Play the ball, not the man

I read Wikipedia founder Larry Sanger's blog with interest this week. In response to my post Content as Curriculum? he had written a protracted and elaborate response. Although I was gratified that someone with such a standing in the academic community had taken the time to read my post and respond so comprehensively, I admit I was also a little disconcerted to find that not only had he misapprehended my original message, but had also apparently resorted to name-calling. Now, anyone who knows me reasonably well will understand what drives me to blog. It is to provoke discussion, to agitate, and to disrupt, with the long term goal to hopefully improve aspects of education and training. Sometimes I deliberately take a strong position to achieve this. Readers will disagree or agree with me - see for example this response from another blogger - and we all learn. I am open to criticism and my ideas, theories and contributions are there to be shot at, or built upon. But for Sanger to label me as an 'anti-intellectual' on the basis of the reading of one of my blog posts seemed somewhat reactionary. I'm not convinced there should be a place for this kind of tactic in reasonable discourse. Unfortunately, his stance serves to detract from the otherwise serious debate that I tried to instigate around the current state of curricula in schools. Before anyone else treats my ideas with similar disdain, let me clarify a few points about that blog post.

Firstly, let me deal with the misapprehension: Larry Sanger seems an intelligent, eloquent man, and if you can steer around his personal references, his response analyses my post almost line for line and he has produced some interesting commentary to counter my views. It is a useful contribution to the debate, and is exactly the kind of dialogue I wish to promote. It is the reason I continue to blog provocatively. I won't attempt to respond to him verse by verse as he has done, but I will make some key points. In my post I held that schools need reform, and at the heart of that reform should be an overhaul of the curriculum. For some time now, many highly respected commentators (see for example Stephen Heppell and Sir Ken Robinson) have argued that the majority of school experiences are still organised around old industrialised models. Many have called for a radical change in the way schooling is conducted to improve the chances of young people when they leave school. In my post I suggested that a possible way forward would require a reappraisal of the current curricula, with more emphasis on competencies and literacies. I wish to make something clear: My remark that some knowledge was susceptible to obsolescence was not a call for all knowledge to be removed from curricula - that would indeed be ridiculous. I am not attacking knowledge, as Sanger asserts. Rather, I am calling for schools to re-examine the content of curricula and to find ways to situate this knowledge within more open, relevant and dynamic learning contexts. I am also calling for more of an emphasis on the development of skills that will prepare children to cope better in uncertain futures. It was probably an error to use poor illustrations and analogies to underpin this call. Regardless of any argument thrown against it however, the call still stands, and I am not the first to make it. John Seely-Brown and Doug Thomas (2011) have argued that the majority of school experiences are mechanistic and need to be better contextualised. Regarding current school practices they state: 'The goal is to learn as much as you can, as fast as you can. In this teaching based approach, standardization is a reasonable way to do this, and testing is a reasonable way to measure the result. The processes that necessarily occur to reach the goal therefore, are considered of little consequence in and of themselves. They are valued only for the results they provide'. (p 35). Clearly, this situation is far from ideal. Teachers are pressurised to deliver an over-stuffed, content-laden curriculum in the limited time available, which leaves little time for experimentation and play, conversation or self discovery.

I also called for an end to the compartmentalisation of subjects within the curriculum. Studying a subject in isolation from other subjects suggests to children that there are no connections, as surely as using computers only in an ICT suite suggests that there are only some conditions within which the use of computers can be conducted. Again, context is required, and as Gerver argues: 'learning should be an expansive, personal and unpredictive journey' (p 62). Yet how can we achieve this, he asks, when school becomes an increasingly defined, predictable series of divorced lessons. How can we maintain the interests of children when they know exactly what is coming next - dull routine? Here lies the argument that context is now king, and content has become a tyrant.

But let's go back to the personal comments. At the heart of Sanger's argument is a concerted attempt to establish that I am an anti-intellectual. He does this on the basis of a belief that I am calling for an end to knowledge. But his belief is misfounded, and I have attempted to offer clarification in my recent blog post Conversation as Curriculum. He admits in a previous comment that he was confrontational and pointed. It seems a contradiction that he can view me as a 'serious theorist' and then spend the majority of his post trying to convince his readers that I am 'anti-intellectual'. Surely the two cannot be compatible? His descent into hectoring tones of name-calling detract significantly from his otherwise reasonable arguments. Larry Sanger and I have never met, so we don't know each other. How then is he able make such sweeping judgements about me on the basis of the reading of one of my posts? The answer is, he can't, and I would not presume to reciprocate. To label me as 'anti-intellectual' suggests that he has already made his mind up, and no amount of argument will change that.

