The conversation started on the top floor of a trendy refurbished building in Milwaukee’s Third Ward. It was an evening dedicated to celebrating the growing startup community in Milwaukee, and I had a chance to connect with some of the budding startups in the area. Of course, I had my eye on the education startups. I had a half dozen great chats, finishing up with the founder of a fast-growing education startup that is doing great work in alternative education. As the conversation ensued, the founder asked about my current work and interests. I explained that I’ve been spending the last year or two exploring the affordances and limitations of competency-based education along with open badges. Then I talked about our most recent experiment in that area, the new M.S. in Educational Design and Technology that is built around competency-based digital badges. While polite, he became quiet. I followed up by asking if they’d considered adding digital badges to their product. After a long pause he politely explained that their team decided against it. “We decided not to add badges because we believe that they take away from the intrinsic motivation of the students. We don’t support the carrot and stick approach.”

I’ve heard this before. I even wrote about it in Beware of Badges as Biscuits. For some, badges fit into a sub-category of gamification. They are like points, gold stars, and reward features. I forget about that view because it is not how I ended up investing so much time into badges. I arrived at the doorstep of the open badge movement through my study of alternative education along with emerging models of assessment…and a hint of work in positive psychology. From there I also became fascinated with the role of credentials in formal education and society.  As such, my interest in badges has to do more with documenting evidence of learning, not as reward mechanism.

This is not a simple distinction because the subjective experience of people comes into play. Whether we are talking about badges as rewards or as micro-credentials used to document evidence of learning or achievements, it is hard to understand how receiving badges is experienced by different recipients. When I was recently surprised with the issuing of a Badge Alliance Visionary badge in November of 2014, I was honored. It feels good to be recognized for work that you value, for things that you’ve accomplished, or contributions that you’ve made to something that is important to you. Is that game mechanics at work? Is that a carrot and stick approach? Is that pure extrinsic motivation? Some might argue so. Is the same thing true when you get an unsolicited thank you, reference letter, or a public recognition of your work? Most of us don’t think of those things in terms of gamification. They are forms of recognition, and it can evoke pride (even a bit of embarrassment) when it happens.

If we are going to call all such things forms of a carrot and stick approach that are to be avoided, then I suppose we need to get rid of any form of recognizing accomplishments and achievements as well as forms of documenting such things. People will feel good about them, but that doesn’t make them enemies of intrinsic motivation. In fact, in Lepper and Malone’s classic work on intrinsic motivation, they describe recognition as connected to intrinsic motivation. Why? It is because we have an intrinsic desire for recognition of our accomplishments. Consider how many advocates of project-based learning speak passionately about the value of intrinsic motivators. Even as they do so, they are quick to point out the power of including an opportunity for learners to get feedback on their work and to have a chance to present and display their accomplishments to authentic audiences. In fact, many PBL champions describe this as one of the more valuable elements of PBL unit/less design. Similarly, in self-directed learning perspectives, there are many conversations about how to display your accomplishments to others. Browse books on unschooling and self-directed learning and you’ll come across the frequent topic of making evidence of your learning and accomplishments visible to others, whether it is as part of application to a college or for a job. There are times when showing what you can do and what you have accomplished is important.

Similarly, with the PERMA model in positive psychology, a model that describes the path to well-being, the “A” in the acronym stands for achievement/accomplishment. To have a sense of achievement or accomplishment, you to recognize that you have achieved or accomplished something. Sometimes that is abundantly clear, but a carefully designed badge system can help make it more visible, even providing the learner with a log of progress and accomplishments over time. When learners see their progress in learning, they experience a sense of accomplishment. Without some sort of feedback about our progress, it is easy to lose motivation, to lose track of where we’ve come from in our learning journey.

The use of badges doesn’t necessitate a carrots or biscuits (as I describe in a previous article) approach. What they do exceedingly well is create a visible symbol of some achievement or evidence of learning. They are credentials, providing a clue to the learner/recipient as well as anyone else who is able to see it. They document learning. Some might be motivated by seeing the documentation. Part of that is because badges can be used to make an achievement or progress in one’s learning visible to the learner herself, something that is not always readily available. In that sense, badges are also a form of feedback, formative or summative.

