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12 September 2010 / erikduval

On how I love reading and how being negative is not being critical…

There are many reasons why, like most of you, i look forward every summer to the holiday period: extended time with my family is the main one. And one of my favourite family activities are our joint reading sessions: I deeply value the sense of shared intimacy, even though we are each absorbed in the specific world of the book we are enjoying – together with the Tuscan sun, the scenery, the food, the drinks and the swimming pool, but I digress…

I tend to think quite a bit about the selection of books I set aside for the holiday period, because that extended Family Reading time is so rare and valuable. One of my Holiday Books this year was Leaving Microsoft to Change the World: An Entrepreneur’s Odyssey to Educate the World’s Children. It made me reflect quite a bit, also on what we do in our research on learning technologies…

Here is an excerpt that describes an experience I recognize all too well:

“Can you explain your pedagogical theory?” Ped-a-gog-i-cal theory. Do I have one? “Uh, sure. Kids need to grow up learning, reading, and going to school, and in the developing world a lot of them currently don’t. We help to fill that void with new schools, teachers, libraries and books.” She pointed out that this was not really a unified pedagogical theory. I could not argue with her on this one. I made a mental note to ask someone smarter than me whether Room to Read had a UPT.

I changed the subject by calling on a young kid who looked like the quintessential “smart kid in the first row,” the one who spent all of third grade being the fastest to have his hand in the air.

“How can you guarantee that these kids will have jobs when they finish school?”

“Quite honestly, I can’t. Then again, neither could my parents when they sent me to school. The goal of our programs is not to guarantee a job. Our raison d’être”—maybe a French phrase could impress this hypersmart crowd—“is to give children opportunities that they would not have otherwise had. To develop their brains from a young age. To become lifelong learners. To have better health. To pass on knowledge to the next generation.”

“So,” he said in his best Perry Mason voice, “what you are saying is that you can’t guar-an-tee that your students will have jobs.” With that, he tossed me his best frown.

Time for me to make another deflection. I called on a 30-ish woman who was almost raising the roof as she thrust her hand in the air.

“It says in your bio that you went to MBA school. How can you do this work without having a Ph.D. in education?”

Could this trip possibly get any worse? I felt as though we had invited the Harvard Debating Society, the MIT Curmudgeon Club, and the Cambridge Chapter of Youth United in Skepticism to our event. I wanted to scream from the stage, “Look, people, I don’t have all the answers. I am simply trying to do what little I can.”

In our research community, I think that we often mistake being negative for being critical. All too often, we try to step on each other’s toes while we should really be standing on each other’s shoulders.

An example? Much of my work in the last 15 years or so has focused on providing access to all learning resources for everybody on the planet. Much of the feedback from the research community has been quite positive, but we regularly are told that this is old-fashioned, that we reduce the rich world of learning to the sterile mechanical world of digital content, that this is a form of cultural colonianism – and worse🙂

Of course, I agree that universal access to all learning resources will not solve all the problems in the world, but I don’t think we ever claimed it would. In fact, we try to solve a common problem for which the solution is within reach.

And I do believe that the ubiquitous abundance of learning resources that we thus create will provide a platform for innovation, because people will leverage the new opportunities in new and unforeseen ways…

Anyway, I am used to dealing with this kind of negativity and think that I have learned to distinguish it from valuable critical feedback. Probably, you have similar experiences from time to time – I’d be very interested to learn how you deal with them… In any case, I do hope that you will not allow this sort of negative silliness to impact on your work or life!

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