New Book – What Really Matters? Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education

What Really Matters Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary EducationIn 2015 I wrote a short article on this blog entitled “Ten Critical Issues in Education.” It was one of my most read and shared articles of that year on my blog. It clearly struck a chord with readers, which challenged me to think even more deeply about the subject. As such, I am excited to announce the result of that thinking, the release of my newest book: What Really Matters? Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education. This short text (only 120 pages in total) represents what I consider to be some of the more pressing issues in modern education. This is my attempt to challenge all of us to think deeply about what truly matters in education. I don’t expect everyone to agree with my assessment, but it is my hope and prayer that this little book serves as a resource for deep, deliberate, expansive thought and action in the contemporary education space.

If you are willing, I appreciate your partnership in helping to get the word out about the book.

You can order the book today at the publisher website. I will also update this section as soon as it is live on Amazon as well.

The Official Book Description

What really matters in education? Amid headlines about standardized test scores, global rankings of students from different countries, technology-enhanced learning, the unreasonable costs of higher education, and preparing the workforce of tomorrow, what really matters? If we want to pursue education reform and improvements that truly benefit the lives of current and future students, where should we focus our efforts? In What Really Matters?, Dr. Bernard Bull draws from over twenty years of research and experience to offer ten issues that truly matter if we are going to create rich, meaningful, rewarding, engaging, and impactful learning organizations that are rooted in the best ideas of the past while preparing people for the challenges and opportunities of the present and future. This is a text for educators, school leaders, community members, parents, students, policymakers, and others who aspire to move from educational buzzwords to some of the most important educational challenges and opportunities of our age.

A Couple of Early Reviews 

What Really Matters? is a must-read if you care deeply about how young people will fare in the twenty-first century. Bernard Bull–long a favorite thinker for those who care about transformational learning–offers ten themes that go far beyond the tired arguments that divide many educators. From discovering hidden talents to forging character to finding meaning, Bull offers observations and questions that will keep many of us busy for the next decade, if not longer.”
–Jeff Sandefer, Middle School Guide and Co-Founder, Acton Academy

“In What Really Matters? Bernard Bull brings a deeply moral sensibility to an analysis of issues that all too often are treated as mere technical matters of connecting effective means to unexamined ends. Bull illuminates the ways in which education is inescapably laden with human values and interests, and guides us toward reflectively engaging with fundamental questions of meaning as we make choices in education policy and practice.”
–Michael Olneck, Professor Emeritus of Educational Policy Studies and Sociology, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Our Technology Made Schools: Toward a Philosophy of Educational Technology

Is technology a neutral tool or does it have implications for fundamental questions about curriculum studies & the mission, vision, values and goals of contemporary educational institutions? How does technology shape our schools, curricula, teachers, students and leaders? With the growth of technology integration, blended learning, online learning and a myriad of applications of technology in education; this paper provides a set of definitions and three starting points for deeper reflection about such questions, considering the affordances and limitations of technology in modern education, challenging scholars and practitioners to consider the values amplified and minimized by various technological decisions.

Technology is Values Laden

If you ever attended a presentation on educational technology, there is a good chance that you heard the presenter make the comment, “It is not about the technology.” Such presenters usually continue by claiming that, “technology is just a tool.” This tool-based approach to describing technology makes intuitive sense, but it also risks missing several important facts about the role of technology in life and learning. As a result, following is a definition of technology that has promise to serve us in thinking more deeply about the nature and role of technology in education, as well as give us an important clarification about a philosophy of educational technology.

If technology is just a tool, what is a tool? Here is one common definition: “a device or implement, especially one held in the hand, used to carry out a particular function: ‘gardening tools’ (Oxford English Dictionary Online, 2015). In other words, specific tools are created for specific uses and not other ones, they have biases toward some applications and away from others. What would it mean for us to claim that a hammer is just a tool, and that it all depends upon how we use it? By this, we might mean that it is not the fault of the hammer if someone happens to use it to hit another person on the head. However, most hammers are created to hit things. In fact, different hammers are created to hit different things. While it is not the intent of a hammer to hit a person on the head, one is more likely to do that with unpleasant results than if the same person were holding a pillow. This is why we are more comfortable letting small children play with pillows than we are with hammers.

This example has other important elements. Some hammers have intended uses beyond hitting things as well. A ball-peen hammer, for example, was not created for the same purpose as a carpenter’s hammer. Or consider the fact that a gavel, a judge’s hammer, is mostly a communication tool. Imagine using a gavel to help build a birdhouse, or a judge opting to use a sledgehammer instead of a gavel. While it might reinforce the judge’s authority, it might also put a hole in the desk.