Despite this fact, there is a caution for those who want to avoid the use of badges purely as rewards and extrinsic triggers of behaviors. If the design and communication in a learning experience with badges focuses upon “do this and you get this prize called a badge”, then the critics are right. There is a good chance that it might foster a carrot and stick approach. On the other hand, it is a very different design if you create a badge system as as a way to recognize progress, to break up their learning progress into discrete elements, to document learning from one or multiple sources, for learners to share their progress or achievement with other necessary parties. This is an inherent feature in the concept of almost any credential connected with learning. There is a danger that the credential…the symbol will become more valued and more of the focus than the learning or achievement. That can be mitigated against, but not entirely removed.

Regardless, I respect the fact that educational publishers and software providers want to their products to reflect what they believe is good, right and valuable in educational practice. However, in doing so, please do throw out the badges with badges with biscuits. They are not one in the same.

I’m a product and proponent of formal education, at least in part. I serve as an academic administrator and a professor of educational design and technology. I am also one of academia’s strongest critics because I believe that we can do better, that we can benefit society by reconsidering our role and resisting the temptation to hoard our power. As much as I treasure rich and vibrant academic communities, I also struggle with the way that our academic institutions wield power and control access and opportunity for people. We are gatekeepers, and while some can say that with pride, I write it with concern.

I recently posted a suggested reading list on Twitter, 25 Must-Read Books for the Educational Hacktivist or Contrarian. In reply, Charles Bingham, a education professor of Simon Fraser University, Tweeted:

Like myself, Bingham is a part of academia. He is a professor at a well-respected research institution, but he is also a critic, one who is deconstructing modern building blocks of academia…at least to the extent that college becomes about earning credentials. For many, college is about more than that. It is also about community, connections, growing levels of competence and confidence, character formation, and creative expression. At least, that is what happens for some amid their participation in higher education communities. For others, it is about getting…

a piece of paper, so you can

get an interview, so you can

get a job that you like or want, so you can

get money, so you can…

I watched Bingham’s short TED talk on Why We Should Shred our Diplomas, and so many of his ideas resonated with my own work and thought over the past couple of years, whether it be my investigation of credentialism, alternative education, unschooling, self-directed learning, personal learning networks, social entrepreneurship, or alternate credentials and open badges. The more I’ve come to study and understand the history and nature of academic credentials, the more I see that they are not the solution to our greatest social needs (nor are the educational institutions that offer them).

Good things happen in schools…plenty of good things. I’m just not convinced that the evolution of academic credentials to their current state is one of them. I write this as one who has four diplomas from higher education institutions, and who still find himself drawn to pursuing two or three more. When I look at my diplomas (which is not often, they sit in a box in my office closet), it isn’t hard for me to think that they mean that I’m somehow a little bit more special or valuable, but it isn’t true. Nonetheless, they give me access that I didn’t have before. They open doors to jobs and opportunities that never arose before getting that “terminal” degree. The title “Dr.” breeds respect from no small number of people. I’m certain that I sometimes get the benefit of the doubt because of these credentials. I’m a little embarrassed about this, and the truth is that I’ve read, written, and studied 50 times more apart from my pursuit of those degrees. Most of what I write, say and do come from what I’ve learned through reading, doing independent research, networking, participating in various learning communities, experimenting, and trying things out in the real world. I learned things along the way toward getting those degrees that equipped me for doing these things, but I am certain that others could learn the same things without ever getting a single college diploma, let alone four.

This is my other struggle with how we’ve shaped modern education. We’ve made it exclusive. In many aspects of society, we’ve minimized the value of learning that is not credentialed. We’ve excluded the self-taught. We’ve allowed credential-bearing institutions to be gatekeepers for entry into no small number of professions or disciplines. What social good comes from this exclusive approach? Who are the winners? Who are the losers? Isn’t it possible to imagine alternate models that are more open and welcoming of multiple routes toward competence?

https://c2.staticflickr.com/4/3328/3311468833_e6b65d660a_z.jpg?zz=1

https://c2.staticflickr.com/4/3328/3311468833_e6b65d660a_z.jpg?zz=1

In his video, Bingham says,

“South Africa was a very credentialed society. People had to carry what was called an apartheid passbook. In this passbook, it said your race. It said if you were an African, or an Indian, or a white person, or a colored person. And if, for example, you were an African person, a black person, and you decided to go into a whites only area after dark, a policeman could stop you and ask to see your apartheid passbook. If that passbook did not give you the privilege to be in the white area after dark, then you’d be put in jail.

