Steve, Founder @ Classroom 2.0, NC
I asked the question in ed tech, "Do you have a learning philosophy that drives your technology purchases?" And the answer is largely, overwhelmingly, “no.” If you don't have a philosophy of learning, what's your learning culture? What's your goal? What are you trying to accomplish at a school?
Steve Hargadon is the creator of Classroom 2.0, for years hosted the Future of Education interview series, and created and chairs or co-chairs of a number of annual events, including the Global Education Conference, and Library 2.0, and Hack Education. He and his wife somehow helped four children move into adulthood. learningrevolution.com | stevehargadon.com. Steve was interviewed as part of our #EdLeader series by RE-ENVISIONED Co-Founder & Executive Director, Erin Raab.
Tell me a little bit about you and your journey in the world of education.
Sure. I was sort of in the right place at the right time. I started an interview series on open-source education - open-source software in education. As part of that interview series I interviewed some of the great open-source contributors, one of whom was Marc Andreessen. He's considered the father of the modern Internet browser. I interviewed Marc, and then Marc was at the time starting a company called Ning with his business partner Gina Bianchini. Ning was really this incredible software platform. It was the first sort of modern social network, where you could actually create your own network—this was in the Myspace era. Ning had this platform where you could create a social network, and somehow I intuitively understood power of the peer-to-peer nature of that. I wasn't an educator, I was selling computers and open-source software solutions to schools, but I intuitively grasped this sense of the power, especially of teachers being able to connect with other teachers across geographical boundaries.
And so I first started something using Ning called School 2.0 - a social network for education conversations. It didn't really go anywhere, and then I can remember one day just having this sort of light bulb go off, and I'm like, "No, it's Classroom 2.0. This is about teachers connecting with each other, not people connecting about schools." And as soon as I rebranded it Classroom 2.0, it took off. I can remember we hit about 400 members, and people were like, "This is unbelievable." This is at a period of time when 400 people talking about a topic together online was substantial. I mean, that now is nothing, right, but it was a huge deal at that time
Soon thereafter I convened the first EduBlogger Con, which was a physical meetup of the educational bloggers, and we held an unconference — this is 11 years ago — at ISTE. And this was the first time most of them had ever met each other. About 125 people came, and it, too, was this unbelievable thing, right? I mean, it was incredible. They were all together, and there was this energy and packed rooms, and we did it unconference style, which is again a sort of my deep peer-to-peer sense.
And then a couple of years later I started using the software platform Blackboard Collaborate, which at the time was called Elluminate, for holding online meetings. Lucy Gray and I held the first large-scale online education conference. I think I can claim that.
It’s hard to state how revolutionary this felt. I think Classroom 2.0 was the first large modern social network for education, although there were chatroom-based spaces before, but I think this kind of modern, Web 2.0 social network for education—it was the first, or, at least, one of the most prominent. There were other unconference-style education meetups, so EduBloggerCon was not the first, but it was the first one to really take hold in the ed tech community here in the US. And the massive, online, peer-to-peer events—this was before MOOCs—I think we really started that.
The Global Education Conference was this amazing thing. Anybody could present, it went 24 hours a day over 5 days, with 50+ keynotes and 400 presentations, all mostly teachers teaching other teachers.
People stayed up for 48 hours straight, sometimes 72 hours. They just were so excited that they could connect directly with other teachers from all over the world. It was kind of mindboggling at the time.
At the same time that these open, peer-to-peer trends were going on, it's not like there wasn't pushback. I mean, there were people who said social networking is not good, and we should not be doing this. And again, that came from the context of Myspace and sort of a fear about the negatives of social networking. But overwhelmingly, I think, people were starting to see the value as they were connecting with each other.
Now I think where you see that happening most now is Facebook and Twitter, but the difficulty with Facebook and Twitter is they're surface-level: they're not threaded discussions. Web 2.0 and social networking are like other technologies that we thought were going to be revolutionary — radio, television — they go from this sort of complex moment of participation, to this thinner band at the top surface level, controlled by larger organizations. So now we have all this participation in Facebook, but much of it is the “thick of thin things.” So there's all of this information and all of this going on, but the deeper conversations are harder to have there. I think this might just be a natural progression of technology. But in the beginning we were having really deep conversations.
