Love and risk in education: A call to resistance [Part 1]

(This is a rough transcript of my Campus Technology 2016 keynote, given August 4, 2016. Thanks to Stephen Downes for filming & streaming the talk!)

Many of you in the room probably don’t know me. I haven’t been a regular at this conference—and I know that we start to become familiar with people who we regularly see in our professional circles. Truth is, I haven’t attended this conference in nine years. Nine years ago, I attended Campus Technology in Washington DC., a graduate student finishing her Ph.D and doing a poster session on using Adobe Acrobat annotation tools to embed audio/video feedback for students. A lot has changed in the last nine years…and so much hasn’t. In some ways I am comforted that the same tensions we were dealing with back then around the role of technology in education are some of the tensions we still deal with today—we should always embrace the tensions that come with our work. What concerns me is how we’ve backtracked from thinking of technology as a way to open wide the possibilities transformation in education…but I’ll get to that more in a second. First, I want to ask you to think about risk.

What do you think of when you hear the word risk? What is the first thing that comes to mind? Turn to someone next to you and tell them what comes to mind when you hear the word risk. Unfortunately, we don’t have time to hear everyone’s answers. Believe me, I’d love to. But I am interested in hearing a couple of people’s responses. What did you say or hear?

If we heard everyone’s responses, I imagine we’d hear a range of perspectives on risk. As I talk about risk today, bear in mind that I do not take risk lightly, glibly. Instead, risk is a deeply personal experience—risks being felt differently by us based on many factors. Risk sometimes can mean irrevocable danger, or irretrievable loss. Is risk bad? Not always. Some of us might talk about risks as the chances we would take in favor of something better. Some of us might talk about the risk of falling in love, being in love, loving someone.

The same could be said, I think, when we talk about risk in education. Risk in education is not a uniformly felt thing. It’s not categorically bad or good. It could mean a risk of irretrievable loss. It could involve willingness to lose to gain. It could be that you put at risk your stability, your frames of reference and ways of knowing, and look toward what it means to become educated. That was me in graduate school—a nontraditional student, starting a family, working full time…risking a lot because I believed that I could do better things in the world if I engaged in education.

Risk happens when there is something at stake. When you care about the welfare of something or someone enough to have concerns, worries, potential for losses. Risk happens when there is something to lose. 

But here is the thing. There is a trend in education to minimize risks. To make education a risk-free proposition, at least in terms of its outcomes and “value.”

Risk of education that you may walk away with something different than what you showed up for; the risk that you will be transformed; there is a risk you will find a voice—risk that comes with having a voice; a risk that education could be the force subverting dominant paradigms, hegemonies. Liberation. That’s Liberal education. And this risk, this liberal education, is being squeezed out.

An example of this can be seen in the “evidence and accountability” movements that have been taking hold of education in the last couple of decades.   The evidence-based education movement presses that the only education that is worth anything is what can be rigorously measured and accounted for—no risk involved. Maggie Maclure calls the push for evidence-based education and research “animated by the desire for certainty, willing to sacrifice complexity and diversity for ‘harder’ evidence and the global tournament of standards.” The evidence based movement has deep political, economic, and cultural roots that we do not have time to get into.

But what I want to point to today are the ways in which the evidence movement signals an intolerance for risk. To make evidence the beacon of how we understand education, we end up relying on narrow models of objectivity and impact. We end up limiting the things that count as education. We limit the risk of education.

Ken Morrison says the evidence-based movement pushes researchers and teachers “to atomize phenomena into measurable variables and then to focus only on certain of these [which] is to miss synergies and the significance of the whole.” What gets missed  education when we refuse to acknowledge what is not imminently measurable? It reduces education to an act of schooling—emphasis on performativity. Schooling devoid of the risk of education.

