even as others champion very different approaches the basis of their beliefs and convictions.

For me, even amid my argument that we consider how to best prepare people to thrive and survive in this connected age, I value classic literature from around the world. Classics persist over time. They outlive eras, ages, and sometimes even civilizations. They represent ideas that influenced countless people and nations. Sometimes they brought about war, other times peace, still other times they brought about both. They help people imagine new possibilities, escape the demons and blind spots of a generation, influence people’s sense of right and wrong, and move people to action. They added depth and nuance to our thinking about the life, death, peace, war, love, humanity, culture, purpose, the sacred, and more.

In many circles, it is hard to speak about the value of the classics without a question of bias. Whose classics? This is a good and important question. I value classics from around the world, even as I am certainly more well read in western classics. Others point out that important voices of the past were suppressed, never reaching the category of classic. This too is a valid point, and worthy of our exploration and consideration. Yet, we do not throw out a great meal because other equally good foods were excluded from the table. We can still learn about those other foods and appreciate them in a future meal.

Still others argue that reading is passe. We are in a digital age and books are fading. There is some evidence to suggest as much. Media in many forms occupies people’s time more than at any time in history. There many be a time when books are a rarity, but we are not there yet.

Musings on Cognitive Bias in Education Policy and Why I Deactivated my Facebook Account

I woke up on a Saturday morning and, after reading for awhile, I checked out Facebook. For me, Facebook is the social media outlet with family, friends, former classmates, some colleagues, and a few others. These are people that I know and generally people with whom I’ve interacted in the face-to-face world. Twitter and LinkedIn, for example, represent a broader range of connections, but I use Facebook for a closer circle of friends and family members. As I spent a few minutes browsing other’s comments, including a litany of links to articles about their preferred candidates, I was more troubled and distraught than usual. I think it is even fair to say that I experienced a moment of despair, certainly a great deal of frustration. To me, most of the articles shared and comments posted about the election embraced a black or white view of the issues and the candidates. They might acknowledge a limitation with the other side, but only just enough to sound open-minded.

I’m truly interested in discourse about truth, beauty and goodness. Yet, some discourse on the web seems more focused upon power and affirmation of our preferences and convictions. I realize that this isn’t just true about others. I do the same thing. In fact, there is research to support as much. At it worst, the web today sometimes becomes less about an exchange and exploration of ideas and more about affirming and solidifying what we already believe and value.

Barry Carter, in an article about how politics brings out the worst in us, described it this way:

This led them to coin Motivation Attribution Asymmetry. The theory that, in conflict, when someone disagrees with or opposes us, they are motivated by theopposite of what we are motivated by. It’s a cognitive bias that makes compromise very difficult.

This demonstrates why we find it so hard to meet each other in the middle. People who believe in free market capitalism tend to think of anyone who doesn’t is a genocidal communist who wants everyone to be poor. Those who believe in socialism lean towards thinking those who don’t are heartless, greedy and exploit those beneath them. In reality, most of the time, both sets of people think that what they believe in is what is best for society. The right leaning people just think the way to do it is to give business the freedom to grow, the left leaning people simply posit that that business should be regulated more strictly.

Pick a major issue and we can find examples of this at work, especially in a social media outlet like Facebook. We lean into our cognitive biases so much that we see it as a moral imperative to speak, write or act in a certain way. We are in fight mode, so there is little time to explore the issues together, to think deeply, to candidly consider affordances and limitations.

Yet, this is also what happens in education today as well. We become obstinate, determined on a given course, and find it most useful to belittle other positions using a moral or some other frame that gives our position superiority. I write this as one who does this as well at times. I’m certainly not immune to such cognitive biases. Yet, as much as I do believe in truth, beauty, and goodness; I also believe in the value of humility and being open to different positions and perspectives. This doesn’t mean that we dismiss difference as insignificant or unimportant. A love of truth demands that we we not dismiss all claims as somehow equal. The same it true for beauty and goodness. Yet, there are lessons to be learned, perspectives to be explored, people to be better understand, and truth to be surfaced or pursued.

This surfaces a fundamental pair of questions about the type of educational system that we want to support today. Do we want do build a learning ecosystems that allow a select few with a select set of views to dominate, forcing or pressuring everyone else to follow along? Or, do we want to build an education system that leaves room for difference, acknowledging the deeply values laden nature of the education enterprise, and providing people with freedom, voice and choice about something as formative as education? These are important questions for policymakers and anyone interested in helping to shape the future of our education.

So, I needed a break from the rich display of cognitive bias on Facebook, choosing to deactivate my account for a time. The discourse became too toxic for me a the moment. Yet, regardless of how toxic the discourse becomes at times in education, I can’t seem to walk away from it. This is too important of an issue. It has far too many far-reaching implications for young people, communities, and even nations.

Preparation Versus Development: The Language of Education

Language matters because it can set the agenda or change the way in which we think about a subject. I’ve been considering this fact as I review the words that I use to talk about education. As a way to illustrate what I’ve been thinking about, consider two words that we use when discussing the purpose of education: preparation versus development.

Preparation

Preparation is clearly future-oriented. It is about getting people or something ready for something else that will happen in the future. We set aside time today so that we can achieve something in the future or be capable of certain activities now that we might not be capable of in the present.

The language of preparation is commonplace when we talk about the purpose of school. It is the justification for postponing gratification, enduring sometimes challenging, or devoting time to less than pleasant learning experiences or study sessions. We do this because we understand that what we do today will determine what we will be able to do in the future.

The language of preparation also assumes that one is not yet prepared. If someone has to go through preparation-focused education, but the person is already fully capable of doing whatever they hope to accomplish in the future (or the people think they are capable), then the motivation and perceived value of the education diminishes. We see this play out in K-12 education and higher education as well. If people feel like they are just jumping through academic hoops, they get frustrated and it tarnishes the education system’s reputation. On the other hand, if a person is keenly aware that he is not prepared, and he sees that schooling is a useful way to get prepared, motivation tends to be higher.

Development

Development has a different sense to it. It, too, has a future orientation. Or, it at least recognizes that what is right now is not what will or can be in the future. To be in development means that something has not yet reached its full potential. Or, as one historic use of the word suggests, development is about, “bringing out the latent possibilities.” Yet, it doesn’t seem to have the same sort of focused end in mind. Where the word preparation drives us to ask, “Preparation for what?”, we don’t tend to think of development in quite the same way. Development is broader. We are nurturing people as they develop. We are guiding, mentoring, pruning, coaching, feeding, and more. We are often drawn to gardening and child-rearing metaphors when we think of education as development.

Implications

Even if you disagree with how I framed the significance or use of the two words, this is probably adequate to illustrate that the two words are different, that use of one will, at minimum, slightly change how we think about the learning process and the education experience. One will more likely drive us to think about specific future outcomes more than another. Yet, what are the benefits and limitations of each?

It seems to me that, at least in the media and much of the public debate about education today, we live in an era of preparation more than development. We want to measure the return on investment from higher education on the basis of employability and other such outcomes. People argue for the importance of high school graduation as a means of reducing crime, increasing the quality of life, improving health outcomes and much more. Yet, is there value in also thinking about the role of education in more developmental ways? Might there be benefit in seeking a greater balance between the preparation and development ways of thinking about schooling?

What are your thoughts? Are there other words that we should consider as well? How can we add greater nuance to our education language so that we can enhance our understanding of the role and value of K-12 schools and higher education in the contemporary world?