Jay Cross helps people work and live smarter. Jay is the Johnny Appleseed of informal learning. He wrote the book on it. He was the first person to use the term eLearning on the web. He has challenged conventional wisdom about how adults learn since designing the first business degree program offered by the University of Phoenix.
A synopsis of my remarks to Emerging Directions in Global Education 2011, Delhi, India
For the first 60 seconds, we listened to Yoyo Ma playing Bach’s Cello Suite #1 in G as the flowers unfolded.
As time speeds up, we perceive that what once appeared rigid is actually fluid.
Progress is unfolding at an unprecedented rate. More happens in one of your minutes than in one of your grandfather’s hours. More information has been created in the three days I have been in Delhi than in the sweep of human history from the dawn of civilization until 2004. Futurists tell us the 21st century will not contain a mere one hundred 20th century style years but tens of thousands of them.
As the years speed by, we can appreciate that educational systems that once appeared rigid are actually fluid. We can nurture them to grow this way or that. We can “flip” them, that is, reconfigure the pieces. I’ll suggest that we can, and should, rearrange the components of schooling to democratize learning.
By democratize, I don’t mean giving students the vote. Rather, democratizing learning means giving students the knowledge and permission to realize their full potential. Democratization gives students a voice in their own learning.
Be forewarned: I am an alien in your midst. I am an American, a Californian, with scant knowledge of India. My specialty is corporate learning, not higher education. And I tend to live in 2016, not the present.
Nonetheless, I’d like to share a few stories with you. Perhaps they can serve as catalysts as you consider how to reshape India’s educational systems and policies to meet the demands of the future.
Hewlett Packard Engineers
Let me tell you a story that predates the internet. In 1974, a group of Hewlett Packard engineers who had been watching lectures on electrical engineering on the Stanford Instructional Television Network were reassigned to an HP facility in Santa Rosa, California, two hours to the north and out of television broadcasting range. An instructor, Jim Gibbons, sent videotapes of the lectures to Santa Rosa. It didn’t work; the engineers weren’t learning. Accompanying the tapes with a graduate assistant didn’t work either.
Next the engineers tried something that did work. Whenever anyone did not understand a concept in a lecture, he would raise his hand. This stopped the tape. Most of the time, someone else in the group had the answer. They proceeded this way, learning without a teacher, until the end of the semester. Then Jim Gibbons carted the engineers to the Stanford campus to take the final exam.
Mind you, these engineers lacked the test scores to become Stanford students, yet they scored significantly higher grades on the exam than the resident students. Why? I think it’s because they took charge of their own learning. They learned from one another, in the course of conversation. Furthermore, they were learning in order to become better engineers, not to earn a credential.
The HP engineers had flipped the educational process. They did away with face-to-face lectures. They set their own pace and answered their own questions. They took charge of the way they learned. In other words, they democratized their learning.
Western corporations are broken. Workers hate their jobs; customers complain of lousy service; investors receive meager returns. There has to be a better way.
In January 2012, two dozen authors, managers, and agile software developers met on a mountain top in Stoos, Switzerland, to try to reverse the situation. How could the practice of management be updated to work in a complex, unpredictable world?
The organization-as-machine, the model that served us from the dawn of the industrial age until the beginning of the 21st century, leads to a quest for efficiency. That works in stable, unchanging times, but it’s a formula for disaster amid incessant, disruptive change. The living network is a better model for today. Organizations need to conceptualize themselves as networks of individuals and teams who perpetually strive to create more value for customers.
This flips the corporation into an organization that respects people for their contributions rather than seeing them as cogs in the machine. The new order democratizes the workplace.
In America and Europe, the corporate learning function is dead or dying. A 2011 study by the Corporate Leadership Council reported that 76% of managers are dissatisfied with their corporate training function; 85% deem training ineffective; and a mere 14% would recommend training to their fellow managers. Workers and managers learn their work though conversation, collaboration, and on-the-job experience. My colleague Jane Hart calls this “learning without training.”
Enlightened corporations trust their people to pull in the resources they need. They’ve flipped corporate learning by putting the learners in charge of defining the curriculum. These corporations concentrate on building self-sustaining learning ecosystems, what I’ve called workscapes, instead of individual programs.
Education in India
India needs to train 500 million people in the next ten years. Some have proposed building thousands of new schools and challenges. Yet if the building program began in earnest tomorrow, there still wouldn’t be enough time to build the required classrooms — some six times what India has today.