Gert Biesta takes this a step further—talking about the learnification of education. Biesta points to the Barr and Tagg article called “From Teaching to Learning, A New Paradigm for Education,” in which the authors talk about shifting from an instructivist model to a constructivist, learner-centered model. Biesta says that, since then, learning is the language of education. One of the concerns Biesta and I share about the learnification of education is that it’s a really hard thing to question. OF COURSE we want students to learn in our institutions. Why would we push back on that?

Biesta says that his fight isn’t with learning, per se, but that the way we use learning, tossing it about and making it the focus of everything we do. Our focus on learning has narrowed what we mean by “education” (because we try to put strict and measurable parameters on what we mean by “learning”) and that it strips away content, context, purpose, and relationships. Learnification has a way of decomplexifying what we mean when we say education, and thus what the potential value of education can be in our society.

I’ll quote Biesta here: “Learnification re-crafts education within the terms of an economic transaction: that is, a transaction in which (i) the learner is the (potential) consumer, the one who has certain needs, in which (ii) the teacher, the educator, or the educational institution becomes the provider, that is the one who is there to meet the needs of the learner, and where (iii) education itself becomes a commodity to be provided or delivered by the teacher or educational institution and to be  consumed by the learner.” It’s the ultimate banking model of education, to use Paulo Freire’s words. Learner as consumer then becomes the way we talk about education.

So three concerns about learnification:

1) It changes how we think about learners, people for whom education is intended. Learnification treats them primarily as consumers, ignoring their social, cultural, and political contexts. In an excellent podcast called Future Forward, an episode called Bot for Teacher, one of the interviewees says: “And so what we don’t realize is that when students come in to learn they aren’t just coming in as a learner, they’re coming in as a human and many of the students are facing challenges that make it so that they don’t have the space to be curious about the things that the algorithms are trying to measure.” We will get into the role of technology in all of this a little later.

2) It devalues the teacher. Learnification offers simplicity and tidiness, risk-free-ness. Arguing in favor of the evidence movement, Popham (2009) notes that it simplifies teaching since “once teachers have a fix on what their students are supposed to learn, almost all subsequent decision will revolve around how those students ought to learn it” (p. 6). The focus on evidence condenses our view of instruction to a series of decisions, largely devoid of professional judgment and empathy. These things can have the effect of eroding faculty morale, devaluing the teacher. They can lead to calls to replace the teacher. And they create an us versus them because faculty become apprehensive about new things. Have you ever heard someone complain that faculty are resistant to change? OK—faculty can be resistant to change. But could it be because the changes we are proposing ultimately devalue their work in ways we have not even understood? Could it be that our lack of understanding of the complexity of faculty and student engagement in education makes them weary of the solutions we are proposing?

3) Learnification has also been the way we have imposed uncritical expectations on people. As the amazing Audrey Watters said, we are constantly being told the narrative of the world is changing fast, so we need learners who can keep up with a rapidly changing world. Learning is adaptation, even if it’s not totally clear what we are adapting to. We’re just told to change fast. Learn! Adapt! The world is changing and you’ll be left behind. No time for critical thought about what we’re actually moving to.

A good example of learnification is the push for learning outcomes in education. First, before anyone tweets otherwise, I am not anti-learning outcomes. That’s always the lede when I talk about learning outcomes and learnification. My concern is the rigid way in which learning outcomes are implemented, mechanistically produced. I’ve seen tools online that write your learning outcomes for you—just plug in the right Bloom-approved verbs and away we go. Rather than being a helpful way of thinking about our relationship to learning and how we want to grow that relationship alongside students, learning outcomes have become a way in which we justify education against those outcomes. As I said in a previous blog post, the evidence and learnification movement “has had the unfortunate effect of 1) narrowing our views of what education is for, thus ignoring humanistic, holistic, critical, political, and speculative views; and 2) narrowing our views of what education looks like and what counts as valid education.” The push for what works has, as my colleague Jen Ross and others said, had a totalizing effect which ignores the idea that there are many ways to get it right and many unpredictable outcomes to education that don’t fit nicely with Bloom.

