The Onion (3): exemplar interesting problem – learning to read

Problems gain (or lose) interestingness as their context and scale changes.

Take teaching a kids to read as an example. It’s almost inevitable that a child will learn to read given the following ingredients:

  • A supportive family
  • A strong reading culture at home
  • A steady supply of good books
  • A reasonable curriculum or methodology for teaching
  • An well educated, motivated teacher (who could be a parent) who cares about the child who shows up consistently
  • A safe, relatively comfortable, relatively calm environment
  • An absence of specific learning difficulties

These factors form a strong, mutually reinforcing (and robust and self-repairing) network/system that makes learning to read more a matter of process than a problem, per se. If one or two of these ingredients are weak or missing, strength in another area will probably make up the difference. The outcome (learning to read) might take a bit more time, but it will happen.

But the more ingredients that are missing from the system – the looser or weaker the network – the harder (and more interesting) the problem becomes. It’s no longer a case of due process, but of finding a path and doing something new.

To be continued…

Seth Godin on transforming education

Seth Godin has written a lot about education – Stop Stealing Dreams (TED talk and longer e-book) is a good place to start.

Then it’s worth checking out what he’s actually doing:  the altMBA reverses the usual 90+ percent drop-out rates of most online courses, and the Akimbo workshops (including The Marketing Seminar, The Bootstrapper’s Workshop and The Freelancer’s Workshop) get rave reviews.

In this article on Medium Seth lays out some of the core principles of his approach.

Also check out the videos at the Akimbo Workshops link above – especially the one at the very bottom from Creative Mornings, where he sets out his thinking behind the model.

Creative Commons resources – open source literacy webinar

Note: Links to resources are at the bottom. The footnotes are worth reading.

On Thursday I attended ‘Creative Commons Basics’, a webinar hosted by the Global Reading Network. It was very good.

Cable Green, Director of Open Education at Creative Commons, made an excellent presentation about the basics of Creative Commons licensing, followed by Q&A. I’ve done a fair bit of reading about CC licenses, but the clarity of the presentation and the texture of the examples shared really helped me to get a better understanding of how CC works.

Here are some highlights:

Education as sharing

  • Among other things, education is fundamentally about sharing.
  • Knowledge is an interesting kind of public good: once shared it’s non-excludable (it can’t be taken away) and it’s non-rivalrous (you having it doesn’t stop me from having it).* We didn’t get into how knowledge benefits from network effects (your knowledge can make mine more valuable), but that’s worth mentioning too.**

“He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”

Thomas Jefferson

A moral imperative

Given the non-rivalrous nature of knowledge, Cable argued for the moral imperative to share it: if we can help people by sharing knowledge at (next to) no cost to us – something the internet enables – then we’re morally obliged to do so***

The internet enables; copyright forbids

  • Almost all educational resources are created digitally (text, audio, video)
  • The internet enables the sharing of digital resources at effectively no cost****
  • Copyright restricts or forbids sharing and therefore, Cable argues, restricts education either directly or indirectly (see below)…

Free as in libre

Cable discussed the key distinction between free as in gratis – at no cost (the traditional internet description of this is “free as in, ‘free beer.'”) – and free as in ‘libre‘ or ‘at liberty’.

The difference is important: there are lots of resources available online that are free (no cost), but copyrighted, meaning that ownership or use is

  • precarious, in the sense that the copyright holder can revoke the right to use it, and has legal means to enforce their ownership
  • rigid, meaning that users don’t have the freedom to adapt and re-purpose the original material, or to give it away.

The clearest examples of these things are probably in the world of proprietary software where the source code isn’t accessible to users, and where licensing agreements expressly forbid editing and sharing with others.

The 5 Rs of Open Education

The antidote that Open Education offers to these restrictions are the five Rs (courtesy of David Wiley), enabled by Creative Commons licensing:

  • Retain – the right to make, own, and control copies of the content (e.g., download, duplicate, store, and manage);
  • Reuse – the right to use the content in a wide range of ways (e.g., in a class, in a study group, on a website, in a video);
  • Revise – the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself (e.g., translate the content into another language);
  • Remix – the right to combine the original or revised content with other material to create something new (e.g., incorporate the content into a mashup);
  • Redistribute – the right to share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others (e.g., give a copy of the content to a friend).

Read more about the 5Rs here.

Creative Commons Licenses

CC licenses are a free, open public framework intended to make it easy for creators to share their works widely while still retaining ownership of the work – that is to say, without transferring them entirely to the public domain (i.e. giving up their status as owners of the work).

