Vision

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The main point to be developed—
A Place to Study emerges from a vision of educational possibilities in a digital world that Robbie McClintock has been forming through his long career as a cultural critic. This section will condense and repackage the following excerpt from a short book, Power and Pedagogy: Transforming Education through Information Technology that McClintock published online in 1992.

[1:]  Let's look ahead. In the 22nd century, looking back over the sweep of time, how might an historian of education sum up the major changes in pedagogical practice? Imagine that we commission Elizabeth Ironstone, leading authority on the computer as an agent of change, to study these changes. She reports, not in the multimedia of her time, but in the prose of ours. This might be her executive summary, introducing Toward the Educative Polity.

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[2:]  Through most of history, education was a loose system of apprenticeship and indentured service in households, the main location of productive activity. Those who wanted their children to become highly learned would employ tutors to help them out. A few schools existed within specialized institutions, such as cathedral priories and monasteries, but these were not like the schools that eventually proliferated, for students were not divided into classes or grouped according to age working through a tightly sequenced curriculum.

[3:]  Around 1500, a major pedagogical transition began as printing with moveable type made an unprecedented era of educational development possible. But the transition was not a quick and simple change: to bring it off, innovators had to develop a complex of different, yet interrelated, educational strategies, which together eventually made mass schooling for all a practical reality. Key steps in this process involved:

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  • Developing a characteristic place, a set of classrooms where children could be grouped by age, with the classes organized together into a school; and creating a standard unit of time, the fixed instructional period, which would allow for planned scheduling of the academic day and year and for organizing subject-matter into a sequence of measured lessons;

  • Discovering how to manipulate motivational energies, essentially engendering a many-sided competition at memorization and mimicking normative examples, displayed through diverse recitations and examinations;

  • Implementing a suitable presentation of the culture through specially designed textbooks and related resources, a presentation that stoked the competition and fit well within the educational time and place of the school classroom and schedule;

  • Working out instructional methods that capitalized on the student's possession of the textbook, helping students with timely explanation to learn by reading, and monitoring their progress efficiently with group recitation;

  • Instituting means of preparing adequately trained teachers who could manage the system and make it work; and

  • Developing public polices, centered on material progress, social improvement, and political cohesion, that moved parents and the public to sustain the educative effort with sufficient resources.

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[4:]  These developments were tightly interrelated. The transition required the integration of complex factors into a functional system: the design of educational space and time; a chosen pattern of educational motivation; pedagogical materials suitable for use in such places with such motivations; methods of instruction suited to the organization of the cultural materials and teachers adept at using such tools and strategies; and arguments demonstrating that the substantial costs of it all were worthwhile—all were simultaneously essential to the historic transition to mass schooling.

[5:]  16th-century educational reformers worked out integration of these interrelated matters. For five hundred years, educators perfected, expanded, and developed the basic components of the educational system introduced early in the era of print, in due course creating modern systems of universal, compulsory schooling. As the degree of elaboration and penetration of the system into society changed, the specifics justifying the effort evolved to stay synchronized with cultural transformations. The main features remained stable, however. The design of the classroom and the organization of the school day, the motivational strategies employed, the scope and sequence of textbooks, the definition of good teaching practice, and the rationales for public support remained very stable. The reason for the underlying stability was rather simple: throughout it all, the character and limitations of printed textbooks remained substantially fixed, the keystone of the system.

[6:]  We who inhabit the electronic ethos of the 22nd century must remember that early in the 21st, the function of printed materials changed rapidly, becoming restricted to their current role of verifying and guaranteeing standard data sets when the electronic versions possibly could be altered. Before then, physically printed materials had a more central intellectual function. For five hundred years, books were the unmatched resources for making ideas, knowledge, and culture available to students, and so long as this role was unquestioned, educators paid little attention to how the characteristics of books shaped the whole instructional enterprise. But during the last half of the 20th century, diverse innovations in communication and computation occurred, displacing books from their privileged educational position and creating our electronic means of access to cultural achievements.

[7:]  From our vantage point, we can see how the microcomputer, and all its attendant peripherals, quickly matured into powerful multimedia systems. They thereby created a significant historical dilemma for educators at the end of the 20th century. How were educators to make use of these new resources? Did the existing educational system comprise permanent, necessary arrangements? Should schools remain forever a system of classrooms for twenty-five children, of similar age and talent, overseen by a single teacher, learning set subjects that had been divided into lessons, competing for grades and recognition? Were these arrangements historically relative accidents, sensible in one communication context, but perhaps in a new context, vestigial survivals with distorted functions? Educators faced a great conundrum: in planning computer-based educational efforts, what should they take as givens that would remain stable, before and after the introduction of powerful information technologies?

[8:]  At first, this question was not clear to educators. Early users of computers in education simply assumed that most features of the given system would remain stable, only getting better through judicious use of the new technology—with, we might add, a good deal of divergence over what "better" might mean. There was an initial wave of enthusiasm, and a strong undertow of skepticism, and lots of ingenious, but encapsulated, efforts to incorporate computers into the educational system. Through such efforts to introduce computers into late- 20th-century schooling, educators became increasingly aware that the then-existing practice was a complex technical system highly adapted over centuries to making use of books as the prime medium of cultural exchange. Encapsulated innovations repeatedly engendered inflated expectations and produced disappointment and disdain.

