Education is over…

William Rankin
Apr 14 · 10 min read
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Image for post
Adapted from a photo by Yves Alarie on Unsplash

[la versión en español está en este enlace]

Education is over.

An edifice systematically built on the foundation of F.W. Taylor’s “scientific management,” the misguided application of standardization, and the emphasis on testing and human ‘data’ originally developed during the Second World War has come crashing down under the weight of something so small you can’t even see it: a virus.

Of course, had that edifice been as solid and sturdy as it pretended, it would have taken far more to bring it down. Its solidity was always illusory, and its slipshod construction had been increasingly on display. No one should have been surprised that it all fell to rubble, yet many educators, administrators, parents, and legislators seem to have been blindsided.

Over the past few weeks, schools all over the world have abandoned exams and testing that used to be required — and with them, the pretense that they ever really meant anything in the first place. Next year, teachers, schools, universities, and employers are expected to proceed without questioning their absence and with nothing in their place. Yet the lack of any substantive substitute for the scores these exams once verified is a clear indication of their actual insignificance. And if these exams never really meant anything, then the materials and preparation schools dedicated to focusing on them was also meaningless, a waste of resources, time, and human energy.

Yet it’s not just exams. Schools are abandoning entire academic terms. The advent of the virus has effectively meant the termination of school for many learners around the world. This is shocking, but hardly surprising. Most schools and teachers are at an utter loss about what to do now that the routine of regimented classes and standardized testing has been disrupted. While some are touting the world of SARS-Cov-2 as a perfect opportunity to #exploreonlinelearning!, it’s clear from even the most cursory examination that this often means little more than digitizing fill-in-the-blank worksheets and hosting the same content-delivery lectures over video that used to happen behind classroom doors — now even less relevant as students watch from their kitchens instead of their classrooms and as the exams that used to justify them vaporize.

How did the structure of modern education get so precarious?

Because it was built on a lie: the lie that information is the most important educational component. This lie’s toxicity is only matched by its ubiquity.

Each new craze proclaims that the house is falling down, even as it does nothing to repair the real, foundational problems…

Consider this: legions of new educational practices have promised Transformation! Engagement! Future skills! However, one after another, they’ve collapsed and disintegrated, only to be replaced by another trendy substitute. Each new craze proclaims that the house is falling down, even as it does nothing to repair the real, foundational problems. Digital white boards that promised to usher in Twenty-First-Century Learning™ now bear ghost-town witness in ten thousand classrooms to the foibles of wasting budgets on flashy, non-transformative technology rather than investing in people and training. MOOCs have proven so hollow that even Udacity has sworn off. Like the flat-earth myth of ‘learning styles,’ Dr John Hattie’s “visible learning” is as academically rigorous as Dr Pepper and as credible as Dr Oz. Even most STEM programs — promising to give learners The Modern Skills They Need® — are as intellectually nutritious as styrofoam, more focused on improving a school’s testing rank (“Our students have got to start scoring better against [insert group name] if they’re going to be competitive in the Twenty-First Century!”) than giving learners meaningful experiences and skills.…

The common feature all these failed educational panaceas share is a focus on facilitating and verifying the transfer of information. In other words, they’re all built on the same lie.

Why have so many teachers and school leaders been susceptible to such obvious educational snake oil? Why do people keep seeking solutions that are either so facile that a moment’s critical thought shows them to be unsuitable or so irrelevant to learners and learning that they never had a real shot at making a difference? Why, when the structure of modern education has been teetering on the brink of irrelevance, have we been so bad at genuinely fixing this crumbling fixer-upper?

To be fair, I don’t think it’s an inherent fault in most educational professionals. Most teachers genuinely care about their students and want to do good things for them. Nor is it even fundamentally about most people not having some sense of what actually works in education. Ask any teacher what really sparked their own learning, and most won’t reminisce fondly about endless worksheets, rote memorization, or ‘bubbling in’ standardized tests. Most of us know what real learning looks like and what engenders it. Yet for some reason, we’ve been unable to connect that meaningfully with what happens in school.

