Diffusion of Useful Ignorance… and Self Forgiveness

I’ve been inspired to study Thoreau again, and suspect this will generate a number of posts here. I’m heavily annotating what I read and have found much I want to write about, some of which would be in the realm of “and life” posts – though some of it would be relevant to this blog in other ways as well, which is to say it would relate to education and technology. In the interest of getting something posted tonight, I want to focus on one particular idea that has resonated with me. 

The purpose of education might be said to be the “Diffusion of Useful Knowledge,” but Thoreau suggests that there is “equal need of a Society for the Diffusion of Useful Ignorance… for what is most of our boasted so-called knowledge but a conceit that we know something, which robs us of the advantage of our actual ignorance?” Elsewhere he asks, “how can we remember our ignorance, which our growth requires, when we are using our knowledge all the time?”

In short, as educators, it is often difficult to admit that we are ignorant… but of course, no matter how learned we are, everyone is always more ignorant than not. If we are to be true educators (and if we are to grow and learn ourselves – and be lead learners) we must embrace our own useful ignorance. But we must also work to diffuse this mindset within our institutions – and among our students. Helping them to adopt an attitude of useful ignorance might be one of the best learning tools we can offer to students – and one of the best gifts we can offer them in life.

I’m not drawing this from Thoreau, but I’ve found that this attitude works well hand-in-hand with the practice of forgiving yourself for your own shortcomings. Together these two attitudes can help a learner (or members of an organization) to not only let go of preconceptions, but also to let go of the burden of needing to be responsible for having preconceptions (or accurate understandings) of the world to begin with. This makes it easier to accept the world as it is, to learn new things from new experiences, and in short – to grow.

I think Thoreau means many more things when he talks about “useful ignorance” (including his believe that there is a “subconscious magnetism in nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright”), and I suspect I’ll return to these more abstract ideas, too. But in the meantime, I’m finding this simple reminder to embrace and diffuse useful ignorance a pragmatic source of clarity, particularly in the context of sharing increasingly intoxicating information technologies with others. :)

Sojourner Truth Academy Opens in NOLA

NPR has done an interview with my cousin, Channa Cook, whose charter school, the Sojourner Truth Academy, opens in New Orleans this month. It’s an amazing project… and a good listen.

Charter Schools Bloom In New Orleans

by Andrea Hsu

Listen Now [3 min 55 sec]

Channa Cook, principal of Sojourner Truth Academy, sits in a classroom at her school.

Channa Cook, principal of Sojourner Truth Academy, sits in a classroom at her school. The 28-year-old is among the educators fueling the boom of charter schools in New Orleans.

All Things Considered, August 14, 2008 · Since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has become a laboratory of sorts for charter schools.

Seven new ones are opening this month — supported by millions of dollars in federal and private grants.

The funding draws educators like 28-year-old Channa Cook to New Orleans.

Reaction to Candidates Education Policies

I started blogging in part as an effort to share the things I was already writing for work and for school. For two years this meant I often was posting to my blog responses I had written for the my class discussion forums as part of my already underway Ph.D. program. Then I was done with classes and spent the next two years completing KAMs and working on my dissertation. For the last year or so, though, the University has created online “classes” for students with the same mentor. There are very few discussion requirements in these “research forums” but one of the last things I needed to finish this quarter was a response to the following question… and since it’s relevant to what I discuss on this blog – and to politics in this country in general – I thought I’d share it here.

The Prompt:

I was once told that two things that are never discussed in a bar are religion and politics. Since we are not in a bar (at least I hope we aren’t…who knows what goes on in e-learning behind closed doors…lol), we are going to venture into politics this month. Review the educational stance of each candidate (McCain, Obama, and Clinton), especially any positions taken on NCLB, and discuss. I stress discuss, be objective and gentle. No flaming and no arguments. I don’t want to know who you are for, just want you to discuss the issues, something that it seems no candidate is very good at nowadays. Enjoy!

