Disruption and agency: Inherent freedoms, impatient earthworms and schemas of the ideal society #moocmooc #mmid #bett2016

I overheard part of ‘The Great Debate on Disruption’ at the BETT education technology show. Two thinkers in technology and education Will Richardson and Audrey Watters (and someone else who I didn’t know) were duking it out on the topic of whether technology is disrupting education. Will Richardson was saying that schools are really not being disrupted (because they are too conservative) but learning outside the classroom is being disrupted in a big way because of all the access to source of information (public libraries presumably). Audrey Watters, on the other hand, wanted to get to the meaning of disruption — ‘disrupting’ its easy life as a vaguely positive slogan for anything new — differentiating it from change or improvement. I tweeted a paraphrase of the killer quote from her critique: ‘When we disrupt education, what are we doing to other people’s children?’ Her critique seemed to be centered around the notion of agency — and wondering what we’re doing to it with all the disrupting going on.

I agree that disruption appears to be a broadly meaningless word that’s just used to indicate something new and vaguely good that only the hidebound vested interest old guards can have a problem with. But I don’t think agency is much better. It seems to be used to hint at something to do with freedom and the individual which is (in our current culture) good and only the ultra-conservative or downright totalitarian can want to distract us from nurturing it in us all.

Words are just tools to get people from a to b. They don’t have inherent meanings that could become clear if only someone figured out a way to explain to everybody. Therefore, I will not take the obvious next step and explain to Audrey and Will what the words they bandy about ‘really mean’. But I’d like to play around with using them for a little to see if we can squeeze some new meanings out of them — and perhaps meanings that will be of some use to someone.

The problem with the word ‘agency’ is that it is sort of used to mean both freedom and something like the innate capacity for freedom enacted. So, it can be used to describe enslaved people’s actions in the face of extreme limits on their actual freedom. This is what first got me excited about the word. ‘Lincoln didn’t free the slaves, they freed themselves.’ was a line from a lecture on the American Civil War that struck a chord with me. If you look at a lot of the writing in recent(ish) anthropology and history, you see the word agency used to describe people who were traditionally seen as just pawns of the big history. French or Japanese peasants found ingenious ways of asserting their needs in the face of very little actual rights to do that. Those ways were not always pretty and didn’t always end well but they were expressions of their agency. Something that could not be taken away. It even turns out we have the slave narratives wrong. They weren’t just some brutalized creatures turned dumb by their condition (of course, there were extreme conditions where this was the case). They constantly found ways to express their humanity, their needs and desires. There’s not just Haiti, there were countless Maroon communities and even states all over the Americas. But it was not just struggle for freedom. It was forming communities with values, goals and ways of working. Always within the constraints of their situation but always ‘agents’ of their own lives. In this, they were no different from anybody. Even the most powerful person in the world can only express their agency within the limits of their situation. They cannot magic resources out of thin air nor can they escape the strictures of maintaining legitimacy. Where’s freedom in all of this? Children always feel adults have it and adults always feel that children do. Freedom to do X or be Y or be in Z can and is frequently taken away from people. All people, most of the time, are not free to do anything that they might like to do. But agency — the people’s ability to actively mold their values, desires and goals around the constraints in which they find themselves, that can’t be taken away — except in the state of pathological deprivation.

So if we think of agency in this way, can we really say that anything a school (disrupted or otherwise) can do to ‘limit children’s agency’? It certainly can and is designed to limit their freedoms. They are told where to be, when and what to do regardless of what they may desire. But they can always ignore what they’re supposed to be doing, stare out of the window or go along and silently despise everything. We could worry (channeling Freire) that we are somehow limiting the children’s option for expressing their agency by teaching them a particularly ideologically driven curriculum perhaps inculcating in them the values of capitalist oppression (or communist or atheist or any other ist) but that’s only because we don’t like the other guys’ ideology. Even if we just opened up the library doors, the children’s ability to think would be limited by what they read there — either by chance or by the ideologically driven selections of the conniving librarians. If you’re a child, school sucks unless you are the sort of child who really enjoys the learning or the hanging out with friends (or both). But you don’t need a school for learning — school is there primarily to limit your freedom so that your parents have somewhere to deposit you in relative safety while they work (engage in labor practices) and the teachers can maintain that relative safety by managing a lot of individuals. That’s why schools are very much like prisons. Not because they are modeled on prisons but because they both have the same primary aims. Keeping people, who don’t want to be there, there and shuffling them about within. Prisons as we know them and schools as we know them actually developed alongside each other. But as people like Goffman and Becker showed, prisons are full of people brimming with agency which is being expressed within the constraints of their situation. But they don’t have freedom — or rather they have a lot more limits on their freedom than somebody outside prison may have. About the same amount that a child has while in school.

