A Bad Habit Worth Keeping: Debunking Our Own #Education Ideas

When it comes to new ideas, I have a bad habit that I intend to keep. I debunk my own ideas…at least I try. An idea that doesn’t hold up to a good debunking has questionable value. I might spend weeks or months unpacking a new educational idea. During this time, I’m likely to research it, experiment with it, and socialize it. When I share the idea with others and it is under scrutiny, that is when the most important work begins. Any idea that can’t hold up under critique isn’t an idea worth spreading. This doesn’t mean that we need widespread consensus to move ahead. Great ideas can be unpopular. That may speak to their lack of marketability, but it doesn’t speak to their truth and value. As Henry Ibsen is credited as saying, “The majority is always wrong; the minority is rarely right.

Even when we decide to devote significant time on an idea, I’m convinced that the more noble path is to persistently subject it to critique. I’d rather abandon a wrong idea after a decade than persist with it for a lifetime. Sometimes we conclude that an idea is downright wrong, deeply flawed, or even destructive. More often, the practice of persistent debunking gives us perspective. It leads back to a phrase that you’ll find throughout my blog, “affordances and limitations.” To the extent that an idea is a convention, technique or invention: it has benefits, things that it amplifies, or things that it makes possible. It also has limitations: downsides, things that it muffles, or things that it makes less likely or impossible. While we are tempted to turn a blind eye to the limitations of our favorite ideas, resisting that temptation is important. That is what allows us to refine the ideas. It is also what gives us the wisdom to discard others.

In 1949, Richard Weaver wrote what is now a classic text called, Ideas Have Consequences. In the 4th chapter, Weaver warns of the dangers of egotism, making the self the measure of that which is valuable. With egotism, people become increasingly bent toward what benefits oneself instead of what is true. People stop valuing the pursuit of truth and find themselves content fighting for and defending the preservation of self or one’s group. It is less about the affordances and limitations of an idea and more about the personal benefits and risks of the idea. How does it help me? How does it support my goals? How does it assist our group or organization in achieving its goals or meetings its benchmarks? Power becomes more important than truth or goodness.

When this happens around educational innovation and entrepreneurship, we find ourselves defending educational ideas because they are ours or because they benefit us, not because they represent what is best for learners. We embrace ideas because we enjoy them more than because they help us pursue truth, goodness, and beauty. K-12 teachers and University professors defend ideas that protect their preferred conditions or maintain the status que. Educational leaders defend ideas that grant them influence. Entrepreneurs or educational business owners protect ideas that grant adequate or substantial financial gain. Professional organizations and educational associations defend their agenda. We establish an educational system where power and personal or affiliate gain trump the pursuit of truth and goodness. This is not to suggest that we should completely disregard self-preservation and financial gain, but a field like education is one that demands a higher calling along these other realities.

As I consider how to think and act in such a context, I remain convinced that there is value in continued innovation; but innovation informed by a blend of humility, relentless analysis of affordances and limitations, and a willingness to sacrifice power and personal gain in the pursuit of truth and goodness in education, truth and goodness not only in terms of educational aims, but also means.

Bold But Humble Innovation: A Philosophical Primer for #SXSWedu

london-600921_640As I prepare to head out for what I hope to be an amazing conference at SXSWedu, I decided to take the time to remind myself about a few of my core values when it comes to educational innovation and entrepreneurship. Without question, I am a champion of educational innovation, but one of my core values in this arena relates to innovation with humility and any eye toward genuine social good. As such, I write the following as a reminder to myself and and invitation for others to join me in bold innovation that is seasoned with humility and transparency.

If you are a champion of educational innovation, an educational entrepreneur, or an educational technology evangelist; I contend that it is a moral responsibility to investigate the affordances and limitations of one’s work. There are wonderful benefits to educational entrepreneurship. There are also side-effects, even negative consequences. The same is true to pretty much anything that we do in life. Maybe it is easier to go about one’s work without knowing the downside, but I believe that all work in education is a form of social entrepreneurship. It exists to do more than generate revenue (which is a perfectly good and admirable outcome in many contexts). It is about seeking and pursuing some form of social good. As such, this calls for us to devote just as much scrutiny to our social impact as we do to the financial reports. It calls us to be interested in digging down through perception to what is really happening.

