Freire, the Matrix, and Scalability

An excellent presentation on Freire at AERA titled I’m Morpheus in this Hip-Hop Matrix: The Industry, Oppression, and the Word provoked some of the most (personally) interesting thinking I’ve done in a while. Short version: I’m now thinking that talking about the scalability of educational opportunity is immoral, and that there is a far bigger problem facing instructional technology researchers than simply making education more effective.

Last week I attended the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) in Montreal. AERA is a massive gathering – around 15,000 people descend on a city and take it over for a week. Equally overwhelming is the experience of trying to find sessions to attend – talks generally start around 8am and run through 8pm, with 50 or more concurrent sessions going on in parallel every hour of the day. The presentations are generally of decent quality, reporting research that is generally well designed if generally of little consequence.

I generally only average two or three sessions a day at AERA given all the people there are to catch up with and all the joint projects there are to plan. But something amazing happened this year. One of the sessions I attended was good. Not good in the sense that I enjoyed it, but good in the sense that attending it transformed my perspective completely. The session was comprised of three papers on Freire’s work; I only caught the last two. Borrowing a lyric from a popular song, the second of the papers was titled “I’m a Morpheus in this hip-hop Matrix.” The paper’s author connected Freire’s ideas of oppression and the transparency of systems of control to the Matrix, and then went on to analogize the work we educators are called to do with unplugging people from the Matrix. He proceeded to quote lyric after lyric from hip hop songs to show how some artists are taking on this role, revealing and exposing forms of institutionalized oppression from which many black youth know no alternative. He derived an interesting taxonomy of oppressive forms from the lyrics of these songs as well, including police, prison, drugs, and school.

I think the author was right. Morpheus and Freire would agree that, like the proverbial fish that cannot see or know the water, these youth (and many other individuals) are controlled and manipulated by systems of oppression. Our role, as educators and human beings, is to “free their minds” as Morpheus would say. To unplug them from the system. Morpheus said, “This is a war. And we are soldiers.” I agree with the spirit of this statement. We should each be waging peace, freedom, and equity in our classrooms and daily lives.

The author of the next paper commented on the role of love in education. Quoting Freire, he said that we should not fear to be laughed at, ridiculed, called unscientific, or even called anti-scientific, but that we must base all we do in education in love. Love for the student, the learner, the other. He went on to describe Freire as a spiritual man, and bemoaned the fact that this aspect is left out of many discussions of his work.

It made me think… over and above the classroom, the commonplace realm of our daily lives is critical. As I recently read in bell hooks, all that we say, think, and do is robbed of its power if we lack integrity in our lives. Integrity that involves truly living out the principles of peace, freedom, love, and spirituality. As bell said, most of the places we work, and the communities in which we participate, are openly hostile toward these types of commitments, particularly spirituality. It takes hard work to embody these principles in all we say, think, and do, moment after moment, day after day, year after year, with consistency and integrity.

When the presentations were over, it was time for audience questions. This is generally the most completely useless part of AERA presentations, as listeners take the opportunity to grandstand, make comments rather than ask questions, and generally unfurl their intellectual tail feathers in stupid attempts to show one another up. However, there was a different feeling in this room. It was almost palpable in the air. This was a group of people who really believed all the things that had just been said, and they were about to practice those beliefs. As questions were asked and comments were made, listeners applauded both the speakers and each other, built constructively on what had been said before, and verbally and silently supported each other. You could feel it. It was unique among all the professional meetings in which I have ever been involved. It was truly inspiring.

Reflecting on the experience of attending this session brings me back to one of my favorite topics – the automation of the delivery of instruction and the provision of feedback. As I interact with an intelligent tutoring system, what will be the source of my inspiration? Who will be the teacher I remember forever, with whom I form a transformative bond of trust, who I know cares and worries about me? Where is my connection to an other? Where is the modeling of competent, passionate living? Where is the enculturation into a community of meaningful practice?

I know as well as anyone else the reasons people are so interested in automated instruction. Scalability of instruction is the primary reason. (Insuring that the instructional experience is completely uniform and exactly consistent for every single student is another, but we will leave its inappropriateness for another time.) There is a political problem with talking about the scalability of instruction that makes it morally inappropriate. “Scalability” looks at the ability to reach large numbers of learners, and the economics of doing so. This is morally inappropriate because “scaling to a large number of learners” implicitly and purposefully excludes some learners. Generally, we assume that the excluded group is comprised of potential learners without the financial means and other resources available to secure access to educational opportunity. (Or it could be that one group is excluded in order to provide an economic or military advantage to another group.) Regardless of which reading of scalability one may choose, we should never talk about scalability of instruction because the language of scaling is the language of exclusion for the sake of profit. Instead of talking about “reaching large numbers of students” we should talk about “reaching each and every potential learner.”

Numerically the difference between “large numbers” and “all” may be small, but it is the largest philosophical distance of which I am aware. We should speak of education as a universal and inalienable right. The Declaration of Independence doesn’t say, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that as many men as we can scale to are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness – for as many people as we can scale to.”

This thinking leads me to reaffirm my position that there is a larger educational research problem to solve than making instruction more effective. The scientific literature is full of research that will tell anyone willing to read how to make education extremely effective. It is high time the field of educational research, and especially instructional technology research, decided that the most pressing problem facing us today isn’t making education more effective, it is making education more available.

Here’s an idea – let’s spend billions of dollars and millions of person hours per year making significant progress on the access problem, which progress we can make if we will, instead of committing those same resources to making almost unperceivably small incremental improvements in the effectiveness with which we keep instructing the same subgroups.