Thursday, November 29, 2007

Criticizing the Cape Town Declaration

Re: The Cape Town Open Education Declaration

Normally I would expect to enthusiastically add my name to a document supporting free access to open learning resources. This is certainly a cause I have worked toward all my life, one that is expressed in the statement of principle on my home page, one that characterizes the papers I write, the software I code, the speeches I give.

But I find myself at odds with the declaration written by a group of mostly American academics and advocates invited by a foundation to a private meeting in South Africa to author a "fixed and final" declaration on open educational resources. Although not invited to the Cape Town meeting, I was able to discuss the document with the organizers a few weeks ago. Yet I find that none of the concerns I raised have been addressed.

The result, I believe, is a flawed document - flawed, not simply because it it does not adhere to what many would consider to be fundamental to free and open learning, but flawed because it betrays the process and the spirit of the movement.

I do not believe that a panel of hand-picked representatives representating overwhelmingly a certain commercial perspective is qualified or able to speak on behalf of the rest of us. The very people they name - "learners, educators, trainers, authors, schools, colleges, universities, publishers, unions, professional societies, policymakers, governments, foundations and others" - are mostly nowhere present in these deliberations. And the remainder of society - who are not stakeholders, Properly So-Called - are nowhere to be found.

The first, and most fundamental, recommendation I made with respect to this document was to open it up. Don't have a single document that your chosen few sign, I suggested, leaving everyone else to either follow quietly along with the 'received wisdom' or be cast off the boat. Put the document into a wiki page - maybe even a Wikipedia page - and let the community as a whole have its way with it for a while. Take it around to conferences and meetings on the five continents, where people who aren't lucky enough to have a friend in the Foundation can also have a say.

The document will be officially 'launched' in January, having only been circulated on the UNESCO Open Educational Resources mailing list (and perhaps elsewhere (update: on David Wiley's blog)) thus far. So there is still time. It could still be a people's document, and not one showered down to us like some gift from on high.

So why am I so critical of this document? What sort of changes do I think a wider community would make? There are many, but allow me to highlight some of the most fundamental.

First, the document promotes a view of learning rooted almost completely in the educational system. We do not get any sense from the document that students can or should learn on their own, or that this movement is even for students at all. The focus in on educators sharing with each other.

"Educators worldwide are developing a vast pool of educational resources on the Internet, open and free for all to use. These educators are creating a world where each and every person on earth can access and contribute to the sum of all human knowledge."

There is no sense of the possibility, much less the desirability, of this development being fostered by, for the benefit of, people other than educators. I would like to think and hope that we all are creating this world. I would like to think that the tradition of "sharing good ideas" is something that all people, not just educators, have in common.

More significantly, dividing the world in this way almost immediately creates practical problems. The document tells us that the open education movement "is built on the belief that everyone should have the freedom to use, customize, improve and redistribute educational resources without constraint."

This significantly limits the domain of knowledge under discussion, as it contemplates only "educational resources". Oh! What a far cry from the rather more laudable objective of Wikipedia: "Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge."

Second, and related, the document fosters a particular culture of learning, one where content is provided and licensed by content producers, and then consumed in a particular way by learners.

The document refers to the "global collection of open educational resources has created fertile ground for this effort," describing not the many individual creations made by people with no connection whatsoever to the education industry, the billions of web pages, Flickr images, YouTube videos, and the like, but rather the resources produced explicitly for educational purposes.

Instead, the document refers specifically to "openly licensed course materials, lesson plans, textbooks, games, software and other materials that support teaching and learning." While a defender of the document might say that personal learning is not excluded, it is clear that the focus is elsewhere. It is clear in this document that pedagogy, not empowerment, is the focus.

Third, the document advocates a form of 'open' that explicitly encourages the closing and blocking of access to education through the commercialization of these resources. The meaning of the catchphrase about "differences among licensing schemes for open resources creat(ing) confusion and incompatibility" is made explicit in the FAQ: "we believe that open education and open educational resources are very much compatible with the business of commercial publishing."

This is not so, and in fact the majority of resources licensed under an 'open' license are licensed nor non-commercial use. The view expressed by this particular group of especially selected representatives is in fact a minority position. When people talk about 'open' educational resources, they do not normally mean something they have to pay some publishing company in order to access.

The sort of model envision by the authors of this document should be understood very precisely when considering the actions they advocate in the document.

When the authors say that "creating and using open resources should be considered integral to education and should be supported and rewarded accordingly," what do they mean? The idea of "reward", which is not integral to any concept of free and open learning, is introduced with puzzling nuance.

When the authors say, "we call on educators, authors, publishers and institutions to release their resources openly," what they mean is that everybody should make their materials freely available for commercial exploitation. By release, we should be clear, the authors mean "publish," emphasizing the producer-consumer model of learning.

A similar line of criticism applies to the third recommendation. We see governments encouraged to produce educational resources and to release them under a license that allows them to be commercially exploited. There is no provision in the licensing recommended to ensure that they be made freely accessible to all learners; we trust to luck (and charity) to ensure that this happens.

The signatories of the document want to share their commercial model of learning with the world. "We have the opportunity to engage entrepreneurs and publishers who are developing innovative open business models," they write, with no apparent understanding that it is this activity that is precisely what is hindering free and open access to learning today.

The nature of knowledge and learning - as with anything else - is such that it acquires value to vendors not from abundance but from scarcity. And indeed, in a condition of actual abundance, which is very much the position we find ourselves in today, the only commercial value that may be derived from knowledge and learning is through the creation of artificial scarcities. The first action of any company seeking to be 'entrepreneurial' will be to seek to block access to free and open learning, to work, in other words, exactly contrary to the interests of learners.

The point is, knowledge and learning and not things that belong to someone. Knowledge and learning and the birthright of every human being, a cultural heritage shared by all, and like the commons, access to that birthright isn't granted like some act of charity or sold like some act of commerce. You don't 'give' what doesn't belong to you, you don't 'sell' what doesn't belong to you. We do not need to engage in some special act of creation to produce this heritage; it is already there. We need only remove the barriers to access, the presumption that knowledge and learning are owned and possessed, that they are some sort of property.

A document intended to support free and open learning should not take the perspective of the educator, it should not take the perspective of the service provider, and it should not take the perspective of the provider. It should take the perspective of the learner - which is to say, all of us - and it should say, unambiguously:

We seek a society where knowledge and learning are public goods, freely created and shared, not hoarded or withheld in order to extract wealth or influence.

The Cape Town Declaration does not contain these words, because there was nobody there to speak them, and nobody there willing to hear them.

For all its pretension that learning should be "embracing educational practices built around collaboration, discovery and the creation of knowledge; and inviting peers and colleagues to get involved" the process that produced this document does not one that. In this way, it betrays the spirit of open learning as actually engaged by practitioners today.

If there is anything that could be thought of as a truism in contemporary education, it is the idea that we are all learners and that we are all teachers. The idea of lifelong learning makes explicit the former idea, and the principles of learner-centered, constructive and inquiry-based learning make explicit the latter. Knowledge - particularly social and public knowledge - is not something that is produced by a hothouse meeting of experts, but rather, is produced through a process of dialogue and conversation.

It was explained to me that the process of a small, select group was chosen because of the difficulties inherent in convincing a large group to agree. But it is not clear that agreement is needed, not clear that the creation of this sort of document is what the movement needs most. And as at least one attendee at the meeting can attest, the wild uncooperative community at large can produce agreement on a document - it can produce agreement on a whole Encyclopedia of them.

The community as a whole may produce agreement - but it would be the sort of agreement, if at all, that is unmanageable, uncontrolled, one that suits the wider population very well but which is rather less appropriate to serve the rather more narrow interests of the foundations and the institutions represented by the signatories.

Simple Ethics

Responding to Keith Burgess-Jackson, The Logic of Torture.

I'm not sure about the ethics of giving people the arguments they need in order to defend torture - a practice that is universally condemned, except, it appears, in some certain political circles - but I'll bet they're not good.

In any case, this superficial and facile argument is an example of simple ethics at its worst: poor and shallow philosophical reasoning used to defense the indefensible. It would be nothing more than an annoying exercise, except that it appears that some of the readers of this site really believe some of this nonsense.

let's begin with the ridiculous division of the world of normative ethics (ie., ethics that tells you what you should or ought to do), deontology and consequentialism. The presumption here is that there are only two reasons for saying an act is wrong: because it breaks some rule, or because it has negative consequences.

The supposition that "deontologism is a hard position" displays a naive misunderstanding of rule-based theories. In the first place, it ignores the basis for the formation of rules altogether: rules may be based on religious beliefs, on agreement or contracts, or on practicality. Moreover, there may be many rules or few rules, and rules will interact with each other in often subtle ways. Far from being a "hard position", deontology enables a wide variety of ethical positions raging from strict theologically-based ethics (such as the Ten Commandments) to variations on the social contracts described by people like Rawls (justice as 'fairness') to forms of hedonism ('I do it because I feel like it').

The core of Burgess-Jackson's argument comes from the provision that there are "degrees" of consequentialism in most ethical position, thus suggesting that most people will have to admit reasoning such as the following: "When an act of torture is wrong, it is wrong solely because, qua act, it fails to maximize the good. When it maximizes the good, it is not wrong." Even if we agree that ethical theories divide neatly along a range, as he suggests (implausibly), his depiction of consequentialism is naive at best.

First of all, there are many ways to describe consequences. When we consider a specific act, the consequence may be only the damage it directly causes, indirect harm, intentional and unintentional harm, the influence it creates in other people, the example it sets, and more. It is naive - and wrong - to calculate the consequences of an act simply in terms of the number of lives lost or saved.

Secondly, there are many things that can have consequences other than *acts*. The position described by Burgess-Jackson is known generally as 'Act Utilitarianism' and is contrasted with 'Rule Utilitarianism'. The problem with Act Utilitarianism is that it focuses on short-term and immediate consequences, with no thought at all regarding the example it sets, or the utility of having a rule in general. In some cases, the importance of a rule to society is so great that no matter how justified a particular violation may appear, it never outweighs the rule itself, because the consequences of losing the rule itself would be devastating.

We have many rules like that in society, of which the sanction against torture is one. One argument for such a rule is that people require security in order to be able to function in a society. The possibility of torture, however slight, undermines that sense of security, with enormous consequences to society as a whole. Society itself cannot function without the non-arbitrary application of rules, as Solon, so long ago, argued in Athens.

Third, the consequentialist defense of torture is inherently contradictory. Torture is the willful inflicting of pain and suffering, thus creating a consequence that is, by most anybody's definition, a 'harm' or a 'wrong'. In other words, torture *itself* is one of the consequences we would like our system of ethics to avoid. The consequentialist position must begin with the *presumption* that torture is wrong. That is why consequentialist defenses of the act seem so, um, tortured.

Look at this argument, for example: "The best policy might be to prohibit torture (having carefully defined it), while allowing as a defense the claim that it was necessary to save many innocent lives." We can see the weasel words already creeping in to even the broad statement of the argument. We're going to 'carefully define it' (thus allowing some acts to escape the letter of the law). We're going to allow a 'claim' as a defense (rather than the 'fact' - because the 'fact' is essentially unprovable). We're going to save only 'innocent' lives (because the life of your church-going civilian defense contractor is worth so much more than that of the poor uneducated Palestinian boy who grew up in a shack and one day threw a stone).

Citing Hume, Burgess-Jackson suggests that one cannot derive an 'ought' from an 'is'. What should also be mentioned is that Hume did not accept that anything simply 'is'. Our understanding of cause and effect, our understand of diety and the divine, our understanding of the self, and even our understanding of the world - all these for Hume are "fictions", created by "habits of the mind". Hume himself argued that morality is a sense, an "impression" that we get of right or wrong.

That's why it appears so subjective. There is indeed nothing concrete on which we can pin morality - not even 'consequences', which were the target of Hume's harshest sceptical attacks. In the end, the best argument against torture is the one we all feel inside, that feeling of sickness at the idea of torture, and an especial revulsion toward the one who would suggest, through whatever dissembling, that torture can be defended.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Groups vs Networks: The Class Struggle Continues

This is the transcript for the talk I gave September 28, 2006, at e-Fest in Wellington, New Zealand. It's my first extended discussion of groups and networks. Slides and audio are also available.

