In the Service of Progress … and Universals

Originally published on 8/25/19


As we prepare for a new academic year, I invite all of us to appreciate the “daily charges” that our colleagues offered last week, while also finding our own message to inspire us in our work. In my case, a short internet piece in Getting Smart led me to this academic paper. Sasha Barab at Arizona State makes the argument that all too often educators focus on the universal and abstract rather than starting from the stance of the particular and contextualized learner. Quotes below capture the key ideas that Barab offers:

Educators still consider their product to be the abstract concept, practice, idea that is being taught as opposed to what it allows

the learner to accomplish in terms of real-world use-value. This perspective, while consistent with those that treat content as having inherent value beyond the work it does in the world, is in sharp contrast to an emerging line of thoughts that, like Aristotle, place meaning in the world – as opposed to descriptors of the world. Schools, still focused on what their product can do, are often more enamored with their textbook characterizations and disembodied articulations than with supporting learners being able to accomplish meaningful goals …

The key, however, is elevating the value of the particular over the universal, the learner’s lived experience over the description of the general, and positioning the universal in the service of making progress in a situation that matters to the learner. When one starts with the specific instance or context, the universal does not come for free, but at least the learner is already invested in the why, which is more than half the challenge when it comes to education …

There is little question that moving from nouns that are about the structure of the universal to verbs focused on learners leveraging universals to achieve goals that they care about would be a radical change to the current system. One could still define a universal set of ideas, skills, and situations that people should engage, but it would prioritize their use of them and how to embed them in situations with goals that they care about. In this redesign, the focus is on learners making progress in situations that they care about and for which universals have value.

I was inspired by this paper in part because our work at Gann already aligns well with Barab’s ideas. Our core values are verbs. One of our core skills of teaching and learning is, quite pointedly, “meaning making in the world.” And we have new catalysts to accelerate our work: our new inside maker-spaces (the new Labs and Learning Commons) and our new outside maker-space (the Farm). Moreover, I would argue that we at Gann already help our learners grasp that situations that matter to others should matter to them, and vice-versa. After all, our mission statement includes a vision of how we aspire to improve the world around us, not of how we simply achieve self-improvement.

Yet I’m also going to turn around Barab’s words and hope that along the way, we also sometimes help our learners “treat content as having inherent value beyond the work it does in the world.” I do believe that there is cosmic beauty to thinking about infinity. We should trace an idea across millennia and stop to contemplate that chain of thought before we put a principle to work. We should invite our students to work on the farm and contemplate the expansive sky above. Let’s try to give them that space sometimes.

Both X and Y.

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