Not Enough Voices

Sean Michael Morris

I do my best to stay quiet. It’s only on Jesse Stommel’s insistence that I’m here. It’s not that I don’t like to talk. My family will tell you I like to talk plenty. It’s that when I speak, you listen to me. You listen because I have a podium. I have slides. I have this script in front of me. All your training tells you to listen to me.

I do my best to stay quiet because when I’m quiet, I can hear you. And it’s you I’m interested in. Your stories. Your efforts. Your insights.

Over a year ago, I was having dinner with a friend of mine. He does social justice work related to small businesses. Unions. Minority business owners. Underdeveloped neighborhoods. Very worthwhile work. He told me that when he sits down with a group he’s facilitating — made up largely of people of color, and LGBTQ business owners — he starts by saying that everyone has stories they want to tell, but at that table, everyone is equal.

That, of course, is not quite right. We’ve heard something like it before. It’s the “all lives matter” argument.

All stories are equal. All stories matter. This is not how we get to hear stories we need to hear. This is not how we amplify silenced voices.

We amplify silenced voices by listening. By making space for them to speak. Not safe space, necessarily, daring space. Because it’s never safe to speak.

This week, I’ve been working with a group of teachers designing space for themselves and their teaching on the Web, each picking through what they know and what they don’t know, trying to decide what to say there. It’s hard work. It’s good work, but it’s hard work.

Like learning.

I would echo this question from Martha Burtis: Why did we end up with courses in boxes instead of Domains of One’s Own?

If I’m honest, I blame instructional design.

For too long — really, since its inception — instructional design has been built upon silencing. Instructional design generally assumes that all students are duplicates of one another. Or, as Martha says, standardized features, standardized courses. Standard students.

Despite any stubborn claims to the contrary, instructional design assigns learners to a single seat, a single set of characteristics. This is for efficiency. But it enacts an erasure that, taken to the extreme — say, to the massive — is unconscionable.

To understand how that erasure occurs, let’s look at the origins of instructional design.

Today most students of online courses are more users than learners. The majority of online learning basically asks humans to behave like machines. This comes out of the fact that most online courses today are written around instructional design principles, which in turn were written around research in computer-aided instruction (CAI). The relationship fostered by instructional design is not one of learner to learning, it’s one of learner (or, more to the point, student) to mechanized instruction.

I say this now, even as I bear the mantle of Instructional Designer.

A very long time ago, I wore that mantle for a small start-up firm in Colorado whose nearly sole client sold courses to human resources administrators in the banking industry; and whose primary foundation for instruction was Bloom’s Taxonomy. Quite literally, software for corporate training was designed around the cognitive domain of the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. All learning, in this case, boiled down to five component objectives:

  • Remembering
  • Understanding
  • Applying
  • Analyzing
  • Evaluating

And every course we wrote scaffolded learning along the ladder of these objectives, almost always resting at application-level work… Doing what you’ve learned to do. Because that’s all that was expected of our clients’ workers. To be considered knowledgeable, all you need to do is remember what you learn, understand what you learn, and then apply what you learn.

Remember. Understand. Apply.


But Bloom and his team defined knowledge as involving “the recall of specifics and universals, the recall of methods and processes, or the recall of a pattern, structure, or setting.” Which means that by this definition, knowledge is the same as recall.

Remember. Understand what you remember. Apply what you remember.

New experiments in digital learning — personalized learning, adaptive learning, competency-based learning — raise the banners of education revolution, but what principles are they founded on? What relationship do they encourage between learner and learning, or learner and computer? In many cases, the methodology hasn’t evolved from a critical pedagogy, but rather from the same CAI principles of traditional instructional design.

What’s really scary here is that, due to the ubiquity of LMS adoption at colleges around the world, classroom teaching has started to change. CAI has entered the classroom, turning students into pigeons, teachers into dumb terminals. Now we must produce quantifiable data from our on-ground teaching, designing in-person learning from the same foundation as online learning.

When online learning has yet to get it right.

See, knowledge isn’t the same as recall. It’s more than that. For starters, we know that learners can create knowledge, that they can be their own best resources outside of a teacher or content. If we look at complexity theory, for example, we discover that knowledge is the result of inquiry, experimentation, feedback, and emergence. As well, the relationship of the learner to the computer can be more nuanced than the kind of “banking education” CAI demands.

Seymour Papert offered this challenge:

Most honest Schoolers are locked into the assumption that School’s way is the only way because they have never seen or imagined convincing alternatives to impart certain kinds of knowledge … almost all experiments in purporting to implement progressive education have been disappointing because they simply did not go far enough in making the student the subject of the process rather than the object.

The hard truth is that instructional design — nay, teaching — needs to start imagining convincing alternatives, needs to go “far enough”.

In contrast, B.F. Skinner, one of the granddads of educational psychology, wrote that:

The application of operant conditioning to education is simple and direct. Teaching is the arrangement of contingencies of reinforcement under which students learn.

