Excessive Teaching Stifles the Love of Learning

Come to the edge,” he said.
They said, “We are afraid.”
“Come to the edge,” he said.
They came.
He pushed them. – Guillaume Appollinaire

I came across a picture recently where a parent or teacher was holding up a sign that said, “Excessive Testing Stifles the Love of Learning.” I agree. You could take an otherwise engaging activity (whether it be in the classroom, on the basketball court, in the wilderness, or even on the playground), and turn it into monotony by filling it with testing. That is just poor instructional design. Feedback and tracking progress are good, even important in many contexts, but testing isn’t the only way to do that. Just throwing tests into otherwise engaging learning environments does little to improve the learning environment. In fact, it can sometimes do the opposite. Yet, testing is not the focus of this article. As much as I agree that excessive testing stifles the love of learning, excessive teaching also stifles the love of learning. Excessive learning, on the other hand, is what I want to see.

What do I mean by excessive teaching? I’m referring to teaching that doesn’t leave room for students to learn how to self-direct and self-regulate. I’m talking about obsessive talking and explaining, filling in all the blanks, not leaving room for messy learning, and running the classroom like one is trying to control a team of bridled horses. As a way of explaining what I mean, I’ve included a series of six quotes followed by a brief commentary.

“Schooling, instead of encouraging the asking of questions, too often discourages it.” Madeleine L’Engle

Excessive teaching is about asking questions and often answering them too. What we want is a learning spaces where teachers ask questions, but students ask even more. And students are the ones exploring and grappling to find answers that often lead to more questions.

“None of the world’s problems will have a solution until the world’s individuals become thoroughly self-educated.” – Buckminster Fuller

Self-education and human agency go hand in hand. If we want to nurture a growing sense of agency in people, then that means less explicit teaching and more nurturing people on how to own and manage their learning.

“When you teach a child something you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself.” ~ Jean Piaget

Discovery is a precious gift. Excessive teaching robs learners of that gift. Or, it is at least a bit like running up to someone and unwrapping their birthday presents for them. Where is the fun and excitement in that…at least for the person with the birthday? We want to remove the equivalent in our classes. Teachers, please stop opening all the presents. Give the learners a chance at the fun and excitement.

“I think schools generally do an effective and terribly damaging job of teaching children to be infantile, dependent, intellectually dishonest, passive and disrespectful to their own developmental capacities.” ~ Seymour Papert

“Children learn how to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.” ~ Alfie Kohn

We want authentic, real-world (or at least simulated) activities where the learner is making decisions, experiencing and reacting. This is where some of the best learning happens.

” I learned most, not from those who taught me but from those who talked with me.” –  St. Augustine

Augustine’s quote represents the distinction between learning from and learning with. One is about control. The other is about community. If we can nurture robust and vibrant learning communities, then I think we can address many serious concerns about modern education. The answer is not more or excessive teaching. It is creating spaces for excessive learning.

New MOOC on the Power of Self-Directed Learning

I’m excited to announce the next MOOC that I will be hosting called Adventures in Self-Blended (and Self-Directed) Learning starting on August 15. All are welcome to sign up now through the end of the course. For those who are used to Coursera and EdX MOOCs, you may not know what to expect. My work tends to be, well, unconventional. I have every intention of making this MOOC a wonderfully enriching, quirky and unconventional learning experience. I tend to approach MOOCs less as courses and more like experiences that leverages the power of life in a connected world; and I am committed to making this a MOOC that helps celebrate and spark greater interest in the power of curiosity, a love of learning, human agency, and connected learning. If any of these interest you, I welcome you to sign up and help make this an experiences that amplifies the promise and possibility of self-directed learning in a digital age. While I am the course host, I aspire for this to be a course that leverages the wisdom and creativity of the community.

If you’ve participated in one of my past MOOCs (Learning Beyond Letter Grades, CheatMOOC, or Adventures in Blended Learning), you have some sense of what to expect; but I have a few new twists in mind as well. Yes, there will probably be some use of digital badges. We will leverage the power of crowd-sourced knowledge generation. There will be some suggested resources and live events with inspirational figures in the self-directed learning world. There will be challenges and resources to help you think about how to apply these ideas in your own life and learning communities. There will also be opportunity to connect and collaborate with others around the world.