CC Licenses are made up of combination of the following yes/no options:

  • BY: If you use it, you have to attribute it to the original author in the new text. More on attribution here.
  • SA: Share Alike means that you have to share any derivative works under the same license as the original
  • NC: Non-commercial. You can redistribute it as long as you don’t make a profit doing so. Note that charging for work to cover reasonable reproduction costs and overheads (e.g. getting the work printed by a commercial printer and selling it for the cost of printing) has been ruled acceptable practice by a court in New York. Note also that this does not prevent others from making a profit from a service based on the CC:NC work (e.g. by charging for a course using the work, or a performance of the work).
  • ND: No derivatives. You are allowed to use the work for any purpose, but are not allowed to re-mix or change the work in any way.


  • For any of these licenses you are not required to contact the licensor for permission to use it
  • These restrictions are not binding on the holder of the copyright – that is to say, if you share your own work under a CC: NC ND license, you are free to use it however you wish, including making a profit from the work and remixing it: “The NonCommercial limitation applies to licensed uses only and does not restrict use by the licensor.”
  • Note also that once a work is (legitimately) released under a CC license, the license is irrevocable – the work can’t be “un-CCed”… but the creator can make a different (revised) version of the work and keep it under any restrictions they wish.
  • Materials shared with any kind of CC: ND license do not fulfill the criteria of the 5Rs outlined above.

A Hierarchy of Free-ness

Credit: CC BY NC

Links and Resources

Cable finished off by sharing a set of links to resources or interesting use cases of CC. Here they are:

Wrapping Up

Phew. Thanks again to Cable Green of Creative Commons and the Global Reading Network for an excellent seminar. In the spirit of Creative Commons and Open Education Cable is sharing the presentation under a CC license – I’ll share a link to video and slides if and when I have one!

Update: Here’s a .pdf of the slides form the session:

*I say “an interesting type of public good” because until it’s been shared it’s scarce and excludable.

**There are negative network effects to some knowledge too (you having them makes mine less valuable)

*** We didn’t get into cases where the fact that people have paid for resources makes them more useful – more likely that they’ll have an impact because a better quality of attention will be paid to them so that they’re more likely to be understood deeply, used and spread – and make it more likely that more resources will be created. Seth Godin is doing interesting experiments around this with the combination of his blog and free materials , podcast, and the Akimbo workshops.

****At no cost unless, in some cases, making them free reduces their value.*

The problem vs your feelings about the problem

Are you dealing with a difficult maths problem or with difficult feelings about a maths problem?

Is the struggle with the work itself, or with your feelings – apathy, disillusionment, fury – about doing it?

It might help to shift your attention to those feelings instead of the problem in front of you. So your focus is no longer “write this article” or “make this thing” but “master my feelings about this work” or “inspire myself to finish this piece of the project.”

It might not help, of course, but working with our feelings often turns out to be the hardest part of doing good work. If you can work with them, there’s a double satisfaction in a job well done.


We’re familiar with the externalities of industrial production and consumption. They’re fairly predictable, and often visible. Even air pollution, the silent killer, is usually visible when it happens, before the poison spreads. It’s a perfect example of a negative externality – something put into the world that everyonepays for, not just the producer or the consumer.

What are the externalities of your project, program or product? What invisible outputs do you have?

  • What does your way of working with users, customers or clients say that your words leave out? How do they see you seeing them? Do they leave feeling smaller, more pressured, less competent – or with a greater belief in their ability to get better and to make a difference? (As you teach that vital knowledge and share those crucial skills, what else are you teaching?)

  • As you manage your team, how do they feel when they leave the office? What do they take home with them? What are your externalities for their families, friends and neighbourhoods?

    • What about your suppliers – the people who serve you as you serve others. What externalities do you have for the people in the photocopy shop, the electrician who comes to the office, or for your cleaners?

  • What about your suppliers – the people who serve you as you serve others. What externalities do you have for the people in the photocopy shop, the electrician who comes to the office, or for your cleaners?

Not polluting – ‘do no evil’ – isn’t nearly enough.

Education for the future: Key tools

Here are some tools that don’t go out of date:

  • Tools for thinking, learning and understanding (the tools that help you acquire new tools);
  • Tools for communicating and teaching (the tools that help you find and enlist others in your work, and help them to learn new tools);
  • Tools for planning, organising and leading (tools that enable you to work effectively with others);
  • Tools for making new tools (all of these tools fall into this category, but it applies to more technical skills too, from using a hammer to building a website).

Machine. Ecosystem. (8) – classrooms as complex adaptive systems

Planning is essential in education, but it’s easy to fall into the habit of treating your session plan or presentation as a set of inputs for a machine: “If I do these things, and introduce this content, and prescribe this activity, this learning will result.”

