Willful Blindness & Educational Management

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about willful blindness amongst the professoriate. Today, at the risk of some repetition, I’m going to look at the problem amongst the managers of our educational institutions.

In my a previous post, I presented the sorry state of affairs in equipping our graduates with thinking skills. The ability to engage in formal operational thinking may be inherent, but the skills necessary to use formal operational thinking must be taught. With up to 45% of our graduates unable to engage in formal operational thinking, we aren’t doing a good job of teaching it. This is what the higher in higher education stands for, higher thinking skills.

The story of Libby, Montana best illustrates the concept of willful blindness – I’ve provided a link, but reprint it here because it is important to know:

The town had a vermiculite mine in it.

Vermiculite was used for soil conditioners, to make plants grow faster and better. Vermiculite was used to insulate lofts, huge amounts of it put under the roof to keep houses warm during the long Montana winters. Vermiculite was in the playground. It was in the football ground. It was in the skating rink. What she didn’t learn until she started working this problem is vermiculite is a very toxic form of asbestos.

When she figured out the puzzle, she started telling everyone she could what had happened, what had been done to her parents and to the people that she saw on oxygen tanks at home in the afternoons. But she was really amazed. She thought, when everybody knows, they’ll want to do something, but actually nobody wanted to know.

In fact, she became so annoying as she kept insisting on telling this story to her neighbors, to her friends, to other people in the community, that eventually a bunch of them got together and they made a bumper sticker, which they proudly displayed on their cars, which said, “Yes, I’m from Libby, Montana, and no, I don’t have asbestosis.”

But Gayla didn’t stop. She kept doing research.The advent of the Internet definitely helped her.

She talked to anybody she could. She argued and argued, and finally she struck lucky when a researcher came through town studying the history of mines in the area, and she told him her story, and at first, of course, like everyone, he didn’t believe her, but he went back to Seattle and he did his own research and he realized that she was right. So now she had an ally.

Nevertheless, people still didn’t want to know.

They said things like, “Well, if it were really dangerous, someone would have told us.” “If that’s really why everyone was dying, the doctors would have told us.” Some of the guys used to very heavy jobs said, “I don’t want to be a victim. I can’t possibly be a victim, and anyway, every industry has its accidents.” But still Gayla went on, and finally she succeeded in getting a federal agency to come to town and to screen the inhabitants of the town — 15,000 people — and what they discovered was that the town had a mortality rate 80 times higher than anywhere in the United States.

That was in 2002, and even at that moment, no one raised their hand to say, “Gayla, look in the playground where your grandchildren are playing. It’s lined with vermiculite.”

This wasn’t ignorance. It was willful blindness.

It is easy to say that what happened in Libby has nothing to do with higher education. Institutions ignoring the evidence about lecturing and not teaching students higher order thinking skills, and even defending their practices in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is just plain wrong, is willful blindness.

One of the management mantras that is heard over and over again is efficiency. We must strive for efficiency at all cost. Efficiency in teaching means large (or maybe small) lectures. Teaching efficiency, at an institutional level, means lecture theaters. The biggest impact and the most loudly trumpeted signs of institutional capital investment are the big beautiful atriums built to impress, followed closely by the ever larger, better-equipped lecture theaters.  The evidence tells us that around 90% of teaching in higher education is done through lectures, and a walk through almost any higher education building will affirm this through the literally hundreds of tiered teaching spaces built to direct all attention to a single focal point – the lecturer. Lectures don’t work! As Gibbs writes:

More than 700 studies (referring to Blighs work) have confirmed that lectures are less effective than a wide range of methods for achieving almost every educational goal you can think of. Even for the straightforward objective of transmitting factual information, they are no better than a host of alternatives, including private reading. Moreover, lectures inspire students less than other methods, and lead to less study afterwards.

For some educational goals, no alternative has ever been discovered that is less effective than lecturing, including, in some cases, no teaching at all. Studies of the quality of student attention, the comprehensiveness of student notes and the level of intellectual engagement during lectures all point to the inescapable conclusion that they are not a rational choice of teaching method in most circumstances.

Corrigan looks at the debate about lecturing and says about those defending and supporting lecturing:

In some ways these apologia accentuate the dividing line in the lecturing debate. They praise various aspects of lecturing, while criticizing alternative methods. These rhetorical moves reinforce the idea of a two-sided debate, lecturing vs. not lecturing. Their skirting of the research on the subject puts them on the less convincing side, in my view.

