Open Thinkering


Tag: power

Power and paths

One of the big influences for me when I started personal blogging, as opposed to blogging about education, was Zen Habits. It doesn’t look like it, but it’s one of the most viewed blogs on the web, with more than two million readers.

It’s written by Leo Babauta, who was recently interviewed on The Tim Ferriss Show. The podcast episode a great listen for a number of reasons, but I want to focus in on one thing that’s touched on briefly.

Babauta explains that he has six children, with four from his and his partner’s previous marriages, and the two they’ve had together. Some have gone to school, and some have been unschooled:

Unschooling is an informal learning that advocates learner-chosen activities as a primary means for learning. Unschoolers learn through their natural life experiences including play, household responsibilities, personal interests and curiosity, internships and work experience, travel, books, elective classes, family, mentors, and social interaction. Often considered a lesson- and curriculum-free implementation of homeschooling, unschooling encourages exploration of activities initiated by the children themselves, believing that the more personal learning is, the more meaningful, well-understood and therefore useful it is to the child. While courses may occasionally be taken, unschooling questions the usefulness of standard curricula, conventional grading methods in standardized tests, forced contact with children in their own age group, the compulsion to do homework, regardless of whether it helps you in your individual situation, the effectiveness of listening to and obeying the orders of one authority figure for several hours each day, and other features of traditional schooling in the education of each unique child.


The point he makes is a simple one: if children are always brought up to be told what to do next, to be given a path, then how will they find a path of their own as adults?

He doesn’t make the connection explicitly, but my next thought was that this is perhaps why the default option for most people after school / college / university is to get a job in a hierarchical organisation with a boss telling you what to do.

The radical thing to do, and the thing which is much more empowering, is to reject persistent hierarchy and coercive power relations altogether. Instead, approaches such as consent-based decision making are the way forward. No-one needs someone telling them what to do all of the time — including children.

This post is Day 83 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at

No easy answers

In the early days of new ‘disruptive’ technologies (see MOOCs, blockchain, Open Badges…) the rhetoric is always about how one thing will replace something else, democratise a system, and/or reduce costs. While the latter is usually true, unfortunately what tends to happen is that existing power dynamics, far from being disrupted, are reinforced.

I’m thinking about these things after conversations with a whole range of people about Project MoodleNet — including one with Stephen Downes yesterday. There’s no such thing as a neutral system, so every time you design a new technology-based system, you’re designing to reinforce or subvert existing power structures.

Take, for example, private schools and elite universities. There’s a vested interest for almost everyone in their ecosystem to maintain their status. After all, if the reputation of the school or university is tarnished, the value of the credential earned by an individual from that institution could be reduced by implication.

That reduction in a credential’s value wouldn’t be so significant if the time for which it is deemed relevant were shorter than, say, a lifetime. I earned a doctorate from a top-tier university just over five years ago, a Masters degree fifteen years ago, and a Bachelor of Arts degree a year before that. At what point should these be deemed to have ‘expired’. Should they? It’s an interesting question, and may depend on discipline.

Back to designing technological systems, and the immediate and pressing question is over how to gain traction. The easiest way of doing this, of course, is to appeal to existing and entrenched privilege. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours: I’ll give you privileged status in my new system if you allow me to lean on your existing reputation.

What’s the opposite of that? Well, I guess it’s the approach that was attempted in the early days of Open Badges. In other words, create an ecosystem that puts everyone on an equal playing field, and see what happens. Interestingly, while the existing status quo (awarding bodies, universities, professional organisations) have used it to shore-up their position, there’s also new players.

Ideally, I’d like Project MoodleNet to work for everyone. I’d like the teacher in a developing country with few resources to be able to get the same amount of kudos and recognition as the educator in an elite university. The difficulty, of course, is designing a system that doesn’t feel like it’s stacked in favour of one over the other…

Image: Levelling the Playing Field by Bryan Mathers shared under a CC BY-ND license

On the paucity of our collective imagination. [Future of Education]

War is Peace

As happens quite often when I am exposed to something that helps transform my thinking or worldview, I’m not entirely sure how to get started with this one. So I’ll just dive straight in with a quotation:

The educational imagination of the last two decades has been dominated by one particular vision of the future, a vision of a global knowledge economy fuelled by international competition and sustained by digital networks. This vision has driven investment in new technologies, new approaches to teaching and learning, new education industries and massive school rebuilding programmes around the world. This vision has promised students and nations that with enough education, creativity and new technology, their futures will be secure. This vision of the future, however, can no longer be considered either robust or desirable enough to act as a reliable guide for education. (Keri Facer, Learning Futures)

Simon Bostock commented recently on my communitarian tendencies. He’s correct: I’ve recently co-kickstarted Purpos/ed and got involved with the PTA of the school my son attends. Civil Society is too important to be taken for granted: people are too busy gossiping and wasting their cognitive surplus:

Gossip is the opiate of the oppressed. (Erica Jong)

And we are oppressed. In fact, fairly often, we choose to be. Now that we’ve caught assassinated Osama Bin Laden, are we going to demand our rights back? Can we shut off those CCTV cameras please? Can we re-record those messages I hear in train stations threatening to destroy my unattended luggage? Will I be able to take a bottle of water on my next flight?

Thought not.

Stand up. Literally. Walk out of wherever you are right now – be it your home, your place of work, or your local library. Have a look around. Are we in danger? Really? I don’t want to live in a climate of fear and uncertainty – and nor do I want this to become normality for my children.

The biggest threat to our society isn’t terrorism: it’s our sense of community being slowly eroded by a creeping individualism. This individualism is hidden behind a mask of political correctness, of not wanting to cause ‘offence’ and through the tried-and-tested powers of advertising, fashion, and trend-setting. Where have the real thought-leaders gone? I’ll tell you. They’ve been lost in the quest for the perfect soundbite.

People like to be told what to do. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. People like not to have to think. Does that sound controversial? It’s true. The majority of the population like to have established ways of doing things because of something that’s also true: we avoid conflict wherever possible. In doing so, we hand a voice to those who use conflict to increase their power and influence.

I’m generalising. Of course I am. You and I are different, aren’t we? Except we’re not. We’re slaves to the latest gadget, the latest news item and the views espoused by the latest celebrity. But more than that: we’re using tools of oppression to build futures for our children. We’re using rare earth minerals to fuel our obsession with gadgetry; we’re using forms of discourse that restrict our ways of conceptualising issues; and, most importantly of all, we’re propping-up outmoded education systems because of our belief that in doing so we’re helping our children.

As Keri Facer points out in the quotation I selected from her (excellent) new book, our vision of the future is no longer robust or desirable enough. We’re suffering from a paucity of collective imagination. We can’t even muster more than a sarcastic tweet or status update when a bunch of bankers wreck our entire economic system (and then pay themselves bonuses for doing so). We think it’s OK for blue-collar jobs, for call centres to be outsourced to the developing world, but what happens when the white-collar jobs go the same way? Are we prepared for that?

Is our education system adequate, relevant and proportionate? It’s not about campaigning for the latest technologies and an increase in ‘creativity’ in schools. Our problems go a whole lot deeper than that. These are difficult, knotty issues about social justice, the fabric of society and, ultimately, the human race. It’s time to do some real thinking and acting.

What are YOU going to do about it?

Image CC BY-NC-SA matthileo