May 25, 2024

Nostradamus and Arne Duncan

I’m occasionally accused of suggesting that Seymour Papert is the answer to every educational question. That may because over more than 40 years, my friend and colleague, predicted the future of education with impeccable precision, warts and all.

Don’t believe me? Check out this recently found Papert quotation.

It is this freedom of the teacher to decide and, indeed, the freedom of the children to decide, that is most horrifying to the bureaucrats who stand at the head of current education systems. They are worried about how to verify that the teachers are really doing their job properly, how to enforce accountability and maintain quality control. They prefer the kind of curriculum that will lay down, from day to day, from hour to hour, what the teacher should be doing, so that they can keep tabs on it. Of course, every teacher knows this is an illusion. It’s not an effective method of insuring quality. It is only a way to cover ass. Everybody can say, “I did my bit, I did my lesson plan today, I wrote it down in the book.” Nobody can be accused of not doing the job. But this really doesn’t work. What the bureaucrat can verify and measure for quality has nothing to do with getting educational results–those teachers who do good work, who get good results, do it by exercising judgment and doing things in a personal way, often undercover, sometimes even without acknowledging to themselves that they are violating the rules of the system. Of course one must grant that some people employed as teachers do not do a good job. But forcing everyone to teach by the rules does not improve the “bad teachers”–it only hobbles the good ones.

Sound familiar? That passage is ripped from today’s headlines!

Twenty years ago, a lifelong dream of visiting Australia was achieved. That was followed by my work leading professional development at the world’s first “laptop schools” and more than forty subsequent  trips to my second home, “downunder.”* In addition to having a paper accepted by the July 1990 World Conference on Computers in Education, that first trip to Australia was the first time I really got to spend a lot of time socially with Dr. Papert.

It was at that 1990 World Conference that Papert gave the keynote address including the words above. That keynote address has been published as Perestroika and Epistemological Politics and it is worthy of your attention. Here is another passage from that important speech.

I would suggest that one reason education reform has not worked is that it almost always treats these dimensions as separate and tries to reform one or another–the choice depending on who is doing the reforming. Curriculum reformers try to put new curriculum in an otherwise unchanged system but ignore the fact that the old curriculum really suits the system and reverts to type as soon as the reformers turn their backs. Similarly, when reformers introduce new forms of management of the old approach to knowledge and learning, the system quickly snaps back to its state of equilibrium. And, perhaps most dramatically from the point of view of people in this room, the same kind of process undermines any attempt to change education by putting a lot of computers into otherwise unchanged schools.

*I’m currently in Australia keynoting a conference, working with the South Australia Department of Education and as a Visiting Scholar at Trinity College – University of Melbourne

4 thoughts on “Nostradamus and Arne Duncan

  1. I’ve wondered a lot lately why schools continue to pay educators to rewrite curriculum each summer and not fund their professional development or worse mask said rewriting as real professional development. I think what scares me as much as the lack of vision, is the statement “I did my bit, I did my lesson plan today, I wrote it down in the book” by teachers.

  2. @ Gary,

    You recommended reading some of Papert’s work to me over a year ago on twitter. I’ve enjoyed reading through the papers he has listed at I think you both share a great regard for honesty in addressing the real challenges of school reform.

  3. Great quotes from Dr. Papert. This is something to keep on the wall next to your desk. In my work we epitomize working in separate departments, and not as one system.

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