This has been an interesting personal moment of watching how institutions play a role in the development of technology or ideas.
Institutions are really good at spreading something once it's in existence, but they're not really good at retaining the core sense of value or of recognizing the original contributors.
And so, like Ivan Illich is credited with saying, institutions end up perpetuating the problems they were designed to solve. I might add to that as a way of explanation by saying, "Institutions of necessity become primarily focused on their own survival." So once you've built up an institutional infrastructure, you have salaries, and you have all kinds of things. This is really evident in Cowspiracy, the movie looking at the groups that focus on some environmental concerns but ignore others because they are not popular with their paying membership or funders. The requirement of the institution to continue to move forward and to be an entity that employs people means that institutions face a great temptation to become focused on their survival, rather than on the core issues.
So we're at this moment historically, like you and I have talked about before, where most of the institutions that we have in our lives feel very much like they're weighted towards the institution and not the individual. And that's kind of a sign of a moment in a culture where people are going to say, "I want to live a simpler life. I don't want to buy a car. I don't want a house mortgage. I'm willing to live simply," and this has happened before, and it's not the first time, but I think we're seeing it pretty dramatically right now.
Take a moment to think about a child you care about and, when you’re ready, tell me a little about that child.
Okay, so I'd like to use our youngest daughter, who just graduated from high school.
She was the public-school student of a family that largely did independent/home-schooling, so she was the one who said, "No, I'm not doing that. I want to go to school," and so then I had to kind of deeply commit to helping her have a good school experience. So even though she’s slightly out of your age range, it would be hard for me to feel the passion with anybody else. Can we stretch the limits to pretending she's still in high school?
Yes, let's do it. So tell me her name, and then tell me a little bit about her personality, what her strengths are, and what makes her her.
Caroline is, of our children, the most like me temperamentally. As she was growing up, she was very shy, and part of that was sort of placement in the family as the youngest child with a sister older than her who is quite outgoing. But a significant part of it is just sort of her nature. She's just sensitive, and she's kind, and she's nice. When she was in seventh and eighth grade, we began to realize she was shy enough that she wouldn’t talk on the phone to people. And she also — like if I asked her to go into the store and get something, she wouldn't go in because she didn't want to interact with the cashier. So it became kind of my personal mission as her dad to understand her and to then help her. And this becomes a metaphor, right, for kind of what we think the goal of education is, but my ultimate goal was for her to be comfortable in self-directing. Caroline is now in her first year in college, and now she's our most academically independent child.
When you think about her grown up — let's say in her 30s or her 40s, done with her journey with school and living her life as an adult — what do you want for her? What's a good or successful life for her?
Yeah. I'm all about self-determinism, so heutagogy or this idea that the ultimate goal is for individual capacity and self-direction. Again, as a person who believes deeply in decentralization, and in grassroots, and bubbling up, that kind of collaborating can only happen when people feel competent and are competent in individual decision-making and making choices.
My goal for Caroline as an adult is that she's actively engaged in good things and feels capable of learning and doing.
So I don't have specific goals for her to want her to be a doctor or a nurse. My sense is that the best thing I can do for her is to help her, just to bring my life experience to help her have a meta-understanding of living. That's a little touchy-feely, but there are ways in which we deal with things on a day-to-day basis that get us busy and that we're involved in, and then there's this sort of higher level of thinking that, when I was in college, was sort of the defined goal of a liberal-arts education: that you think about and that you're willing to discuss difficult issues. I want my kids to be able to participate in a society at that meta-conversational level, to be thoughtful actors in whatever spheres they are in.
I think it's really important for a culture to have good thinking and people who are competent and confident.
Most kids leave high school unfortunately not feeling capable or not feeling like they're good thinkers, and that serves commercial purposes really well because they'll buy things, and they'll go into debt. But the truth is, for the health of a society, you really want people who can think well, because important issues are challenging.
There is no easy answer to the issue of how you balance the desire to create and consume in a society and the environment. I mean, even the climate-change issue is complicated by the fact that we end up having to use shorthand, like CO2, when methane gas is arguably a more significant driver of climate change. You know, we ought to be able to have that conversation and say, "What really happens here?" And then how do we balance that as a society? And how do we feel about being a First World country and requiring different things of a Third World country. Those are not easy questions.