This evidence cannot have escaped the notice of institutional management. Lectures lead to assessments that encourage cramming and the use of episodic memory as a way to get through the test. Students don’t learn to think, they learn to pass tests. With 70% of this year’s incoming cohort here for the purpose of getting a qualification so they can get a job, the game works for them.

What is the cost to our wider society of our institutional willful blindness? In Libby, Montana, the cost was real and measurable in needless lives lost. Is there a cost to society of the willful blindness effecting higher education?

I would argue that there is, and that cost is enormous. Not equipping our students with higher order thinking skills is having a devasting effect on our society. It is a cost that means that many of our societal problems don’t get addressed since the ability to fill in a multiple choice answer sheet does not equip our graduates with the ability to address them. Poverty, dealing with dementia, crime, global climate change, the lost goes on and on and a society well equipped with formal operational thinking skills (higher order thinking skills) would be a society equipped to really address these problems with the only capital that will make a difference – well developed human capital.An example of what these higher order thinking skills

An example of what these higher order thinking skills that I am talking about illustrate what I mean:

  • purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or conceptual considerations upon which that judgment is based (Facione, 1990, p. 3)

People who do not or can not engage in higher order thinking skills don’t grasp the use of evidence in argumentation. Evidence means nothing.

What do you think it was that allowed the residents of Libby to keep on denying what was happening in their town in the face of overwhelming evidence. To them, evidence means nothing!

What do you think it is that allows normal everyday people (many with higher education degrees) to keep on denying global climate change in the face of overwhelming evidence. Without higher order thinking skills, evidence means nothing!

Because of our almost exclusive focus on efficiency in teaching as best management practice, we are one of the primary contributors to this state of affairs. The collective willful blindness of higher education management (and the professoriate they represent) is costing society incalculable suffering, and there is no real end in sight.

I have looked for an enlightened institution where this is not the case and have yet to find one. If you know of one, please let me know. Somewhere there has to be an institution where teaching students to think is their primary purpose – as a reality and not just a slogan. Help me find it so we can have somewhere we can look for inspiration and guidance.

The cost of our willfully ignoring what we know to be true is beyond imagination.

How could we take something as natural and wonderful as learning and turn it into education?


Alternative Healing & Education

Most of us look at traditional naturalistic healing methods with well-founded skepticism, and for a good reason. There is no acceptable evidence that they work. Anything published relies on anecdotal evidence which are stories from someone who tried one and it worked miracles for them.

Rubbing coconut oil on the back of your hand to cure Alzheimer’s dementia; a few minerals in the right balance will cure mental illnesses; colloidal silver to cure cancer and heart disease; an essential oil sprinkled on a crumpled kleenex next to your bed will draw out all of your childhood trauma. As unbelievable as these sound, they are practiced by and sworn to work for a significant minority of people. Harmful for a minority when they reject mainstream medicine for the alternatives but with little or no impact on the rest of us.

What does this have to do with education? In Nature Reviews Neuroscience, October 15, 2014, Howard-Jones published a study looking at a range of neuro-myths practiced by teachers. These myths have as much evidence underlying them as the alternative healing methods listed above (and many more). Here is a table showing the myths and what Howard-Jones found.

Neuro-Myth Percentage teachers who agreed with the statement
We mostly only use 10% of our brain 49
Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (for example, visual, auditory or kinaesthetic) 96
Short bouts of co-ordination exercises can improve integration of left and right hemispheric brain function 77
Differences in hemispheric dominance (left brain or right brain) can help to explain individual differences amongst learners 80
Children are less attentive after sugary drinks and snacks 53
Drinking less than 6 to 8 glasses of water a day can cause the brain to shrink 18
Learning problems associated with developmental differences in brain function cannot be remediated by education 28
The table shows some of the most popular myths. Teachers were asked to indicate their levels of agreement with statements reflecting these popular myths, shown as “agree”, “don’t know” or “disagree”. The table shows the percentages of teachers within each sample who responded with “agree”.

Some of these myths are harmless enough in an educational setting, however, some are seriously harmful. These myths have as much validity as the alternative healing methods listed at the beginning of the article. However, belief in them effects not just a small minority like the alternative healing methods do. These myths effect millions of learners.