I am sure that my academic achievements come nowhere near to Larry Sanger's. My list of peer reviewed publications and the frequency of my invited speeches around the world will not compare with his. Considering my track record, however, I feel that I deserve a little better than to be ridiculed as 'anti-intellectual', and it is ironic that Larry Sanger's act of ridiculing could itself be construed as anti-intellectualism. If by anti-intellectual he meant that I oppose the ivory tower mentality endemic within academia, then I would gladly accept the title, and he might also consider inserting 'dangerous' as a prefix. Sadly, this is not what Sanger intends. Instead, the title is meant to suggest that I am against knowledge, and that therefore my arguments must be dismissed because they are merely 'popularist'. Well, he is entitled to his opinions. Just don't be fooled by the rhetoric - examine the evidence yourself and then make your own mind up: Do current school curricula make sense, or should they be changed? Whatever the outcome of this debate, you can name me, but you'll never tame me. I will continue to provoke, cajole and disrupt via this blog, and I welcome all conversations from all comers. Just make sure you play the ball, not the man.


Gerver, R. (2010) Creating tomorrow's schools today: Education - our children - their futures. London: Continuum.
Seely-Brown, J. and Thomas, D. (2011) A new culture of learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change. Create Space.

Image by John Garghan

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Play the ball, not the man by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Unknown said…
I'm not sure that being a serious intellectual and being anti-intellectual are incompatible. That might bear examination.
Dermot Donnelly said…
I think you raise some interesting points. Any discourse should have a certain level of decorum and name calling has no place in academic debate, whether to be confrontational or not. However, name calling does happen and it can an important factor in why students can be hesitant about sharing their ideas on a public space.

Back to some of your other points, compartmentalisation of knowledge is a particular issue in that it can shape a lot of practice occuring in schools, particularly where teachers can view themselves only as having to be concerned with the content of their subject, as opposed to the holistic education of a student. The packaging of subjects does not challenge students to make larger connections and thus knowledge they learn oftentimes remains fragmented. Packaged subjects do not challenge teachers either to go beyond content they are unfamiliar with. Curriculum with a greater focus on context would certainly offer more interesting ways for students to engage in different content.
learninK said…
Storms in teacups? The following link, may be of interest - there is a certain amount of hype and promotional spin as part of its logic. Despite this weaknesses, the author, Adrian Sannier (Digital Strategist and Senior Vice President of Product at Pearson eCollege and Professor of Computing Studies at Arizona State University) may point to where the problems underlying the "curriculum as content" and "declarative versus procedural knowledge" debate may mislead us ... especially in terms of technological advances.
Quote: “But so far, technology has not made a significant difference in education. In the last thirty years, we've seen technology make drastic, radical improvements in fields all around us—from banking, communications, and manufacturing to music, books and movies. We expected technology to fundamentally change education as well. Instead of individual teachers improving over the course of their careers at human scale, we expected the industry of education to improve faster and more dramatically than individual people are capable of ... This hasn’t happened. That is not to say there aren't lots of cool things that individual teachers and students are doing with teaching and learning and technology. But very few, if any, of these developments have taken root, let alone flourished and flowered ... Some people would go so far as to argue that education is a fundamentally human-to-human process and that it has proven immune to attempts to inject technology into that process because technology creates barriers between teacher and learner. We all have memories of great teachers who suggest a kind of perfection that technology will never reach ... It’s possible, but for humanity's sake, I certainly hope not. Because if it's true that the way we teach and learn now is as good as it's ever going to get, if the kind of progress we can make by applying technology just won't work in education, then our society will not be able to meet the demand. Improving at human pace doesn't work if the world is growing more complex at an industrial or information age pace ... We've got to solve this problem. We've got to find some way not to incrementally improve education but to dramatically improve it -- the way we've improved so many other consumer goods and services. And I think that, with technology, we will."