It’s a genuine pleasure to be here in New Zealand. I’ve traveled all the way from Stewart Island up to Northland and this is an astonishingly beautiful country. I come from Canada. I don’t say stuff like that lightly because we’re pretty proud of our beauty in Canada, but this is a place that is relentlessly beautiful. I took the bus from Auckland to Wellington a couple of days ago and people sort of looked at me like I was nuts. But – New Zealand has a desert. I never knew that.

And, you know, I jumped the tour and took the bus and discovered a desert and that’s sort of like a metaphor for life or something. And the people here, I’ve told other people this, the people here in New Zealand are just lovely, lovely people. They have been kind and generous and they all say, or most of them I guess, I don’t know about all, but they say, “Hiya.” And for those of you who read my email, I always begin my email with, “Hiya.” And I’ve never actually heard people say that. It was so neat. You know, I’m there and I walked into a café and, you know, the woman behind the counter, she goes, “Hiya.” And I was like, “Oh, I’m home.”

As the introduction said, I have been on the road a long time. I started in Frankfurt after an overnight flight from Toronto, after a flight from Moncton, and I was there for their Saturday morning market and I was eating Bratwursts. And then I found myself in South Africa and I went to Lesotho, which is that little round country that’s completely enclosed by South Africa.

And I saw what they call cattle-boys and what cattle-boys are, they’re people who tend to their herd of cattle and the herd of cattle is 12, 15 cows and they sit on their horse. They always have a horse or a mule and they have a stick and they wear their blanket and they wear their hat. They used to wear their traditional Basotho hats, but now most often they wear something like a toque. They all have these blankets and toques. It’s Africa. And they always have one dog or two dogs. And that’s what they do. They tend their cattle.

And I was talking to people there about, you know, because they start this life when they’re five years old, six years old and they go off – they go into the mountains and they’re on their own and they’re tending their cattle and, they feed themselves and they clothe themselves and all of that. And the government and other agencies try to offer them schooling, but the schooling would bring them down from the mountain and they don’t want to come down from the mountain.

And, you know, having seen their mountains, I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t want to come down from that mountain either. I wouldn’t want to leave my horse or my mule and my dogs, especially not my dogs. I wouldn’t want to go to a school and have to not wear my blanket anymore or my hat or whatever and it’s just – so I’m sort of thinking, well, how do you educate them? How do you provide an education and what do you do to that sort of society when you’re offering that education? What does that change?

And I was in Johannesburg, which is where I lost my passport and my airline tickets. And I’m told Johannesburg isn’t the place to do that. And I went to Kruger National Park. This was while I still didn’t have a passport and airline tickets. I figured, well, I’ll go on safari if I can’t go overseas. And I saw zebras and no lions. I didn’t see lions or more accurately, they didn’t see me.

And I saw Cape Town and I was briefly in Australia and then of course here, from Stewart Island, Christchurch and Dunedin, Auckland, Whangarei. So, I’m overwhelmed. And I’ll admit that I’m standing here before you right now overwhelmed, overwhelmed with sensory experience, overwhelmed with cross-cultural experience. I was thinking just as I was skipping the coffee that I was having information overload. And for other people, information overload is 1,500 emails. I deal with that, you know, pretty much every day. For me, information overload was like real life. The irony struck me.

So what this talk is: a long time ago, I was asked to write an outline and I really didn’t know what I was going to talk about because I knew I was going to go through all of this and so this talk is some of the reflections that come out of all of that and those reflections as applied to the sorts of things that I have to say about learning technology, learning networks, e-learning and all of that stuff. This trip has probably done lots of things to me which I won’t discover until months later, but what this trip has done to me now is have me see my own thinking in a different way, from a different perspective and that’s always a good thing.

So, here’s the setup. What we’re seeing the emergence of the personalized web, the interactive web, web 2.0, or e learning 2.0. And the question that faces us typically is how should the learning sector, how should we respond. And the short version of that is very badly so far. I’ve been struck by the oddity because I’ve gone from place to place, college to college, school to school and I find that most of the technologies that I’m talking about and I want to demonstrate and show people are blocked. And I find that a very odd sort of thing.

And now, after all of this, I’m thinking of it as walls. It’s just walls all around me. I want to talk to someone. There’s a wall. I want to do a blog post. There’s a wall. Mostly, schools, colleges, universities have been reacting to these new technologies by blocking them. And I know there are good reasons for that and I know there’s security and all of that, but you know, I mean security is like walls.

The best of walls around your house isn’t gonna keep people out. You know, the best security system isn’t gonna block people. I’m reminded of the Microsoft Darknet paper1, a very famous paper written by some Microsoft technicians, and they’re writing about digital rights management and their conclusion essentially is that no digital rights management system will succeed. Any way of locking down content will inevitably be broken. And Microsoft should know.

You know, they come out with a security system and three days later the crack comes out for it. I mean, I read just this morning2 that Microsoft is suing the people who wrote software at the – what was it, a free WMV or something like that. It’s software that cracks the security encryption on the Windows Media format. You can’t build a society with walls.

I was at one of the technical universities in South Africa and they can have WiFi and have internet access and all of that, and of course, like all the other universities, they’re locked down. You have to give you name, your address, your Mac address, your blood type, your mother’s maiden name and then maybe, just maybe, they’ll let you have it – and anyhow that system was hacked and so it was down while we were there.

In the longer term we have to do something more imaginative than blocking this technology. We need to live and teach and learn where the students live and teach and learn. That means that we have to stop blocking to their spaces and go to their spaces. So we explore their world. But, you know, there’s the age-old danger of explorers that when we go to their world, we’re going to want to colonize it. And we’re going to want to make them like us. And we’re going to want to take them from their mountains and put them in rooms and put walls around them and put locks on their doors and say, “This is civilization.”

And that appears wrong to me and it appears wrong to me not just because I was recently in Africa. It has always appeared wrong to me. I mean, again, I’m from Canada. I’m most at home when I’m in a forest and there’s nothing around me, there’s no walls or no barriers. Maybe there’s a river, but whatever. And so it just does seem wrong to me.

Now, how is this playing out? Dana Boyd wrote a brilliant paper on MySpace, Identity Production in a Networked Culture3, about the way people use MySpace. And basically what she says in her analysis of MySpace and in the group – in the workshop yesterday4 we actually went to MySpace and looked around at the sites. What she says is that MySpace is identity production playing itself out visibly. People creating and demonstrating their own identity in this online world. And I commented yesterday, 86 million people, they can do anything they want, they can express themselves and they come up with that? But that’s MySpace.

We heard, especially in our traveling group here in New Zealand, we heard a lot about Second Life. Second Life to me is almost an old story and it’s almost an old story because I actually came onto the internet sometime in the late 1980s as a participant or a player in what was called a ‘multi user dungeon’, or MUD. And I, in particular, played on a MUD called MUD Dog MUD. “Virtual reality at its best. Based at the University of Florida.” I can still remember the title screen in my head. My online character was Labatt the Cat and I was a wizard. Actually, I was a senior wizard. I was very proud of that – more proud of that than my BA. And Sherry Turkle, again, examines the world of MUDS.5 MUDS are like Second Life except without the graphics. Funny how you describe things – how that changes over time.

And again, and I saw this for myself, people playing in these MUDs are creating their own identity. They’re trying on different hats. They’re trying on different ways to live, different ways to interact and that’s okay. I was going to say we don’t say that this is good or this is bad, but of course we do say that this is good and this is bad. And then I wanted to say, “Well, we don’t mean it.” But of course we do mean it. But mostly what I want to say is this kind of diversity, including of opinion, is expected. A MUD is one of these wild free ranging places and that’s also true of Second Life. Except with graphics.

All of this – you know, my background in MUDs and creating and recreating my own identity online and then I’m sure many of you have seen my own identity online in my web page and my other web page and the secret hidden webpage that nobody’s allowed to see. It’s not a very popular one.

And all of that, and my background, and then coming through New Zealand with the traveling group: all of that has put me in a position where I’m looking at the contrast (‘contrast’ is the word I’ll use right now) between groups and networks. And I posted in my website a few days ago6 that groups require unity and networks require diversity. Groups require coherence, networks require autonomy and so on.

And to put that into context right now historically. Those of you who’ve taken political science know that all of human history in political science is the division between the individual and the state. Right? The person and the group, right? And these are the two divides. And the whole purpose of politics is to find some sort of accommodation for them or if you’re Ayn Rand, to favor the individual and ignore the group.

And it seems to me that networks offers that middle way. Networks offers that path that isn’t the individual and isn’t the group, doesn’t force you to choose between the individual and the group. I am saying this because as soon as I came up with this “groups versus networks” people are looking at that and saying, “Well what’s the middle way with that?” And I thought, “Wait a sec, this is the middle way.

So I drew this picture:

I drew this in Auckland. Because I was talking like this and I wanted to draw out what I meant by that distinction between the group and the network. The rest of the talk is basically about this diagram.

Now if I was doing this diagram today instead of three or four days ago, it would be a bit different, but not a lot different because not a lot of time has passed. And these are not definitions. I don’t do definitions. So I don’t want somebody coming along like five years from now and saying, “Stephen Downes defines a network…” I’m just trying to give you some words to give you kind of a mental picture of what I think this is, and I won’t be bound by these words.

But more or less, a group is a collection of entities or members according to their nature or their feature or their properties or whatever, their essential nature, maybe, their accidental nature, maybe, whatever, but according to their nature. What defines a group is the quality the members possess in common and then the number of members in that group. Groups are about nature, they’re about quality, they’re about mass. They’re about number.

A network, by contrast, is an association – I use that word very precisely – an association of entities or members where this association is facilitated or created by a set of connections between those entities. And if you say, “Well what is a connection?” A connection is merely some conduit along which a signal can run. Well, that clarified it, didn’t it? What defines a network is the nature and the extent of this connectivity. The nature and the extent to which these individuals are connected together. Now that may be perfectly fuzzy, but this is the overall view.

A group, in other words, is like a school, a school of thought or a school of fish or a class, a class of entity, a class of animals, a class in a genus and a species. A class act is kind of a group. Or to flip that around classes in schools, properly so called, the things that we all grew up in are groups because groups are classes in schools. And once that line of reason, I started looking at dictionary definitions and I started doing Google image searches on the word school. I bet I’ve never done that before.

And I’m asking can we even think of schools? Can we even think of classes without at the same time thinking about the attributes of groups? Can we separate in our head those two contexts or have they been irrevocably fused in our minds?

The discussion I’ve had since I’ve come up with this points more toward irrevocably fused, but I hope to shake that a little bit. So let’s come back to the challenge, only rephrased with the date in Finnish (Stanley Frielick, kirjoitti 27.9.2006 kello 12:35) - because I wanted to include some Finnish in this presentation. “Education and authentic learning,” he writes, “like freedom, is wrapped up with the notion of responsibility and accountability. We need to learn in groups because that’s where we form our identities.”7 True or false? “Not in some vast, chaotic network where there’s no responsibility, no authenticity.” Fascinating how responsibility and authenticity and all of these things are joined together.

That last little bit harkens to Hubert Dreyfus who is basically – I don’t want to say anti-internet because that would radically oversimplify his position, but Dreyfus says, basically, there is no genuine effects, no genuine cause and effect, no genuine consequence to your actions on the internet.8 Now I grew up on MUDs. I know how false this is and the interactions that take place on the internet, contrary to Dreyfus, are real and as I said in the group yesterday, I read this somewhere, I forget where, ‘real’ is defined as “the effect continues to linger after you’ve turned off the computer.” If that happens, it was real.

A group is elemental. Remember, a group is defined according to its class and the number and if you want to draw a mental picture, draw a mental picture of one of those ingots of pure gold or something like that. And the idea here is that all of the elements in that ingot are the same. They’re all gold atoms. Right? And they’re just all lined up together and what makes it more or less valuable is how many of those atoms there are and how pure that ingot of metal is.

Interestingly, democracy is a group phenomenon. Democracy is a bunch of people who are relevantly the same, they all voted Tory and what matter is how many of them there were. So, you know, so many people vote Tory, so many people vote liberal and those two sets – those two groups, that’s how the government is defined according to how people voted. A network is different from that. And a network is – and other people have said this, I’m certainly not the first person to say this - a network is like an ecosystem where there is no requirement that all the entities be the same, where the nature of the entity isn’t specifically relevant, where the number of entities isn’t specifically relevant.