I’m convinced that these days we have our own version of the apartheid passbook, and it’s called the diploma. These days its not legal to discriminate against a person based upon race. It is, however, perfectly legal to discriminate against a person based upon educational attainment, based upon a diploma that a person does or doesn’t have, that was or was not received from this or that school.”

“…And please don’t take as many years as I did to realize that people don’t need teachers like me.” – Charles Bingham in “Why We Should Shred Our Diplomas.

It may seem like too a strong statement to juxtapose South African passbooks and academic credentials. Nonetheless, the comparison invites us to consider whether modern academic credentials help or hinder our aspiration towards increased access and opportunity for people. It challenges us to consider whether there are alternatives that better respect learning, achievement, and competence regardless of how it was acquired. It challenges us to ask whether leaders in formal schooling values learning and intellectual achievement enough to honor it wherever it is found, whether it is present in the credentialed or the “un-credentialed.”

I’m okay with having academic degrees and credentials. They can serve as a symbol of achievement, even indirect evidence that competence. It is when we mistake the credential for being inseparable from what it represents that I get concerned. To have a credential is not equal to being competent or a person of character. Most of society accepts these academic credentials as a sign that you must have certain traits and capabilities that make you worthy of certain opportunities withheld from others. As such, we exclude people from access to jobs and opportunities that would allow the un-credentialed to make wonderful and positive contributions.

Isn’t it interesting that degrees don’t have expiration dates or don’t require ongoing demonstration of competence? Part of what draws me to startups and entrepreneurship is that credentials don’t cut it. The startup community is a place where you can find high school dropouts mentoring PhDs, graduates of unknown liberal arts colleges or state schools going head to head with Ivy league grads, and what they produce often trumps the prestige of their alma mater. Of course, there are startups, VC firms, and incubators that probably give more attention to a person with Stanford or MIT on the résumé; but the startup world is a place where they are not the only ticket to the show. 

When I first got out of college, I was so interested in whether people saw me as a good teacher. At some point, that was not enough. I wanted to actually be a good teacher (although having the respect of others was a nice thing to have too). I love the parts of the startup world where people place so much value on what you’ve done and what you can do…more than your credentials. 

Consider how some of the “best” students in classes get more passionate about getting an A than doing things of substance. Think about how we have a National Honor Society, and the baseline criteria has to do with GPA. The students who are staying up late nights, devouring books, experimenting, exploring, applying ideas that they learned, but doing so at the cost of an A are not at the NHS banquets. They don’t get celebrated in schools nearly as often as the people who focus their performance on earning the credential. As such, many learning organizations celebrate credential-earning more than deep learning. 

This is why I’ve become an advocate for open badges. I hold out hope that they can provide alternatives (not necessarily replacements) for more traditional credentials. More routes reach more people. We add new academic currency that may not be well-known or understood by most today, but still have the promise of lessening the stronghold of credentialing gatekeeper institutions. In doing so, they also open our eyes to possibilities for a more open and accessible ways to recognize learning, competence and achievement.

For decades, academic institutions serving “non-traditional” students gave opportunities to earn what is called prior learning credit. It is a way of translating learning from life and work to college credit, allowing you to skip a few steps along the way to an academic credential. This plays an important role because academic institutions are still the credential gatekeepers in many areas. Yet, it is not difficult to imagine skipping the gatekeeper, devising open credentials that are used to recognize prior learning without the review of a traditional academic institution.

People already do this with their online presence. You can show your competence through your blog and/or digital portfolio, even more broadly through your online activity (candidly, I get enough consulting requests to replace and close to double my University salary simply through contacts via my blog). This is especially true in more emerging professions, ones that are not closely lined up with University majors or curricula. It is also the nature of some fields like programming or graphic design, especially when looking for consultants and contracted workers. If I want to hire someone to develop a high-quality video, I don’t care about your credentials. I want to see your portfolio and your references. Show me that you can do it well (and for a reasonable price) and you are hired.