[9:]  Unfortunately, the old system had spawned a huge establishment of educational research, which functioned to optimize techniques and programs within the given system. Almost all its methods for measuring results were system-specific: they assumed that existing divisions of subject matter were the appropriate domains for testing, that standard grade-levels were fit bases for norming results, and that verbalized information was the prime indicator of learning. The bias of such research helped to protect the existing arrangements from systemic changes.

[10:]  To organize education to exploit the possibilities of electronic media for cultural exchange, possibilities far more powerful and flexible than the printed media, educators had to rethink the system as a whole. They needed to take none of it as a given that would necessarily persist, unchanged, from before to after the introduction of computers. Further, to assess a new system, relative to the old, they had to develop a whole new type of educational research, one that did not presume, in its standards of testing and measurement, that structural accidents of the old system were educational necessities of timeless applicability. The full, fundamental re-examination of educational options, and the methods for assessing them, began in the 1990s. It initiated the second historic transition in educational practice.

[11:]  Looking back from the 22nd century, the results of this re-examination are clear. Educators began to explore new solutions to all aspects of the existing system. They stopped applying computers to the educational strategies that had been developed in the early era of print. Instead, they started to search for educational strategies that seemed sensible in an era of digital information technologies.

  • At the end of the 20th century, educational innovators scrapped well-worn assumptions about the physical location of education, keeping the school, largely for reasons of socialization, but discarding the traditional classroom, opening it physically to make many different groupings possible, from the very small to the very large. Likewise, they discarded assumptions about the periodicities of schoolwork—the school day and the school year. Instead, they adopted very flexible scheduling strategies, which were among the many possibilities the new technologies facilitated.

  • Educators harnessed a much broader mix of motivational energies than had been possible with print-based schooling. As sustained work by small groups became more feasible, cooperative learning became even more important than traditional competitive learning. With that development, the educational system began to function less exclusively as a sorting mechanism and more effectively as a means to engender social integration and interpersonal solidarity.

  • Simultaneously, curriculum reformers profoundly changed the organization of ideas and knowledge, reversing the tendency to break the whole up into discrete domains of subject matter. With the old system, there had been a separate text for each subject and each grade—the experience of study had been compartmentalized and sequential, with minimal access in any particular grade to the materials used in prior or coming years. The new organization substituted an encompassing organization of ideas and knowledge—comprehensive and integrated—for the sequence of graded texts. It also provided a variety of navigators, appropriate to different ages and interests, to help the student. The result was most important: the experience of moving through the curriculum ceased to be one of a sequential study of subjects, grade by grade, and became much more one of a cumulative mastering of the cultural landscape.

[12:]  Also with respect to the organization of ideas and knowledge, innovators made the indices for accessing ideas broader, more flexible, and more effective. In the era of print, keywords and a substantial acquisition of verbal knowledge mediated access to stored ideas and information. Even to find a picture, or later a film, one had to be able to read one or another sort of verbal listing. The new technologies greatly extended the power of multiple-representation in the culture, and multiple-representation had its most significant effect, not on how people received ideas, but on how they found them, activated them, and then apprehended them. Pictures, icons, sounds, and gestures came to rival written expressions as means of accessing ideas. With that change, the resources routinely usable in the curriculum blossomed—pictures, films, performances, recitations, diagrams, graphs, animations, simulations, maps lost their merely "illustrative" character. People began to make arguments with them, to explain things through them, discovering how to give images apodictic, declarative, propositional power. We can now sum up all these changes: in our electronic culture, visualization enhances the verbalization that characterized the print culture.

  • As educators reorganized the culture, so too they altered the pedagogy guiding its study. The project method now came into its own and ideas about instruction gave way to those about construction. Students, usually working together in groups, would receive an intellectual charge, a large intellectual task that would occupy them for sustained periods of time. The curriculum could no longer consist merely of a series of lessons in a set of subjects. It was rather a field of information, ideas, and sets of tools, disciplines, and methods, by which students could bring information and ideas to bear on the charge, the task at hand. Educational method required the design of sustained, productive assignments, situating them in fields of knowledge and availing in these fields powerful tools that students would find usable in pursuing the charge their teachers had put to them. Thus, learning has come to take place as students pursue various tasks, mobilizing fields of knowledge and intellectual tools, in the process learning by doing. In the old system, extrinsic contexts—physical location and the school calendar and routine—had done the real tracking of activity, but in the new, the curriculum had sufficient wherewithal built into it to keep track of precisely what parts of it each student had used at what times for what purposes. Well-informed in this way of their options, even young students were empowered to make decisions for themselves that teachers formerly had made for their pupils. The pedagogy became personalized and student centered to an extent never before possible. Educational strategies formerly associated with university-level work spread throughout the schools.