(I once got a twenty out of ten, I was so proud, on a project. It was a bottle of water from the stream and it was tightly sealed and I called it “closed ecosystem project.” And I reported on the slow death and decay of everything inside that bottle.)

So we hearken back to what Stanley said. We have a group or we don’t and without the group, there’s no responsibility, there’s no order, there’s nothing but chaos and mass anarchy. And the question is, can we have order, responsibility, identity, all of that good stuff, inside an ecosystem? Is the choice before us really order or anarchy? And I argue, no, that isn’t the choice. I argue that not only can you have all of those good things inside an ecosystem, inside a network, but also that in many ways, they are relevantly better.

And, you know, it’s funny – Solon was a Greek icon and is known, to say this briefly, known for bringing the concept of universal laws to Athens. If you think about how law is managed in the ancient societies, two people come before the king and they each plead their case and the king sort of goes, “Hmm, you. You win.” And the problem is, for societies without laws, you do that enough times and then the king says, “Hmm, you’re in my family. You win.” And so that sort of problem was happening in Athens where justice was blatantly unfair and so what Solon did is he brought a system of laws that would apply for everybody. And so he brings the concept of universal law that applies equally and the same to everybody in Athens. And it’s funny how that has survived as an essential and elemental concept in learning today.

I commented, and not purely in jest, when talking about assessment. I want to change the system of assessment in schools because right now we have tests and things like that that are scrupulously fair, particularly distance learning where we outline the objectives the performance metrics and the outcomes and all of that. I want to scrap that system. I want testing to be done by at random by comments from your peers and other people and strangers based on no criteria whatsoever and applied unequally and unfairly.

And people say, “Well, why would you want that?”

And I said, “Well, that’s the way the world works.”

But the point of that remark is to try to pull apart this idea of universality, everything being the same and learning. Do we need, as is suggested, do we need the iron hand of justice in our classrooms?

Groups – groups are defined by their unity. In fact, one of the first things you do in a group is you try to maintain its unity. A group need to be, in some sense, cohesive, united, “e pluribus unum”. Or to keep this politically fair, “The people united will never be defeated,” the “melting pot”, the encouragement to be the same, the encouragement to have the same values, to follow the same vision, to be, in some relevant way, like the others because that’s what the group is. Without that sameness, you don’t have the group. You have anarchy.

And we have technologies specifically designed for the group, pre internet technologies appeal to the mass and you’re familiar with these – mass broadcasts of television, of radio, newspapers, books. These are things that create the identity of the group and therefore, because the nature of the individual is the same as the nature of the group, it creates the identity of the group.

Think about, in your own country, have there been these moments that have defined the country captured on video and played over and over for your children? In Canada it was in 1972. We played a hockey series – Canada against the Soviet Union. They were evil. We won. It was great. Paul Henderson’s goal, I can almost like hear and recite back the play by play announcer. I watched that game sitting in an open concept classroom in Metcalfe, Ontario, with about 50 other kids on one of those little TVs way up on the little rolling stand. And when Henderson scored that goal, we went nuts. And it defined our generation. Unity.

Online, we do pretty much the same thing. We have technologies that appeal to the mass and are used to create unity. All-staff emails – how many of you got an all staff emails? I was talking with Brandy before this talk, she got an all staff text message. An instant message sent to everybody in the ‘buddy list’, 200 people or whatever got the URL for the corporate website, the portal. These are “all” things, out of many, one. Out of all these staff and employees in your company or your university or whatever we’re gonna have this website and this website will speak for all of us.

Networks are almost defined by the opposite, defined by their diversity. A network thrives on diversity. It wouldn’t be a network without diversity. To each his own, so goes the saying, and I know it’s not gender neutral, but it’s a very old saying so I was faced with a choice. Do I quote the quote accurately or do I put it gender neutral? So I thought I’d quote the quote accurately and then apologize for 30 seconds.

Interestingly, when I grew up, and again I grew up in Metcalfe, Ontario, small farm town south of Ottawa, population 500, we were feral. We roamed the fields and the forests and if there were deer we would have chased deer, but there were cows, so we chased cows. And our teachers would teach to us that Canada was different from the United States. And much later on, I realized, oh, that is Canadian identity.

And the United States, like groups, constitutes a melting pot. In Canada, we were all taught, is a salad bowl where each entity, the lettuce, the tomato, the whatever, cucumber, I don’t know what you put in salads. That’s what we put in salads. All of these things maintain their distinctness and their identity and by maintaining their distinctness and identity, they create a whole that is something distinct and different from any individual entity and indeed, something that cannot be created without maintaining that distinctness and identity.

And the more I thought about this, you know, I struggle with myself all the time and I wonder, was it indoctrination or were they right? And after many years, I’ve come to the conclusion they were right.9 And so there is this idea of the network, there is this idea of distinctness and diversity in an environment where people are encouraged not to be the same, but to be different. I like to think I have fulfilled my teacher’s expectation, having internalized the encouragement not to consume and to absorb the message from the mass media, but to create, to be that media, to be the artist, to be the writer, to be the videographer. Canada routinely wins awards for its documentaries. We are the nation of documentary makers. I even made a documentary recently.10 Why? Because well, I’m Canadian. I had to. It’s in the contract.

Network technology that includes diversity, encourages diversity, talking – talking is wonderful and talking is not a mass phenomenon – telephoning, writing letters, personal emails, do you see what characterizes these things? Right? They’re not one to many, they’re one to one, and sometimes in the internet age, they’re also many to many.

But the idea here is that what defines these things is the set of connections between the individuals and not the content of what’s going out. If you try to define what you mean by, say, telephoning or letter writing by the content of the messages, how would you do that? They’re not even all in language, especially not with sending pictures and things like that.

Internet technology that encourages diversity rather than conformity includes things like personal home pages or these days, blogs. I should add to this slide MySpace profiles and things like that, your account on Flickr. All of these things that allows the individual to express themselves rather than the individual being part of some larger entity. It’s funny, I have an email address, surprise. My email address is

And I’m just curious now, almost all of you will have email addresses. For all of you, how many of you have an email address based on your institution, college, universities or whatever address? In other words, you know, or whatever? Where is your personal identity? Why the email? This is your email address. And yet your email address is your institutional address. How did that come to be? Imagine if your personal mail address, the mail that you get from your grandmother, came through your employer and had to be sent to your employer before it got to you. It just seems odd.

Groups require coordination. They require a leadership or a leader which is why we get all of this stuff on leadership. It’s the funniest thing, all these things on leadership, because I read these and it’s like everybody needs to be a leader, but my experience of groups is usually one leader and a bunch of followers and, you know, I want to see the new business book that says, “Everyone should be a follower.” But no. I always look at these things from the point of view of the follower.

People think about groups and leadership and direction and responsibility and they usually mean “my leadership, my direction, responsibility to me.” And I look at groups differently because they don’t let me lead groups. I look at groups as somebody else’s leadership, somebody else I’m responsible to. I have to follow his or her vision, as being “responsible” assumes that I’m under somebody. People picture groups, but they don’t picture them in terms of their actual role in the group. They picture them in terms of the role they would like to play in the group. It’s a philosophy of aspiration rather than a philosophy of reality.

This is something that socialists need to look at because socialists appeal to groups. They appeal to the worker, but nobody wants to be a worker. That’s why socialists, at least in my country, get like 16, 20 percent of the vote. You know? I’m surprised 16, 20 percent of the people identify, “Yeah, I’m a worker.” But, you know, people don’t want to be a worker. They want to be a manager or retired, one or the other. Socialists speak to neither of those.

A group is defined by its values. I said yesterday and I say it again today, the person who came up with the concept of the vision statement should be thrown out the window. Because think about it. You’re in some institution. The powers that be from on high come down with a vision statement. You read the vision statement. How many of you go, “Yeah, that’s my purpose in life?” And what follows is a long, protracted exercise to get you to replace whatever vision you had with the vision of the group. And it seems odd. Groups define standards. Groups define belonging.

In learning technology – most of learning technology is intended to support this picture – we have the learning management system. Managing learning. If you think about that, think about what that says to manage learning. What does that mean? It means there’ll be a manager of learning. It means that there’ll be one person responsible for the learning and everybody else will follow. Learning design, where the learning is organized, sliced, diced, flaked and formed and you follow in a row or you’re not a learner. You’re an anarchist. Learning object metadata, the 87 or whatever fields to describe a learning object, a learning object being something that can be assembled like a Lego, like individual entities in a group, and this is the one and only way to describe learning resources. And if it’s not a learning object metadata, it doesn’t exist.

Networks, by contrast, require autonomy. That is to say each individual in a network operates independently. That does not mean they operate alone. What that does mean is – because remember, it’s a network, you’re connected, you talk to people, they talk to you – it means you define your vision. It means you define what’s going to be important to you, your values and interests. It means that when you go to work, the reason why you’re at work is because you want to put food on your table, not the boss’s table. The boss getting food on his or her table, that’s just an accident. But that’s not why you’re there.

Interaction in a network isn’t about leaders and followers. It’s about, as I say here, a mutual exchange of value. And my employers don’t like me that much because that’s how I view myself as an employee. And I go into there and they say, “Well, we’re gonna give you these orders now.”

And I sort of say, “Well, what are you going to give me for doing that?”

And they say, “Well, we pay you.”

I say, “Well you paid me before. You know, we already had an agreement and now you’re changing the agreement and that’s fine. You can change the agreement, but now I want some changes too.” Because it doesn’t work that way if this is a mutual exchange of value. You can’t just change the condition. I hear so many people say all the time, it was even in my email this morning, it was stuff about networks and that and people say, “Oh, but we’re in this institutional environment. We have to do what we’re told.”

And my response is, “Who said so?” I mean, why? I mean the worst thing they could do is fire you and then you’d be free, but if you belong to a union (another group, right?) you can actually set one group against the other and not follow their orders and still manage to be able to eat and house yourself.

And it’s a fascinating – when you reframe these things – you need to reframe these things. Think about the arrangement that they have set up for you. You will do what they say or you will be forced to be homeless and starve. What kind of bargain is that? Right? So this objection is, “we have to do what we do or they won’t pay us.” But the only people who can change that arrangement is you. Your bosses aren’t going to change it. Trust me.

People don’t follow, they don’t do what they’re told in a network. They interact. They make their own decisions, but not completely independently all on their own, not all by their lonesome. They interact with other people. But they make their own decisions.

It’s like traveling from Auckland to Wellington. Right? There’s different ways you can do it. I mean you can travel with a tour group or you can take the bus. Right? Taking the bus doesn’t mean that you’re traveling alone. It just means you’re not traveling with the group, but you still interact. But your interaction is different. Now it’s in a mutual exchange between you and the bus driver or you and the bus company. And I give them money and they said, “Yes we will take you to Wellington and we won’t leave you in the desert.” And I said, “Good, because it’s a nice desert, but I don’t want to be left there.”

And you think about the technology now that encourages autonomy rather than conformance. E-portfolios is being touted as this sort of technology. The same with the personal learning environments (and you might not know what that is yet because they’re new, but if you look that up on Google, you’ll find stuff on personal learning environments) and that’s the autonomous answer, the network answer to the learning management system. And it’s based on a radical concept. Students can learn autonomously. Who would have believed?

But if you read and listen to all this pedagogical theory, it’s like, “gee, if we don’t take them by the hand and lead them through this, they’ll be hopelessly lost and they’ll never learn anything at all.”11 And if that were true, the internet never would have been built. There were no classes on how to build an internet before it was built. How did they learn? Well, they learned on their own, self-directed.

Groups are closed. This is the ‘walls’ part of it. They require a boundary that clearly defines the distinction between members and non-members, otherwise there wouldn’t be a group. They would not even a mob, because a mob at least has a border. Groups have memberships. Membership has its privileges. They have logins and passwords and authentication and blood type passes. They have control of vocabularies and standards, jargon. They have in-jokes. You will use this technology. I’m a Mac person. I’m a PC person. Staying on message, he’s a loose cannon, he’s not part of the group. We speak as one. With one voice we speak. That’s what a group is.

A group defines itself with very precise limits. Look at the limits. Look at the boundaries. Look at the walls that you have in your learning environment today, your learning technology environment, even your learning environment today. Look at the walls here right. We’ve managed to keep all the other people out. Right? And if somebody who was just walking on the street tried to come in here, sit down and listen, we would stop them. Think about that. That’s our theory of learning. If somebody wants to come in and listen, we stop them.