But we know that groups of people, and especially groups of children, don’t work so predictably. The ‘perfect’ lesson plan a classroom is a Russian doll of one set of complex adaptive systems inside another inside another:

  • The rapidly developing minds of children or teenagers…
  • Nested in expectations and the social structures and groups-within-groups of kids-at-school culture…
  • In the classroom culture shaped by a particular teacher – who is themselves a complex adaptive system of body, thoughts and emotions…
  • Interacting with the wider culture of the school…
  • All interacting with cultures local, national and international…
  • And influenced by what’s going on at home, the weather, what they had for lunch…

In the face of this complexity, the first thing to do is recognise that what happens in our classroom is beyond our control, at least in the mechanistic sense of the word. Trying to impose precise control – of learning outcomes, of students’ behaviour – is a recipe for frustration and disappointment, if not damage.

The second thing is to start thinking about teaching and classroom management in terms of disposition and influence (and teachers can have a lot of influence):

  • How can I make it more likely that the people I teach arrive on time and ready to learn?
  • How I can I increase their disposition to be kind to each other, or to love this subject and to work hard?
  • How can I make it more likely that they’ll do X, rather than Y?

Go to work. Take responsibility. Do the hard work of building a classroom culture that gets your students where they want to go (hint: you might have to start by showing them where it’s possible to go).

But don’t beat yourself up the next time it snows, and the lesson plan goes out the window as the kids pile up against the window to watch the world turn white.

A butterfly must have flapped its wings in New York.

Cutting edge – learning and change

The edge on a knife is important – it’s the sharp end (okay, side) where the cutting actually takes place. It needs to stay sharp, and keeping it sharp takes care and regular maintenance because it dulls quickly from use and corrosion.

The other parts of the knife – spine and heel, bolster, tang, handle – receive less attention. They change more slowly and require less maintenance but are more important in the long run: a sharp edge on a bad knife doesn’t last for long.

The person using the knife is more important again. They decide the important things: what and where and when to cut, and who or what we cut for. They keep the knife sharp or let it rust.

These things are true of most of the tools we use, and of our skills.

Cutting-edge skills – using the latest technology or media, understanding the thing that’s on everybody’s mind – will help you cut, but they’ll change relatively quickly, meaning that you’ll need to work on them regularly to keep them sharp.

Deeper skills last longer. Critical among these are structural literacy of the world in general and your field in particular, an understanding of systems and people, and communication and leadership skills. These skills – alloyed with curiosity and a commitment to learning – allow you to keep the cutting edge sharp and to help others to do the same. Without them you’ll have – at best – a sharp edge on a cheap knife.

Deeper still, ask questions of the person holding these tools: what will you use them to achieve, where, when, and who or what for? A good knife is worse than a bad one in the wrong hands, or in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It might help to work backwards from the cutting edge:

  1. Which skills do I feel pressured to acquire? Which activities do I feel the world is pushing me to do?
  2. How do these fit into the bigger picture and broader trends? If I don’t have it already, where can I acquire the structural literacy to be able to answer that question?
  3. Is this even a game I want to be in in the first place? How does it square with my values? What’s the hard and important part of the work that I do, and will this technology make a difference to that – is it signal or noise?

Tim O’Reilly on structural literacy

Access to an unlimited world of information is a powerful augmentation of human capability, but it still has prerequisites. Before she could make an exquisite dessert by watching a YouTube video, my stepdaughter had to know how to use an iPad. She had to know how to search on YouTube. She had to know that a world of content was there for the taking. At O’Reilly, we call this structural literacy.

Users without structural literacy about how to use computers struggle to use them. They learn by rote. Going from an iPhone to Android, or the reverse, or from PC to Mac, or even from one version of software to another, is difficult for them. These same people have no trouble getting into a strange car and orientating themselves. “Where is that darned lever to open the gas cap?” they ask. They know it’s got to be there somewhere. Someone with structural literacy knows what to look for. They have a functional map of how things ought to work. Those lacking that map are helpless.

The level and type of structural literacy required differs with the type of work you do. Today’s startups, increasingly embedding software and services into devices, require foundational skills in electrical and mechanical engineering, and even “trade” skills such as soldering… Teachers are far more effective if they are broadly familiar with the culture and context of their students.

Tim O’Reilly – WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us


Honest love is born from the struggle / it’s lived in the valley as much as the hill

Mark Stone

I saw a young man driving a supercar in Vancouver – he was too young, I thought, to have earned it – and I thought “poor guy.”

In giving him the world on the plate, I realised, his parents had rendered his life weightless: too light winning makes the prize light. His wealth had robbed him of something priceless.

This raises all sorts of questions about the good starts, leg-ups and help we give to others.* Looking back, how much struggle would you have chosen? How much would have been good for you?

*Education and training, community development and parenting are the first three areas that spring to mind.