In other words, the secret to efficient learning is a controlled environment, a managed environment, a place where the correct behavior results in the desired outcome. Later, Skinner would forward an idea about teaching machines which could guarantee that learners would reach desired outcomes, regardless of the presence of a human teacher.

Operant conditioning and the manipulation of response to stimuli are at the heart of theories that support instructional design. But more, they form the foundation of almost all educational technology—from the VLE or LMS to algorithms for adaptive learning. Building upon behaviorism, Silicon Valley—often in collaboration with venture capitalists with a stake in the education market—have begun to realize Skinner’s teaching machines in today’s schools and universities.

And there’s the rub. When we went online to teach, we went online almost entirely without any other theories to support us besides instructional design. We went online first assuming that learning could be a calculated, brokered, duplicatable experience. For some reason, we took one look at the early internet and forgot about all the nuance of teaching, all the strange chaos of learning, and surrendered to a philosophy of see, do, hit submit.

The problem we face is not just coded into the LMS, either. It’s not just coded into Facebook and Twitter and the way we send an e-mail or the machines we use to send text messages. It’s coded into us. We believe that online learning happens this way. We believe that discussions should be posted once and replied to twice. We believe that efficiency is a virtue, that automated proctors and plagiarism detection services are necessary—and more than necessary, helpful.

But these are not things that are true, they are things that are sold.

In the time since I was an instructional designer building training courses for corporations, the digital landscape has changed so radically as to be unrecognizable from 1999. We’ve seen the advent of social media, wiki spaces, crowdsourcing, and Connectivism, a resurgence of Constructivist pedagogies, the Massive Open Online Course, and more. Instead of the relatively sterile, humorless environment of the early LMS, now across the internet, we are exposed afresh to the idiosyncrasies of culture, and also the deep-seated problems of racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia… and on many fronts we’re seeking ways to challenge these issues using digital media. There have been hashtag revolutions, fake news, cyberbullying, and the rise of micro-celebrity.

And yet, instructional design at its core, has not changed much. Neither has the technology upon which it floats.

When I left instructional design and entered graduate school, I was immersed in teacher training founded upon the critical pedagogy of teachers like Paulo Freire, John Dewey, Maria Montessori, bell hooks, Peter Elbow, and Henry Giroux. Here I learned about an approach to education that involved helping students develop an epistemological relationship to reality, to encouraging them to be “readers of their world” so that they could better grasp the oppressive forces and institutions that controlled their society, and could develop a knowledge of their ability to make change. Bloom’s Taxonomy disappeared as an approach, replaced by student-centered learning, collaboration, and problem-based education.

Starting in 2005, fresh out of graduate school, I found myself again teaching in fully online environments, only now in higher education settings. Immediately, I found it a challenge to bring the principles of critical pedagogy into a digital classroom space designed against them. The learning management system sought to do just that: manage learning; and I was hard put to find ways to perforate the baked-in pedagogies of the interface so that a more critical learning could take hold.

Matthew Kruger-Ross writes that “Computer-Aided Instruction redefined learning as driven by clear and concise objectives that could be easily quantified and measured.” And quantifying learning — that thing that administrations want us to do and for which so many functions of the LMS exist — depends on right answers. And right answers are based on recall of content.

You remember to sit or you don’t. You remember to stay, or you don’t.

This is learning reduced to a game of Simon.

Ira Shor writes, “At the heart of my lecture was my search for a presentation that could unveil a compelling reality to the students.”

We must ask, is instruction bent on this same unveiling? Can a course whose content circles around objectives, assessments, and recall pull back the curtain on anything? Can it, as Paulo Freire suggests, invite learners into an epistemological relationship to reality?

Do all our lectures reveal a compelling reality?

Does this keynote?

There is something insidious about the way we talk about learning. Something insidious in the keynote format. Something pretty horrendous happens when we assume all ears are the same ears. And that all ears are trained to listen in the same way to the person at the podium. When we do that, we’re silencing voices that might speak.

And we do this because the alternative is too complex. Too difficult.

D Watkins, a writer for Vice and Salon, wrote about a visit to his 13-year-old nephew’s school. His nephew was having trouble communicating with one of his teachers, and Watkins thought he might be able to help. Here is how he described the scene he came upon:

This school seemed like a jail, and level two … was the psych ward. Students bolting up and down the hallways, desks taking flight, a trail of graded and ungraded papers scattered everywhere, fight videos being recorded on cellphones, Rich Homie Quan turned to the highest level, crap games and card games going down … everywhere — all bottled up and sealed with that same shitty smell, so bad it was loud enough to hear, a shit stench I hoped wouldn’t stick to my flannel.

‘So this is it,’ my sister says with an uneasy smirk. This is her only option.

According to Watkins, this scene is too common in inner-city schools. It’s a deeply troubling scene, and one that threatens to rip us out of the joy and collegiality we’ve enjoyed here this week.