What would those schools teach? The half-life of a professional skill is down to five years and is shrinking fast. It makes no sense to train people on skills that will become obsolete in short order. I’ll suggest that people need to learn meta-skills, such things as:
India has neither time nor resources to prepare teachers to transfer these skills to hundreds of millions of people. The answer? Flip Indian education. Delegate the delivery of content to electronic means, and focus teachers on coaching, leading discussions, helping people over hurdles, and relating lessons to real life. Also, teach students and workers to help teach themselves.
The time is ripe for India to democratize education, to help students to think for themselves and realize their potential.
A couple of days after my talk, nine of us piled into a van to visit the Taj Mahal.
Hour after hour, we honked and careened our way through chaotic traffic. We passed numerous private schools and academies. Mostly, we saw tens of thousands of abjectly poor people passing the time of day in hole in the wall kitchens and shops, wandering around in rubble, or defecating in fields. I wondered what comes first, educating the millions or giving them toilets.
By 2030, India’s population will outnumber China’s. The people we talked with at EDGE are entrepreneurial and optimistic. They are accustomed to thinking things over on an enormous scale. Never before in human history has a democracy of 1.3 billion people tried to reform education. Such transformation is mind-boggling.
Where is this headed, I wondered. By this time, our discussions about educational systems were over. I tossed about in bed in anticipation of an early morning flight home and reflecting on India.
What change does India want to see? Do we expect education to flatten a highly stratified society? Will the boys and girls playing in the dirt lead more productive, fulfilling lives because they can read and write? Will they have the patience to put up with the conservatism and cronyism of the Government of India? How will India create the jobs to challenge their young minds? Might not educating the masses be akin to showing the people of the former Soviet Union the riches of the west on television?
The more I learn about India, the less I understand India. I wish my new friends and their country well. They face the largest challenge I have ever seen.
Last month, immigration officials began hassling me because every square inch of my passport was filled up with stamps and visas. I mailed it to Washington to have extra visa pages inserted. Now I’m sweating bullets because I’m supposed to fly to London on Sunday and my passport is in transit and may not make it on time.
Public speaking, like writing, forces me to sharpen my thinking, and that, in turn, improves my coaching and workshop sessions with corporate clients. In London, I’ll be talking about how to evaluate informal social learning and learning infrastructure, things that are tougher to get your arms around than individual courses. In my keynote address in Faro, I plan to discuss post-industrial learning and new approaches to instructional design. The next week in Madrid, my workshop will focus on informal learning: what it is, how to take advantage of it, and who’s been doing a good job thus far.
People invariably ask for slides and recordings, so from now on I will be posting follow-up information on my primary website, jaycross.com
If you’re in London, Faro, Seville, or Madrid, ping me if you’d like to get together.
Evaluating formal and informal learning
London. June 9, 2009
IADIS International Conference e-Learning 2009
International Association for Development of the Information Society
Faro, Portugal. June 17, 2009
Informal Learning en la Práctica: Cómo diseñar su Proyecto de Aprendizaje Informal
Madrid. June 23, 2009
Before my last flight from Berkeley to London, I bought a pair of the latest Bose noise-canceling headphones. They set me back just shy of $350. Had I to make the decision to get them again, would I? In a heartbeat.
On the flight from Berkeley to London, the phones enabled me to retreat into my private cocoon, removed from the din of the jet engines. The headphones don’t knock out 100% of the cacophony, but they can cut the volume down to a very dull roar.
The Bose units come with an adapter that lets you plug into the soundtrack emanating from your armrest. I was quite satisfied with the sound as I watched Nixon/Frost and The Days of Harvey Milk on the way home. When I tired of movies, I’d pull the plug and retreat into my private isolation booth. Sometimes I’d listen to songs from my iPhone; other times I’d just nod off.
I’m listening to Leonard Cohen on the Bose phones as I write this post. The neighbor could get out his chainsaw and it wouldn’t register on my consciousness. I spend an increasing amount of time taking part in online events. You will, too, if you don’t already: it’s an inevitable outcome of living green and connecting to the larger world. Guess what? No more cheapo ear-buds for me: I’ll be wearing the Bose phones.
Some of you are undoubtedly thinking it’s absurd to lay down $350 for a headset. That’s the wrong way to look at it. An experience is only as good as the weakest link in the chain that gets it to you. I’ll spend sixty hours on planes in the next couple of months, and I’m happy to pay an incremental $5/hour for comfort. Actually hearing the movie without having to fiddle with free but dorky airline headsets is a bonus, as is the greater fidelity when listening to music and events on the web. Before long, my average cost will drop below $1/hour.
I got the Bose® QuietComfort® 3 Acoustic Noise Cancelling® Headphones. They go for $314 on Amazon.