One of the most serious is the myth of learning styles believed by 96% of teachers. How is this harmful? When looked at from the perspective of Dweck’s mindset research, it is devastating to a learner.Dweck began her career looking into why girls perform worse at math than boys, a finding that has been found at almost every level. Her research found that girls performed worse at math than boys because we all know that girls are worse at math than boys. The girls believe this and so don’t try because they can’t do it anyway.

Dweck began her career looking into why girls perform worse at math than boys, a finding that has been found at almost every level. Her research found that girls performed worse at math than boys because we all know that girls are worse at math than boys. The girls believe this and so don’t try because they can’t do it anyway. Almost every incoming undergraduate questioned for three years in a row knew what their learning style was (it had been carefully measured). If I believe that I have a certain learning style (like the girls who know they can’t fo math) I can’t really learn when information is presented in a different modality from the one that I have. This is not harmless, this is damaging to learning.

What does this have to do with higher education besides our students arriving believing strongly in their learning style? The learning styles myth is one of the bedrock principles taught in our education departments and schools and most of the other neuro-myths are taught there as well. Virtually every university has a teaching and learning enhancement center to help lecturers improve their teaching. The philosophies and practices espoused in these learning centers originate from an educational perspective.

There is nothing unnatural about this. We trust those who study and teach education in our institutions to base their teaching about how people learn on good solid evidence. However, we must remember that education, as a subject, is not an evidence-based subject. At least when it comes to how people learn. Education is about teaching, not about learning.

We need to change the practices in higher education and begin to look at the what the evidence says about how people learn and align our teaching practices to the evidence.

How could we take something as natural and wonderful as learning and turn it into education?

Teacher Cognition (again)

All of us in higher education know about teacher cognition even if we are not familiar with the term. Because of our own educational experiences, by the time we get to university, we are all experts at teaching, and our university experiences simply sharpen that expertise. If we look at what Borg has said about teacher cognition, we can pull out some of the features that will help us understand how teacher cognition influences higher education.

  • teachers are influenced by their own experiences as learners;
  • these experiences act as a filter through which teachers interpret new information and experience;
  • previous educational experiences determine much of what we do in a classroom;
  • teacher cognition is deep-rooted and resistant to change;
  • educational experiences from k-12 through higher education exert a persistent long-term influence on teachers’ instructional practices;

In addition to some of Borg’s insights, we know that in higher education, the single largest influence on how we teach is how we were taught while at university.

The evidence we have for knowing our teaching expertise based on our own educational experience is incontrovertible, it is you! Just look at how brilliantly you turned out! Given how brilliant you are, the methods used to get you to where you are must be just as brilliant. Why wouldn’t you use them to make your students just like you? If they fail to get there, it isn’t your fault. You are proof of that. If they don’t measure up, it is the fault of the student.

We know that about 10% of the population consistently engage in formal operational thinking. I have no evidence for this, but I would think that those who end up in academic positions at universities would consistently use formal operational thinking in viewing the world around us. What that means is that we aren’t the same as most of our students. We somehow figured it out, in spite of the methods used to teach us. Why then would we continue to use the exact same methods that result in getting only about 40% of our graduates to demonstrate measurable improvements in their formal operational thinking ability?

We know that teacher cognition is deeply resistant to change which would be some of it. General inertia is some of it. A lack of interest on the part of the professoriate (8% will read anything about teaching this year). I think wilful blindness plays a big part. We know from mountains of evidence that what we are doing has been shown to be ineffective for learning, and yet we refuse to change.

Given how resistant to change teacher cognition is, all we can do is to keep talking about change and hope that the integrity of the individuals brings them to a state of real self-reflection and a desire to find out and then change.

Cramming – You Don’t Learn from Episodic Memory

Actually cramming works to pass a test, and for millions of students that is the only goal for their education. Eighty-five percent of the students entering university in 2016 were doing so in order to get a qualification that would lead to a better job. For them, cramming works, because they have no intention to learn anything, just get a degree.

Research tells us that immediately following a lecture, students recall about 42% of the material. Two weeks later, they recall about 20%. A year later, they recall less than 10%. Although cramming will get a student through an exam, they don’t really learn anything.