Is technology neutral? Is it just about how a person uses the technology? Or does the design of the technology itself impact how one uses it? The hammer illustrations seem to reveal that technologies have affordances (benefits) and limitations, a concept articulated more fully in several of Neil Postman’s texts (1985, 1992, 1995). Technology makes certain things possible and more likely. As a result, when something is more possible, we tend to think about that possibility. Sitting in front of a block of concrete that needs removal with a ball-peen hammer in one’s hand will not lead most of us to start chipping the pavement. Sitting in the same place with a sledgehammer is far more likely to lead and inspire one to think about taking a swing. The affordances of a technology lead us to consider possibilities that were otherwise hidden. Similarly, technologies have limitations. The limitations of that ball-peen hammer includes the fact that it is not an especially useful tool for a person needing to break up a concrete block.

Perhaps a different definition will help us think more broadly about technology in life and learning. Technology can be understood as applied systematic knowledge. We discover something, learn about how it works or functions, and then use that knowledge to design a tool or collection of tools to help solve one or more real-world problems. That design is a technology, knowledge applied to meet a need in the world. A carpenter needs to find a way to attach different types of wood. As human knowledge progressed, people invented nails and hammers as technologies to help accomplish such tasks. To say that hammers and nails are just neutral tools would not make sense in this context. The tool was created to solve a specific problem. Hammers like nails more than screws. It is not just about how the wielder of the hammer desires to use it. Regardless of the user’s skill or intent, hammering screws will produce unhelpful results. If an uninformed aspiring carpenter sought to ignore such facts, the results of trying to drive a screw into two pieces of wood would have an evident and qualitatively different end.

There are important exceptions to this. It is possible to “hack” a problem with a hammer, a term with new connotations in some aspects of popular culture (Urban Dictionary, 2015). A hacker can be seen as a person who uses technologies and resources in unexpected and often creative ways, using a tool to solve a problem for which it was not intended. One might, for example, use three hammers to entertain someone by showing how a skilled person can juggle them. One might be locked in a room and use an available hammer to break out of the room.

While it is possible to ignore the intended purpose of a given technology, things do not always work out. We might fail in these efforts, or we might succeed only to find one or more unintended consequences.  One can use a sledgehammer to solve a finish carpentry problem, but it might leave a few more dents and scratches than if one used the tool designed for the job.

Implications for Education

What does this extended example have to do with education and schooling in a technological age? Following are three potential applications. First, our definition of technology is too narrow, not leading us to consider the full impact of our technological decisions in schools. Second, if technologies have intended uses, we are wise to get informed about those uses, learning about the affordances and limitations of the technologies in our schools and lives. Third, current educational technologies are not as simple as the hammer example. Their intended uses are not as transparent. However, thoughtful reflection can help us to make wise decisions.

Broadening Our Definition

If we accepted the proposal of a broader definition for technology, that it is applied systematic knowledge, we soon discover ourselves surrounded by technologies, even in what we otherwise thought as the most low-tech school or classroom. While many think of technology in terms of computers, this broader definition invites us to think about thousands of educational technologies in our schools: bell schedules, pens, school desks, the configuration of classrooms, school architecture, grading systems, lesson plan templates, textbooks, curricula, even school policies and classroom management models. Inventors of such things gathered existing knowledge on the subject, organized it, and designed something to address a specific problem. Of course, technology also includes things like the Internet and the devices we use to connect to it, interactive whiteboards, cell phones, and web-based software and tools.

This broader definition of technology shows that educational technology and schools are inseparable. There are few examples of schools today that do not make heavy use of educational technology. Even the way that we separate subjects is a technology. Consider the fact that many study social studies as a distinct subject from science, math separate from language arts, and art separate from physical education. These are inventions and conventions, not discoveries.  They are taxonomies and organizational systems to help us categorize knowledge. This leaves us with a significant challenge and opportunity to better understand how all these technologies influence the mission, vision, values, and goals of a given learning community.

Exploring Intended Uses, Affordances and Limitations

With this broad definition of educational technology, we have the challenge and opportunity for reflection and study about the intended uses, affordances and limitations of them. Interestingly, there are no books (books, by the way, are an educational technology) that address the broad spectrum of school technologies in this way. We are often left to do our own homework (homework, by the way, is also an educational technology). Such an exercise is not something that is easily addressed by reading a quick resource on the subject. Instead, we find ourselves needing to research, to find lesser-known and referenced resources. Consider, for example, the fact that the contemporary letter grade system is, in the big picture, a young technology. Scan resources on the history of letter grades, and we find claims that they were first used in the United States in the early to middle 19th century (Cureton, 1971). Prior to that, much American education did not use the letter grade system. Taking the example of the educational technology known as the letter grade system, we then have the challenge of figuring out the intended use of the letter grade system, reflecting on the affordances of such a system, as well as the limitations of it. Only when we engage in such work do we begin to discover how this technology helps and hinders our deepest beliefs and values associated with schools in a specific time and location.