I’m less comfortable with that approach when it comes to picking a surgeon. I want assurance that I have a highly competent person, and I seem to trust that their going through medical school and remaining board certified is good enough. Even then, I might also want to check patient reviews. For such professions, I understand the value of more carefully controlled pathways to the credentials. However, I an open to lessening the gatekeeping even in these professions as long as there is some sort of robust criteria for demonstrating competence. Besides, the number of professions that fit into such a category are relatively small.

The relationship between credentials and increased access and opportunity is a complicated one, and academic institutions offer a way to simplify things. The problem is that simplifying a complex problem may create other problems. I contend that the problems we’ve created are ones related to access and opportunity; ones related to unnecessary exclusion of competent people; ones related to monopolized credentials. I don’t expect things to change quickly. I’m not even sure if they will broadly change. Regardless, I see alternatives that seem to offer the promise a social good around openness, access and opportunity; and I believe that we will see this demonstrated on the micro level as people experiment with and apply open badges as a form of social/educational entrepreneurship.

As an odd conclusion to this article, I will offer an alternate proposal inDavid Labaree’s How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning.

In this book, however, I argue that it is time to consider whether the connection between schooling and social mobility is doing more hard than good. I show that the process of getting ahead often interferes with getting an education, and that the process of getting an education frequently makes it harder to get ahead. My aim is not to make the familiar – and generally valid – point that education grants its benefits disproportionately to those who are socially privileged. That argument naturally leads to the conclusion that we need to remake the educational system around a purer model of individual competitive achievement. My approach leads in quite a different direction. Instead of arguing that we need to make education into a more equitable mechanism for getting ahead, I argue that we need to back away from the whole idea that getting ahead should be the central goal of education” (p. I).

I came across a wonderfully thought-provoking quote. It was in a video created by Derek Muller entitled This Will Revolutionize Education. Early on, Derek critiques frequent claims that each new educational technology, whether it be the SmartBoard or laptop, will “revolutionize education.” He argued that such predictions rarely come true. What consistently does make the difference? According to Muller, it comes back to a couple basics: quality teachers and what takes place in the brains of each learner.

“Well, if you think that the fundamental job of a teacher is to transmit information from their head to their students, then you’re right, they [teachers] are obsolete. I mean, you probably imagine a classroom where this teacher is spewing out facts at a pace which is appropriate for one student, too fast for half, and too slow for the rest. Luckily, the fundamental role of a teacher is not to deliver information. It is to guide the social process of learning. The job of a teacher is to inspire, to challenge, to excite their students to want to learn. Yes, they also explain and demonstrate and show things, but fundamentally that is beside the point. The most important thing a teacher does is make sure every student feel like they are important, to make them feel accountable for doing the work of learning…The foundation of education is still based on the social interaction of teachers and students. For as transformational as new technology seems to be…what really matters is inside the learner’s head. And making a learner think seems best achieved in a social environment with other learners and a caring teacher ” – Derek Muller video on This Will Revolutionize Education

I’ll admit that my eyes start to roll when I hear and read the “teachers are what really matter” statements, not because I think teachers are unimportant. It is because the statements don’t seem to be backed up with any substantive philosophy or explanation. “Put a teacher in a room and magic happens.” I’ve been in enough classes to know that is not true. I suspect that you have as well.

So what is different about Muller’s statement? I see three things.

First, he places his comments about teachers within a philosophy of education that believes in the value and importance of social interaction. It is amid complex social exchanges that we see rich opportunities for learning everything from science to social studies, a new language to exploring the meaning in a new text. I don’t happen to think that this is the only way for high-impact learning to take place, but I’ve seen enough true learning communities and I’ve read enough scholarly research about the subject to know that social interaction is indeed a powerful force in education.

Second, he starts by explaining what he does not mean when he talks about the importance of teachers. He doesn’t mean lecturers. He does not mean people who think that content distribution is their greatest gift to students. He doesn’t mean people who teach an entire class as if all students think and learning in the same ways and same pace. He doesn’t mean people who ignore the unique needs, challenges and opportunities of each learner.