My Response:

Hi, all. I’m coming a bit late to the party, but here’s my two cents as an educational technologist. I’ve focused my response solely on the positions stated on the candidates web sites, thus giving them the benefit of judging them by the message they want to be judged by.

I suppose it will come as no surprise to any of you that I found McCain’s position to be the least robust. He supports “excellence, choice, and competition.” Sadly, other than a nod to equity, his position doesn’t address excellence. Five of the eight paragraphs in his position address choice and competition, which go hand in hand for him. It’s clear he supports changes that will make it possible for parents to choose the school their child attends and for schools to compete for parents’ “business.” I suppose some sort of voucher system might make this possible, but his site does not address the specifics. Also, from my perspective, the issues I would care about are not addressed at all. There is no discussion of preparing our students for the 21st Century, of innovative teaching, or of educational technology in any form.

Clinton’s position focuses on “improving our schools.” She provides much more detail on her background, especially with respect to handicapped education and after school programs. Regarding K-12 education, she plans to end NCLB (a stance that ought to be popular with educators if my experience is any guide). Other policies that caught my eye were her positions on creating “green” schools, multiple pathways to graduation, additional after-school programs, and opportunities for internships or job programs. These strike me as plans that might include some innovative teaching or educational technology, but sadly these things are missing from her position as well.

Obama’s position focuses on “a world class education.” (Personally, I find this phrase tired – and can’t help wondering what it means to the people that use it.) He hopes to reform and fully fund NCLB. His reforms would include new types of assessments (he suggests that teaching to standardized tests isn’t working) and solutions that would support rather than punish struggling schools. He explicitly supports math and science education, but I suspect that isn’t nearly as important as teaching more right-brained skills to our students at this point. He also supports additional after-school and summer learning programs, which again might support more innovative teaching or educational technology. Regarding teachers, Obama describes plans to recruit, prepare, retain, and reward teachers. Again, the issues I am most interested in are absent from the message he puts forth on his web site.

However, unlike the other candidates, Obama also includes a link to more details, a 15 page PDF expanding on the plans he describes on his site. In this, it is clear that some innovative teaching and learning – and some educational technology – plays a role in his plan. For instance, this excerpt struck me as important:

“This [plan for reforming NCLB by improving assessments] include(s) funds for states to implement a broader range of assessments that can evaluate higher-order skills, including students’ abilities to use technology, conduct research, engage in scientific investigation, solve problems, present and defend their ideas. These assessments will provide immediate feedback so that teachers can begin improving student learning right away.”

Though I’d rather see him start from scratch with NCLB, this strikes me as the most substantial and attractive thing I saw on any of these sites. Unfortunately, throughout the rest of his more detailed plan, technology only appears in his discussions of math and science education. Given his general message of hope and change, I would like to see more of each in his education policy. The focus on STEM education is primarily a fear based response to changes in the world. I would rather see a candidate put forth an education policy that strongly advocates major changes in education, including a focus on creating a creative and empowered population of life long learners. But what I would like to see would be a different (and longer) post altogether. ;)

Ultimately, I think the sad truth is that all of these candidates are far removed from the realities of the classroom – and even further removed from the sort of best practice that is supported by research and by the innovations of our colleagues in the field of educational technology.

I also recognize that politics can be a touchy subject, but at this point I’d love to hear responses from any of you as well – I imagine most of you have also given this a lot of though, perhaps even considerably more than I have. And, as my classmate’s responses revealed there is a lot more available regarding the candidates positions than is shared on their websites, and I’d be grateful for anything you all can share here.

Elementary Reading Resources?

I received the following email yesterday and thought I’d post it (and my response) here as well… incase anyone has anything to add:

Hi Mark,
I took the Picasa, Audacity and Movie Maker for Educators
class on August 9, 2007. I teach first grade and I was wondering if you know of any resources for teaching reading. I would appreciate any information you might have to share.Thank you.