I guess the answer is that my hope for her is that she thinks clearly, is doing things that she cares about, is making a difference for people, and that she feels good about her own life.
That's beautiful. Is there anything you worry about standing in the way of her achieving that?
I think family is the preeminent influence on children, and I think the institution of schooling has a hard time recognizing or coping with that, so often it gets ignored.
And so for Caroline I don't see huge barriers, because I think she has good family support. She has siblings who love her. We love her. Everybody faces hard times, and some people face really difficult times. There's the possibility that you get in a car crash, and you are disabled. I mean, there are all kinds of really difficult things that can happen, but I don't think those stop you from being a thoughtful person who sees life in perspective. I have some autoimmune disorders, I have Vitiligo and I have a blot-clotting disorder, and I have neuropathy, and sometimes I feel sorry for myself, but the truth is those are small compared to issues that other people have. Our kids are going to face difficult issues, and they need to be able to see them within the context of, "You have hard things happen in life, and it's not your fault. You can still build a life of worth and value, and a lot of what we do is serve others."
In your ideal world — and I know you've thought about this a bunch — what would the role of school be — or what would the role of school have been, since she just got out of K-12.
What would the ideal role of school have been to help her create the life that you want her to have, this good life?
I love what you’ve done here. What’s really fun about this exercise in looking at the future for someone we care about is then asking the question: what kind of an education would most likely lead to this outcome for him or her?
Let me answer that in two ways. The first is that's actually a question that I asked her and her friends a lot, and they loved answering. We'd have her friends over for dinner, and we'd sit around and say, "Okay, so if you could reinvent school, how would you reinvent it?" And like two hours later my daughter's has to interrupt her friends and say, "Dad, can we be done? I have homework to do." But they really wanted to talk about it, because they were recipients of a system where they realized it was kind of a game, and success in the game didn't mean you were a good learner. It just meant you were good at the game, the game of getting into the right college, and then the game of getting the right job. So part of it is, okay, that's a really good question, and it's a question that we should be asking everybody.
That's our goal at RE-ENVISIONED :)
Yeah. At a deeper level my core belief is in having that conversation, that that's a constant continual conversation. It's the whole concept that was intended in the founding of the United States: to protect freedoms you have to have this constant dialogue about how you protect freedom.
So what you're really doing is building a system that's constantly rebuilding itself.
For me, I talk about asking constructive questions. You have to constantly be asking constructive questions. You know, like, “if you could reinvent school, what would it be?” Which really means you need to be doing things at a much more local level, so people are involved. In a society in which we are segmented and we have specialization raising our standard of living, but that also means that when we delegate things to other people, we lose things that are a part of our innate human experience. We lose something when a community is not making their own decisions about learning.
So the ideal role of schooling for Caroline is what I actually think the idea of college represents. So college is where you have freedom to make choices as to what you want to study. You are asked to think deeply. Now, this is “college” as an ideal that I’m talking about, because I think college is morphing into K-12-like patterns. But ideally you have this opportunity to choose what you want to study and then to make your own path. I love that model, and for Caroline that was the model that I wish was more in existence for high school.
Yeah. You said you were going to start a school - I'd love to hear about that. What would it be?
Well, not me, but… I moved to North Carolina three-and-a-half years ago because a school was opening called Black Mountain College in the facility that was where the original Black Mountain College had been housed. It was a well-known kind of progressive college that closed decades ago. So they were starting a program based on Sugata Mitra’s TED Prize of self-organized school — SOLE, Self-Organized Learning Environments. And the idea was that people could come, and they would self-direct. They could be doing internships or independent study, but they were living in a community of learners. I was like, “That is going to be really interesting to watch.” So I rented an office in the main building. You know, I brought all my books. I did all my online interviews and work there, and I was like, "I want to see what happens when you create an environment for students to really self-direct."
Now, within six months it had completely folded. The guy who had funded it had pulled out, but I came to believe some things, one of which was the reason it had folded was that instead of building a culture, they were so nervous about having people there that they gave scholarships to a lot of people to come who weren't really interested in or ready for self-directed learning, but were maybe a little lost and more interested in alternative living. So they were more interested in kind of a community - morning yoga, healthy food and the like. They weren't necessarily independent learners.