Third, he doesn’t just talk about teachers, and this is what makes the quote so rich and thought-provoking. Instead, he also devotes time to learners, what happens in their brains. As I’ve stated many times and in many places, the only essential ingredients of a learning learning experience are a learning and an experience. Learning happens in the brain. Students learn when they think…when they think deeply and persistently. When learners brains are working hard, neurons are firing and wiring together, creating memories, resulting new the acquisition of new knowledge and skill. For Muller, this best happens through social interaction between a student and caring teacher. However, even if one doesn’t accept that claim, the learner-centered statement stands on its own.

What if learning organizations only focused on this one critical factor, making it an unavoidable school-shaping concept? Learning happens when students are thinking deeply and persistently about something. Much of the work about instructional design, classroom management, and motivation is connected to this single concept. Get students thinking deeply and persistently about the subject and they will learn. This challenges the concept of lectures, but it doesn’t demand that we get rid of them. Instead, we ask if the lecture is getting each student to think deeply and persistently. This guiding question can inform how we go about blended and online learning, high-tech and low-tech learning, independent learning and collaborative learning. Is it getting students to think…to really think?

I don’t want to oversimply things. There are many other aspects of a high-impact learning experiences. At the same time, this statement gets to the heart of the matter. Learning happens in the brain, but it doesn’t happen unless that brain is active and focused on the desired knowledge or skill. It doesn’t come out of nowhere, but from thinking and doing hard things, and the teacher that matters is the one who focuses upon doing what it takes to gets students thinking.

Maybe you love the way things are going in modern education. Perhaps you are desperately looking for an alternative. Or, you might already be deeply rooted in alternative education or educational entrepreneurship. No matter. The following reading list is sure to get you thinking, exploring the possibilities, and shaping your own educational philosophy.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, and it is far from neutral. What I’ve included below are some of my favorite texts that challenging some of the more conventional ways of thinking about learning and education. These are texts that challenge us to rethink schooling and learning. Some are written for educators; others for the students or parents; and still others for policy-makers, educational difference-makers, or just people who care about education. Some are detailed and refined. Some are rough around the edges, but their ideas are penetrating, thought-provoking, and downright challenging to many things that often go unquestioned in modern educational organizations. What these books have in common is an ability to getting us thinking more deeply about education, inviting us to challenge the status quo, and providing us different perspectives than what we find in may classrooms and educational institutions.

I don’t expect you to agree with everything in these books. I sure don’t. However, each of these authors, in their distinct ways, help us look at things differently, whether it is how schools should run, what constitutes good assessments, what it takes to grow as a competent and confident learner, the role of entrepreneurship in education, or the meaning and value of grades and diplomas. I guarantee that reading these books, even five of them, will give you a new view of modern schooling.

  1. Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman
  2. What Does it Mean to be Well Educated? by Alphie Kohn
  3. Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook: A short Guide to Her Ideas an Materials by Maria Montessori
  4. Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment by Maja Wilson
  5. On Grades and Grading by Timothy Quinn
  6. De-testing, De-grading Schools: Authentic Alternatives to Accountability and Standardization edited by Joe Bower and P.L. Thomas
  7. Cool Colleges for the Hyper-Intelligent, Self-Directed, Late Blooming, and Just Plain Different by Donald Asher
  8. Social Entrepreneurship in Education: Private Ventures for the Public Good by Michael Sandler
  9. The Unschooling Handbook: How to Ue the Whole World As Your Child’s Classroom Mary Griffith
  10. The Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn
  11. How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education by David Labaree
  12. Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers by Malcolm Knowles
  13. Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling by David Labaree
  14. Schools for Growth: Radical Alternatives to Current Educational Models by Lois Holzman
  15. The Game of School: Why We all Play it, How it Hurts Kids, and What it Will Take to Change It by Robert Fried
  16. Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead but Don’t Leave by Barnett Barry and Ann Byrd
  17. The Future of Educational Entrepreneurship by Frederick Hess
  18. Starting a Sudbury School: A Summary of the Experiences of Fifteen Start-up Groups by Daniel Greenberg and Mimsy Sadofsky
  19. Getting it Wrong from the Beginning: Our Progressivist Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey and Jean Piaget by Kieran Egan
  20. Informal Learning by Jay Cross
  21. Hacking Your Education by Dale Stephens
  22. The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint-Exupery
  23. One Size Does Not Fit All by Nikhil Goyal
  24. Mind Amplifiers: Can Our Digital Tools Make Us Smarter by Howard Rheingold
  25. The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto

Imagine a healthcare system filled with professionals who aspire to serve the healthiest people. They establish hospitals for the people with the highest potential for recovery. They create a mass collection of services intended to help the healthiest people build upon their health to achieve new levels of greatness that would, in return, benefit the masses. When these healthcare professionals gather to look at where their performance statistics are declining, they turn things around by becoming even more exclusive, serving and even healthier clientele. Government and other overseeing entities establish a certain standard for the percentage of patients who have full recoveries in clinics and hospitals. Again, these organizations raise the bar for entry to their clinics. Serving the sickest might lower your stats, so why take the risk?