Enterprise computing, federated search, federated search is a system whereby you search only accepted resources, resources that have been approved, qualified and typically are commercial and for sale. User IDs and passwords, copyrights, patents, you cannot use that shade of green it’s owned by BP. You cannot use the word Coca Cola, not even to talk about Coca Cola because we own that. I can say ‘elearning 2,0’ I invented the concept web 2.0. You can have a conference, but you cannot call it web 2.0. I’m blackboard, I invented the learning management system. We will put a wall around anyone else trying to do it.

And even whether or not it’s true or not true, it doesn’t matter. You build the wall and it becomes true. Assertions of exclusivity define groups. Networks are the opposite of that. Networks are open. Networks require that all entities in the network be able to both send and receive. To send and receive, first of all, in their own way, because they’re diverse, and secondly, without being impeded. Well, oddly, that is a radical concept.

It’s hard to believe that something like freedom of speech is a radical concept, but there it is. In their own ways, a person in a network should be able to send their message any way they want in their own language using their own computer encoding, using their Macintosh computers, using standards that are non-standards. I talk from time to time about RSS. RSS – sometimes people talk about RSS in the same breath they talk about learning object metadata ‘cause they’re both types of XML, but if you look at the history of RSS, it’s a mess. There is not such thing as RSS or no individual thing as RSS. There’s eight or nine or ten or we don’t even know how many different types of RSS and some types of RSS aren’t even called RSS. And yet it works. There are many, many hundreds of times more RSS feeds that there are learning object metadata feeds. In fact, I don’t know if there are any learning object metadata feeds.

In networks we have communities of practices where a ‘community’ is defined as collections of individuals that exchange messages and ideas back and forth without being impeded. Copyright, trademarks, proprietary software, all of these things are barriers for the communication of thought and ideas. If you allow that using content, images, text, video is a way of speaking to each other, then copyright, trademark, all these things are ways of locking down our speech, saying, “I own the word such and such and you can’t use it.”

Imagine I invented radar and I decided I am going to own the word radar from now on and anybody who talks about radar has to get my approval before they can use that word. Can you imagine how communication works in an environment where you have to get permission in order to use a word as simple as radar? But that’s what’s happening now with all of this copyright stuff. The network approach to this stuff is to open this up, create a license for works and content like GPL.

The network response to a meeting like this with four walls, a ceiling and happily a floor is this, the iRiver, in this case, which is recording this talk in MP3 After this talk, sometime, I’m going to do a radical act. I’m going to take the talk that I just gave and I’m going to put it on the internet and anyone can listen to it. And they won’t even have to pay me. And even better, they can take this talk, they can put it on their own computer system, they can print it out on a CD and pass it around their village or farm or whatever.

They won’t have to pay and if they think I’ve gone on too long (a lot of people think that) they can chop it up and just do little snippets, like, “A lot of people think that.” And, you know, you hit a button, “A lot of people think that.” And they can mix and mash and I want them to do this because I want part of my words, my thoughts, my thinking, my ideas to become part of the culture, part of the language, part of the dialogue. And it strikes me as – and the only way to do that is to no longer own it. The only way a word becomes a word is if you let go of it.

Groups are distributive – money, information, power, everything flows from the center, an authority, and it’s distributed through the members.

Networks are distributed. In a network, there is no locus of knowledge. There is no place that knowledge and money and all of that flow from. Rather, the knowledge, the money, the information, anything that is exchanged in a network is distributed across the entities of a network. When an idea propagates to a network, it does not come from a centralized source, rather it comes from any given source in the network and then through a process of what they call propagation, it works its way through the network.

Think about diseases (yes, I came here and talked about diseases). You know, there’s no central disease authority where we get all of our diseases from, happily. Some say the CIA, but that would be the group way of doing it. Diseases spring up anywhere. The flu comes from Hong Kong, Ebola comes from Ebola, you know, they can spring up anywhere and then what happens is they propagate person to person, contact to contact and there’s a very specific logic of how diseases propagate from person to person, contact to contact and it’s this whole social networking graph theory.

And the mathematics of that is actually very simple. If the probability that the disease will be passed on is greater than one, the disease will spread through the society. If the probability is less than one, it will be halted at some point. And then you work around the mechanics of all of that. So the network works that way. The network works where the idea, the money, the resources, whatever, may happen to be anywhere and then it propagates link by link through the entire network and then each entity working on its own will have a specific probability of passing this on. And if collectively the probabilities are, on average, greater than one, then the idea or the concept will become common throughout the network and not otherwise. And in practice, what you’ll find is some parts of the network are such that the idea has been accepted there, but for one reason or another, it didn’t quite make it to the rest of the network. And so you get variety within the network itself.

There’s been a lot of talk, and this is sort of just in the back of my mind while I was saying that last sentence, which is why that last sentence was a little confused. There’s a lot of talk these days about something called a power law in networks and what a power law is a way of explaining the distribution of links in a network and it looks like this. So there’s sort of a curve. Right?

And the idea is that some sites, like Google, have many, many links, links in from other people. Lots of people link to Google. And then you’ve got other sites like my site, you know, a few thousand people and then other sites, a dozen people and then many, many, many other sites, you know, just two or three people. So you have what they call that the ‘long tail’. This is where the new economy is and all of that. It’s the long tail and all of these individuals of just two or three links, but the thing is, you know, this message is being given to us mostly by people who are in what I call the big spike, the A-listers. And they’re sitting there saying, “Look at this power law. We’re out here. We’re making a mint.”

But the thing is, that power law of distribution is more characteristic of groups than it is of networks. A network, properly constructed, will not see that configuration where two percent of all the people own 80 percent of all the wealth. Rather, it becomes more distributed – the more evenly you distribute your links, the more evenly you distribute your wealth.

Why networks? Three major reasons.

First of all, the nature of the knower. Human beings resemble ecosystems more than they resemble lumps of metal.

Secondly and very importantly, the quality of the knowledge. Because the knowledge comes from the authority, from the center, even if there’s consultation and all of that, the knowledge of groups is limited by the capacity of the leader to know things. This is why dictatorships are so bad; dictators, as smart as they are (and some of them are very smart) just simply aren’t capable of running an entire country by themselves. Nobody can do it. It takes too much memory, too much perception.

And then finally, the nature of the knowledge itself – the knowledge in a group replicates the knowledge in the individuals and it’s passed on simple in a transmission communication kind of way.

Those of you who are into learning theory think more about transaction theory, of communication theory. It goes from here to here to here to here. And consequently, that limits the type of knowledge that can be created and communicated. I characterized it here a bit badly as simple cause and effect, yes-no sorts of things. The sort of knowledge you can get looking at mass phenomena. The knowledge you can get by polls and things like that.

But in a network, the knowledge is emergent. The knowledge is not in any given individual, but it’s a property of the network as a whole. Consequently, it’s a knowledge that cannot, does not, exist in any individual, but only in the network as a whole. It’s emergent. It’s more complex in the sense that it is able to capture and describe phenomena that are not simple like cause and effect, but complex like the nature of societies or the nature of the weather. That’s a very loose characterization about it.

Thank you for your time. I really appreciate the invitation. I thank you so much for the opportunity to be here to speak to you. It’s been a tremendous honor.


[1] Peter Biddle, Paul England, Marcus Peinado, and Bryan Willman. 2006. The Darknet and the Future of Content Distribution. Microsoft Corporation. 2002 ACM Workshop on Digital Rights Management.

[2] Fulton, Scott. 2006. Microsoft Sues FairUse4WM Developers. Beta News, September 27, 2006.

[3] boyd, danah. 2006. Identity Production in a Networked Culture: Why Youth Heart MySpace. American Association for the Advancement of Science, St. Louis, MO. February 19.

[4] Downes, Stephen. 2006. Online World. eFest, September 27, 2006.

[5] Turkle, Sherry. 1997. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. Simon & Schuster (September 4, 1997).

[6] Downes, Stephen. 2006a. Groups and Networks. September 25, 2006.

[7] Frielick, Stanley. 2006. FLNW:: Re: Networking groups in the diverse world. The Future of Learning in a Networked World, Google Groups, September 27, 2006.

[8] Downes, Stephen. 2002. Education and Embodiment. April 26, 2002.

[9] Downes, Stephen. 2003. My Canada. July 1, 2003.

[10] Downes, Stephen. 2006c. Bogota. September 15, 2006.

[11] Kirschner, P.A., Sweller, J. & Clark, R.E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41, 75-86.

Friday, November 23, 2007


Responding to Doug Johnson

Interesting post, but...

The thing is, people are depicting the Kindle as though it is replacing books. But this isn't the case.

What Kindle is replacing is the notebook computer. Because we already can read books with the notebook computer. Only:

- we can get them for free
- we can copy them share them all we want
- we can edit them, make comments about them, link to them
- we can make our own

We do this today on computers that cost roughly $1000. The Kindle lowers the cost of the device, but:

- we have to pay for the books
- we can't copy them and share them with our friends
- we can make notes, but we can't link to them
- we can't really make our own

See, the question here isn't, is Kindle a good replacement for books, but rather, is it worth exchanging our more expensive consumer for a device that doesn't let us do what we want with our books?

This question is especially relevant when we get full-feature computers for less than the thee cost of a Kindle.

I think most people will see the Kindle for what it is: an attempt by publishers to 'control the platform' the way telephone companies control the mobile phone platform and the way Apple is (trying to) control the MP3 player platform.

So - the negative reaction is not surprising. The emotion comes from the sighs of exasperation from people who thought we'd been through all this and rejected closed proprietary platforms.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Response to Kirshner

Here is my talk:

Here is my response to Kirshner's criticisms, posted here. Wilfred Reubins provides the translation.

Wilfred Rubens wrote:

Paul had doubts if he would respond. Partly because he does not think your 'attack' is not worth responding. He writes that apparently you became upset about his article during the Edublogdiner.

I discussed my subject during the edublog dinner. But as you can see if you look at the dates of my postings on Half an Hour, I had already begin collecting and working on material prior to the dinner. I became upset, not at the dinner, but when I read the article, which was about a week prior to the talk.

Kirschner writes that your speech was not the speech you agreed upon with the Surf organisation (and the speech you were paid for).

First of all, I was not paid for a speech. I do not charge speaker fees of any kind. My expenses (airfare and hotel) are paid by the organizers; otherwise I could not deliver the talk at all. But my time and effort are freely donated.

In my email to Tom Dousma, of Surf, dated August 1, 2007, here is what I promised:

I think I culd contribute with a talk titled 'Learning Without Leaders' (or something like that) in which I could outline how learners, supported with new technologies, are able to manage their own learning. A focus of the talk would be to response to some of the very specific objections that have been raised, eg., that students without guidance do not work, that they do not make the correct (or appropriate) choices, that they do not learn the fundamentals, etc. (ifyou have heard additional objections you would like to see address, please let me know of them).

I would say that this is exactly what I delivered.

He wonders why you did not get in touch with him but that you choose to hold a monologue instead of a dialogue.

I have discussed these issues for a long time on my website and in my newsletter. I posted the summary of the Kirshner, Weller and Clark paper as well as a series of responses on my blog, Half an Hour.

In my newsletter, the day before the talk, I posted that I would be addressing the Kirshner, Weller and Clark paper during my talk, asking for comments and feedback and received a number of very valuable comments in response.

I did not contact Kirshner (or any of the authors) personally and privately because I did not see any reason to do so. My work is open and public. There was ample opportunity to see what I write and to respond.

It is worth noting that neither Kirshner nor anyone else contacted me prior to the publication of the article in the first place. Of course, I would not expect such exceptional and preferential treatment.

Now, he was not able to respond to your contribution.

He was invited by the organizers to make a response in English, which I would attend (and very politely sit in the back of the room and listen). Probably this was not possible because he did not attend my presentation in the first place.

Kirshner does not read my papers, nor my blog, nor my newsletter, nor attend my presentation, and then suggests that it is my fault that he is not informed.

Paul writes that his article was published in one of the best scientific magazines. Three teams of researchers responded. And Kirschner, Clark and Sweller had the opportunity to react. The reader could produce conclusions himselves. Kirschner thinks this is a proper and decent debate.