So why should we want schools to promote agency? It seems that when we say things like that, we are emphasizing the freedomy aspects of agency. We have an image of inalienable personal freedoms and a free society which is free by virtue of enabling and not constraining those personal freedoms of its participants (within Kantian limits). And because we think that children are being prepared for functioning in that society, we want schools to reflect that image. Sort of a like a voodoo doll reflects the image of the person it wants to influence. But there is no reason to think that this is necessary. Our ‘free’ societies were built be people who went to drill and spill schools that looked nothing like our image of a free society. Top athletes also spend a lot of their time doing things that look nothing like the actual competition. We could think of a school organized in an unfree manner like a sort of a push up a tines player does in preparation for their game. We may think that if children practice things like collective decisions, they will be better at ‘democracy’. But if we look at the ebbs and flows of democracy, they seem to surge and retreat in a society regardless of how it sets up its schools. Maybe we just need to set up schools in a way that they can function. This means limiting freedoms in prison-like way, standing teachers in front of classrooms, take lots of tests (standardized or pop). In short, schools should perhaps be organized kind of the way they are. Now, there are lots of alternative models of organizing learning within the schools (often named after people Montessori, Steiner, etc.) but they run up against another constraint we need to take into account which is a public image of what school should look like. Plus we don’t know what they would morph into if they were deployed en mass (with lots of people involved who may or may not subscribe to the philosophy). I suspect that it would be a lot more like the prisoney schools of today (there’s some research to show that teachers tend to revert to the traditional methods even if they had training in the alternative ones).

What about disruption? I started by agreeing that it is a broadly meaningless word but that’s not exactly true. It’s just a word that is used more to evoke emotions and bring up abstract schemas than to describe a specific action. Some people who use the word ‘disruption’ rely on images abstracted away from some very specific examples of industries that have been ‘disrupted’ by technology — for instance, Uber’s disruption of taxis, Airbnb’s disruption of hotels, iTunes’ disruption of the music industry, etc. If you take a lot of Uber rides or stay in rooms arranged via Airbnb, you can certainly appreciate how disruption could work and improve your life. If you’re a hotel owner who has just passed an extensive and expensive inspection and you’re being disrupted by somebody with a spare room and a few spare minutes on the internet, you could see things differently. But if you’re somebody who does not fall into any of the above categories and you hear disruption in the context of school, you just may have an image of something like a noise in the street outside disrupting a lesson you’re attending. These three images are all available and people project them into different parts of the debates. For the first group, disruption is a positive change that at the same time upsets existing structures which were preventing the change up to then. For the second group, it is a change (positive or negative) which destroys existing livelihoods by skirting on the edges or outside them of regulation that was put in place for things like safety and consumer protection. For the third group, it is a negative interruption that has to be endured until normal course of events can resume.

But in the positive sense, ‘disruption’ has started to take over the usage space of words like ‘change’, ‘improvement’ or ‘enhancement’. Change or improvement is not enough now for some, we must disrupt. The actual proposals of the disruptors all focus on learning. Acquisition of knowledge and skills by individuals. But is that what schools do? They are set up to facilitate the acquisition of (broadly) the same knowledge and skills of millions of individuals at the same time while keeping them away from the streets. In fact, you don’t need technology to disrupt schools. Home schooling has been doing that for as long as schools were around and with increased vigor in recent years in a technology-enhanced manner. You can use technology to improve what goes on in schools, but the logistics of schools is very complex and tends to take over (as anyone who’s ever tried to implement a technology project in a school will have experienced).

However, how important is the improvement in the first place? Schools also have competing images in the minds of people. In the context of talking about our society, we extoll school as an enabler or democracy, promoter of learning and individual success. In the context of reminiscing about schools we think of them as places of boredom, stress and restriction. We don’t actually remember much of what we learned there so we assume that they’re not doing their job. We think that if only schools were set up so that everybody would remember all that they were told there, the world would be a better place, there would be no poverty, no war, no ideological divides, no climate change deniers, no abortion, no teenage sex, etc. Perfect schools lead to perfect society.

Sometimes we see the perfect schools in the past. Orderly rows, orderly recitation of knowledge, orderly society. But those schools ‘gave us’ racial segregation, limited roles for women, discrimination of all sorts of minorities, leeches instead of penicillin. Sometimes we see the perfect schools in the future because we want to make it the ‘exact’ opposite of what we think the schools of the past did. So we get rid of rows, recitation of knowledge and hope for a diverse but harmonious society. But the bad old schools also ‘gave us’ modern medicine, the civil rights movement, universal suffrage, the moon landing, THE INTERNET!!!

So why exactly do we think schools need disrupting? They always seem to do pretty much exactly what the society needs from them. Keep the kids away from the streets and teach them enough that they can get a job (if jobs are around to be had). ‘Employers’ may complain but they do it through booms as well as busts so why should we take any notice? The ‘schools’ may get average results in international tests but they did that even in the golden days of yore, so why should we take any notice? Sure the schools are often in the middle of social deprivation but why not disrupt that and leave the schools more or less alone?

Schools certainly matter in the sense that if we didn’t have them we wouldn’t have the society we have. But historically it does not seem to really matter all that much what happens inside them. (talking of universal general primary and secondary here — and undergraduate to a degree — vocational schools from medical to engineering are a bit different.) Sure, it’s better if the people locked up inside them are not bored out of their skulls or bullied. It’s better if they learn something useful to themselves and relevant to social demand. But it matters more because they are people (young or old) who deserve respect and good treatment rather than because the success of a society hinges on it. In short, schools are fine just the way they are at doing the job they’ve always been doing. Part of the way they are is change reflecting the changes in the world around them. But the change is slow. Sometimes it is frustrating how slow it is. But the slow speed is a self-healing mechanism.