As Gardner Campbell says, and I love it so much that he is in the room because I will reference him heavily today: “Yet these are still behaviors, specified with a set of what I can only describe as jawohl!statements, all rewarding the bon eleves and marching toward compliance and away from more elusive and disruptive concepts like curiosity or wonder…” In another paper on networked learning, Gardner writes: “Even as ‘student-centered learning’ became the mantra, the increased attention to outcomes and objectives served (and still serves) to enable a narrowing, behaviorist focus on easily measured, easily described outcomes linked to detailed prescriptions, policies, and penalties, all contained within the course contracts (i.e., course syllabi).”

You know, this may be a tangent, but you see the effect of learnification and the transactional/banking/commodification (both focus on education at the individual level and economic privatization) in what’s happening with Sesame Street right now. Has anyone seen the latest on this? A couple of weeks ago, three beloved and long-time SS actors were fired as Sesame Workshop and it’s new “partner” (owner) HBO try to usher in a new “relevant” version of Sesame Street. The word relevance gets used a lot around learnification—anything within of the learning proposition in education gets assessed based on its relevance, rather than say, it’s transformational, liberatory, political power. In an exchange with Rolin Moe on Twitter, I talked about how a key message of Sesame Street from olden days was to show children from under-resourced background where they might find allies, mentors, educators. It was to empower children in under-resourced neighborhoods to see themselves represented in a show where people in the neighborhood worked together, resolved conflict, and participated in a community. Now, not only will Sesame Street play on a channel that children from under resourced backgrounds cannot afford, we lose the community aspect. Now, we just have more Elmo with a tablet. Oh but I bet they’ll have some pretty well written learning outcomes for the show.

So in the fight to perform a version of education that people will see as valuable, that can be measured against objective checklists of value, we have stripped away the things that truly make it valuable. Democratic participation. Resistance to claimed authority—resistance to autocratic rulers. Voice. Civic leadership. Rejection of hegemonies. We’ve taken out the risk and we’ve turned learning into a performance, a show of checking off boxes of competencies and outcomes.

Biesta says, “The call to make education strong, secure, predictable, and risk-free is an expression of [impatient times]. But it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what education is about and a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes education ‘work.’ It sees the weakness of education—the fact that there will never be a perfect match between educational ‘input’ and ‘output’—only as a defect, only as something that needs to be addressed and overcome, and not also as the very condition that makes education possible.”

Pressed for efficiency and a reduction of risks, this version of higher education often strips out unpredictabilities, variabilities, diversities, and contestations. It focuses on managing, controlling, streamlining, optimizing. It establishes a set of views, beliefs, truths about the world and then expect all students to achieve outcomes and competencies around those views, perhaps at their own pace, which we could falsely call “personalization.”

All of this creates an increasingly untenable environment for the transformative potential of education, the liberation that comes with viewing “education as a practice of freedom,” as bell hooks says, rather than a practice of calculating and assessing “value.” hooks says, “education as the practice of freedom affirms healthy self esteem in students as it promotes their capacity to be aware and live consciously.” This is a risky proposition, but is at the heart of education for social good, not just individual good.

What role does technology play in all of this? Look around at the technology being sold to higher education. I see a lot that offers reduction of risks, and words like quick, easy, simple, efficient. And a decontextualized, individually-minded, focus on learning as the ultimate value. Learning. Learnification. Few questions what and for what are we learning via these technologies? Just accountability and evidence-based learning at the core.  One company’s white paper say: “We also enable self-directed learning, as the student knowledge profile clearly and quickly shows students (and their teachers) where the knowledge gaps are, and how to fill them.”

In essence, technologies for higher education are being focused on this march toward compliance, as Gardner Campbell gives us in his delightful and thoughtful Taxonomy of Student Engagement. Now Gardner himself admits on an excellent video of his talk that this taxonomy is blissfully not supported by research, though neither is Bloom’s taxonomy, to which we cling so tightly. However, knowing Gardner, this is based on professional judgment of one of the most impactful educators I’ve had the opportunity to know. Professional judgement of educators is undervalued in our educational systems, and it shouldn’t be.

