By Any Means Necessary

I was passionate about politics when I was in my twenties, mostly because I was desperate for something to be passionate about. (I had friends who felt as strongly about Hibs and jazz as I did about apartheid and nuclear weapons, for much the same reason.) And while I’d never actually been in any “direct action”, and would have been absolutely useless in a riot, I often quoted Malcolm X’s phrase, “By any means necessary.” I even used the whole thing as a mail signature for a while:

We declare our right on this be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.

I didn’t really mean it, though. There were things I simply wouldn’t do, and right at the top of that list was “compromise”. Like most angry young men, I’d rather fail than find common ground, because after all, the point wasn’t actually to change the world—the point was to be trying to, to be preaching at the indifferent, and above all, to be angry.

But here I am, almost 49, and I’ve come to realize that compromise isn’t just the only way to make progress—it’s the right way too. Science and democracy both depend on the most difficult of virtues: humility. Both only work if people regularly say, “I might be wrong,” and actually believe it, rather than just saying it to clear their throats before adding, “But…” I think I know how best to teach certain things, but I might be wrong, and people who believe others ways are better might be right. I think I know what basic ideas people need to grasp in order to make the web their own, but I might be wrong about that too. Sticking to my guns might give me a crusading adrenaline rush, but if I really want to change the world, I need to accept that people I disagree with—people I think are part of the problem—are (mostly) sincere and intelligent, that their opinions are based on experiences I haven’t had, and that they almost certainly have insights and ideas that would complement or improve on mine.

This is why I find myself off in a corner in many of the discussions about teaching programming to the masses. Like many of the people who are trying to do this outside traditional classroom settings, I believe that:

  1. knowing how the web works is as important today as knowing how contracts or electoral democracy work;
  2. our educational system, and the models of learning it assumes, are all badly broken; and
  3. if properly used, the web can help us fix or replace them.

However, I think these things are independent of one another. More specifically, I think that we can and should try to work with—not just co-opt, but work with and learn from—teachers who are inside today’s system, even though we think that system is part of the problem. They have the hands-on experience that most of us don’t; if we’re willing to listen, they can tell us which of our seemingly-plausible ideas are going to fail when transferred to the 85% of learners who aren’t ultra-curious hard-working self-starters.

This is why I’ve asked participants in the P2PU course on teaching webcraft and programming to free-range learners to think through the IES report on organizing instruction and study to improve student learning. This is why I think that we should be going to every relevant conference we can find, rather than setting up our own events. Yes, it’s fun and invigorating to hang out with fellow revolutionaries, but remember Frank’s Law:

If you care deeply about a cause and you are then engaged on behalf of that cause in an activity that makes you feel very good and very brave and you're really in solidarity with all your friends, and you're enjoying it, you're probably not advancing the cause very much, because you're spending all your time with people you agree with cheering each other on and not engaging.

And this is why I’m trying to hear what people like Larry Cuban, Scott Gray, Mark Guzdial, and Audrey Watters are saying, and to go and meet them on their home ground (physically as well as virtually). Humility doesn’t come naturally to me—just ask my parents or my former students—but if we really want to change the world, it’s as necessary as courage.