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  • Concomitantly, educators also re-conceived the work of teachers thanks to the same features of the computer-based curriculum that made the learning of students cumulative. In the old system, teaching had been a highly repetitive profession, with few challenges to sustained self-development in it, for the material in the syllabus and in the text, year after year, had remained static. But the integrated, multi-faceted computer-based curriculum comprised an inexhaustible resource that teachers could continue to explore with verve throughout their careers. As a result, in the 21st century, the profession gained significantly in stature.

  • [13:]  Soon, leaders in the profession and the public even developed important new policy justifications for the emerging computer-based system. Formerly, the public had typically supported classroom-based education because they had perceived it to be a needed means to some extrinsic end—religious salvation, political power, economic security. To be sure, the new computer-based system continued to be a useful means to such goals. But in addition, they developed two further elements in an important new civic agenda for education. First, they made computer-based education a significant means for addressing some deep-seated problems of equity. The new system worked well for a broader cross-section of the population because its resources were responsive to multiple forms of intelligence and learning styles. Second, as the culture became digitized, education became, in the eyes of most people, an end worth pursuing in itself. A strange split had long existed between entertainment—held to be fun and amusing, but idle and small-minded—and education—considered to be work and laborious, but constructive and enlarging. With the new educational system, this split quickly disappeared. The consequence has been fundamental: in the 22nd century, most people generally rank educational opportunity, in preference to social security, national defense, or material progress, as the key benefit of civilization.

[14:]  These developments took shape in the decade preceding and following the year 2000. Educators gave up trying to introduce new technologies into the established system and they thought out an alternative system, which ineluctably displaced the old one. They came to call it the Cumulative Curriculum, and one of its pioneers, the educator Frank Moretti, described it this way:

[15:]  We seek to replace the superficial traveler through the sequential school, who collects knowledge trinkets to memorialize each stop on the cultural itinerary, with the philosophical explorer, whose very search for knowledge is a search for self and community. The word cumulative points to the growing personhood of the child. As the Latin indicates, it is a "heaping up" within. Able to instantly access the totality of his work through time, the child has control of his intellectual history as a series of understandings rather than the usual cryptic external judgments symbolized by [grades]. Accordingly, a child need not see each year as a separate beginning but rather as a continuation of a substantially accumulated educational reality, which is his currency entering a new year. The challenge for the child is to understand his rich past and to plan a series of strategies for moving to the next stage. He chooses his educational future in the context of the world within him that he has already shaped and formed. In this context, adults have to give up the security that comes from pretending to know precisely what it is that children ought to learn, by year, by subject.... The child begins with his own rich world, which is the starting point of all inquiries.... He understands that the art he will master is that of the tentative hypothesis, the value of which is determined by the degree to which it has the power to explain. What the student of the cumulative curriculum will perceive as "learned" are formulations whose parenthood is not in doubt. Clear about his ownership and authorship, he will perceive all that he knows as the immediate horizon of his all-too-human vision and will seek to extend it, to glimpse a new world and form new understandings that embrace the old.

[16:]  Once tried, this effort to help students take possession of their own learning, to "heap it up from within," succeeded rapidly. Old sequential school systems, which had seemed impervious to change, rapidly adopted the cumulative curriculum. Since its initiation at the turn of the 21st century, of course, the new system has evolved steadily, more and more thoroughly displacing the vestiges of the print-based educational system. The results have been liberating and profoundly progressive.

[17:]  Democracy, which had been, for the most part, a predominantly political development through the 20th century, has gained a substantial cultural import. The persistent tendency of print-based education to reproduce and accentuate differences of power, privilege, and wealth has been decisively reversed. The digitization of the culture has been thorough and with it participation in its full powers has been decisively broadened and tools that strongly amplify human powers of calculation and control have become accessible to nearly all. The great 20th-century aspiration, verbalized by John Dewey through Democracy and Education, has become substantively fulfilled, although in an environment of pedagogical practice quite different from any he could then imagine.

[18:]  Shortly before the year 2000, a long era of international tensions and war, in which national defense had been the prime function of the polity, ended. Peoples of the major nations turned their energies more fully to nurturing their human potentials. The relaxation of tensions coincided with the development of the new media of education. Liberal reformers regained a sense of their efficacy and people became increasingly confident that they could at last solve the long-standing human problems of industrial democracy. As the third millennium began, the idealistic conviction of some, that each person has a stake in the welfare and fulfillment of all, deepened into a general common sense. Material conditions and cultural convictions converged to provide the historical grounds for the worldwide educative polity.



The Main Page

Possibility, not predictionSomethin' your ownThe visionLook left—Where? What? How? Who? Why? Those are key modes of lived experience. Each differs, but together they they indicate what's involved in our doing what we do. You determine what's next by choosing your preferred path—over time, it will loop through them all.Disclosing the comons"Civilization, to a certain extent, can be reduced to the word WELCOME."—Stanley Crouch (2001).IntractingStudy_Self-formation_Liberal-learningActualitésFive questions shaping educational practice