I responded briefly as best I could, but I’m no reading teacher – and I’m certainly not a 1st grade teacher:

I’m glad you contacted me. But, boy, that depends what you’re looking for… there’s everything from expensive software for the school like Accelerated Reader or Read 180 to free web based resources like these my wife Eva found (she teaches kindergarden): http://tinyurl.com/2f48po

If you use Houghton-Mifflin, you might also find this resource, which Eva started, to be useful. It’s free online resources aligned with the adopted text, organized by Theme and week:

If you have something more specific in mind, let me know and I’ll see what I can do.

If you have a bit more expertise in this area, please feel free to leave other resources in the comments below. :)


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Link: Constructivism

Constructivism (Via Dr. Jose Quiles, Walden University.) One of the members of my dissertation committee sent me this as a resource on constructivism. It looks like a great place to start… with links to multiple definitions and readings. It’s a bit late for me to use, but I thought I’d pass it on here for others. Let me know in the comments if there are any highlights. :)

A Message to Barack Obama: Break Free of NCLB

I received an email from the Obama campaign that was soliciting ideas. I love that the campaign is so… participatory. In any case, I this is what I cracked off in response. I didn’t put a lot of time into it, and didn’t want to be needlessly detailed. Have I gotten the message across? Or have I missed the mark in my enthusiasm?

In the long term, improving and modernizing America’s global image, policy, and military will be a function of our education system, which itself is in great need of improvement and modernization. Barack has shown great courage in standing up against the politically correct thing in favor of the right thing… and the people have responded positively – and gratefully. We need a leader who will do the same thing when it comes to education. Though it was well intentioned, the No Child Left Behind act is not well loved by educators… whether or not they misunderstand the law is hardly the point… it is perceived as a burden – and it is. Free our teachers and our system to meet the needs of individual students – as people, not as statistics. Then support the teachers and the system at integrating the newest technologies and techniques. Explore, experiment, and benefit from taking those risks. Consider how Barack’s campaign has benefit… as an educational technologist I can tell you that teachers and students would benefit even more. Sadly, America has more barriers to the use of educational technologies than many other “industrialized” nations – and too many teachers have had the fight (and the humanity) drummed out of them. This campaign (and an Obama presidency) can help. Step out against standardized testing and accountability and stand up for a flexible 21st century educational system.

Oh, here’s the message they asked me to pass on. It includes links for you to share your stories and ideas, too. :)


Maybe you’ve traveled abroad and seen firsthand how in a few years George Bush has squandered the goodwill America earned over half a century. Maybe the decisions George Bush has made has sent your friend or family member into a war that should have never happened in the first place.

Barack Obama wants to know why a new direction for our foreign policy and restoring America’s moral leadership in the world is personal for you.

The more voices and ideas we can raise the better.

Share your story with Barack Obama by clicking here:


Share your idea with Barack Obama by clicking here:


UPDATE 04/24/07: Ironically, it looks like my post was somewhat timely… check out this article from this morning’s eSchool News.

Passion-Based Education

The Pressure on Girls to be Smart…and Hot (Via Weblogg-ed News: The Read/Write Web in the Classroom.) Will’s thinking on the pressures society puts on girls to be both brilliant and “effortlessly hot” lead him to ask questions that can form the basis of a passion-based eduction:

How do I help her find those things that she’ll love learning about her entire life? And how can I help instill in her the work ethic to master it, to, as Darren asks of his students, become an expert at it? And how can she get through all of this with a strength and character that is measured by her own standards and not societies?

I’ve written a lot here about passion and I’ve noted Will’s earlier writing about passion-based learning, but I think these questions can lead teachers in their work, and thus form the foundation of a passion-based education.