There are several flaws, over-simplifications and limitations to this analogy, but consider how some of the above represents the vision of no small number of higher education institutions today. There are faculty meetings around the United States where people are discussing how to raise the standard…for admission more than expectations while students are at the institution. As such, they are aspiring to find the “healthiest” students possible, offer further health tips, watch them graduate, and then proudly proclaim the heath benefits of their learning organizations. There are also institutions with much more of an open approach to admissions. They may still have minimum requirements for entry into different majors. These might be based upon the organization’s ability to help students at different achievement levels, along with an understanding of basic skills necessary to make adequate progress toward competence in a given area, but they are far from the elite or exclusive institutions around the country.

As I interact with faculty and University administrators around the United States and beyond, I find many perspectives on the purpose of higher education, just as there are widely diverse mission statements for these institutions. These varying missions drive them to focus upon serving different types of students.

Diamonds in the Rough – They see higher education as “fanning into flame” the gifts, talents and abilities already present in high-achieving students.

Future Scholars – Some think about it in terms of generating knowledge that benefits the world. As such, they seek the best researchers/scholars while also seeking to mentor the next generation of researchers.

Knowledge Creators – These are the schools that are not just about educating students. They are also about a community of learners/scholars that produces new knowledge and innovations that benefit society. This is part of the vision for some research-intensive schools.

Access and Opportunity – Others see higher education institutions as having the purpose of increasing access and opportunity to high-impact learning experiences that result increased opportunity for the rest of their lives. They strive for openness more than exclusivity.

Global STEM Competitors – Still other people argue that higher education institutions in the United States play a critical role in raising up a generation of thought-leaders, especially in growing STEM fields. As such, the purpose of the schools is largely to identity, nurture and raise up as many high-performing leaders in such fields…using any ethical means necessary. It is less about equipping each student, helping each gain new access and opportunity. It is instead about finding and cultivating the best STEM minds in the country (and beyond). Or, others see the goal as being about equipping increasingly larger numbers of people with education in STEM-related fields.

The Cultivated Mind – Many liberal arts institutions argue that a core purpose is to nurtured thoughtful and educated people. Truth, beauty, and goodness are emphasized, and an appreciation for them is cultivated in the students. And yet, some such schools seek to only nurture students who already show significant progress in this direction prior to admission. Still others aspire to expand this vision by welcoming a broader range of students and helping them to grow and develop regardless of where they were when they started.

There are many other goals and purposes as well, just as there is cross-over among these categories; and there is likely room for these six types of higher education institutions, along with a dozen others. Regardless, these distinctions challenge me to think about the goals that governments and societies have for higher education institutions. Much of the public discourse about higher education today is focused on topics like gainful employment for as many people as possible. That seems to call for an approach to higher education that is about more than educating those who need us the least. It seems to be a challenge to think about envisioning more forms of higher education that reach the most people by making education impactful, supportive, affordable, and accessible. While some argue that academic rigor (not my favorite word…I prefer high academic standards) calls for stricter admissions standards, this vision of higher education calls for stricter standards for teaching effectiveness, the quality of learning experience design, academic support, and affordability. Is it more rigorous to teach people who already have high levels of achievement or to raise the academic challenge bar while opening up access as much as possible? As I stated before, there is plenty of room for higher education institutions with different philosophies and purposes, but if we are going to address issues of access and opportunity, that calls for us to think about how to design more higher education institutions that seek to serve those who need them the most.