But I offer it because I don’t believe we can afford to silence any voices. I offer it because when we’re talking about designing for outcomes, designing for skills, or designing for emergence, we are not talking about this. And we must. Where is learning happening in this scene? What good are objectives and assessments going to do for these kids? Are the answers that Vygotsky offers, that Skinner offers, or even that Freire offers going to help us here?

There is no inner city LMS. And if we make the mistake to think that we don’t teach inner city kids, let me remind you that children grow to be adults and they carry with them the circumstances under which they received an education. Your students have fought, your students have hidden from bullies, your students have been hungry, they have passed for straight, they have held their tongues, and they have been broken.

In many cases, the students you work with have had to subvert a system that sought to oppress them in order to make it to your classroom. Or to show up as a name inside your LMS.

Learning is a subversive act.

It is not an act of recall. It’s not an act of imitation, regurgitation, repetition. It’s never passive.

Learning is a subversive act, and so must teaching be — not out of compulsion, but from logical necessity. If learners are to move from what-we-know into what we do not yet know—from recall to emergence—or more importantly, from oppressed to liberated — then teaching must also deal in what we do not yet know. It must deal in the stuff of real struggle.

Emergence isn’t pretty. It’s not a flower opening. It’s rough, complicated, unruly, embarrassing… and in that way full of wonder.

To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin. ~ bell hooks

Learning is not safe. In fact, to learn is to take a risk, to become an aerialist, to put your head in the lion’s mouth. Learning is a death-defying act. And though it takes place largely within the confines of silent classrooms and sterile learning management systems, within the mind of the learner, riots can occur.

Take, for instance, Frederick Douglass:

As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. In moments of agony, I envied my fellow slaves for their stupidity. I have often wished myself a beast. I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile to my own. Any thing, no matter what, to get rid of thinking!

We need to remind ourselves that learning is the single most important act in human life; and to treat it ever so lightly through conversations about objectives and outcomes and alignment and — for goodness’ sake — educational psychology, to entrench it within a discourse permeable only to the institutionally educated, is to not just do it a disservice, but is to reduce it so far that passion, drive, need are all emptied from it.

How could we scaffold the learning Frederick Douglass did? What objectives would we set before him? What outcomes would we expect?

By the end of this course, you will:

  • Give tongue to interesting thoughts of your own soul;
  • Gain from dialogue the power of truth;
  • Abhor and detest your enslavers;
  • Understand how the silver trump of freedom rouses the soul.

Funny, right? But these should be the concerns of a critical instructional design.

I want to thank you for listening to me. I’m not an experienced keynote speaker. I’m not a professor. I have no advanced degree. But because I look like I do, people quiet to hear what I have to say. With this gray beard of mine, I am the institution. I am the LMS. I may be gay, but I can pass as someone who carries all the cards of privilege. And privilege is authority, it’s a podium. And when each of us steps behind any podium, we are positioned to be listened to, when really we need to be listening.

It’s difficult, I admit, to go through 20-plus years of education listening and listening to the person at the front of the room only to be told by all us well-meaning pedagogues that listening is also the key to teaching. Making space for others to speak. Making space for invention, for backchannels, for tangents. It sorta sucks. When will we get to speak?

The answer doesn’t lie in turn-taking, but in changing what it means to speak. Make speaking a collaborative event. Join your voice with the voice of students. Join your voice with the voice of other teachers. Join your voice — and this one is really essential if we’re to make any headway — join your voice with the voices of educational technology.

Annemarie Pérez wrote in her teaching statement, which she posted on her blog this morning:

There are not enough voices engaged in Chicana/o studies in this university, in this state, in this country, in this world. Our artists, our people are under attack and it has pretty much ever been so. Yet there is so much that is significant in Chicana/o thought, in literature, art and in our own lives. I teach what I do the way I do because I want us to see it and talk about it together. I want my classes to add to and be part of this collection, to hear the voices from our past and amplify them. I want your voices to be amplified, your word to be read, your art seen.

I would agree. There are not enough Chicana voices. There are not enough Black voices. There are not enough First Nation voices. There are not enough trans voices. There are not enough women’s voices. There are not enough queer voices.

We need to change our minds about speaking as coming from a single mouth, a single amplified signal. We must learn to hear the patterns in the noise… And we probably shouldn’t call it noise any more — all those blogs, all those domains of your own, all those sites where educators get angry or get sad or begin the long path toward empathy.

Do we need single voices to rise above the others? Do we need keynote speakers? Do we still need podiums at all?

Let’s build an education where professors and their lookalikes—old white men with gray beards — listen more, and women, people of color, trans folk, and others whose voices and wisdom have been omitted for so long become our collaborators.

Let’s design that classroom, that learning experience. Let’s make that the world we occupy.


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An Urgency of Teachers Copyright © 2018 by Sean Michael Morris is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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