This gap isn’t a bug; it’s a feature of modern education. More than half a century of ‘data-driven’ instructionist foundationalism has taught teachers to ignore their more human instincts. A modernist focus on ‘objectivity’ and its associate emphasis on objects — data, technologies, things — has led to an inability to question or see beyond the existing system. No matter how many times we’ve experienced collapse, modern education has continued its dogged focus on information rather than on human development, learning, wisdom, and the growth of human well-being. We just keep beating our heads against the same bloody wall. Instructionism’s insistence that the chief benefit and aim of education is the transference of information — objectified, quantifiable, and verifiable through numeric data — is the feeble foundation that undermines everything else. Worse, it’s what keeps us from building something new and lasting. Anything built on this foundation will eventually fall…

In what now seems like a very different world, I recently described the difference between instructionism, with its ‘Platonic’ emphasis on decontextualized information and hierarchical isolation, and constructionism, with its ‘Aristotelian’ emphasis on application and collaboration. I also traced the origins and characteristics of the toxic yet self-replicating ‘Platonic’ culture of abstraction that now dominates so much of modern education. Will this educational structure protect and nurture the next generation — a generation that will have to solve global problems like climate change, energy sustainability, and the social, cultural, and economic structures of the post-pandemic world? Will the schools we’ve built offer learners the knowledge, skills, and experience they’ll need to meet these challenges successfully? Will completing the 50 problems about factoring polynomials, making a presentation about the three main conflicts in To Kill a Mockingbird, or memorizing the list of chemical combinations that form precipitates in a solution prepare learners with the experience, perspective, and wisdom they’ll need to address this century’s (or even this year’s) core challenges? Will studying for an exam whose import vanishes like flash-paper in a magician’s hand — something this pandemic revealed, but that was always actually true — give our learners the durable insights they’ll need to create a new world?


The problem is that none of the important tasks learners have to undertake in their lives — or will have to undertake — is inherently informational. This is not to say that information won’t be involved: I’m not advocating for some kind of know-nothing, “everyone is a winner” fallacy. Rather, it’s time we acknowledge that information is a commodity, and focusing on it is actually setting the bar far too low for learners. After all, information is both far less solid and far less proprietary than the modern educational system pretends. It’s not hard to equip learners to find information — they can do that in fractions of a second with the device already in their pockets (the reason so many teachers and schools still view mobile technologies as a threat). But having found it, what should they do with it? Should they uncritically consume whatever the first three search results are? Should they simply memorize what they’ve found to regurgitate later, mirroring the pattern they’ve learned in our instructionist schools? If not, how do we rationalize the precedent set by too many teachers and textbooks that expect students uncritically to accept what they’re given — despite inaccuracies and the accidental or intentional incorporation of biases? Isn’t how we’re teaching just as important as what we’re teaching, and shouldn’t we expect more of both?

No one should give a damn about what percentage of students can pass a standardized test if they can’t use their learning to make their lives and the lives of our communities better…

What we need going forward — and what we’ve always needed — is not a group of uncritical consumers but people equipped to assess and discern, synthesising and applying what’s valid to make things: solutions, connections, resources. This need has been woefully demonstrated in the pandemic, where even some national leaders repeatedly exhibit their inability to distinguish real from fake or apply even the most basic scientific and medical principles.

In the world that emerges out of all this, the focus of education must be on generating whole, competent, humane citizens rather than ‘objective,’ easily digestible data about the distribution of information. No one should give a damn about what percentage of students can pass a standardized test if they can’t use their learning to make their lives and the lives of our communities better.

The real problem with the instructionist focus on information (and the data that undergirds it) in modern education is not only that it doesn’t generate whole, competent, humane citizens: it also doesn’t actually require them. Instructionism is the perfect candidate for automation, which is why so many Innovative Educational Approaches℠ have tried to replace teachers with machines and algorithms. That way madness lies

As the DIKW pyramid reminds us, it’s also rudimentary at best. What the world needs moving forward — and this is especially clear as the novel Corona virus burns off what’s irrelevant — is people who can apply information to meaningful contexts to create serviceable knowledge and solutions (creating knowledge) and people who can enculturate knowledge to produce culturally relevant contexts and wisdom around that knowledge (creating wisdom). Unlike processing data and information, these are profoundly human enterprises, tasks where machines have no fluency. Lamentably, many in modern education consider it too difficult, messy, and subjective to show that students are more considerate, compassionate, mature, collaborative, or humane when they finish our courses. It’s so much easier to show that scores on a particular test rose by 3.6% year over year, that 14% more students successfully completed a course, or that failing grades declined by 6% in a given cohort. The current system settles for this easy information, despite the fact that it’s functionally meaningless.