Neil Postman, a prolific author and social critic from the twentieth century, suggested that one ask the question, “What is the problem to which this technology is the solution” (Postman, 2007)? Consider that question with the grading system.  What problem was the grading system created to solve? Does that problem still exist today? Is it the best solution available to us? Are there potentially alternative solutions that better align with our distinct mission, vision, values and goals in education?

Complexity with Technology & Education

This concept of affordances and limitations is distinct from asking about what is good or bad. This study of the affordances and limitations recognizes that there are always benefits and limits to any technology.  No single technology is free from downsides. As such, it becomes important to spend time in reflection, study, and collaboration with colleagues that helps us become more informed about these matters. For example, using devices connected to the Internet as part of formal schooling can be justified in many ways. We return to Neil Postman’s question, “What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?” I will add a second question to that, “What are the possibilities made available by this technology?” Asking these and similar questions to educators, learners and other stakeholders is likely to produce different answers. We might hear responses like:

  • Using such tools and technology is an important public relations and marketing strategy so that people see us as providing a comparable education to the public schools.
  • It gives us access to an unprecedented amount of free resources.
  • It helps us equip students for the nature of life in a connected world.
  • It allows us to create more customized and personalized learning experiences for students, which further helps us embrace our call to meet the unique needs of each learner and not teach all learners as if they were the same.
  • It engages students who grew up in the digital world.
  • It allows us to connect with people and resources around the world, discovering more diverse perspectives and ideas in the world.

One need not agree with each of these reasons, but these are the types of affordances that people might point to when thinking about the adoption of a given technology or set of educational technologies. Getting informed about such affordances allows for my thoughtful decisions. Similarly, it is beneficial to recognize the limitations and the biases associated with them. Sticking with the example of devices connected to the Internet, people might share one or more of the following limitations:

  • It is expensive and takes away from investments in other aspects of education.
  • It exposes young people to inappropriate content and resources.
  • It can turn the classroom into something that focuses on “bells and whistles” and less on the important skills and content.
  • It leads to classroom management problems.
  • It contributes to young people who are more connected to devices than they are to people in front of them.
  • It promotes a digital divide between students with rich technology resources at home and those who do not have Internet access in their homes.

Again, the items in these incomplete lists are debatable. Nonetheless, they help us become more informed and intentional about our choices.

It is less advisable to rush ahead with educational technologies, while labeling those with questions and concerns as Luddites or self-serving. Read about the history of writing, and we find grave concerns from people like Socrates, who believed that writing would dull the memory. Of course, it was writing that allows us to even know that Socrates supposedly made such a claim. Yet, Socrates was correct. The art of memory is less prevalent and emphasized by people today (Foer, 2011). That is an accurate limitation of embracing such a technology. Nonetheless, most Americans are likely to find that the affordances of writing as a technology outweigh the limitations. In other words, we move forward in the reflective and thoughtful use of technologies, but do not move forward blindly or uninformed. We listen and learn from different perspectives, carefully considering affordances and limitations.

Even with such careful study, there can be unexpected consequences to educational technology decisions. As noted before, there are always benefits and limitations. Over time these unexpected consequences become apparent to us. Consider the massive media about the failed 2013 Ipad initiative in the Los Angeles public schools. This is a well-resourced team of decision-makers, and yet several challenges emerged that led them to cancel the program and collect all of the iPads they had recently distributed to each student (Gilbertson, 2014).

Given the inevitability of unexpected consequences, how do we prepare for this? This brings us back to the mission, vision, values and goals of the school. With any new innovation or educational technology adoption, it becomes important to start with a plan to collect data about how things are going, what is working well, what is not working well. In other words, the challenge of examining the affordances and limitations is not simply something that we do in advance of adopting a new technology. It is important to continue to explore this, even as we adopt and use a given technology. Consider the following questions and how a school or teacher might go about collecting data on these questions in an ongoing way. In conclusion, following are some potential questions for ongoing reflections about the many educational technologies that already shape the nature of life and learning in most American schools.