Compliance…Gardner defines it as “doing what you are told.” We are becoming really good at this—in large part because of technologies often have affordances that center on compliance. Specifically, as Jen and I wrote in our book chapter on not-yetness, “digital environments are seen as sites of great promise because of the opportunities they can provide for collecting data about learners. Online learning environments are increasingly designed and deployed with the production of such data in mind. Analytics are premised on the assumption that what can be tracked in relation to educational activity is also valuable in terms of understanding learning. Tracking and interpreting digital traces of behaviors in the search for stable and predictable measures of learning is fully compatible with the accountability and evidence-based paradigm. In a sense, learning analytics is the methodology required by the evidence movement.”

One of Gardner’s cautions is that this compliance focus, whether technologically-mediated or not—puts us in a relationship where we specify to the nth degree a set of expectations so we can measure students’ compliance against those, then students in turn (some, not all) comply and as if through some kind of contract expect their reward, the grade. It allows us to pretend that we are educating students and for students to pretend that they are becoming educated 

This push toward compliance and control in digital learning specifically is what led my colleague Jen Ross and I to write about not-yetness. In a recently published chapter in George Veletsianos’ Emergence and Innovation in Digital Learning: Foundations and Applications, Jen and I say that a key feature of emerging technologies is their not-yetness. Not yet fully researched, not yet fully understood, as George Veletsianos noted in his opening chapter of that book. Our contention is that their not-yetness is what makes emerging technologies so full of educational possibility—because we can still reject the compliance focus that will almost always become attached to those technologies. Granted, some educational technologies, like proctoring programs and many learning management systems, start off with a compliance focus. But so many others started with a view that education is complex and can probably never be fully understood or fully researched, so why should our educational technologies push us away from that? Not-yetness is the embracing of complexity —and all the risk that entails—as fundamental to education.

Not-yetness helps us combat technological implementations that severely limit what we can do, what students can do—and it resists the notion of compliance. It makes make space for experimentation, for play, for uncertainty, for risk, for forgiveness.

Complexity is an important idea here. Complexity does not work with compliance. Compliance tries to put everyone in the same bucket, conformity, stand in your straight line. “Complexity invites us to understand that the many processes and activities that shape the worlds we inhabit are open, recursive, organic, nonlinear, and emergent. It also invites us to be skeptical of mechanistic and reductionist explanations…” (Noel Gough). If we can accept that the world is complex, that education is complex, why are so many of our technologies about compliance?

Instead, Jen and I write, we “We need practices that acknowledge and work with complexity to help us stay open to what may be genuinely surprising about what happens when online learning and teaching meets emerging technologies. In this sense, our focus as educators should be on emergent situations, where complexity gives rise to ‘new properties and behaviours… that are not contained in the essence of the constituent elements, or able to be predicted from a knowledge of initial conditions’ (Mason 2008, p.2).”

So what’s next on Gardner Campbell’s taxonomy? Let me stop down and just say why I picked Gardner’s taxonomy of student engagement in the first place. I think it’s because he is one of the most authoritative speakers about the possibilities of teaching and learning and what role tech can play. I think his taxonomy theorizes the special sauce of education. The closer we get to the top, the more special and meaningful and transformative education can be. So that makes something interesting? We’re not talking just about something that grabs attention, although that is important. We’re not just talking about things that spark curiosity, though those are important. I think we’re also talking about things that are of interest to students, that are in students’ interests.