The why is really quite simple. When students study for a test they are using what is called episodic memory. Episodic memory is a type of memory that we use every day. When you think about what you ate for breakfast this morning or what you ate for dinner last night, you really don’t have much trouble remembering. That is your episodic memory. However, if you try to remember what you had for lunch a week ago last Tuesday there are few if any of us who could recall the delectable feast. If I ask you what you did on Tuesday afternoon on January 17 of this year, unless you have a regularly scheduled event of participated in an emotionally charged event, it is very unlikely that you could tell me what you were doing. Even if you could tell me because you have a regularly scheduled event on Tuesday afternoons, there is an almost zero probability that you could remember what exactly took place at your event that day. That is because episodic memory isn’t designed to remember that way.

Episodic memory is the type of memory students use when they cram for an exam. They put a lot of information into their episodic memory that they have no intention of retaining, they use the information to get through the exam (some doing very well), and then they dump the information as being useless in the same way that we dump the memory of climbing the stairs to somewhere on March 15th.

Episodic memory is the kind of memory we use when we have regularly scheduled lectures to attend. Writing down the information has a negligible effect on remembering more than sitting passively. Having notes available does not help at all. The purpose of handwritten notes or lecturer provided notes is to provide the student with information that they can use for cramming.

The system works. Lecturers put in minimal effort. Students put in minimal effort. Graduates get degrees. Everyone is happy.

How could we take something as natural and wonderful as learning and turn it into education?

The Failed Promise of Technology

Why is it that technology has not revolutionized education. The promise of the decades has failed to fundamentally change education in any meaningful way. With all the educational technologies promising to change the world, I still have to agree with  William Bagley (1934) “If I were seriously ill and in desperate need of a physician, and if by some miracle I could secure either Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, or a young imgresdoctor fresh from John Hopkins School of Medicine, with his equipment comprising the latest developments in the technologies and techniques of medicine, I should, of course, take the young doctor. On the other hand, if I were commissioned to find a teacher for a group of adolescent boys, and if by some miracle, I could secure Socrates or the latest Ph.D. from Teachers College, with his latest technologies and techniques of teaching,… I am fairly certain that I would jump at the chance to get Socrates.”

Why? Why? Why?

We’re coming up to almost 100 years since Bagley said this with some of the greatest technological advances in the history of the world, and we’re still here. Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) would be impressed with PowerPoint and a data projector, but otherwise would be unimpressed with the way we do things in education.

With all the progress we have made in the last 150 years, where have we come (or not) with education? Lecturing (memorize and regurgitate) still comprises about 90% of the learning experiences in our institutions of higher education. The ability of our graduates to actually think barely increases in the time they are with us. We have finally entered the age of information ubiquity. Technology has emerged that has the potential to transform how we learn. And yet, here we are.

Why is it that the best we have been able to do with the promises of technology is to take the worst of our educational practices and digitize them? Why are we still training students for jobs and occupations that existed 50 years ago? No one wants to use technology to change what we are doing, we want use technology to change how we are doing what we have always done.

Why is it that the subjects that should be driving changes in the way we learn are doing so poorly. According to Arum and Roksa, education has one of the worst track records when it comes to teaching their graduates how to think. Change in the way we do things is not going to emerge from there. Psychology, where the study of how people learn has been going on for some 150 years, has a lecturing rate exactly the same as the rest of higher education. Resistance from the field is exactly the same as the resistance encountered everywhere else.

When are we going to stop for a moment of serious self-reflection? When are we going to begin to really ask the questions that will lead to something different? When are we going to actually change what we do in order to make a difference? When are we going to change our model of education from a model of information scarcity to a model of information abundance?

We all know that any time a system works for people there is massive resistance to change. The system has worked for us and so why change it.

Instead of just thinking of ourselves and basking in our own brilliant success, shouldn’t we think about our obligation to make our society a better place? Isn’t it time for us to make a transformational change that will result in transformed graduates who can transform the world? Or is this just asking too much?

I don’t believe it! We can do better! We can do this! Let’s find a leader who can take us there!

How could we take something as natural and wonderful as learning and turn it into education?

What is Needed for Learning to Think

There are three primary ingredients necessary to teach students how to think. They are 1) a way to motivate the students to engage in the process, 2) the ideal way for them to learn how to think, and 3) a technology that allows you to bring the other two together and scale it up to class sizes just under 100. It took some time for me to find a way to bring all three together, but I figured it out and have been teaching that way for about seven years now.

The method of teaching works when the students have a basic background in the subject. This method has worked across a variety of subjects from Learning and Education  and Social Cognition (subjects you would expect the students to love learning with the method I use), to Advanced Research Methods. When you teach students they way they learn and include for them a chance to learn how to think the results are amazing.