Spring is here. Weather was glorious today in Berkeley, so I took a walk up Buena Vista Way. Architect Bernard Maybeck worked his magic along this steep street after the Great Berkeley Fire of 1923 wiped out 600 buildings, including most of his domestic masterpieces.
Since my vegetarian wife is in Alaska visiting our vegetarian son, I can get away with smelling up the kitchen at home frying flesh. And tonight I was in the mood for a fritura to rekindle memories of eating in Spain.
Smelt on the left, anchovies to the right. You get about this many for a dollar at Ranch 99 Market. I pigged out, downing nearly two dollars’ worth.
The recipe I was following called for seasoned breadcrumbs. Since I’ve sworn off white bread until I drop another ten pounds, I had to improvise. I pitched a few Triscuits and two fancy crackers into the blender. Bingo! Savory breadcrumbs. I shook the crumbs and the thawed fish in a plastic bag (so I could see what was going on)
Then I dropped them into a 1/4″ layer of olive oil in a heavy skillet. I let them sizzle for two and a half minutes.
I poured myself a fino and squirted a few drops of fresh lemon juice on the fish. I popped one in my mouth. And another. And another. Soon my taste memory transported me back to a balcony overlooking the Med in Marbella circa 1972. It was mid-afternoon. I was hungry. I ordered a fritura malagueña. It tasted just like this. ¡Qué estupendo!
Reflection makes life worth living.
This coming Tuesday, March 10, I’ll be leading a brown-bag lunch session on Informal Learning: Learning Outside of the Classroom at IARC on the campus of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. Ping me if you’re interested.
On Thursday, March 12, the Learning Irregulars and I will facilitate a BarCamp on unmeetings and whatever issues seem important to us at the time. Come to experience a meeting where participants create their own agenda.
On Tuesday, March 24, join the Learning Irregulars and me to explore the future of organizational learning. It’s peer-to-peer, real-time, bottom-up, and largely free of curriculum and classrooms.
Both meetings will take place at the NextNow Collaboratory in Berkeley. Timing is 7:00 pm to 10:00 pm. The sessions are free, but space is limited, so you must register in advance to attend.
Today I read Weapons of Mass Instruction by John Taylor Gatto. Formerly an award-winning school teacher, Gatto now spews more vitriol at schooling than anyone else I have ever encountered. If you are unfamiliar with his work, you must visit his site. Years ago, Heidi Fisk turned me on to Gatto; I began reading his The Underground History of American Education on the web and simply couldn’t stop until I got to the last page; it’s on my short list of seminal documents.
A few gems from Weapons of Mass Instruction:
Schools intend “to make children as alike as possible. People who conform are predictable, and this is of great use to those who wish to harness and manipulate a large labor force.”
Quoting Ellwood Cubberly: “Our schools are… factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned… And that is the business of the school, to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.”
School trains children to be employees and consumers; teach your own to be leaders and adventurers. School trains children to obey reflexively; teach your own to think critically and independently. Well-schooled kids have a low threshold for boredom; help your own to develop an inner life so that they’ll never be bored.
I’ve concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress genius because we haven’t yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves.
Professional interest is served by making what is easy to do seem hard; by subordinating the laity to the priesthood. School is too vital a jobs project, contract giver, and protector of the social order to allow itself to be “re-formed.”
School is a religion.
Schooling is organized by command and control from without; education is self-organized from within; school disconnects its clientele from other primary sources of learning. It must do that to achieve administrative efficiency; education sets out to provide a set of bountiful connections which are random, willful, promiscuous, even disharmonious with one another — understanding that the learning of resourcefulness, self sufficiency, and invention will inevitably involve surprising blends of things, things impossible to predict or anticipate in advance.
Sad to say, Weapons of Mass Instruction, like the title itself, is stronger on flashy, firebrand rhetoric than inner logic. Gatto refers to important shifts in the direction of Horace Mann without telling the reader who Mann was. Gatto’s stories sometimes ramble off to nowhere. To savor the best of Gatto, read Dumbing Us Down or The Underground History of American Education.
I love intellectual counterpoint, so it was delightful to read John Taylor Gatto on a train to and from a temple devoted to pioneering railroads, the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento. Railroads fueled the need for the by-products of the schools that Weapons of Mass Instruction rails against.
Small wonder we revere the things that got us here.
It takes a lot of conformity to run a railroad. You don’t want workers re-interpreting the rules for the sake of innovation. Assembly-line schooling spit out ideal workers for the time, workers who respect authority and do what they’re told. Those workers kept the railroads and factories humming efficiently.
The perennial problem is that the times have changed but the way we do things have not. We need knowledge workers who can think for themselves but maintain schools that are structured to produce drones for the long-gone railroads and factories.