What is self-blended learning? Some use it as a synonym for what they refer to as the a la carte form of blended learning where students select between face-to-face and online courses amid a larger course of study. I have been using the term differently. I am looking less at a course level, and more at the micro level. I use the phrase to represent students (or just people) taking the initiative to self-blend their learning.

This can include:

  • unschooling,
  • people in traditional schools who enhance/augment/supplement their otherwise traditional face-to-face learning by taking advantage of life in an increasingly connected world,
  • people building rich and rewarding learning experiences by mixing and matching resources, activities and communities online and offline,
  • learning in formal and informal contexts,
  • and pretty much any learning that taps into aspects of heutagogy and/or self-directed learning…usually by blending digital and physical resources.

I’m still working on the course design, and I will likely be doing so until the official start of the class. Well, that isn’t completely accurate because I treat MOOCs as dynamic communities, which means that the course will be in flux even as it is running as I and other co-learners contribute new ideas, activities, resources, and experiences.

I probably should have led with the compelling why, but in this case I’ll finish with it. Why a MOOC on self-blended learning? It is because I believe that curiosity, a love of learning, human agency, and connected learning are some of the most critical issues for our age. They are more important than testing, national standards, integrating technology, learning analytics and many other aspects of the contemporary education landscape. We read research showing that non-cognitive skills or signature strengths have a huge impact on lives of people. If we can help people discover how to own and shape their learning throughout life, then we have finally lived up to that age-old cliché about teaching a man to fish versus giving him one. The why behind this MOOC is nothing short of striving to draw as much attention as possible to the power and possibility of nurturing a generation of curious, courageous self-directed learners.

An Open Letter to President Obama On Free & Open Education

Dear Mr. President,

I’m writing regarding your recent announcement about a forthcoming proposed plan for making the first two years of college free in the United States. I realize that this is a startling concept for some, troubling for others, and that it will face many challenges from opponents. I understand that it may be unlikely to get the necessary support to move forward on a national level. It has only been days since the announcement and I’ve already ready dozens of critiques, some with good and important insights that might help to strengthen the proposal and assist us in making progress toward free and universal education. I also realize that making a public statement like this from the President of the United States has power and influence, even if the idea makes no progress on a national level. Your statement brought an important issue and opportunity to the public square. Even by giving attention to the idea and a comparable state-level program like the Tennessee Promise, you have challenged us as a nation to consider how we can be bold and committed to making progress toward increased access and opportunity to higher education and the jobs that require training beyond high school. I also recognize that, while your statements were about a specific idea, the spirit of such a proposal goes well beyond two free years of college. Thank you for the challenge. I would like help, and here are five ways that I will do so.

1. I will champion open education.

Open education is about removing barriers to education and learning. The digital revolution has thrust us into a world where such a vision is possible and scalable on a global level.  Current funding models in American higher education often make it difficult to imagine free and open educational opportunities, and yet widely supported movements like massive open online courses, open badges, open courseware and open education resources prove the power of shared vision and action in this area. Educational opportunities are more available than any time in history, and much of this has come from a spirit of social entrepreneurship, a concept that can serve us well as we dream of a more open, equitable and humane approaches to education.

2. I will champion making a greater distinction between evidence of what is learned and how it is learned.

As much as I believe that two free years of college is a move in the right direction (despite the fact that it challenges the existing model of higher institutions like the one where I work), I aspire to help un-chain evidence of learning from the academy. Today it is hard for many of us to imagine this possibility, but there is a movement underway that is making important progress in this area. We are a group of people involved with something called open badges, visual and digital symbols of achievements and accomplishments. While the concept of a digital badge is simple, it has tremendous possibilities, some of which we are seeing through hundreds of early applications and innovations, projects in after-school programs to competency-based graduate school, workforce development to support for veterans, professional continuing education to turning entire cities into inter-connected learning networks with a common and shared means of verifying and documenting accomplishments.