Some of the student comments from over the years can give you a flavor of what their experience is like (I love it, and I’m not kidding). I’ll give you a random selection from each year so you can see what they say. I promise you, I am not picking the best to impress you. This is what I hear over and over again. Students love to think, and when they get a chance, this is what they say.

I think it has given the majority of us a new perspective on the education system, giving us the opportunity to experience self-directed learning. Comparing this to other teaching methods, it seems hard to understand why methods like this aren’t used more often, especially in higher education. I don’t think I previously realised the true value of the ‘deeper learning’ which is associated with experiential learning and problem solving; whilst these don’t initially seem to apply to this module, I would argue that presenting an argument on your topic every week, and thinking creatively to comment on others’ blogs, both of which require a lot of research and a good understanding, do encourage deeper learning. (https://bonitadavies.wordpress.com/)

Before beginning the (MA) degree I expected nothing more than long tedious lectures consisting of note taking and doodles, how wrong was I? Never in my four years of undergraduate study have I experienced learning in such an effective way, and dare I say it – fun! I’ve learnt more in this module that has ‘no teaching’, than I have in any other so far. My only critique of this module is that it makes going to other lectures very hard! Thank(s) so much for a great learning experience; let’s hope others adopt (this) teaching model. (https://psp2c0.wordpress.com/)

Over the past 3 years, we have been exposed to ‘traditional’ teaching environments – all of us sitting in lecture theatres, facing forward in silence, listening to the ‘expert’. What have we learnt in these environments?

What Educators Think: We have gathered a vast knowledge and understanding of the topic. We are prepared for the upcoming exam.

The Reality:   We have updated our facebook statuses. Our doodles have become more advanced. We have learnt to sleep subtly.

This module has demonstrated the success of modernised learning environments. I have learnt more across the last semester than I ever have in any other module. I am driven to learn. I am excited to read my peers’ ideas.

I have been inspired and excited by this educational module and only hope that we begin to see more flexible and student-driven programmes in the future! (http://psyched101.wordpress.com/)

If I had to sum up this module in a single word, it would most likely be refreshing; this module has rejuvenated a part of education that I had long since forgotten, a desire to expand my knowledge for my own benefit, not just learning for the benefit of high grades.

It’s quite clear to see then that the reason this module is such a success is because it uses many concepts that provide excellent learning methods – concepts that the module actually teaches us about! It teaches us about teaching through teaching! It’s a metamodule! (http://psuafc.wordpress.com/2012/04/20/week-10-reflection/)

For me the most significant experience was how the module induced feelings of cooperation, with amazing support and words of encouragement off peers when performing presentations, respect from others for differing opinions and amiable responses that introduced conflicting evidence

All in all, this module has been amazing, empowering, engaging, motivational… obviously highly EDUCATIONAL… and so much more!!! (http://spc69.wordpress.com/2012/04/18/reflection/)

I can honestly say I have enjoyed the module. By no means has it been an easy ride, the work load has been much more demanding as you had to produce a good standard of work on a weekly basis.  Despite the hard work, I haven’t been sat in a lecture with hundreds of others bored, frustrated and not understanding concepts being presented. Instead I have taken an interest in others work, enjoyed divulging in extra research and writing about topics that I care about. I think this is what education should strive for, a love of learning. (http://scienceofeducationrebeccaknight.wordpress.com/2012/04/17/so-long-farewell/)

The only reason people get lost in thought is because it is unfamiliar territory – This may well be the case for some people, but this module certainly has made me think, and quite a lot! (http://captainhazza.wordpress.com/)

Thank You Jesse for coming up with an original way to conduct a module, and thank you to my co-students for all the stimulating debates that have happened during this module!! (http://elenmai.wordpress.com/)

Wow, what a journey this module has been. I really feel that I have learned more here than in any previous module. Being able to go off on research what interests you and then write up your findings as you wish really ignited an intrinsic drive to do well. As Jesse pointed out, all of our work is on the open internet, for all to see. Couple this with the fact that our class mates are all critically discussing each other’s work, and there is certainly reason to stay motivated. I agree with Rich, that to some degree I have felt like a real writer at times, and besides from all of the content knowledge that I have learned, it is certainly worth while acknowledging all of the other skills that I (as I’m sure we all have) have improved/ picked up. For one, my writing has definitely improved. Further, I am sure that our research skills have improved, having to research each week in at least one area, and more if we were to give a decent response to other people’s blogs.