A number of the responses remain behind subscription firewalls, and I cannot afford to pay the fees to read them. I have collected and analyzed as much of the public critique as I could find.

It was my opinion that the debate was conducted in a very narrow arena, with limited perspectives offered in response. In the responses to the paper I did not see any recognition of Kirshner's mischaracterization of scientific method. I did see an abstract accusing him of misunderstanding cognitive processes, but this was behind a subscription paywall and so I could not read the entire text.

Kirshner continues to be free to respond to my arguments. I do not believe that 'debate' is limited to a specific academic journal or a specific conference. A debate, properly speaking, is something that is distributed across time and space, and includes a variety of autonomous contributors, communicating through various media, in which there is not an 'audience' per se (this is not a performance of a play!) but participants in a wider discussion.

Kirschner writes that they do not mention the "holy cow social-constructivism" (I used the term in my impression). Kirschner, Clark and Sweller warn for the dangers of minimal guidance or no guidance, and their criticism is according to Paul Kirschner based on facts and empirical research.

It is very clear to m that the authors attach the presumption of 'little or no guidance' to a number of theories, and find that their criticism of 'little or no guidance' constitutes a basis for criticizing those theories.

There is no question from the text of the paper that the authors believe that a pedagogical process that does not contain direct instruction is therefore one in which there is little or no guidance.

I understand that Kirshner believes that research supports his position. But merely citing research does not produce support. The conclusion must be entailed (or at least, inferred, or at the very least, suggested) by the research. This is not the case here, as I demonstrated in my talk.

It is OK for him that you call him an instructivist. So was -according to Kirschner- Lev Vygotski with his ideas concerning the use of scaffolding and the zone of proximal development. Kirscher suggest you should support your "belief" in free-learning with scientific evidence.

In my talk I stated that among my criticisms of constructivism and inquiry learning is the assertion that there is too much instruction. So I too agree that Vygotski is a type of instructionist. I have criticized this position in the past - here, for example, responding to David Merrill.

There is voluminous research showing that learning takes place when in contexts where there is little or no direct instruction. In my talk I refer both to some of the formal research, as well as appealing to our own experiences, in making this point. Kirshner is simply incorrect to suggest that my 'belief' is not supported by scientific evidence.

The video of my talk has been available on my website for a number of days now. Perhaps Kirshner should view the video before commenting further on what my talk does not contain.

According to Kirschner you presented strowmen and inadequacies in your speech. He adds: "If I interpret Wilfred's contribution correctly". I wrote for example that according to you Kirschner cs think that there is no evidence for inquiry learning and problem-based learning.

I do not say this. In fact, I acknowledge that in their paper, they do cite support for inquiry learning and problem-based learning. For example, one of the things I cite is their description of the use of problem-based learning by U.S. medical schools. Research does show that this learning is effective, as Kirshner Sweller and Clark note. But they criticize it, because the graduates prescribe "unnecessary procedures".

Furthermore I wrote that according to you Kirschner cs made a caricature of social constructivism. I used this word deliberately because imho it is a label for Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching. This label is rather common in Dutch literature about teaching and learning. And it was my interpretation of a part of your contribution. I wrote to Paul Kirschner that it was my interpretation but that I think it was what you meant.

It seems clear that Kirshner Sweller and lark very deliberately sidestepped 'social constructivism'. I am careful therefore not to use this phrase anywhere in my presentation. I also do not engage in any discussion of Vygotsky or social constructivist their in detail. My response (that the authors pose a false dimemma, for example) is based on the nature of Kirshner Sweller and Clarks statement of the theses, and not of any particular interpretation of any of them.

Kirschner ends his response with the remark that you are not debating. That you use a monologue that you control (e.g. on your weblog).

My own belief is that my own style of dialogue and debate is more open than any alternative being proposed. I may control my own website (though I do allow comments both on my main website and on my blog) but I do not control the blogosphere or the wider internet.

Kirshner may not choose to use open and public fora for debate, but it is certainly inappropriate for him to blame me for this choice.

If his understanding of scientific debate and enquiry is that it takes place only in special fora with limited participation and paying audience, then he is in my view mistaken, and he should not blame me for the consequences of his mistake, particularly after my efforts to correct them.

I conduct my side of the debate in the open five days a week for all to see, and if Kirshner has not seen, and does not care to take part, in this debate, then it is his loss, not mine. And I would say that the advantage that I - and any others who take part - gain from this method *is* empirical evidence for the position that non-guided instruction supports learning.

I used a title "Downes tears Kirschner apart" (at least a Dutch expression which means the same). According to Kirschner a better title would be: “Stephen Downes makes a fool of himself”.

I have made a fool of myself before and will no doubt do so again. I am happy to make a fool of myself, if it will advance our knowledge and understanding.

I will be making a transcript of the talk so that Kirshner and others can respond to my specific arguments, should they so desire.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Kirschner, Sweller, Clark (2006) - Readings

Note: I'm posting this as an example of the reading I have done while reviewing an academic paper. These are my notes on Kirschner, Sweller and Clark's paper Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist,
Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching.

Interestingly, as I review these remarks, not one author has landed on the fundamental problems with the paper. More later.

Primary reference:

Kirschner, P.A., Sweller, J. & Clark, R.E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41, 75-86.

Mark Montgomery
:Textbook Evaluator

Despite the article’s great strengths, it sometimes devolves into an empassioned plea for more direct instruction. As the authors state at the end of the introduction, the article is not a dispassionate presentation of the evidence. Rather its goal is to discredit constructivism.

The goal of this article is to suggest that based on our current knowledge of human cognitive architecure, minimially guided instruction is likely to be ineffective. The past half-century of empirical research on this issue has provided overwhelming and unambiguous evidence that minimal guidance during instruction is significantly less effective and efficient than guidance specifically designed to support the cognitive processing necessary for learning.


Note how the authors set up a dichotomy: “minimally guided” vs. “guided.” As in most education research, the nuances of reality are just too complicated to address. There are, in practice, various shades of “guided” instruction. On one extreme is the “all drill all the time” school of rote memorization–or 100% guidance. On the other hand is the Rousseavian “let the kid just explore everything all the time, and I’ll just provide a safe space for those explorations” (or 0% guidance). I understand that the authors of this article need to set up categories in order to analyze instructional methods. But be real, folks: the way these things are put into practice by actual teachers with actual students is much less extremist than the academics, pundits, policy makers, and bloggers would have us believe. Most educators I have ever met, dealt with, taught beside, or watched instruct fall somewhere in the glorious, gray middle.

Miles Berry

The authors cite research in which constructivist approaches have produced lower test scores than approaches using direct instruction. Whilst this isn't news, and the 'no significant difference' phenomemon is well documented elsewhere, it does rather come back to a question of what's being measured - if the measure of success is recall of facts and their application to relatively familiar problems, then it's not entirely surprising that pedagogic approaches which emphasise this dimension will produce better results. The experience of teaching to the test is far from uncommon, and high input methods such as detailed revision notes, worked examples and practice papers are certainly felt to be effective by many, if effectiveness is determined by performance on narrow spectrum tests, as indeed it is in UK and US education.


One of the main problems with the authors' argument is, to my mind at least, their failure to acknowledge much by way of a social dimension to learning - their comparison seems largely to be between content delivery led by a teacher and alternative approaches in which learners work things out for themselves.

Of course, traditionally this third way was limited at school level, where the learning network was restricted to those in the class, most of whom would be at roughly the same level, their teacher, the textbook and maybe the school library, but with net access from our classroom and desktops, the number and variety of others with whom learners may engage is orders of magnitude greater. Not only does this extended learning network provide more sources from which students may learn, it also open up a whole host of opportunities for them to teach - as they explain new concepts to each other, and work together to solve problems, I'm sure that the quality of their learning is enhanced, as is the likelihood that such concepts can make it into longer term memory.

Annette Kujawski Taylor, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology
University of San Diego

I think there is also an issue of each of these methods of instruction in terms of different disciplines. In psychological science "direct inquiry" can lead people hopelessly astray, especially if they begin with incorrect constructions on which to base their future decision making.

As we all know, misconceptions about psychological science abound.

Richard Hake
Cognitive Science and Physics Education Research:
What We’ve Got Here Is Failure to Communicate

It appears that the work of physics education researchers (PER’s) is virtually unknown to some
cognitive scientists CS’s. Several years ago I stumbled upon Allan Collins’ (1999) valuable
article “The Changing Infrastructure of Education Research.” Collins wrote: “Recently
researchers have begun to study teaching and learning in the context of real-world learning
environments,” citing Brown (1992) and Collins (1992). This puzzled me since PER’s have
been studying “teaching and learning in the context of real-world learning environments” for
about three decades. In Section IV, “Empirical Studies,” of McDermott & Redish’s (1999)
“Resource letter on physics education research,” I count over 80 articles, dating from McKinnon
(1971), that feature classroom research. However, it must be admitted that relatively few of
those articles meet the criteria for “design based research” (DBR) suggested by Brown (1992),
Collins (1992), and Kelly (2003).


Another example of what I would regard as a communication failure is provided by the
previously mentioned paper of Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark (2006) with its seemingly non-
sequitur title “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the
Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based
Teaching,” even despite PER evidence reviewed by Hake (2002; 2005b; 2007a,b; in press) for
the effectiveness of all but extreme "discovery teaching.” Kirschner et al. wrote:
Klahr and Nigam (2004) in a very important study, not only tested whether science learners
learned more via a discovery versus direct instruction route but also, once learning had
occurred, whether the quality of learning differed. Specifically, they tested whether those
who had learned through discovery were better able to transfer their learning to new
contexts. The findings were unambiguous. Direct instruction involving considerable
guidance, including examples, resulted in vastly more learning than discovery. Those
relatively few students who learned via discovery showed no signs of superior quality of

But here again, as with Klahr and Nigam (2004), “direct instruction” appears to mean to
Kirschner et al. (2006) pedagogy rather similar in some respects to the “interactive engagement” methods shown to be relatively effective by physics education researchers, as can be seen from the Kirschner et al. abstract [my insert at “. . . .[insert]. . . .”]:
Evidence for the superiority of guided instruction. . . [read “interactive engagement”?]. . . is
explained in the context of our knowledge of human cognitive architecture, expert–novice
differences, and cognitive load. Although unguided or minimally guided instructional
approaches are very popular and intuitively appealing, the point is made that these
approaches ignore both the structures that constitute human cognitive architecture and
evidence from empirical studies over the past half-century that consistently indicate that
minimally guided instruction is less effective and less efficient than instructional approaches
that place a strong emphasis on guidance of the student learning process. The advantage of
guidance begins to recede only when learners have sufficiently high prior knowledge to
provide “internal” guidance. Recent developments in instructional research and instructional
design models that support guidance during instruction are briefly described.

Sigmund Tobias, Institute for Urban and Minority Education, Teachers College, Columbia University

I have been impressed by one aspect of the constructivist (let me use that term as shorthand for discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry based teaching that are the subject of the Kirschner et al., paper) position not commented on in the article. It has been claimed, most recently at the Games conference described above, and it seems intuitively reasonable that these approaches induce higher student motivation than approaches relying more heavily on deduction. On the other hand, I am unaware of a study comparing motivation on constructivist and other types of materials.

Traci Sitzmann & Katherine Hildebrand, Training Evaluation Team, Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Lab, Alexandria, VA

Working memory is limited in duration and capacity when processing novel information. Minimally guided instruction burdens trainees’ working memory by requiring them to sort through irrelevant information while locating information that is relevant to their jobs. Working memory cannot be used to commit relevant information to long-term memory while it assesses the relevance of material. In contrast, direct-guided instruction provides trainees with material that is directly applicable to their jobs so working memory can be used to commit training content to their long-term memories. -

Barak Rosenshine, University of Illinois-Urbana

Despite years of research on instruction, and despite research findings such as those which Kirschner et al. (2006) present in their article, constructivism remains the dominant position of curriculum departments in colleges of education. The curriculum departments in colleges of education favor constructivism, and they are able to withstand those empirically oriented educational psychologists who tend to favor direct guided instruction.
The curriculum people always win. Constructivism is a lovely romantic idea of students pursuing their interests and learning on their own, and there is no force of data that can withstand those emotional ideas. Constructivism, after all, is not data-based; rather, it is an emotion about kids and teaching. Chall (2000) called such notions “romantic,” as opposed to “rational,” and apparently the absence of data to support romantic beliefs does not reduce their attractiveness to adherents. I’m surprised that after all these years people like Kirschner et al. and Richard Mayer (2004) don’t understand that the curriculum people always win on this point.