I am convinced that it is possible to take a set of standards, like what we see established for given professions, and to design competency-based digital badges that can be issued when people demonstrate that they met each of these standards. How they learn it should not matter. It might come from self-study, participation in open courses, through a local study group, through two free years of college, or through some fee-based course or program. By unbundling the “how” of learning from the credential we open doors to employment for people regardless of the learning pathway. I believe that this fits very will with your vision for two free years of college, but it takes it to a level where we are not just concerned with attendance at an institution. This makes sure that what we are doing is resulting in actual learning that translates into new opportunity in life and qualified candidates for many important jobs.

3. I will champion education that is open and accessible to people regardless of socioeconomic status.

While schooling has yet to prove itself to be a complete equalizer among people, true education has shown itself to crease access and opportunity to people regardless of socioeconomic status. It does not solve all problems of inequity, but it gives people a fighting chance. As such, I am committed to supporting, championing, even helping create programs and models that extend educational opportunity to all people, and doing it in a way that doesn’t give the “good stuff” to the élite and offer a more general or watered-down education to the rest.

4. I will champion education that empowers human agency, the capacity for self-direction, purpose-driven living, and service to others.

I believe in a liberal education for all, liberal in the classical sense, which is about education of a free person. It is the education that treats each person as free, inherently valuable, and capable of agency and self-direction. Such a conviction calls for something greater than more education. It calls for a type of learning that equips, empowers, and nurtures people who do more than follow and comply. It invites people to lives of courage, creativity, personal conviction, and personal responsibility.

Too many people are limited by not having a sense of the possibilities, and I will work to promote education that helps people grow into a sense of purpose and possibility. This comes from people who live and think with agency, but who have the opportunity to benefit from learning experiences that invite them reflect  upon their life’s purpose and calling. As such, I will champion education that invites people into the life of the hero’s journey, one that embraces the opportunity to use one’s distinct gifts, talents and abilities in service to others; and that embraces life as a gift and grand adventure.

5. I will advocate for educational innovation and entrepreneurship that furthers the pursuit of the above four goals.

I commend the vision for two free years of college, and this is a good and important step in the right direction. However, if I understand the spirit of such a proposal, I am convinced that this calls for a reform and re-imagining of education that goes beyond removing the cost of tuition. As such, I am excited about the good and important innovation and entrepreneurship work being done in the public and private sector. I will continue to write and work for a vision of innovation in the education sector that is rooted in a desire for social good and accountability for the impact of one’s products and services. At the same time, I will support and bolster responsible experimentation, thoughtful educational entrepreneurship, and purpose-driven innovation.

I support your proposal, Mr. President…not necessarily every letter of it (I have not yet seen it). Perhaps it is best done by supporting and empowering states to do it. Maybe there is another way. In the end, I am open to many ways of getting at the same thing whether it happens nationally or locally. We can almost always find a workable “how” if only we allow ourselves to be immersed and inspired by a compelling “why.” We have a wonderfully compelling “why” for increased access and opportunity to education. As such, I support and seek to build upon the spirit of your proposal. Thank you for giving such attention to this important topic in education.


Dr. Bernard Bull

Broken or Blessed by Learning Communities?

I came across a stirring quote from Henri Nouwen that invited me to think about its implications for learning organizations, “Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.” If you don’t know Nouwen, he was an accomplished academic and author of close to 40 books. Nouwen was a Catholic priest who spent two decades teaching first at Notre Dame, then Yale and Harvard divinity schools. His books tell a candid and authentic story of life, faith, struggle, compassion and living in service to others. In 1986 Nouwen moved from the lecture halls of the academy to a community called,L’Arche Daybreak, a living community where people with disabilities are welcome, loved, and nurtured. If you have seven minutes, the following video gives a glimpse into L’Arche from the perspective of a good friend of Nouwen, Jean Vanier. If you don’t have the time, I encourage you to at least watch the first minute or two.

Vanier describes his first experiences leading up to the formation of L’Arche, when he says, “…through his body, through his eyes, he was craving relationship. ‘Do you want to be my friend?’ ‘Will you come back?’ So, everything was around relationship, whereas, with my students in philosophy it was around ideas.” Vanier goes on to explain the experience of meeting people with disabilities who seemed feel as if they were living on this earth “with nobody wanting them.”