Thank you Jesse for a fantastic module, I hope it is recognised as the success I see it as, and continues and progresses further. (http://stephengarethedwards.wordpress.com/)

…other modules are boring. I have never been completely enthralled by a lecture given by the professors. Listening to the same voice and sitting in the same seat for 2 hours used to send me into the most wondrous and incredible powernaps I have thus far experienced! However this module really opens your eyes to the different possibilities and it makes you think if the other lecturers chose this approach how much more fun and learning would occur it would be insane!!! (http://heatherd14.wordpress.com/2011/04/05/the-grand-finale/#comments)

The method of teaching, which this module has utilized, has been extremely effective process of learning. I think I have done more external research here than any other module while at university. This is because in order to understand properly what people have been talking about each week then I have had to do my own research. This has proved to be very effective method of learning for me and I think something like this could be used in other subject to teach students in secondary schools.

I would like to thank everyone for making this module really interesting. I would also like to thank Jess in designing this novel way of learning module as this has not only been fun but have been really informative and eye opening on the field of science of education (https://johnny2340.wordpress.com/)

I’ve never read so many papers than for this module. I’ve definitely gone the extra mile with the actual writing too, trying to please the reader (although perhaps my word counts weren’t appreciated). Everyone works hard not to look an idiot in front of their peers, but more than that, they want to impress them. And this has really raised the bar for the class of work being produced. I have also learned a lot from others who have addressed questions that I never even thought of before, such as “What are we educating for?”. Awesome module… (http://phillippadoran.wordpress.com/2011/04/10/and-last-but-not-least/#comments)

I don’t think the things I have picked up in this module will be forgotten and I also think I will continue to read about these issues past the module which is something I don’t usually do!

All in all, it depends upon the module organizer, we have been lucky in Jesse that he was willing to try something new; I’m sure not every member of staff would be as open to new methods of teaching and learning. (http://richsworld89.wordpress.com/2011/04/11/end-of-the-line/#comments)

Some of “transferable” skills I think I have developed are:

  • Flexible writing. I am now able to write more freely, before I had a tendency to fall under the word count. I now think that I am able to discuss points in more depth and draw on previous learning in my writing (I found after the first few posts blog ideas came easily to me). I will try to continue blogging to try and retain and develop this skill.
  • Review the evidence. Many of the topics I chose had unclear answer or highly differing opinions. I feel I have developing my researching skills and can review the evidence.
  • Discussion. Although this is not a specific skill I feel that I am more confident in doing so. I really enjoyed this aspect of the class. It is something that I feel that should be developed within other classes, especially the format as it allowed for freedom of expression.
  • Interest. Again not a specific skill but I before I hadn’t considered pursuing this area as a career. I have developed a passion for the subject, especially evidence-based practices and intervention within schools.


I also notice in most blogs, that we do not pitch our blogs and comments at Jesse, we pitch them at each other. This is peer learning and it just shows that we can learn a lot from each other. I’m sure Jesse has also learnt a few bits and pieces from us too.

It’s great to get an insight into what you’ve gained from this module. You’ve not shied away from difficult topics in your talks and blogs and this has been great for expanding existing knowledge and learning about new topics. It shows what a difference a open can mind can make. (http://goodnewsfarnsworth.wordpress.com/2011/04/08/thatll-learn-him/#comments)

This module has definitely left me with life long skills. It has got me trying to better myself, what with being in comparison with fellow classmates/Housemates. It keeps you on your toes and makes you want to out do yourself every week.

I agree with you that this module has helped improve my writing skills as well. Being dyslexic I was very apprehensive about writing a blog each week at first. As I’m an awful speller and at times my grammar can be bad too. This has made me aware of my weaknesses in writing and I have found ways to get around this each week. (http://stephengarethedwards.wordpress.com/2011/04/08/last-blog/#comments)

Jesse Martin is awesome!

Oh captain, my captain!

(always wanted to say that)

Anonymous student evaluation comment

Contact me at j.martin@scholol.net if you want to know more about what and how I do it and both you and your students will be changed forever – I promise!

How could we take something as natural and wonderful as learning and turn it into education?