What future learning environments need is not more mechanization, but more humanization; not more data, but more wisdom; not more objectification, but more subjectification; not more Plato, but more Aristotle.

…failing to reach a certain percentage of students is not only a ‘cost of doing business’; it offers a tasty secondary market…

The ugly truth of modern education is that like so many late-capitalist industries, it was built on the unsustainable linearity of consumption rather than the regenerative energy of creation. Accordingly, the ‘educational industrial complex’ has always considered ‘waste’ to be a natural byproduct, as demonstrated by the fact that so many children fall through its cracks. Indeed, failing to reach a certain percentage of students is not only a ‘cost of doing business’; it offers a tasty secondary market, an opportunity to sell more materials, tutoring, and alternate assessment to worried parents and school leaders. Industrialized education doesn’t offer genuine alternatives to meet the needs of these learners, however; it just doubles down on efforts to shoehorn their needs into the existing system — more drills, more worksheets, more memorization. After all, there’s no reason to retool an entire factory just to reach a few outliers. No wonder so many people with diverse cognition eventually opt out entirely. Similarly, the fact that so many learners from communities of color are routinely disadvantaged and marginalized by an industry that has standardized on a different ‘market segment’ is yet more proof that learners aren’t the real emphasis here. In fact, they’re just another consumable resource that powers the system. Learners were never really the true audience for modern education in the first place, which is why they’re so often bored, disaffected, and alienated.

The driver of this industry (as with most consumer markets) are the twin faces of capitalism’s coin: the fear of falling behind and the desire to demonstrate superiority. Since administrators and school leaders must demonstrate their worth by means of objective data to the data-driven governments that oversee them, they pressure teachers to do the same — driving teachers to pressure students to do so as well… It’s a fractal pattern of objectification and datification that both creates and drives modern education…

And it’s time for it to stop.

Although building a new structure presents a serious challenge, the end of modern education is a remarkable opportunity. As old systems are abandoned and collapse in the wake of the pandemic, we can engineer a system for learning that fills a need rather than constantly needing to be filled. We can beat the wasteful swords of linear consumption and instructionism into the generative and regenerative plowshares of creation and constructionism. We can abandon education for learning.

Jared Diamond’s Upheaval offers a foundational challenge for the new system. As he has recently noted,

“at the rate we’re going now, we can carry on with our present unsustainable use for a few decades, and by around 2050 we won’t be able to continue it any longer. Which means that by 2050 either we’ve figured out a sustainable course, or it’ll be too late.”

This is as true for the learning system we build as it is for our use of soil, water, and agriculture. All of them will have to be reimagined, and it will take all of us — teachers and learners, experts and amateurs, artists and scientists, citizens and legislators — to do it. We’ll have to create new ways to work, collaborate, and assess, and we’ll have to engineer out waste and loss, capturing the energy of learning to do real work and provide real benefits for our communities rather than burning it off in meaningless information-focused exercises. It will take incredible creativity and commitment to accomplish, but our future quite literally depends on it.

Education is over. Let’s build something new.

[What are the next steps? See the next post in this series, “RE: Designing Learning” for a discussion of basic design considerations for future learning]

learning innovations for the regenerative economy

William Rankin

Written by

Bill is a former university professor & learning designer who works to improve access, humanity & agency in learning, replacing the Taylorite education factory… is a transformative learning consultancy based in London & New York founded by Graham Brown-Martin and William Rankin

William Rankin

Written by

Bill is a former university professor & learning designer who works to improve access, humanity & agency in learning, replacing the Taylorite education factory… is a transformative learning consultancy based in London & New York founded by Graham Brown-Martin and William Rankin

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