So I do have a vision someday to create an open-learning center where you have opportunities for learning; you have ways in which people can connect with others. But it's not mandated, and you cultivate a culture, and a culture of self-direction, and then provide good resources
And that's only going to appeal to small number of people at the start, but then you allow that culture to build, where if somebody comes to visit, they see this is actually about self-direction and independence, and they can model it off other people. And it's probably not unlike an incubator or a collaborative working space model, but with enough culture that people come and they say, "Oh, how do I do this?" And they really want to learn.
Do you feel like schools played the ideal role you would've wanted them to for your child. Why or why not?
And we'll get to the broader question, too, but did they do what you would've wanted them to for Caroline, and in what ways yes and no?
Yeah, so a couple threads here, one of which is if I believe that children are different, that they have different temperaments, and that they will take advantage of different things, then part of my answer is yes, school did for Caroline what I hoped it would, but in large part because I was a partner with her in that process. You know, again, that’s my believing that family is actually the preeminent influencer on children. So if families are the preeminent influencers, you would actually invest in helping families be strengthened.
Did her school fulfill the needs? I don't think necessarily the school was set up to, but it was a resource that we could use as a family to help us fulfill the needs for her. If kids really are different, and there are different ways in which they thrive, then we would have more variety in the kinds of schools we have.
In what ways do you think schooling plays the role it should for all children, and in what ways not?
Again, I think school in its ideal form provides this variety of opportunities, provides a belief in the innate capacity of every child. I've been talking about something I call “namaste education.” Namaste is, "I see the divinity in you," or, "My spirit bows to your spirit." Not to get spiritual, but this idea that I value you as an individual.
Schools that have a variety of opportunities for individuals to flourish and then see every child as having potential and capacity really can make a huge difference for a child.
I don't think that's how most schools work.
I talked to a young woman at a conference this past year. I went to a conference at Sonoma State University. She was there as a journalism student from a community college. We just happened to be sitting near each other, and I said, "How are you? What are you doing?" You know, I sort of asked her about herself. "What are your dreams and ambitions?" Those kind of questions. At one point she started to cry, and I said, “Okay, what have I said that has evoked this emotion in you?” Partly fear that there was something else going on in her life, and I shouldn’t open that door, but partly intuiting that what was actually happening was happening. And she said, “No adult in my life, in my education, has ever actually asked me those questions.” She said, “I’ve never had a conversation with a professor where they actually looked at me in the eye.”
I don’t know if that’s an exaggeration, but since then I’ve had two other experiences where when just having the conversation about education, I’ve seen a very similar response. And I thought: there's a deep brokenness. There's a deep sense of, "I'm just a cog. Nobody really cares about me," and I don't know how pervasive that is, but I think it's pervasive enough that we need to really be aware that it exists.
It’s just not how school works right now. I asked the question in educational technology, "Do you have a learning philosophy that drives your technology purchases?" And the answer is largely, overwhelmingly, “no.” If you don't have a philosophy of learning, what's your learning culture? What's your goal? What are you trying to accomplish at a school?
We say that school is empowering, but largely we act in very controlling ways.
So we use the language of empowerment, but we use actions of control. That becomes this very interesting question of, "Is schooling so entrenched at so many levels? Can it actually change?" I mean, if it's not really about empowering individuals, but it's fulfilling all of these different roles for different groups — it's babysitting for some; it's employment for others; it's producing certain kinds of consumers for our economy. You really begin to question the idea of, "Can there actually be change from inside? Or does there have to be an external kind of radical change or disruptive innovation?" The change would have to be really compelling to disrupt a system that has so many outputs that benefit certain groups and people.
It's a dilemma.
Most education reformers go from this moment of, "We are going to change education. It's going to be different. We're going to make it better for everybody," to sort of slowly turning into, "Well, I'm just going to do my little piece and hope that it informs and helps others," because the ability to actually impact the system as a whole becomes less and less conceivable.
It is overwhelming.
That's why you're here.
Ha, depending on the day. Sometimes I want to be one of those people like, "I'm just going to take my little thing over here and stay there."
So, what would you like to aim or the goal of school to be? Why School?
