Avoiding Mistakes By Learning The Right Lessons From History

What that means for personalizing learning and Afghanistan

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” George Santayana wrote in 1905.

It’s never that simple, of course. Avoiding past mistakes requires not only learning the history (yes, knowledge matters), but also learning the right lessons from history.

In that vein, longtime snarky edtech skeptic Audrey Watters (that’s not me being snarky; I think she’d be flattered by that description!) wrote a new book titled Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning. One of the book’s goals is to use history to contextualize—and cast doubt upon—today’s movement to use technology to personalize learning.

But as I write in a new review for Education Next, although the book presents two compelling microhistories about teaching machines that more people should know, the historical examples stop well short of demonstrating that today’s innovative practices are fundamentally flawed. Or to put it differently—those practices may have their flaws, but not for the reasons Watters argues.

Watters’ commentary suffers from many challenges, from assuming that “personalized learning” is synonymous with technology (and doesn’t include everything from tutoring to Montessori education) to misunderstanding why so many of us call traditional schools the “factory model” of education. The history she paints ultimately is also less a story of Skinner’s device failing in the commercial marketplace for educational reasons and more a tale of flawed business models and missteps in production.

There’s much more, so check out the full piece, “The Quest for an ‘Automatic Teacher’” here.

Losing Afghanistan

On the note of learning the right lessons from history, although I generally write about education, my lens is through theories of innovation that have applicability to everything from health care to the development of nations, and my broader interest is in using those theories to allow all individuals to fulfill their human potential.

Using that lens, I was honored to team up with my friend, Efosa Ojomo, coauthor of The Prosperity Paradox, on a piece for NBC News titled, “20 Years after the invasion of Afghanistan, a lesson in how not to spend development aid.” Heartbroken by the tragedy that has played out there, I think the piece presents a critical argument that has been overlooked in the immediate aftermath of the Taliban’s rapid takeover of the country because however well-intentioned the U.S. aid was, it had the ironic effect of contributing to instability in Afghanistan’s institutions and fueling corruption. What’s more, there’s a better way to end the predictable tragedies rooted in poverty that are playing out in so many other places across the globe.

Who decide what gets taught

My previous roundup featured our Class Disrupted podcast about what gets taught in the curriculum. We followed that up with an episode on who decides what gets taught. Check out the episode here and let us know what you think of our categorization!

Will the pandemic accelerate change in education?

You won’t want to miss two more podcasts about this topic.

First, Greg Fowler, president of the University of Maryland Global Campus, joined me and Jeff Selingo on Future U and spoke about how the pandemic will likely accelerate changes already underway in higher ed, but probably hasn’t altered the trajectory of institutions. The episode is here.

Second, I hosted a podcast for The Disruptive Voice in which I interviewed Thomas Arnett, a senior research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He shared research from his ongoing national polling work of what schools have actually been doing in their classrooms since the pandemic began, followed by his analysis of why he thinks the trends he’s seeing portend good things longer-term for needed changes in K–12 schools. Check it out here.

As always, thanks for reading, writing, and listening.