Unnamed student of Paul Kirschner
A cognitive-load approach to collaborative learning: task and learner characteristics

While all levels of education are making use of collaborative1 learning techniques in
both traditional and electronic learning environments, the effectiveness of these types
of education/learning has still not been proven. The results are mixed (at best) and
educators often have to implement extra measures to either ensure that the
participants work together (e.g., requiring a specific number of contributions in
electronic environments or requiring attendance in face-to-face environments) or
ensure that all learners engage in the learning process (e.g., implementing roles,
scripts, and assessment schemes). The basic assumption of this project is that if
individual learners are to work together effectively in groups, the architecture of their
cognitive system and the characteristics of the task must be understood,
accommodated, and aligned. Specifically, this means that the characteristics of the
(group) task must be such that the cognitive system of each of the individuals is not
capable of accommodating its solution AND the group communication and
coordination activities necessary for effectively functioning as a team (i.e., the
cognitive transaction costs) do not impede the collaboration process. This project
uses a cognitive load theory-based approach to develop a method to determine a
groups cognitive load and to investigate how task complexity (i.e., intrinsic cognitive
load) and the learner characteristics expertise and age can inform the design of
effective group-based environments for lifelong learning.

Doug Holton


Problem-based learning (see this overview) in particular is anything BUT "minimally guided." See for example this article by Cindy Hmelo-Silver and Howard Barrows (father of PBL) which details the role of the facilitator in PBL. Kirshner, Sweller, and Clark appear to have created a straw man argument that no one actually believes. Why bother responding to something like that? For one thing, it has been published in a peer-reviewed research journal, and thus can and will be interpreted as scientific "truth." This has happened before. As Hake discusses in his listserv post, an earlier 2004 article by Klahr and Nigam entitled "The Equivalence of Learning Paths in Early Science Instruction" has been used by conservatives to argue that good old fashioned lecture is the best way to teach. So we have to respond to these types of articles and engage in a dialog and not merely dismiss one perspective or the other.

D-Ed Reckoning

Summary from D-Ed Reckoning - Part 1

[ Good Diagram ]
Experts are skillful in an area (domain) because their LTM contains a huge knowledge base of information concerning the area (domain). This knowledge base permits experts to quickly recognize the characteristics of a given situation and serves as a basis for them to determine what to do and when to do it. For example, expert problem solvers derive their skill by drawing on the extensive experience stored in their LTM and then quickly selecting and applying the best procedures for solving problems...


Because WM presents severe limits on the amount of information that can be held in mind simultaneously and on the duration for which it lasts once attention is withdrawn from it, WM is often described as the bottleneck of the human information processing system.

Summary from D-Ed Reckoning - Part 2

Inflexible knowledge is the unavoidable foundation of expertise including that part of expertise that enables students to solve problems by applying existing knowledge to new situations. We call this expertise "problem solving skills." As students work with their knowledge, their store of knowledge in LTM becomes large and increasingly flexible. In other words, the mind's concrete form bias is overcome by the accumulation of a greater store of related knowledge, facts, and examples. The end product of flexible knowledge is expertise which is deep structure of a large domain of knowledge. It is this expertise that we associate with higher-order or critical thinking skills and it can't be taught directly.

Summary from D-Ed Reckoning - Part 3

First the bad news. Practice does not make perfect. If you practice or rehearse to perfection, you will be perfect today. You will likely not be perfect a few days later. It is not good enough to learn something to mastery, you have to overlearn it, past the point of mastery, if you want to retain it in LTM. With sufficient practice the skill or knowledge will become automatic.


No one has yet found a short cut or golden road around the need for sustained practice for learning.

To educators, practice is disparaged as "kill and drill." They don't like it, so they want to avoid it. They are looking for a shortcut around the need for distributed practice to get students to mastery. Fundamentally, they are looking for magic. This is an ongoing theme in modern education. Look at nearly every education reform in recent time and you'll see a common characteristic--the desire to reduce the need for practice.

Summary from D-Ed Reckoning - Part 4

Knowledge helps students in three critical ways:

1. it makes it easier to learn new information,
2. it makes it easier to remember new information, and
3. it improves their ability to think by circumventing the thinking process and by freeing up space in working memory.

Summary from D-Ed Reckoning - Part 5

The theory underlying constructivism is that people learn best in an unguided or minimimally guided environment , generally defined as one in which students, rather than being persented with essential information, must discover or construct essential information for themeselves. Thus, constructivism requires the novice student to search a problem space for problem-relevant information to discover the essential information, i.e., the solution to the problem posed.


Bear in mind, the goal of instruction is rarely just to search for or discover information. The goal of education is to give learners specific guidance about how to cognitively manipulate information in ways that are consistent with a learning goal, and store the result in LTM.

Allegedly, constructivism helps students to derive meaning from learning materials. However, cognitive load theory suggests that the free exploration of a highly complex environment generates a heavy WM load that is detrimental to learning. This suggestion is particularly important in the case of novice learners who lack proper cogntive LTM structures to integrate the new information with their prior knowledge.

while there is little doubt that students remember material they generate themselves better than material that is handed to them. This "generation effect," as it is called, is indeed powerful, and it is due, in part, to forcing the learner to think about the meaning of material (although other techniques can do that as well). Part of the effect does seem to be unique to the actual generation of the answer, over and above thinking about meaning. For this reason constructivists believe that discovery learning should be employed whenever possible. However, given that memory follows thought, one thing is clear: Students will remember incorrect "discoveries" just as well as correct ones.

I find it interesting that the 'summary' in D-Ed Reckoning bears little resemblance to the actual article.

Public Testimony
To the National Math Panel
Dr. Martha Schwartz
November 6, 2006

long-term memory can be considered as the central and dominant structure of human cognition. Long-term memory refers to the enormous pool of knowledge stored over the years and accessible as required. For example, knowing how to read, write, swim, play chess, walk and all the other tasks that we have learned to perform are stored in long-term memory.


However, the current dominant tendency in education is to promote discovery learning.
Kirschner, Sweller and Clark state the following: “Yet many educators, educational researchers, instructional designers, and learning materials developers appear to have embraced minimally guided instruction and tried to implement it” (2006, p. 6). What’s more, much of the literature on ICT endorse this approach as if the capabilities of the tool, the computer, exert some magical power over the learning process.

According to Clark and Feldon (Mayer, 2005, p. 108): “There is a persistent belief among some segments of the education and training communities that the most effective learning experiences are those in which learners navigate unstructured multimedia learning environments or solve novel problems presented without instructional support.”

This should come as no surprise since research on ICT has often been criticized for its lack of rigor and objectivity. Joy and Garcia share this opinion: “Practitioners and consumers of
asynchronous learning networks (ALNs) need to be aware that much of the research in this field is seriously flawed, rendering many of the conclusions inaccurate or open to debate” (2000).

The Integration of ICT in Teaching Practices in Francophone Minority
Settings: Tendencies and Challenges
Clermont Gauthier

Without going into details, it is interesting to review some of the principles enunciated by
researchers and which point to practical directions for teaching.

Multimedia principle. People learn better from words and pictures than from words alone.
Split-attention principle. People learn better when words and pictures are integrated and
not separated.

Modality principle. People learn better from graphics and narration than from graphics
and printed text.

Segmenting principle. People learn better when the message is presented in segments
rather than as a continuous unit.

Coherence principle. People learn better when extraneous material is excluded from the

Personalization principle. People learn better when the words used are in conversational
style rather than formal style and when the words are spoken by a human voice rather
than a machine voice.

Guided-discovery principle. People learn better in discovery-based environments when
guidance is well incorporated.

Worked-out example principle. People learn better when they are presented with
worked-out examples.

Self-explanation principle. People learn better when they are encouraged to generate
explanations during learning.

Animation and interactivity principle. People do not necessarily learn better from
animation than from static diagrams.

Navigation principle. People learn better in hypertext environments when navigation aids
are provided.

Site map principle. People learn better in an online environment when the interface
includes a map showing where the learner is in the lesson.

Fernette and Brock Eide, Eide Neurolearning Blog

When medical students are instructed with case-based instruction - they have superior clinical practice skills, but inferior basic science test performance. So what's the matter with this? Seeback and Kirschner deemphasize this result by mentioning, "But the negatives include lower scores on basic science tests, more study time and a pattern of ordering significantly more unnecessary tests at a much higher cost per patient with less benefit." But who would you rather have for a doctor - one who practiced medicine better or one who knew more answers on a pencil-and-paper test.

Alice Kolb & David Kolb
Experiential Learning Theory Bibliography

Doug Belshaw

As Kathy says, ‘he was explaining that for these musicians, playing this amazing music appeared that easy. Relaxed. Not frantic. There was no desperate need to fill all the space.‘ All well and good, but how is this relevant to educators?

Newbie teachers/trainers often make the same mistake. We fill in every available space, just like those first-time desktop publishers who “abhor a vacuum” and cram words and clip-art into every square millimeter of a flyer.

But real learning takes place between exposures to content! Long-term memory from learning happens after the training. The space between the lessons and practice is where the learning is made permanent. If we don’t leave that space, new content keeps rushing in to overwrite the previous content, before the learner’s brain has a chance to pause, reflect, and synthesize the proteins needed for long-term memory storage.

Kuhlthau, C. & Todd, R. (2007) Guided Inquiry. Retrieved June 14, 2007 from

Kuhlthau and Todd’s research into effective inquiry learning indicates that it must be guided and that the key is in the interventions provided by the teachers and library team. It can no longer be hands off.

“Guided Inquiry is carefully planned, closely supervised targeted intervention …. ……. (by)
teachers to guide students through curriculum based inquiry units that build deep knowledge and deep understanding of a curriculum topic, and gradually lead towards independent learning. ”

Brian Waddell
Teacher Librarian
Karori West & Kelburn Normal Schools

If you can’t beat them, join them: Integrating ICT and guided inquiry learning, a practical solution.

Cognitive load theory at UNSW

Cognitive load theory (CLT) is an instructional theory derived from our knowledge of the evolutionary bases of human cognitive architecture and the instructional consequences that flow from that architecture. A key aspect of the theory is the relation between long-term memory and working memory, and how instructional materials interact with this cognitive system.

Work on CLT was initiated in the early 1980’s at the School of Education, UNSW, and has generated a large range of instructional effects that can be used by teachers, instructors and researchers. We work on projects designed to facilitate learning in curriculum areas such art education, engineering, mathematics, music, reading, science, second language acquisition, and writing, as well as looking at the role of technology and multimedia in learning. Ten Doctoral students working in these areas and using a CLT framework have graduated since 2001.

In recent years, many groups of international researchers located primarily in Europe and the United States have adopted CLT as a theoretical paradigm. We collaborate with a large number of these groups in publications and conference presentations related to CLT. One of the consequences of this collaboration has been the publication of many special issues of leading international journals devoted to CLT, which are listed below.
Dr. H. Leemkuil

When these activities are successfully performed players will gain implicit as well as explicit knowledge during game play. Implicit knowledge is contextualised and difficult to verbalise and therefore difficult to transfer to others or other contexts. Explicit knowledge can be verbalised and can be transferred more easily. However, when some of these activities are not performed or only partially completed, this might influence game play and/or learning from the game.
What's Wrong With Our Schools?

The paper “Applications and

Misapplications of Cognitive Psychology to Mathematics
Education” should be required reading for educators and
math consultants. It is written by three of the most distin-
guished cognitive scientists in the world, John Anderson,
Lynn Reder and Herb Simon, and they argue that educa-
tional movements like constructivism have “questionable
psychological foundations.” Drawing on their own work, and
on numerous studies in cognition, the authors challenge
the central claims of the constructivist school, for example:
that training by abstraction is of little use, that real learning
occurs in authentic situations, that construction needs to
be done in a highly social environment, that knowledge
cannot be instructed by a teacher but rather it can only be
constructed by the learner, that knowledge cannot be rep-
resented symbolically and that knowledge can only be
communicated in complex learning situations.