I love quotes. There is something about reflecting on a single sentence, comparing it to past experiences, conducting thought experiments about possible applications, and simply letting it help me look at familiar topics from a different perspective. In fact, over the years, I’ve challenged myself to take new ideas or lessons learned and turn each one into a single sentence, a sort of bumper sticker summary of the idea. It is a way to help me quickly remember a larger train of thought, but it is also a guide to help me further reflect upon or apply the concept. With that in mind, I offer these ten quotes about designing learning experiences. As you will see, a few of the quotes come from other people, but the others are examples of my attempt to summarize personal discoveries. Some are simple and straightforward. Of course, you’ll soon see these things for yourself. Enjoy!

  1. Could it be that pure face-to-face instruction will one day be considered educational malpractice? – paraphrase of Chris Dede at the 2007 Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning
  2. Distance education is a huge lecture hall with hundreds of students and minimal interaction. It is time for us to start measuring the quality of learning by more than labels like face-to-face, hybrid, or e-learning – paraphrase from a 2008 webinar with Darcy Hardy
  3. “In order to create an engaging learning experience, the role of instructor is optional, but the role of learner is essential.” – Bernard Bull
  4. “He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.” – Harold Wilson
  5. “…how many educators are able to keep the undivided attention of 5th graders for multiple hours straight without even a bathroom break? And yet video games manage to do it. As educators, we would be fools to ignore this phenomenon.” – Bernard Bull
  6. “All effective and engaging learning experiences provide frequent and meaningful feedback. Without feedback on whether one is getting closer to a goal, progress is unlikely.” – Bernard Bull
  7. “Give a person a six hundred page book on how to get out of a room with no doors and you’ll put them to sleep. Put a person in a room with no doors, have the walls gradually close in on them, give them the same book, and you have an engaging learning experience.” – Bernard Bull
  8. “Why do people fall asleep in class? It has nothing to do with how much sleep they got the night before, whether or not they are sick, or if they are hung over. The answer can be summed up in two words. Perceived meaninglessness. This is a key to designing engaging learning experiences.” – Bernard Bull (based upon a conversation with a student doing research on students falling asleep)
  9. “A key to the design of effective learning experiences comes from discovering the many answers to the following question. Why do students sometimes learn a ton from terrible instructors?” – Bernard Bull
  10. “When it comes to the design of effective learning experiences, one provocative question is worth a hundred proclamations.” – Bernard Bull

I am so thankful for the contributions of Howard Gardner. While his work on multiple intelligences is helpful, and I appreciate his newer work on the liberal arts in the digital age, creativity and leadership; I remain intrigued by the simplicity that he brings to the topic of his 2006 text on persuasion. In Changing Minds: The Art And Science of Changing Our Own And Other People’s Minds (Leadership for the Common Good), Gardner sets forth a series of elements that help to evoke mind change in ourselves and others.

  • Reason – logical argument
  • Research – data, observations, case studies
  • Resonance – sounds and feels right
  • Redescription – content is presented in a variety of ways
  • Rewards and Resources – sufficient rewards or punishments for mind change
  • Real World Events – significant changes in the world
  • Resistance Overcome – understand why one would resist the idea and then work to overcome that

My first reaction to the list was concern. These could definitely be used in an unethical manner. They could be used to hide truth as much as to reveal it, for personal gain and not the common good.

My second reaction was intrigue and acceptance. These are the things that change our minds. As an educator I have long accepted the fact that I am in the business of changing minds. That doesn’t have to mean indoctrination, but it does mean that I have the responsibility to influence the thoughts of others: from a student with no interest in reading to one who is skilled and enjoys reading, from one with limited self-confidence to one who has the courage to set and strive toward high goals, from one who doesn’t see the value of history or science to one who understands the value and nature of thinking like an historian or scientist… This is mind change. Even as I often write about the promise of self-directed learning, there is an aspect of changing minds as a I encourage people to embrace the challenge and opportunity of leading their own learning.

As I’ve been thinking more recently about alternative ways to approach lesson planning and instructional design, Gardner’s 7 elements came to mind. What would it look like to take an existing lesson and “bolster our case” using these items? Or even beyond lesson planning, if you are in a leadership capacity or seeking to build a case for a new innovation, these are helpful concepts. I’ve used them to do everything from writing a proposal for a new program to preparing a keynote presentation, to doing board education. Even more importantly, I’ve used them to convince myself of things, talking myself through each of these elements as I grapple with a new idea or possibility.