Disruptive Innovation in Education

Disruptive innovation, as proposed by Clayton M.Christensen, has and is occurring in higher innovation. Technology has left its mark on a number of sectors, primarily commercial, in the recent past with many of the traditional models that have served well in the past being swept away. The primary innovation that has changed so much of the world around us has been digitization. It is not that we are doing new things, it is that the way we are doing them has changed.

I think of photography as an example. While I was doing my undergraduate degree, I worked in a photo development shop – which some of you will never have seen. I was working in an innovative 1-Hour photo shop. It was amazing that you could take a roll of film with 24 pictures on it and drop it off and I would load the film into a developer where it would go through a series of rollers and racks only to emerge 20 minutes later dried and ready to print. I would then print the 24 pictures, and 15 minutes later the photos would come out, neatly cut and trimmed, ready for the customer to pick up in a nice neat envelope. Once they paid the $14.95, they could take the pictures home and enjoy them in whatever way they chose to enjoy their photographs.

That model seems absurd in today’s world. Incredible that you would pay $.62 per picture, whether they turned out or not, and had to wait, even an hour for them to be printed. I still find it amazing that I (or more likely my grandchildren) can take my mobile phone and snap pictures until the memory runs out (which they did when I had less memory) and not have to wait even a full second to see the photo. If you want to print it out, which rarely happens these days, it can be done less than five minutes later. Digitization not only disrupted the industry, it destroyed it. Some of the biggest companies in the world (Kodak, Fuji etc.) were all but destroyed as they fought back against the arrival of digitization.

We are beginning to see the same thing in higher education. The earliest signs have been in how we communicate with our students. E-mail, learning platforms, and classroom projectors have completely transformed the way we interact with our students. Even though there are a few holdouts who refuse to use these tools, for the most part, they are ubiquitous in higher education. There even some classes that are taken completely online. Since we deal with the transmission of information, we can expect the digitization of information to have some impact.

More recently the traditional method of publishing research findings has begun to change. At first, there were a few on-line journals that have made real inroads into the traditional industry. The industry has fought back by making their product, academic journals, available on-line for scholars to read – for a price, paid either by the institution or the individual. Freeing up the information from behind the locked doors of the publishers has been a difficult process, costing us the life of one of the brightest tech minds (Aron Swartz) of the last 25 years. However, try as they might, the walls are crumbling, and with the advent of Sci-Hub, the traditional academic publishing world is coming to an end. They are not going without a fight. Just as in every other industry that has been destroyed by digitization, the big academic publishing houses are doing all they can to stave off the disruptive innovation that is destroying them.

One of the hallmarks of a disruptive innovation is the intransigence of the established institutions in expending their energies resisting the changes. Just as the publishing houses are fighting tooth and nail trying to protect their business model while it is crumbling around their ears, so to have other industries exhausted their energies and capital defending a doomed working model.

The same thing is happening in higher education as a whole. Digitization has moved the world from the age of information scarcity to information abundance. Looking at the way that universities conduct their business, you would think that digitization has never happened. A few new tools have been adapted, but the model hasn’t changed. I have written endlessly (it seems) about the proven ineffectiveness of lecturing, but lecturing still maintains a grip on around 90% of the teaching done in higher education. This grip is being maintained by nothing more than inertia, but cracks are beginning to appear in the facade.

Students are paying enormous amounts of money to go to university in order to get a qualification that will give them access to a great job and set them up. I remember a student colleague who said to me that getting a degree was a get rich slow scheme – and it worked. It did work well when I was a student, but our unwritten social contract with our students is broken. Our graduates are leaving our institutions to nothing. We are preparing them for jobs that existed 30 or 40 years ago, and they can’t find work. Our graduates, for the most part, are entering a world where they are likely to be employed in part-time short-term contracts, often in the service industry.

The system that worked so well for us in the past is no longer working for our students. Even more depressing is that if nothing changes, these trends are likely to deteriorate rather than improve.

Higher education can continue to rely on the prestige of a qualification for a while yet, but as these numbers continue to deteriorate disillusionment will set in and our qualifications will plummet in value.

We are at a crossroad. Do we expend our energy and resources trying to maintain our institutions as they are or do we begin to explore what we can do to change in a positive direction for all the stakeholders involved? Universities have survived earthshaking changes in the past – will we be able to survive this one, or will we be swept away like the photos or record albums of yesterday?

I know that if we try, we can do it. I have faith in the system. We can do better, so let us just do it.

How could we take something as natural and wonderful as learning and turn it into education?