In The Neuropsychology of Mathematics: Diagnosis and
InterventionSteven Feifer and Philip De Fina argue that
“teaching students proper decision making skills and algo-
rithmic procedures can profoundly influence mathematics


In “The Expert Mind,”
which I discussed in this book, Philip Ross argues that
studies in cognition show that expert abilities can be fostered
in children through practice and rigorous instruction.

In “Mindful of Symbols” cognitive scientist Judy DeLoache
argues that “less may be more when it comes to educational
books for young children.” DeLoache found that the more clut-
tered and distracting the pages of a reader are, the less children
learn from the book. DeLoache also tells a success story:
Using blocks designed to help teach math to young
children, we taught six- and seven-year-olds to do
subtraction problems that require borrowing (a
form of problem that often give young children diffi-
culty). We taught a comparison group to do the same
but using pencil and paper. Both groups learned to
solve the problems equally well—but the group using
the block took three times as long to do so. A girl who
used the blocks offered us some advice after the
study: “Have you ever thought of teaching kids to do
these with pencil and paper? It’s a lot easier.”


Respected education analyst Diane Ravitch succinctly defined them in an essay (May 12, 2005) in the Wall Street Journal:

On one side, beloved by schools of education, are the century-old ideas of progressive education, now called "constructivism." Associated with this philosophy are such approaches as whole language, fuzzy math, and invented spelling, as well as a disdain for phonics and grammar, an insistence that there are no right answers (just different ways to solve problems), and an emphasis on students' self-esteem. ... By diminishing the authority of the teacher, constructivist methods often create discipline problems.

On the other side are those who believe ...

* that learning depends on both highly skilled teachers and student effort;
* that students need self-discipline more than self-esteem;
* that accuracy is important;
* that in many cases there truly are right answers and wrong answers (the Civil War was not caused by Reconstruction); and
* that instructional methods should be chosen because they are effective, not because they fit one's philosophical values.

Convenient chart:

The Ongoing "Education Wars" - Commonwealth Education Organization [Pennsylvania]. Excerpt:
"Most parents have little awareness that an education war is raging over how and what their children are taught, and how education should be delivered in America's schools. The war has formed a fault line running through teacher's lounges, PTOs, school boards, professional organizations, legislatures, colleges and universities, and the various academic disciplines. It is a war between the 'traditionalists' and the 'progressives.' Two divergent underlying philosophies are causing the 'war.' The traditionalists believe that children should be given a strong foundation, rich in content, in a structured environment by teachers trained in their disciplines. Important, relevant facts should be learned and memorized so they become the foundation for higher-level thinking and problem solving. In contrast, progressives believe that children are capable of directing their own learning given the proper guidance, stimulation, and learning environment. Student failure is often blamed on social structures and restrictive traditional classroom practices that they say suppress the natural inclinations of a child toward learning.

What Is an Educrat? by Debra J. Saunders, San Francisco Chronicle, January 4, 1998.
"What is an educrat? ... I use [this term] because it captures a special kind of person in the education world: pinheads who are so process-oriented that they are more excited in the process of learning than the myriad wonders that can be learned. Simply put, educrats believe in process -- as opposed to educators, who believe in results. Educrats focus on how children learn. Educators focus on what they learn. ...
"What is the difference between an educator and an educrat? ..."
The remainder of this powerful article gives many succinct descriptions of those differences! Highly recommended.


Assessing Problem Solving in Simulation Games

CRESST model of learning

Isabelle Girault, David Cross and Cédric d’Ham

Different studies (Arce and Betancourt, 1997; Séré, 2002) emphasize the importance of the
task of experimental procedure design in a learning context. However, the required design is a
difficult task for students (Séré and Beney, 1997). Consequently, students are hardly ever
allowed to design their own experiment. The study by Tiberghien et al. (2001) showed that
“to learn how to plan an investigation in order to address a specific question or problem” was
the least frequent process objective. Although this paper does not focus on direct learning
gains, th2000).

Students’ adaptation to a new situation:
the design of an experimental procedure


25 Learning Principles to Guide Pedagogy and the
Design of Learning Environments

*** ICT U Can!

There is a misconception that Inquiry means letting the kids loose on learning with 'minimal instruction'. Inquiry is not an either / or dichotomy. It does not mean that you either teach them or let them teach themselves. It is a rigorously framed and supported structure that relies on the elements in Vygotsky's zone of proximal development to guide students through their learning. In Kath's model, Inquiry means engaging students in deeper more meaningful learning than direct instruction alone can offer."

("Australian Educator Kath Murdoch...
Kath is the author of the book "Classroom Connections" and we follow her inquiry model in our classrooms in my ICT cluster in Dunedin.

Kath states: Why inquiry?

  • Vehicle for integration of the curriculum
  • fosters connected rather than episodic teaching and learning
  • Caters for range of learning styles
  • Transferable process
  • Taps into students' curiosity

What view of the child does an inquiry approach assume?

Kath states: In an inquiry approach, we must firmly believe in students as:

  • curious
  • searching for meaning
  • intelligent in a range of ways
  • experienced - something to offer
  • thinkers
  • collaborators
  • active
  • risk takers
  • co-learners
  • co-teachers

There is a fundamental assumption made right at the beginning: “Learning, in turn, is defined as a change in long-term memory.” For learning as remembering, certainly guided instruction is best, as the authors claim. But, is learning just about remembering?


Read/Write Web
Nice post that lauds the participatory aspect of e-learning 2.0, pointing to a colorful slide show by Judy O'Connell, highlighting two major aspects: new literacies that are almost all social skills; and the ability to read, write, and interact across a range of platforms. These are applied in Andrew Churches's revision of the verb lists in Bloom's taxonomy.

"Andrew shares this diagram he created with Cmap Tools, the no-cost graphic organizer tool (right-click the image to view it at a larger size):

The mind map above is shared with Andrew's permission. What do you think of the work he's done?"



Artichoke defends the paper...

When I ask teachers “Why inquiry?” many suggest that in adopting inquiry based learning, the pedagogy of student centered exploration will (in some ill defined way) introduce an “authenticity” to the “sequestered/isolated in some age sorted institutional space for 6 hours a day” classroom experience.

Teachers claim that the inquiry classroom will,

  • Rescue us from the dislocation between classroom learning and real life learning.
  • Disconnect us from “learning for the test and then forgetting learning”, and reconnect us with motivated for real life learning.
  • Protect us from “Formica Learning” – the learning that results in a veneer of inert knowledge that coexists alongside deeper naïve beliefs.

They never stop to ask if inquiry is a wag the dog pedagogy, they never ask if we have misidentified what "matters most" and what "matters least" in learning, and they never ask about face validity versus construct validity wrt learning

Do students who experience inquiry based learning environments have an understanding that is deeper, more integrated, more coherent and at a higher level of abstraction than students who learn in “one size fits all” environ


and in the comments...

Ahh Jedd, I agree that this is an article that is certainly worthy of some “learning circle critique” in New Zealand staffrooms,

My interest is not in the article argument itself so much as the way teachers` interpret what the academics represent as constructivism and inquiry learning.

I can believe many of the claims made because I have been nudged by all of the following Kirshner et al thinking when working with schools on constructivist pedagogies in New Zealand.

  • Surprisingly Extensive Scaffolding: Because students learn so little from a constructivist approach most teachers who attempt to implement classroom based constructivist instruction end up providing students with considerable guidance aka scaffolding
  • Subsequent Tests: Learners required to solve problems perform worse on subsequent test problems than learners who study the equivalent worked examples – fits with cognitive load theory
  • Worked examples: Novices studying worked examples – are invariably superior to novices discovering or constructing a solution to a problem
  • Learning nothing: Learners can engage in problem solving activities for extended periods of time and learn almost nothing
  • Expertise reversal effects: issues for how we teach gifted students in inclusive classrooms
  • Process work sheets add value to learning
  • 100 million blow flies can’t be wrong effects: Despite knowing less after instruction – less able learners liked the experience of inquiry

The extensive scaffolding is "a case in point" or "a point in case" – I can never figure out which creates more buy in ….the Magnet and I have developed a pedagogical framework for inquiry that addresses some of the concerns identified by Kirschner et al, and we have been using it in the schools we work with over the past year.

It identifies the role of both teacher and the role of the student, in determining the learning experiences for understanding, through Herron’s four levels of inquiry, (Herron, 1971).

The inquiry design framework we have developed celebrates the ponderous buttock by allowing fence sitting across all levels of “L” word understanding – and supports pedagogical approaches allowing:

  • Teacher driven confirmation/verification approaches (behaviourist learning theory approach), [Problem, procedure and solution given]
  • Teacher student driven guided inquiry (constructivist learning theory approach) [Problem and procedure given] or [Problem given]
  • Student driven and constructed open inquiry (co-creator connectivist learning theory approach).[Students investigate their own topic related questions ]

Both teachers and students can use the same design template to detail the learning experiences and questions planned for the inquiry. Teachers often use Level 0 Inquiry (confirmation/verification), to plan immersion activities for students before they are challenged to develop their own questions for Level 3 student driven open inquiry. Gifted and talented students can do it alone right from the start.

Academics will loathe the eclectism but teachers have enjoyed the pedagogical clarity it gives to planning

Negative Self-Efficacy and Goal Effects Revisited
Albert Bandura
Edwin A. Locke


The authors address the verification of the functional properties of self-efficacy beliefs and document how self-efficacy beliefs operate in concert with goal systems within a sociocognitive theory of self-regulation in contrast to the focus of control theory on discrepancy reduction. Social cognitive theory posits proactive discrepancy production by adoption of goal challenges working in concert with reactive discrepancy reduction in realizing them. Converging evidence from diverse methodological and analytic strategies verifies that perceived self-efficacy and personal goals enhance motivation and performance attainments. The large body of evidence, as evaluated by 9 meta-analyses for the effect sizes of self-efficacy beliefs and by the vast body of research on goal setting, contradicts findings (J. B. Vancouver, C. M. Thompson, & A. A. Williams, 2001; J. B. Vancouver, C. M. Thompson, E. C. Tischner, & D. J. Putka, 2002) that belief in one’s capabilities and personal goals is self-debilitating.

Control theory would have coaches send
their team on the playing field in a self-doubting frame of mind;
otherwise they will play complacently. We would lay heavy bets
against a team coached according to Vancouver’s control theory.
A resilient sense of efficacy provides the necessary staying
power in the arduous pursuit of innovation and excellence. During

social cognitive theory is founded on an
agentic perspective to human self-development, adaptation, and
change (Bandura, 2001). This theory specifies four core features of
human agency, which include intentionality, forethought, self-
reactiveness, and self-reflectiveness. People form intentions that
include plans and strategies for realizing them.

Bill Kerr

Their arguments that inquiry learning approaches:

…ignore both the structures that constitute human cognitive architecture and evidence from empirical studies over the past half century that consistently indicate that minimally-guided instruction is less effective and less efficient than instructional approaches that place a strong emphasis on guidance of the student learning process. (Kirschner et al (2006).

There is commentary by artichoke at this wag the dog blog entry and also at this wiki entry which provoked some critical discussion. Read both arti's original and the comments.