In the video, Vanier describes the meaning behind the name, L’Arche, or The Ark. In the story of Noah’s Ark, Noah welcomed the creations from around the world into his ark to save them from the flood. Vanier uses this story to explain that many people with disabilities are washed away in the flood of this world: not given places of freedom, killed before or after birth, placed into institutions. As such, the vision of L’Arche grew out of Vanier initially inviting two men with disabilities to live with him. In essence, L’Arche is a vision for warm, welcome, inviting, liberating community. As I’ve learned about L’Arche over the years, I’ve come to understand it as community that is rich with freedom and compassion, not a condescending hand out understanding of compassion, but one that truly loves and honors the people in this community.

For many young people, next to the home, school is the community in which they will spend the greatest amount of time in their young lives. The formative experiences of living in these communities have a significant and over an extended period, dramatic impact on the way young people view themselves, others, and the world. This is why I persistently argue for school options and choice, because every community teaches a worldview.

As I think about Nouwen’s quote and the community to which he devoted the last decade of his life, it prompts me to wonder about what one participant in my Adventures in Blended Learning MOOC referred to as humane education. I think of that as education that happens in a hospitable, safe community; one that is not only focused on outcomes, tests, and ideas; but that invests in relationships. I am not suggesting that schools take on the greatest social issues of society. That is a broader social and community responsibility. Yet, the nature of the communities in which we learn helps to shape the ways in which we learn to interact with others. This is why I often write with advocacy for self-directed learning and choice. What does it do to a person to spend over a decade in learning communities driven almost exclusively by authority, control, and the highly elevated value of compliance? What are the lessons learned (even if they are not explicitly taught) in such a community?

Democracy depends upon participation and hospitality, upon not simply protecting the “rights” of those who are least capable of defending themselves. I contend that it is also about creating spaces where people have freedom, where they are honored, and their contributions are valued. What happens when students spend years in a school culture dominated by tests and measures, outcomes without regard for community and process, and that celebrates those who meet or exceed established norms and standards while often remaining silent about those who do not fit the mold. Silence can scar as much as insults (as can be attested to by the child begging for a parent’s attention while the parent is zoned out on the laptop or cell phone).

If any of this resonates with you, then what are the implications for how we design learning communities? Is there room for the spirit of L’Arche in our school system? Schools are indeed about learning, but is there value for us to recognize that so much more is learned than what is tested? How can that be a greater part of our conversations about education reform?

This has implications for things like worforce development as well. Over the years, I’ve been fascinated by how people bring their past experiences with community to new jobs and communities. I’ve seem people who struggle so much to find joy in the tasks of their work, to be independent in their decisions, to thrive in a context in which they are not told what, when, and/or how to do it. I’ve seen leaders who never or rarely experienced this either, so they think that direct orders, being firm and quick, or being assertive are somehow the critical traits of an effective leader. There is a time for these, but work also takes up large parts of our lives, and as much as making money is an important part of a business, it is possible to create great communities at work, places where people are valued, honored, given space for independence an choice, and invited to flourish. Why not cast a vision for such work places by being intentional about the way we shape our learning organizations, from preschool to high school, undergraduate to graduate studies?

Let’s return to the Nouwen quote, “Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.” A professor of mine years ago exclaimed that, if you are in education, you are in the business of changing and influencing people. I don’t disagree. It is just a matter of how that change takes place. Medical schools certainly need to establish standards of performance for students. The well-being of future patients depends upon it. Yet, even in such a high stakes learning community, isn’t there room for spending as much thought and care in designing experiences where people care and have compassion, a space where people have freedom to change without it being thrust upon them. Again, this is not about letting medical students do whatever they want, but it is a suggestion that there is room for a little Patch Adams in all learning communities.  How much more is this true when we think about K-12 education, community college and technical training, and even professional development and learning in the workplace? As education becomes more focused on data and measures, how can we measure the extent to which our learning communities are hospitable, the extent to which participants are broken or blessed by them?