The “education as an industry” metaphor does have its obvious limitations, but Sannier’s polemic may have some clarity about the “lack” of impact of technology has had on our overall western educational system. The web has made an incredible amount of information available to both the learner and the teacher, but as of its own, qualitative selection of and efficient access (procedural knowledge) to this content (declarative knowledge) requires skills that are no longer acquired from a single authoritative “trustworthy” textbook or the teacher, but from multiple sources. What is “good to learn” and “who is good to learn from” are now becoming more significant questions as a result of the democratisation of such content.
Some innovative schools (certainly not mainstream) have moved to integrated curriculum among Junior Secondary and Middle School (Years 7 – 10, Forms 1 - 4) in Australia in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but it is only when an educational system resorts to finding a means of “graduation” or “certification” that “declarative knowledge” reasserts its control at Years 11 and 12.
Technology has changed the perception of many things, but fundamentally the debate about curriculum content and how it is structured (process and product or procedural verus declarative) is not the fundamental issue. Maybe, as Sannier’s argument implies, it our reluctance to adopt new ways of seeing our relationships to our clientele (built around technologies) that is holding back systemic progress. The curriculum content debate may indeed be a red herring ...
Josu Uztarroz said…
Don't give up, Steve, it's needed much more like yours. It's very disappointing Sanger's position, but we must to admit that maybe not all "geeks" are enough aware of current changes, although they may have been the cause of them.
Simon Ensor said…
Scoring own goals is sad...

It might be argued that education is not about knowledge or procedures, or technology, or lack of it.

It could be argued that it is about values:

- respecting personal differences
- accepting one's limitations
- seeing one's connection with others

(the "trolls", the "anarchists", "the respected experts", the 'serious theorists' and the 'anti-intellectuals" who, inspite us all, work together (or not) on the collaborative entreprise which is society.)

Socrates, a Wikipedia reference admitted to knowing nothing.

"If a man is proud of his wealth, he should not be praised until it is known how he employs it."
Unknown said…
Hardly anyone seems to have noticed that I've added a rebuttal, here: "On educational anti-intellectualism: a reply to Steve Wheeler." I think this amply clarifies my accusation of anti-intellectualism.

If you really want to make a persuasive reply, Steve, you've got to say quite a bit more. For example, you could argue that, in fact, under your proposal, kids will still learn a lot, enough for the U.K. to do well on international comparative exams (which the U.S. does so poorly on). Or you could actually try to put teeth on an argument that the value of academic knowledge is pointless, and that the leaders of the future will be doers, not thinkers. (Fascists thought that way, you know.) Along these lines you could attempt a redefinition of "intellectual" the same way Gardner tried to redefine/expand the definition of "intelligence" by calling other things types of "intelligence."

But I think the most honest and straightforward way forward for you, and for those who think as you do, would be to embrace the "anti-intellectualism" label and say that, indeed, you really do disvalue spending so much time on academic knowledge in schools, and that to that extent you are, in fact, anti-intellectual--but what's wrong with that? After all, you, I, and everyone commenting seem to be assuming that being anti-intellectual is a problem, and even an insult. But from your point of view, what, really, is wrong with advocating for academic ignorance? That really is how I assess the position of someone who claims not to understand the point of his own liberal education, who reduces the value of Latin to winning parlor games, and who sincerely rejects the necessity of so much learning, because Google gives us easy answers. Why not simply embrace it?
Unknown said…
The most recent "Unknown" comment was from me (Larry Sanger).
wslashjack said…
Honestly, I've never liked or appreciated such academic discussions. Better to go butter toast, or something equally more productive. Does that make me an anti-something?

But on the topic of educational reform, I have definite opinions. And so I chime in...

I spent north of $200K to put my daughter through a prestegious college. Not at first, but along the way I became quite skeptical of the antiseptic and incomplete education she got with her degree. To say that it was one-dimensional would be an exaggeration. It was NOT, however, multidimensional. It lacked a context that connected her to the real (and broader) world that she graduated into. I hate what that cost me, but I'm outraged at what it cost my daughter.

My son, on the other hand is going to a state technical school to become a cop. He plans on getting a job with his two-year degree and then working to complete two more years, while on the job. It's a typical, but grounded approach.

It helps that the cost of his education is more like buying a used Porsche. But the real point is, he's taking classes like Survival Spanish, Criminal Code, Juvenile Justice and even Psychology--all of which are shaped by the context of his career choice. Perhaps it's only because of his career choice, but I can even say that his classes are connected to a greater, societal context.

Like any other student, he'll forget what he doesn't use and practice, but at any price his is turning out to be a much more valuable education.

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