In 2001, Larry Cuban published, Oversold and Underused, a critique of the growing investment in computers and technology in schools. The book garnered cheers from some and sneers from others who thought it was little more than the complaints of a University Luddite who masterfully cloaked his fears in academic language. It was so much more than that. In the text, Cuban shared rich cases about mass purchases of technology in schools with not only limited positive impact, but even some significant negative consequences.

A couple of years later Todd Oppenheimer wrote The Flickering Mind, a less academic but equally strong critique, pointing to what we he saw as, “the false promise of technology in the classroom.” Oppenheimer made his case by describing multiple instances of technology adoption in schools and how they failed to deliver on the stated promises.

The more we embrace life and learning in the digital world, the more important and valuable it becomes for us to engage in ongoing, healthy, scrutiny of where we are going, what we are doing, what is being done to us, and what we are becoming. As Marshall McLuhan explained, “”We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us.”

I’m not arguing that we necessarily need to slow down, just that we leave room for questions, reflection, the relentless pursuit of data about the impact of what we are doing, and an ability to look at multiple sides and perspectives. I often find myself in meetings where I am advocating for an idea, and some might not agree with it. It is interesting how they sometimes seem confused or surprised when I agree with some of their critiques and add a few of my own. Why would someone join in critiquing their own idea or proposal? In my case, I do it because I believe that ideas have consequences, and that we are accountable for what we do. Even when we do it with the best of intentions, there can be unexpected negative results. As Neil Postman wisely pointed out, there are always winners and losers with a new technology, and that applies to new methods, strategies, philosophies, programs, ventures, products and services. It may make us feel better to ignore the negative impact of our work, but it does nothing to help us try to muffle or minimize those negative implications with the goal of maximum social impact.

Consider the nature of much political debate. How often do we hear politicians openly acknowledging or even personally pointing out the potential negative implications of one of their proposals? Some in media do not help the cause by polarizing people in their reports.

The same thing happens in education, even when it comes to publications and reports. When research comes out showing the low performance of some high school students in virtual schools compared to brick and mortar schools, how do we make use of that as advocates of online learning? Some might respond by ignoring it, minimizing it, or even trying to explain why it was not valid. It is certainly appropriate to assess the validity and reliability of any study, but taking the time to read and understand such research gives us wonderfully valuable information for online learning advocates. Why not learn from it and use it to create better online learning experiences with improved results? This example can apply to everything from micro-credentials to competency-based education, adaptive learning software to project-based learning, self-directed learning programs to blended learning initiatives and the maker movement in education.

My challenge is not that we hold up every new idea or ensure its demise by tearing it apart. We tear it apart to know what we are doing, to more fully understand the potential harm and help that comes from it. We critique to make it better, to genuinely and more fully understand the impact on real people with real needs. It would be malpractice for medical practitioners to ignore the most current research because it challenges their preferred methods. The same is true when it comes to educational innovation and entrepreneurship.

We can find some help from a less known area of study called media ecology. The Media Ecology Association consists of a wonderfully diverse and insightful collection of scholars who are, “dedicated to promoting the study, research, criticism, and application of media ecology in educational, industry, political, civic, social, cultural, and artistic contexts, and the open exchange of ideas, information, and research among the Association’s members and the larger community.” They represent a form of much-needed scholarship as we find ourselves in contexts that inch closer to propaganda and further away from a candid search for the truth and understanding.

Where do we go with these ideas? One step is to start or recommit ourselves to asking the tough questions, seeking answers to them, and creating time and space to talk through the implications. That also leads us to an obligation to act on what we discover. Another great starting point is to get informed about some of the thoughtful critics of our technological age. While there are new books coming out each year, I still find value in starting with some of the classics. Check out Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization, Neil Postman’s End of Education and Amusing Ourselves to Death, Marshall McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy, Water Ong’s Orality and Literacy, and Jacques Ellu’s The Technological Society. Many of these do not explicitly deal with education, but they are almost certain to help any thoughtful reader with developing a sensitivity to the types of questions that can help us as we explore the affordances and limitations of educational innovation and entrepreneurship.

With all this stated, I’m off to one of the most exciting education innovation events of the year!