Power & Learning

I estimate state education has set my technical ability as a coder back about a decade. This is annoying, but I think I now have my finger on a core thread that really needs pulling.

I value conciseness so here’s what I think the essence of it is:

power dynamics hamper learning; what a waste of potential.

As an inquisitive (and naive) teenager, I judged IT largely by what was offered at school. Touch typing, some HTML maybe, but none of the really beautiful stuff. The offering was boring and unchallenging compared to centuries-old maths and sciences.

My inquiry led me to study neuroscience, which turned out to be a bit too reductionist to practically help me understand people (so western!) I graduated as a mathematician, and after failing as a post-graduate research assistant (modelling blood splatter of blunt weapon trauma), I took a government subsidy to train as a teacher.

I’d really enjoyed tutoring at university, but found that my higher education on education guided me into surprisingly unsavoury amounts of acting (playing some autoritarian role) and crowd control (learning tricks to manipulate group social dynamics to maintain control).

I didn’t care about the length of hair or the height of socks. Quiet (but noticed) protest looked like attending careers day and meeting prospective school principals in ripped jeans. I didn’t bother graduating, and was forced to get a special note to teach — apparently graduating in absentia involves more formal opting out than not showing up for the ceremony.

The irony of teaching engaging learning in a lecture format was a laugh, but the university did introduce me to Ao Tawhiti Unlimited Discovery — the only high school I would take a job at. This wasn’t an act of rebellion, more an extension of my stubbornness and pickiness (which I was rich enough to be able to afford).

What was so attractive about Unlimited was the atmosphere (or people dynamics).

my students managing their own learning at Unlimited

Unlimited is a state funded public secondary school that exists because of a loophole in the law, which allowed the bending of a rule meant for the integration of church schools into a rule which allowed the school to write its own assessment rules. Its special character is “a fundamental tenet that the child is central in directing his or her own learning so that the enthusiasm and love of learning is retained.” My kind of place.

I can talk a lot about what made that environment transformative, but I think the key was radically more equal power dynamics. As a Learning Advisor there, I didn’t assert authority through enforcing arbitrary rules. I had conversations on a first name-basis with people about what they cared about in life. Classes didn’t have age-barriers, and students could choose what they wanted to do every 5 weeks. Instead of segregation and age-based hierarchy, there was conversation and experimentation.

It felt good. People were kind (not to be confused with nice), and they learnt a lot. Instead of negotiating bullying and claustrophobia, students spent their time doing things like attending university level classes, running New Zealand’s only OpenDNS server from a bedroom, and working together to support a friend with depression. Some of the experiences moved me so deeply I still cry when I recall them.

Most state education is missing the mark by a wide margin. It makes me thoroughly sad, and angry.

I loved Unlimited, and learnt an enormous amount there, but I left to stretch skills outside of teaching. There was also a massive earthquake that destroyed the city. I moved to attend art school, where I got into programming the laser cutter (which I was shocked to find almost no one else was using).

parametric, laser-cut solar collector under construction

I was the worst adult student — I know what good education looks like, and I like giving feedback. The context and tools were great but the educators (outside of the pure theorists) were weak.

I left and did some relief teaching where I tried to treat students as equals.
I was horrified to discover that the acting I’d disliked in state teaching is a two part play, and exiting a play is hard when the other actors are continually asserting your role. Genuine conversation was overridden by a race to establish dominance and control.

Over a summer break I was introduced to Joshua Vial who taught me (and several others) to be web developers. I took these skills and helped build Loomio (an open source collaborative decision-making tool).

The people of Loomio — and the garden-nebula Enspiral within which it grew — were the next group of most excellent people I met. This is where I was introduced more explicitly to a discourse around power.

I’m now a teacher at Enspiral Dev Academy, a coding bootcamp that trains non-technical people to become junior web developers in 9 weeks. It’s a synthesis of my interests to date — programming, learning, and community building.

I take myself, and those around me to and beyond the limit of our technical ability. The only way you can do that effectively and get anything out of it is to be super up-front about what you do and don’t understand.

my first cohort of devs graduating at EDA

Not knowing things for some reason brings up shame for people. The most dangerous thing for a student is self-doubt, and sitting on shame is a good way to get that. This is another topic I’m currently really interested in, and will write more on some time.

I think that might be a study in itself, but I’m more interested in how not knowing plays out for teachers, because I believe this is the reason I’m not currently an ascendant cyber-wizard.

When you don’t know a thing as a teacher, a very interesting decision path emerges:

A) lie

B) admit you don’t know

Why would you lie?

Well, if your position as teacher is predicated on your knowing more, being the source of truth, then not knowing might seem to undermine that.

The average high-school teacher is in a surprisingly precarious power-position — it might look like they have control, but only through carefully guided consent of the class. For a teacher in a position where their authority is coupled to their knowledge, it is awfully appealing to steer conversation away from topics which might erode that position.

I think this is why classes on computers suck so bad in high school — they are born of institution, which is established in such as a way as to bind teaching to the bounds of individual mastery, which is finite.

Education around computers offer a unique window into the future of learning. The field is moving so fast, that the only reasonable path is to say “I don’t know” a lot. If you don’t, then talking about new and relevant ideas won’t be part of your curriculum.

In many educational institutions, saying I don’t know is not safe for educators. Generally they are in systems that give them positional authority to solve the ‘behaviour management’ problems. They are generally not afforded humanising tools of social safety, like building genuine relationships, or sharing vulnerability.

This does everyone trapped in that dynamic a huge disservice. Both teachers and students achieve less understanding, less empathy, less collaboration, less critical thinking, etc. The learning is poorer.

Being able to say “I don’t know” is the beginning of some fantastic cascading effects:
+ reveals ‘students’ and ‘teachers’ both as learners
+ opportunity to model good learning
 — critical thinking/problem solving (process over rote learning)
 — asking for help
 — listening
+ shows teacher as human, relateable
 — more trust, less lying
 — more humanistic dynamic, better conversations
+ drop shame, move to a growth mindset
+ go beyond boring ‘safe’ topics
 — interesting, inspiring
 — engaging (perhaps people like me 15 years ago)
+ play

This is how I see power dynamics hampering our learning.

I’m investing in education systems which set aside positional authority, and foster environments in which it’s safe for everyone to be vulnerable. For older systems, I’m building an evolving book format, designed to open education resources and support teachers to transition from authorities to guides and catalysts of learning.

I’m excited to be working in a community which is supporting me to develop a different sort of learning pattern for myself. Maybe if we’re lucky (and persistent), we can shift learning patterns more broadly.

I would love to hear from anyone else playing the long game of reshaping education.