Again, I'm going to answer that question differently, which is I don't think there's any one aim or goal, but I think communities can build opportunities for learning. Within your community, whether it's a geographical community, a religious community, or a cultural community, how your community decides to promote opportunities for learning can look very different. And I'm actually quite okay with that, because then as the learner I can move. I can do something else, especially in with the current connected technologies. I can move on and do something different that’s more in harmony with what I’d like.
So my vision would be lots of opportunities for people to self-define learning outcomes. And there are some great constructive questions you can do to facilitate this. When I go to do a workshop, the question I'll ask is, "What were your deepest learning experiences? Where and how did they happen, inside or outside of education?"
Overwhelmingly the responses are very human-centered. "Someone believed in me. I was on a team and we did this," or, "Someone challenged me." They have very little to do with a lot of the kind of standardized practices that we use in education.
So, allowing for a community of people to think together about what they want the outcome to be is so critical. Another good constructive question is, "What do you want your children to know and to be prepared for in 2050, 2150, whatever the date is?" That actually produces a really good rich conversation with people, who can then kind of figure what they want that learning environment to be like. It’s like the question you asked about what I want for my daughter when she is an adult.
This is not normally on the interview, but listening to your answer, how does that fit with continuing to be a nation state, with continuing to have a community, a larger sense of community, to balance that tension of us all having some amount of common knowledge — or at least common sense of who we are, and the provision of educational opportunities?
I'll answer that by asking a question, which is if I go to Portland, how important is it that all of the restaurants have common training? If I love the food culture in Portland, how much of that is the result of common training?
I don't know. Can you be more explicit about how you see that analogy of culture or of — do all of the restaurants in Portland feel like what they need to be is belong to this — do they, for being able to sustain themselves, need to consider themselves a group of restaurants that share common purposes or common goals?
And that's my question. So if food is as essential to our health and life just as learning is, and you go to a place like Portland, somewhere that represents a rich food culture, what’s the precipitating factor that helps to create that culture, and does it need to be shared and identical?
Do you think those words are equivalent, the "shared" and "identical"?
I don’t think they’re necessarily equivalent, but I think they’re two aspects of how we talk about learning. I think what I heard in your question was the idea that schooling exists in part for national identity. Certainly that goes back to the Prussian model or Colonial schools in India, and the sense that the established leading group wants to have people follow a particular structured way of living or thinking. And so my question would be,
"Is that actually a valuable outcome?" Meaning, maybe it's a red herring. Maybe it's something that distracts us from other questions.
Maybe it's just this sort of shorthand of, "Well, we need it for national identity." Well, do we actually need it for national identity? Does Portland need a food identity, or is the diversity its identity? So if I go to Portland, I'd say Portland's a great food city or Asheville's a great food city. What actually has created that concept?
Well, there are probably things that the city council have done to make it easier to feel like the food is safe, so some sort of basic inspection process, and then some sort of incentives or help for certain kinds of businesses to flourish. But I think it's much less of a model of centralized structure than we assume is necessary. If we believe that schools are part of our national identity, is that actually the question we want to be asking, or does it distract us? Is a national identity, the kind that schools produce, required? Does it actually help us to flourish? I mean, that's a meta-level question. That's a philosophical question. If the culture that we're taking about, this national culture that you've just described, if that's actually the shadows on the wall in Plato’s Cave, and the people who are building that culture are the puppet masters, you could make the argument that that's not actually anything other than just cultural control, just like I saw over and over again in when helping my daughter with her AP World History class homework. It's a group of people maintaining power and control by controlling the narrative. So we home-schooled/independent schooled all of our kids except for Caroline, so the three other children. Do I feel like their kids are less American or less part of the system because they didn't go to a public school? In a lot of ways I could make the argument that they're strong contributors because of their independent school experiences, and because of the literature that they read, and because of the ideas they were empowered by.
Given your understanding of the purpose of school and your vision for how school could be different, how does what you're doing now in education relate?
Okay, so again, serendipity. I didn't set out to do this, but I think being a part of that early Ning experience and helping create a space where people could talk to each other, and then helping people build their own spaces for people to talk together, where I wasn't actually in control, really begin to reshape my thinking. And I think it's the story of the Internet. It's this once-in-500 or 1,000-year shift, and we're seeing this opportunity for people to connect directly with each other. And there's a lot of surface-level connecting. I mean, Twitter is a lot of activity, but it's not necessarily the deeper connecting. But it's that deeper connecting that we're now able to do. I feel like I was given the opportunity to create space for people to have dialogues. I can have theories and ideas, but overriding all of that is my belief in the power of individuals connecting with each other, and to talk and talk through things, even and especially when they may not agree.