I'm revisiting the Kirschner et al critique of constructivism (Bill Oct10, 2006)

The URL of the paper has changed, just tracked it down, the new URL is here(pdf)

also go here for gel papers:

gel = guided experiential learning.
there are quite a few papers that look interesting, including one on the role of deliberate practice in the role of acquiring expertise, which I agree with Ericsson

the contradiction b/w the Kirschner and Ericsson papers is resolved thus:
constructionism / constructivism does work provided it helps to motivate individuals in effortful study - constructionism can achieve this more readily than other methods, not for all, but does work for those who become motivated - the teacher needs to be expert and understand what is happening

constructionism as developed by Papert et al is a method of subtle (environmental) intervention, yes, there is scaffolding but it is relatively unobtrusive - with scaffolding being removed (the teacher getting out the way and letting students create) where appropriate - other approaches may not enable able students to flourish in this way, they may always keep students chained up

the point is that constructivism used in this way is a form of guided experiental learning, it is just that the method of guidance is much more sophisticated and can create more interesting / enjoyable classroom environments, for both students and teachers

this was certainly explained clearly by Harel and Papert - only Papert's 1980 book Mindstorms is cited in the references, a lot of very good research is ignored in this "authoritative" study

constructionism / discovery learning does not work as some sort of generalised "weeties for the brain" in traditional School environments - however, the claim that children often learn more (through play) before they come to school than they learn at school ought to be not forgotten in thinking these issues through

"Games are... the most ancient and timehonored (sic) vehicle for education. They are the original educational technology, the natural one, having received the seal of approval of natural selection. We don’t see mother lions lecturing cubs at the chalkboard; we don’t see senior lions writing their memoirs for posterity. In light of this, the question, ‘Can games have educational value?’ becomes absurd. It is not games but schools that are the newfangled notion, the untested fad, the violator of tradition. Game-playing is a vital educational function for any creature capable of learning." (Crawford 1982)

the bit in Kirschner et al about long term memory I think is refuted in this paper
The Expert Mind. Read the section on chunking, particularly the last couple of paragraphs:

"Ericsson also cites studies of physicians who clearly put information into long-term memory and take it out again in ways that enable them to make diagnoses. Perhaps Ericsson's most homely example, though, comes from reading. In a 1995 study he and Walter Kintsch of the University of Colorado found that interrupting highly proficient readers hardly slowed their reentry to a text; in the end, they lost only a few seconds. The researchers explained these findings by recourse to a structure they called long-term working memory, an almost oxymoronic coinage because it assigns to long-term memory the one thing that had always been defined as incompatible with it: thinking. But brain-imaging studies done in 2001 at the University of Konstanz in Germany provide support for the theory by showing that expert chess players activate long-term memory much more than novices do.

Fernand Gobet of Brunel University in London champions a rival theory, devised with Simon in the late 1990s. It extends the idea of chunks by invoking highly characteristic and very large patterns consisting of perhaps a dozen chess pieces. Such a template, as they call it, would have a number of slots into which the master could plug such variables as a pawn or a bishop. A template might exist, say, for the concept of "the isolated queen's-pawn position from the Nimzo-Indian Defense," and a master might change a slot by reclassifying it as the same position "minus the dark-squared bishops." To resort again to the poetic analogy, it would be a bit like memorizing a riff on "Mary had a little lamb" by substituting rhyming equivalents at certain slots, such as "Larry" for "Mary," "pool" for "school" and so on. Anyone who knows the original template should be able to fix the altered one in memory in a trice."

Papert on instructionism, pedagogy and constructionism:
"The word instructionism is intended to mean something rather different from pedagogy, or the art of teaching. It is to be read on a more ideological or programmatic level as expressing the belief that the route to better learning must be the improvement of instruction - if School is less than perfect, why then, you know what to do: Teach better. Constructionism is one of a family of educational philosophies that denies this "obvious truth." It does not call in question the value of instruction as such ... The constructionist attitude to teaching is not at all dismissive because it is minimalist - the goal is to teach in such a way as to produce the most learning for the least teaching ... an African proverb: If a man is hungry you can give him a fish, but it is better to give him a line and teach him to catch fish himself"
(The Children's Machine, 139)

Kirschner et al say "Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work" No qualification there, in that headline grabbing dogma. I say, it can work, but you need good teaching materials and an expert teacher.

Constructivism is not a new idea. It was susinctly put by Plutarch, 2000 years ago. "The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled." Learning is not a one way transfer of information to the learner, the "chalk and talk" that has characterised schools. A passion for learning is essential. (Tony, May?)

Constructionism, with a N:
Papert's beliefs are rooted very firmly in Piaget's findings about children's learning. Papert worked with Piaget for 5 years, applying his own expertise in maths to help build Piaget's theories.(2) Two points from Piaget stand out:
  • Children build or construct their own intellectual structures.
From this point arises the obligation of the modern teacher to restructure traditional subjects such as maths to fit the child.
(this statement is qualified below in discussion). Hence, Papert has restructured maths by inventing the computing language logo to fit the natural development of the child.
  • Children build on what they know. Piaget's term for children's continual balancing of existing cognitive structures with new experiences is equilibration.
From this point arises the obligation of the modern teacher to investigate the cognitive structures of their students and to interact with those cognitive structures in a subtle, not a heavy handed manner.
Piaget found that incredible amounts of learning occur without formal teaching. In his work, Papert tries to discover and promote the factors that are causing this "hidden" learning and also asks: Why is it that learning often does not occur with formal teaching (and often does occur without formal teaching)?

Harel and Papert (1990) argue that some materials are better with regard to the following criteria:
  • appropriability (some things lend themselves better than others to being made one's own)
  • evocativeness (some materials are more apt than others to precipitate personal thought)
  • integration (some materials are better carriers of multiple meaning and multiple concepts)
(Bill May22)

So, learning materials such as the logo programming language, LEGO TClogo control technology, Instructional Software Design Project (a sophisticated teaching approach) or GameMaker (another evocative low entry high ceiling programming language) in combination with an expert teacher (not just technically expert either) are necessary for the constructionist approach to be effective. (Bill Oct10, 2006)
Fairly comprehensive comments, including discussion, explaining constuctionism at the game learning wiki


Papert's Principle: Some of the most crucial steps in mental growth are based not simply on acquiring new skills, but on acquiring new administrative ways to use what one already knows
- from Minsky's Society of Mind, 10.4

This was used by Papert (in the 1960s) to explain the results of Piaget's conservation experiments. There is a diagram showing the agents involved in Minsky's book. Most previous theories had suggested that children developed different kinds of reasoning as time goes by. Papert suggested how the different ingredients were organised. a mind cannot grow very much merely by accumulating knowledge, it must also develop better ways to use what it knows.

Jeremy Hiebert

Online Self-Organizing Social Systems David Wiley was kind enough to direct me to a paper he wrote with Erin K. Edwards a few years back: Online Self-organizing Social Systems: The Decentralized Future of Online Learning.

I had seen references to it, but couldn't find a copy. This look at online self-organizing social systems ("OSOSS") from a learning perspective is similar to papers I found earlier from David Passmore.

Passmore also looked at PerlMonks (my thoughts here) and investigated learning in Slashdot (my thoughts here), and came to similar conclusions.

From Wiley and Edwards: "While none of the existing OSOSS consider themselves learning communities, learning is happening among their users, and happening in an extremely innovative manner."I'm seeing some evidence to support this in 43 Things, especially in reference to explicit learning communities that form around learning goals.

James Paul Gee
Video Games, Learning, and “Content”,_Learning_and_Content.html

(mostly about how experiences need to be shaped to aid learning)

Learning in video games—learning in terms of the Situated Learning Matrix—is not “anything goes”, or “just turn the learners loose to do their own thing.”41 There is a good deal of guidance in games. Guidance from the game design itself, from the NPCs and the environment, from information given “just in time” and “on demand”, from other players in and out of the game, and from the resources of communities of practice built up around the game.


Postscript to a Debate Between Constructivists and Supporters of Explicit Instruction
Sigmund Tobias

The publication of the article by Kirschtner, Sweller, and Clark (2006) led to a series of rejoinders to that paper (Schmidt, Loyens, Loft & Paas, 2007; Hmelo-Silver Duncan, & Chinn, 2007; Kuhn 2007; Sweller, Kirchner, & Clark, 2007). You may recall that the original article was also discussed in Issues No 3 and 4 of this Newsletter [provide link]. In addition, the original article stimulated the scheduling of a debate at the 2007 conference of the American Educational Research Association regarding the paper’s main assertion that approaches to minimally guided instruction (constructivism, discovery learning, problem based learning, etc…) had failed. Debate participants included two critics of minimal instructional guidance: Paul Kirschner, the first author of the article assisted by comments from the paper’s second author John Sweller, and Barak Rosenshine, a well known critic of minimally guided approaches to learning. Defenders of constructivism included two noted scholars identified with that orientation: David Jonassen, and Rand Spiro.

The purpose of this note is to report a narrowing of the differences regarding the issues posed in the Kirschner et al. (2006) article in the debate as well as in some of the rejoinders to the article (see Hmelo-Silver et al. 2007; Schmidt et al., 2007) and to suggest some research and theoretical development that may ultimately resolve the issues posed.

In the debate the constructivists agreed that some form of direct, or explicit instruction (Sweller et al., 2007) may be useful for students with little prior knowledge of well structured domains. Similarly, Kuhn (2007) acknowledged that there is a place for explicit instruction, and Schmidt et al., (2007), as well as Hmelo-Silver et al. (2007) agreed that some instructional guidance was necessary. During the debate, the constructivists also agreed that some form of guidance, or instructional support (Tobias, 1982) more generally, was essential in all instructional approaches. The constructivists suggested that instruction in ill structured domains, such as problems in medical diagnosis, advanced engineering design, even teaching students the meaning of a complex concept such as “justice” were difficult if not impossible with explicit instructional approaches and could only be managed with instruction following a constructivist orientation. The critics of the constructivist position acknowledged that ill structured domains presented difficult problems and ought to be approached by a variety of means.

A consensus developed in the debate suggesting an interaction among prior knowledge, organization of the subject matter, and instructional method similar to the multivariable aptitude treatment interaction research recommended by Cronbach (2002. The constructivist debaters especially suggested that students’ prior knowledge was a key variable in these interactions, confirming expectations regarding the importance of prior knowledge for instructional adaptations (Tobias, 1989, 2003; Gustaffson & Undheim, 1996). It should be noted that while prior knowledge has been extensively studied in previous aptitude treatment interaction research, there were relatively few studies varying domain structure, a variable that could be profitably followed up by future research.

Instructional Support and Domain Structure
In order to achieve progress in the clarification of these issues it is important for theorists to be more precise about the definition of two terms: guidance or more generally instructional support, and the structure of a domain. Sweller et al. (2007) acknowledged the importance of greater specificity about what guidance meant. Clarification of all forms of instructional support more generally requires specification of a hierarchy so that terms like “minimal” support could be anchored in specific instructional actions rather than vague terms. For example, does asking students to repeat an answer provided by the instructor consist of more or less instructional support than providing knowledge of results, or “worked examples”? Similarly, where do forms of support such as providing explanations, whiteboards, prompts, or hints, to mention some of the supports described in the articles, fit in a hierarchy of instructional support?

It would also be useful to have specific descriptions of how domain structure may be determined. Clearly subjects like the multiplication tables, for example, constitute a well structured domain, and medical diagnosis of rare disease entities is an ill structured domain. Perhaps a second hierarchy ranging from ill structured to well structured domains should be specified, and instantiated by examples such as those given above, to facilitate research on the interaction among prior knowledge, instructional support, and domain structure.

Specification of Cognitive Processes
It should be noted that all instructional approaches need to specify the psychological processes engaged by teaching methods. Even though learning may be strongly influenced by the communities with which learners affiliate, and perhaps even by the environments in which learning occurs (Tobias, 2003), the psychological processes presumably engaged or enhanced by participation in communities need to be specified. Do constructivist activities enhance such processes as attention, retention in working memory, or storage and retrieval from long term memory, to mention only some examples? Similarly, which of these processes, or others, are invoked by explicit instructional methods? Furthermore, which of the approaches stimulates more frequent processing of instructional material either with the processes suggested or by others?

The accuracy of Kirschner et al. (2006), the rejoinders to it (Schmidt et al., 2007; Hmelo-Silver, et al., 2007; Kuhn 2007), and the response to the rejoinders (Sweller, et al., 2007) will ultimately be decided by research, rather than by rhetoric or debates. As noted some time ago (Tobias, 1982), different instructional approaches can lead to varying outcomes only if they either engage different cognitive processes controlling learning, or invoke those processes more or less frequently. Now, that some of the different views have been somewhat clarified by the publications and by the debate, would be a good time to conduct research concerned with the cognitive processes engaged by different teaching methods. Such investigations will ultimately settle the issues discussed in the debate and in the publications dealing with the issue. I join Sweller et al. (2007) in urging that further experimental research is needed, and would add that in order to be most useful, such research should aim to identify and examine both the cognitive processes engaged by the instructional methods used, and the frequency with which the cognitive processes are used by different instructional approaches.



question of finding what you're looking for - do 'beliefs' exist...? Churchland, etc

measuring... like measuring the distance from the edge of the world..
now we have never seen the edge of the world, so we'll crate a baseline reference and say other things are closer & further - so London is, say ... 3000 kn from the edge, and we're at London +500, whatever

and this becomes a system of criticizing subsequent things... like that new tech, a 'globe'
... you can't measure distance to the end of the world, all the calculations are wrong and don't accord with observation

so... you had a 'belief' and you had 'more'... but what are they?