  • What is working and what is not?
  • If there are problems, it is inherent to the technology, or is to more related to how we are using it?
  • Are we noticing any unexpected consequences?
  • How is this helping to increase student learning?
  • What inequities are minimized or amplified?
  • How is it helping us to pursue the mission, vision, values and goals?
  • How is this technology changing the way that teachers teach and students learn? What are the benefits and drawbacks to these changes?
  • What is this technology amplifying and what it is minimizing?
  • Are the benefits worth the cost of this investment?
  • What adjustments could be made to make this work better?
  • Are there any students who are not benefitting or are being harmed from this new technology adoption?
Cureton, L.W. (May, 1971). The history of grading practices. Series Special from the National Council on Measurement in Education. 2(4). 1-8.
Foer, J. (2011). Moonwalking with Einstein: The art and science of remembering everything. New York: Penguin Press.
Gilbertson, A. (2014). The LA School Ipad Scandal: What Your Need to Know. NPR Radio. Retrieved at http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2014/08/27/343549939/the-l-a-school-ipad-scandal-what-you-need-to-know.
Hacker. (2015). In Urban Dictionary, Retreived at http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=hacker.
Tool. (2015). In Oxford Dictionary Online. Retrieved at http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/tool.
Plato, & Jowett, B. (1990). Phaedrus. Champaign, Ill: Project Gutenberg.
Postman, N. (1985). Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the age of show business. New York: Viking.
Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Knopf.
Postman, N. (1995). The end of education: Redefining the value of school. New York: Knopf.
Postman, N. (2007, July 17). Technology and Society. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uglSCuG31P4

What does it mean to be educated?

I flew into St. Louis last week to participate in what ended up being a rich and rewarding conversation with education faculty members at various schools in the Concordia University System. Little did I know that the taxi drive would also be a thought-provoking part of the trip. On my way home, I took a taxi to the airport (yes, it was one of those old school taxis, not an Uber). This was not your ordinary taxi. It was half car, half library. There were paperback history books with dog-eared pages sitting on the dashboard, a couple in the front passenger seat, and a few more resting between the two front seats. Before I even had my door closed, this driver was ready for conversation.

“What are you doing here?”

“What type of work do you do?”

“You are a professor of what?”

“So, what do you think about the state of higher education today?”

After asking seven or eight such questions, he offered his first conviction. “Look, I don’t have a college degree. I dropped out of college, but I read a lot, and I consider myself fairly well educated. It seems to me that college is really just more about work preparation and technical knowledge today. Do you agree?”

 

I started by affirming his conviction about being educated; noting that I certainly don’t think the definition of an educated person is defined by whether he has a college diploma. Then I responded to the second question. Has college become more about work preparation and technical knowledge? I acknowledged that there are indeed far more majors focused on specific career pathways, especially in healthcare, that there are plenty of business and education majors as well. Yes, these tend to be professional programs, but there is still a liberal arts core for these students where they study history, literature, philosophy, one or more sciences, and math. The conversation stopped for about thirty seconds, just silence.

“Do you mind if I ask you a question? Who was the president during World War I?”

Now there is swift shift in the conversation, and I certainly didn’t see the line of thinking, but there was a crystal clear connection for him. Perhaps you knew the answer right away when you read the question. Maybe you struggled to find the name. Maybe you didn’t have a clue. For him, this was a powerful and enlightening question. He went on to explain that one’s ability to answer this question is a litmus test for whether a person is truly education, or truly well read as he clarified. There is no possible way that you could be well read and not know the answer to such a basic question about United States history. His test included nothing about the Emancipation Proclamation; the Boston Tea Party; the Louisiana Purchase; the Manhattan Project; the Revolutionary War, Vietnam War, or Civil War; September 11, Apollo 11, the Bill of Rights; the Reformation or Renaissance; the Industrial Revolution; the history of major religions and religious figures; the Pax Romana; or the Gutenberg Printing Press. His test didn’t involve any literature, art, music, philosophy, science or math. The measure of an educated person comes down to knowing who was president during World War I.

I pushed and tested this conviction in subtle ways, but he was unswerving. For one reason or another, this question is what mattered most. As the conversation continued, I was apparent that well read for him meant reading lots of American history. That was the cannon of literature most important for a person. I didn’t disagree with his value of American history, but as I left the taxi and wandered to my gate at the airport, this exchange reminded me of an important reality about modern education. Everyone (and I mean everyone) has a personal philosophy and set of convictions about what it means to be educated, what really matters for a person. This is the root of many of our debates about education. It is why no one system, format, model or framework will completely win the day. It is why the American people are largely drawn to the era of school choice in which we find ourselves. It is why there are so many different types of higher education institutions, and likely why we will have even more in the future.

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.