They don't have to agree, but:
it's the dialogue that comes from that that's such a powerful part of how we build our culture and our understanding of what it is to be human, and what it is to live in communities and how we help each other.
The Internet is doing that, and I've just been lucky enough to be at a place where I could do that with online social networks, and then I could do that with these massive online peer-to-peer conferences. I mean, you know, this idea that our first Global Education Conference, where we had over 400 presentations by teachers to other teachers, that was so fulfilling and has continued to be fulfilling to me, because it's not about one group of people telling set things to another group of people. It's about people coming together and self-organizing and talking about things that are vibrant. The annual unconference, which is now in its 11th year, starts with everyone getting together in the morning and they write down what they want to talk about during the day. Then they vote on the topics. Every topic gets put in a session room. The voting is just to make sure that the really popular ones don’t compete with each other. You go to the sessions you want, and at the end of the day you've talked about what you wanted to talk about, and that for me is just brilliant. So I have a hope that that's how I'll be remembered. You know, "What are they going to say about you at your funeral?" My hope is that people will say, "Okay, Steve had some radical ideas about education, but he was really good at creating spaces for people to come together and to talk."
You're speaking to my heart, Steve.
Is there anything that you think I should've asked that I didn't, or anything you want to add to what you've talked about?
Could I add two pieces?
Okay, so if we look at the allegory of Plato's Cave, it's been used for a variety of purposes, one of which is even political. The other is just sort of intellectual, philosophical. But an interesting component of it is what happens to the slave after he's been outside of the cave and comes back in. He seems to be so out of touch that those inside the cave have like no interest in going outside the cave. If anybody tries to take them out of the cave, they beat them up. So I think this is a very human thing, that if we're social animals, and we live on social stories. That's a really good reason to be careful, because ideas spread not because they're healthy, but because they're spreadable. So if we know that we're social, and we know that ideas spread, and that the spread of ideas can sometimes be bad, we have to be really careful about those ideas.
We're seeing that very much now in the whole — you know, the questions and concerns about President Trump. Are these totalitarian ideas? We have to be really careful about what ideas we have. And so if all of these things are so important, and we recognize that human nature is to want to live in an easy narrative — we want to just go home and binge-watch a series on Netflix, because that's really easy. Or we want to not worry about our food, and we'll eat food with all these chemicals, but you go to another country and realize they don't use all those chemicals, and the food just makes you feel better. Those are hard things. So there is this sort of comfort of staying in our current comfortable, if unhealthy, zone. I think the allegory sort of brings that up, which is that trying to see truth and share it is hard. It's one-to-one work. It's me having a conversation with you, and you having a conversation with someone else, and me talking to somebody else. I don't think you get out of watching the shadows on the wall in any other way than one-to-one.
Okay, so the second piece, I would say, is I know we have a lot of perceptions of the Amish, and I don't claim to be any kind of an expert. But what's intriguing to me about the Amish view of technology is not necessarily anti-technology, but that the technology has to serve a purpose. So part of the question I think we should be asking in all these discussion is, "What is it we're trying to accomplish?" So for the Amish it's community, so does the technology serve community? If it doesn't serve community, we're going to choose not to use it.
We can quibble with how those decisions get made in a particular religious community, but I think we need to be asking those questions. What's our ultimate goal? Does what we do serve that goal? And so it's hard to take time out of the “thin things” we're doing, to have that conversation about what's really important. But if we don't have that conversation about what's really important, then everything else is just spinning in place.
We may feel like we're productive. We may feel like we're busy and engaged, but the truth is we can go ten years, and we can watch trend after trend after trend come through education, but it doesn't actually change anything.
And so having those deeper conversations is not easy, but they're really important, and they have to exist outside of commercial interests, and they have to exist in a way that's balanced and allows for a lot of voices. So you say, "Okay, so that's really critical. How do we do that? How do we hold those conversations?"
Yes! I couldn’t agree more. I’m just going to hashtag RE-ENVISIONED right there :) Thank you so much, Steve.
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