Constructivism (In A Nutshell)

Note: I originally wrote this in preparation for writing part of my dissertation – and I linked to it in yesterday’s post. I realized it also made a good post in it’s own right, so I’m sharing it here now. Please feel free to comment. Did I forget anything or misrepresent anything – or nail anything right on the head? :)

In contrast to the empirical behaviorist view that knowledge about an objective reality can be simply and reliably passed on from teacher to student, the kernel of constructivist philosophy is the belief that all knowledge must be actively and subjectively constructed in the mind of each individual. This core belief is associated with several corollary beliefs that have become hallmarks of constructivist pedagogy.

The most important of these corollaries is captured by the adage of learning by doing. Constructivist philosophy holds that the learner should take an active rather than passive roll in the learning process, and that the tasks required of the learner should have an authentic context and purpose. It is under these conditions that the transfer of learning from the educational experience to the “real-world” is believed to be most successful.

In addition, learning is often considered by constructivists to be a social process, involving the negotiation of meaning between individuals and the distribution of knowledge over social networks. It is commonly accepted that individual learners can complete more sophisticated tasks with the aid of mentors or peers than they can on their own.

It is also commonly accepted by constructivists that individual learners will have different interests as well as different strengths and weakness, including a varying degree of aptitude not only in mathematical and linguistic intelligence but also in multiple other kinds of intelligences.

Criticisms of constructivism often focus on the lack of structure provided to students, however many constructivist educators insist on a structured environment in which students’ knowledge construction can be facilitated. Such an environment is one in which students are challenged without being frustrated and in which they are focused on intentional (rather than incidental) learning.

At a minimum, a constructivist learning environment will motivate and engage learners. Most importantly, it will also provide a context for learning, opportunities for inquiry or discovery, and a framework for collaborative learning. The value of all of these elements is increased if the environment also facilitates reflection and metacognition on the part of the learner. Such an environment can also be useful for the development not only of traditional school skills but also difficult-to-teach “soft” skills and “21st century skills”, such as digital-age literacies, inventive thinking, effective communication, and high-productivity. Within such a learning environment, the role of the teacher in providing support to students is especially critical. Each of these elements of a constructivist learning environment will be discussed in greater detail in the following sections. Each section will explore traditional constructivist perspectives, the contributions of educational technologists, and the more recent literature on video games and education.

Link: Towards Passion-Based Conversations

Towards Passion-Based Conversations (Via blog of proximal development.) As I was catching up on reading my feeds (down to 900 unread posts from 2800 yesterday), the title of Konrad Glogowski’s post caught my eye. I read through it and discovered this sentiment, which was exactly what I hoped to find:

I enjoy reading the School 2.0 manifestos. They offer a glimpse into a world where teachers are free to be passionate and engaging, where students really want to learn, and where the restrictive policies of our current world do not exist.

This is certainly what I am working toward.

Some time ago I linked to a post by Will Richardson about passionate learning that caught my eye. The concept eventually found it’s way into my thoughts on passion and professional development. Konrad apparently heard Will mention the idea in a presentation, and he blogged about it, too. Now, he’s introduced the importance of passionate conversations in the learning process:

We need to learn how to sustain conversations that are initiated by the students themselves, not conversations that emerge from the official Ministry documents or our own interests and beliefs. I think that passion-based learning will help, but I also know that there is much more that I can do. It seems to me that this new approach will require that we revisit Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. Perhaps we could refine the notion of “instructional conversation” (Tharp & Gallimore, 1991) where the teacher is involved in “assisted performance.” This approach is not perfect but I think it gives us a good place to start: “To truly teach, one must converse; to truly converse is to teach” (Tharp & Gallimore, 1991).

I love that last quote… and to boot, Konrad cites Dewey several times in his (rather rich) discussion.

I’m not writing much about this topic right now, but I know it’s found it’s place in my own schema… I’ve long known that what draws me to people and what energizes me most is passionate conversation, though I may not have called it that. Now Konrad has helped build an explicit link between this and my work as an educator.

Now how on earth do I categorize this post?