Recently, I was listening to a talk from our of our Bread Loaf Teachers Network teachers. Bread Loaf is Middlebury’s graduate school of English—many of the learners are K-12 teachers, so there is a strong emphasis not just on the typical topics (reading Shakespeare, writing papers) but also on pedagogy. I see amazing things come out of the network of teachers, Bread Loaf Teachers Network. This teacher who was speaking, a first-year and development English professor at a community college, tells the story of how she decided to not focus on mechanics & grammar, like most of the other developmental English teachers at her school. Instead she worked with the students on engaging with a social justice issue in their communities, and to write a paper on those issues most pertinent to them and their communities. I became emotional as I heard the veteran, who had been homeless and was now working his way though the community college system, talk about writing a paper on homelessness and veterans.  This wasn’t just interesting to him, it was OF interest to him.

What role can technology and digital play in this part of the engagement triangle? I think of example of courses like Foodworks. Students are doing food-related internships in three states and while they are doing this they are maintaining sites for reflection & synthesis on their own domains. This approach honors and surfaces their experiences, their interests. These sites are part of Middlebury’s domain of one’s own initiative; sites controlled, owned, and managed by the students.

Next on the taxonomy is Connection. Vince Tinto’s seminal work on why students leave college reminds us that connection is a key part of keeping students engaged in education. But, as Gardner says, connection is difficult in education because it does entail risk. It’s a risk worth taking. Here again I think we’re talking about the special sauce of education. For Dewey, the central educational mechanism is participation but not just individual participation, but participation in connecting to other human beings. A key argument Dewey makes is that participation does not mean all of us agreeing on a worldview so we can engage in common activity but that, as we engage with others toward cooperation, our worldviews will change. As worldviews change, as we better understand ourselves, others, and our world, will the opportunity not be for liberation? Connection is a key part of liberation. Education as a practice of freedom is not a solitary activity—liberation is a shared human struggle.

If the opportunity to connect deeply and meaningfully isn’t central in your LMS or isn’t possible in your personalized learning engine, toss it.

So what’s at the top of this taxonomy? What is, in Amy’s view, and I think in Gardner’s at the heart of education? The thing that will keep a student not just learning to check off boxes, not just following the safe route, but risking it all for the possibility of better things ahead?


Because as Gardner Campbell said, education is about devoting some of the limited time we have as human beings to some kind of shared project. Love should be at the center of our educational experience, our institutions, our work.

Cynthia Dillard wrote, “In other words, becoming fully human is the very work of being human. This can be seen as an echo of DuBois’s (1989) spiritual striving: About becoming more humane, more kind, more loving as human beings in relationship with one another and with all of life. I would like to suggest here that a paradigm surrounding research and teaching that is consciously engaged toward freedom of body, mind and spirit of all involved, can be framed with service to humanity as its goal. And such service begins with engaging oneself, as the researcher or teacher, in continuous reflection, examination and exploration of one’s heart and mind for the true purposes of one’s work”

A lot of people don’t like when I talk about love in education. It’s a lot more acceptable to talk about risk (which is often gendered as a male concept) than to talk about love (which is gendered as a female concept). Love, caring, empathy are seen as female attributes, and thus often devalued. But love is the orientation we need more of in education. It’s the orientation that can move us from systematically decomplexifying education to embracing the richness that our complex human students, teachers, and staff bring to this thing we call education.

Sean Michael Morris wrote, “Love in pedagogical work is an orientation. It’s a commitment to the personhood of learners, to their intersectionality, to their deep emotional backgrounds, to the authenticity of their lives. It is a decision to commit first to the community of learners and second to the material we’ve come to teach. When we speak about love in pedagogical work, we suspend our habitual talk about assessment, content, educational technology, plagiarism, compliance. We do not need to eliminate that talk, but when we return to it after orienting ourselves to a pedagogy of care, it is no longer habitual talk — it is considered discussion, that often includes the learner. Love gives rise to the critical in this way, for it demands the decay of unconsidered habit.”

Love is what pushes back from the uncritical march towards compliance. Love is what pushes back on the uncritical move toward learnification.

What does love look like in education? I think it can probably look like a lot of things. In my next post, I will share part 2 of this talk, which includes ideas for what love looks like in education and my personal leadership manifesto.

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