If we were starting from scratch, we could organize the system differently. We could have a more federated system of home schooling built around small groups congregating around private teachers (kind of like the early universities but a lot of it virtual). We could use a daycare model in the way we structure the pastoral (prison) aspects. And we could use the university model in the way we structure subject learning and the curriculum — centered around subject experts — through real contact or something like MOOCs. Combined with a few ‘summer’ schools throughout the year. Now, that would be disruption. No more school administrators, school districts, teachers standing in front of large classrooms talking at distracted students. Maybe fewer exams. For a while. But the inexorable gravitational pull of institutionalization would probably set in soon. Once we forgot what we replaced it with, we would start calling the new system hopelessly inefficient and out of date and start coming up with new institutions that would probably eventually look like schools. Disrupting the old.

How does this fit in with the debate of Audrey and Will? It would almost appear as if disruption was built into us (or some of us) — part of our agency that constantly strains against the conservative self-preserving system. Everything is as it can be. Personally, I’m with Will. I want to change things, make them better, use technology to come up with different ways of doing old things. And I want to change things now. I don’t want to wait for the old guard to retire. But ideologically, I’m with Audrey. I don’t want to indulge my impatience at the expense of people’s lives. So I temper my impatience and try to do my best. And I console myself that I’m doing my part in the ecosystem — an earthworm of sorts — and things are better if I and my earthworm friends don’t take it over but we play a useful role anyway.

Post Script on Alternative Schools

After I finished writing all this, I came across this statement about agency in the description of the new MoocMooc on Instructional Design:

When the computer becomes the teacher, it preempts any real potential for student agency, knowledge production, or creativity.

But if that were so easy, we would just see a lot of students dumbly staring at the screen. Students interact with whatever is in front of them because of their unpreemptable agency. They have just as many options to deal with it as with boring teachers, over stuffed curricula, standardized testing, stressful schools, poverty, bullying — all of those are part of the student environment. Computers don’t have agency, they just sit there and wait for input. Student will always have agency and though we may force them to sit and wait for the official input, they are creative in their ways of molding our input by their agency into shapes we may not like because they don’t look like the sort of outputs we would like to see from an ‘educational’ experience. We want to see all the creativity, agency and knowledge production to be deployed in the service of our curriculum. But the curriculum is yet another obstacle for the students’ agency to flow around. It can be just as much deadening to their creativity and knowledge making as a computer.

We are simply not used to thinking about all the ‘bad’ things students do in terms of agency, creativity and knowledge making. So a student may copy an assignment or a friend. We see it as bad. But that is employing their potential for both agency, creativity and knowledge production. They are being agentive in choosing not participate in an irrelevant or boring activity imposed on them by an oppressive (at least from their perspective) system, they are creative in finding ways to minimize the amount of their time they have to dedicate to this (and in ways to achieve the ends with minimum effort) and they produce all sorts of knowledge about the system and how to navigate it along the way — some doing it better than others. What more can we want? They are epxressing their humanity in the same way Dilbert drones in corporate offices are expressing theirs. But they are doing it within the constraints of their circumstance. We are setting those constraints by telling them where they have to be and what they have to do to get by in there. They didn’t choose to be there or to do those things. Those are all imposed — for their own ‘good’. Whether a computer is involved or not is irrelevant. Many children use their agency to learn and be creative along the curricular lines but most only very loosely and many simply rebel. Because the goals and aims of schools are not their goals and aims.

There are some attempts such as the Sudbury School to make schools radically democratic — or radically naturalistic in their pedagogy. But they don’t look much like we know schools which their proponents are calling coercive. And they are not wrong. Schools are coercive in many ways. Particularly when you compare them to the naturalistic ways of learning and preparing for life you see among societies like the Pirahã described by Daniel Everett who he says let little children literally run around with knives or those described by Peter Gray in Free to Learn.

But we live in a fairly coercive world (albeit a lot less coercive for many than it used to be). Taxes, speed limits, working hours, short holidays, compulsory school education, licensing laws, etc. Now, school traditionalists try to make a virtue out of school being coercive because it prepares children for the ‘real’ world — again molding schools into the voodoo doll shape of the society. This seems rather implausible. Do you really need to be prepared for being coerced? But anyway, walternativealtenative schools, children prepare themselves to navigate the ‘real’ world just as well as those from the schools with a heavy lock on them. But a more important question is how coercive are traditional schools really? The answer is not all that much. Most children deal with it just fine. They live through it without suffering any major harm. They may learn some of what they’re told and a lot of other things. Some children do suffer greatly within the constraints and there should be more alternatives for those. But overall, the ‘traditional’, ‘coercive’ schools are just fine. We don’t need to project our models of a democratic society into them perfectly. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make them more stimulating learning environments where students are not afraid to go. But a root and branch reform either from the ‘agency side’ or the ‘disruption side’ is probably not what they need.

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