Learn or be taught

“…we are attempting to operate our society on obsolete code…. They are completely inappropriate to what it is we want to get done.”
- Douglas Rushkoff, Program or be Programmed

A few hours after I caught sight of RSA’s take on Sir Ken Robinson’s “Changing Education Paradigms”, I watched Douglas Rushkoff’s SXSW talk, ““Program or be Programmed.” The two pieces created some useful cognitive dissonance for me that I have yet to resolve concerning how well my teaching makes room for a) creativity and b) programming.

While a focus on arts-infused work is opening avenues for creativity in our study of civics, I’m not sure that we’re applying what we’re learning, or challenging it in any real way. We’re painting portraits of citizen-artists and characters from the games of citizen-corporations – and we’re writing short expository pieces explaining how these artists and corporations fulfill the duties, responsibilities, and traits of citizenship, but we’re not yet applying ourselves as citizens to problems like those readily accessible at Challenge.gov. I don’t think I’ve problematized citizenship well enough – for myself, as well as for students – or maybe I’m making too much of an effort to connect our study of civics to the books we’re reading when I should be connecting it to local problems. What comes first? What motivates students to learn the best? How soon after students achieve comfort and confidence do you challenge them, especially if it’s taken three years to be together in the same place at the same time to enjoying reading a novel?

Some students have some service projects in the works, but art and self-expression have become the focus of class more than civic action has. I should probably take a breath and remember that it’s only October, but I want to find a way to connect curriculum, art, and action all at once.

Which brings me to another Rushkoff quote:

You move from being a passive, almost adherer of the game; not even – just a person who is in the game who doesn’t even know the rules – what can be bent and what can’t – to being a cheater, to being a writer, to being a programmer. Those are the stages our civilization has moved through.

I don’t break rules that require me to shirk my professional duties, so understand that when I call myself a “cheater” – in Rushkoff’s sense of the word – I think of myself as someone who understands the rules of public education and bends them as much as possible to build relationships of trust with students and programs of study that speak to their needs and wants. I ask for permission and let my leaders know what I’m doing.

That being said, I recognize Rushkoff’s progression in my own career. These days I feel like I’m tweaking public school for my students so they can skip a few levels ahead in re-engaging with school and enjoying learning there. I can glitch a few things (or maybe even mod them with a level editor – rather than with a set of sandbox tools – programmed for me by authors of a charter). I can’t break the game. For example, I won’t make my classroom match my vision of school in 20 years for the kids coming to my classroom tomorrow. I’m not resourced or licensed to do so; I’m not confident I could get away with it or that my students or their parents would want me to do it.

So, am I a “cheater?” Or am I one of the “programmed?” Or am I a “cheater” making a classroom that better engages resistant students in becoming “programmed?” Am I a “writer” content to noodle about in the boxes provided for me by others? I’m not a “programmer.” I’m not creating a new program, not really, not yet, though I see a lot of worth in the glitches I “exploit” and the edits and mods I attempt.

Does any of this introspection matter if I’m not actively engaged in making my students aware of their choices in learning?

In one of his guest posts on Boing Boing, Rushkoff says

…when we approach the world from the perspective of a player or cheater instead of a programmer, we tend to succumb to the values of the game rather than questioning if we are really choosing those values as our own.

How do you create a public school system that encourages programming society through civic engagement and voting? How do you create a public school system that encourages economic programming through student entrepreneurship? How do you create a public school system that encourages programming individualized learning through student-direction rather than computer-adaptation?

I see tremendously laudable and valuable piecemeal solutions – and work for some of them – all the time. I “cheat,” but have a hard time juggling multiple “cheats” at the same time. I “write,” but rely on others to self-publish. I don’t program.

How does school become a place where students and teachers are doing excellent work of lasting value all the time? How does school become a place where being programmed – or learning to “cheat” – is replaced by learning to direct your own learning, or to help others do the same? How does school become a place where self-expression isn’t boxed in a project, a rubric, or a menu of choices suggested by a teacher, or by a checklist on a walkthrough app? (My biases lean towards linguistic and visual production.)

In the same Boing Boing piece, Rushkoff says,

I don’t believe everyone has to know how to write their own software any more than I believe people have to know how to build their own cars or pave their own roads.

I agree about the software, cars, and roads, but I think students deserve more autonomy in learning and that we need to extend them more credit and value the learning they do outside of the programs we offer. Does every student need to choose every step of their educational journey? Probably not. I wouldn’t want a second-grader in the operating room, but I’d be happy if mine was choosing between going to the senior center for reading time, frosting cupcakes for a local shelter, working on a redesign of school grounds for next year’s Day of Caring, or getting help setting up a weekly individual art tutorial from a room parent. Disclaimer: second-grade has been good for my second-grader; I’m criticizing our system, not his teacher or school.

It’s tremendously difficult to provide enough age- and readiness-appropriate choice and conversation to allow student programming from one classroom, within one building, or as one division or state in a nation otherwise preoccupied.

Where is the license endorsement for innovation? The career step for edupreneurs? The sliding merit-pay based on risk and reward?

They’re not in public education.

Why not? Where else is there as much to gain and as much, surely, to lose?

To put in another way: are students and teachers meant to reach their full potential in public schools? Is school a place we go to learn or be taught?

Are we at least aware of our programmer’s biases, or even of our own?

Let’s think a bit, “cheat” a bit, write a bit, and look for the chance to program something new inside our system. Maybe some good ideas will collide, escape the bounds of our collaboration with the system, and catch the eye of a programmer.

While I’m here: is self-expression citizenship enough (is creativity programming), and would you accept and assess a student-created video-game level based on the theme of sacrifice in place of an essay on the same?