Coming Home: Returning to a Pedagogy of Small

In July, I completed a two-week doctoral residency. While there, I settled on the “pedagogy of small” as my dissertation topic. It will build on the work of Elias, Ritchie, Bowles and Gevault (2018) who wrote:

 ‘Small’ is a loose idea whose value is difficult to communicate with words especially in the current educational context, where institutional investment in efficiency combines with algorithmic innovation to promise economies of (massive) scale unbundled from labour cost. (p. 3)

It was not the topic that I had planned on pursuing when I had left for school, but I had received and accepted pragmatic advice while away. But was it right choice? This question continued to trouble me as my return flight landed.  My daughter was unable to pick me up, so I decided to take public transportation home. The following paper is centered around two stories from that trip. The first is the story of the XPRIZE man and the research he led me to. It is an exploration of the current educational context described above; it defines what a pedagogy of small is not and explores the risks of scaled up approaches to education. The second is a smaller story of a young child and the importance of noticing; it offers a few more clues as to how a pedagogy of small might be. Together, these two stories describe the beginning of the journey back to where I belong, both physically and in terms of research.

The XPRIZE man

On the train, a man tried to strike up a conversation. “On your way home?” he asked.

 “Yup,” I said.

“Yeah, I was in is Wyoming,” he said. “Sixteen hours of travel for an hour of work.”

I nodded.

“So where were you?” he asked.

“Calgary. For school.”

“Oh school? What are you studying?”


“Oh wow, education. That’s an exciting field, so many great things going on. I’ve just been part of an XPRIZE in which Elon Musk paid for 4,000 tablets for kids from the ages of two to five in Tanzania. Great stuff!”

Instinctively I knew that what this man was describing was not a solution, but rather an example of so many of the problems within our current educational context. But I had no facts, no coherent explanations and no words to counter his enthusiasm and certainty. How does one explain even start to explain why a plan to teach illiterate kids to read might be a bad idea? Instead, I silently nodded weakly.

History of the global learning XPRIZE

The next day, I looked for more information about what the man on the train had said and, if true, a critical engagement by educators and researchers. I quickly learned that the Global Learning XPRIZE is in fact a “$15 million global competition to empower children to take control of their learning.” (XPRIZE Foundation, 2018a). According to their site

The Global Learning XPRIZE challenges teams from around the world to develop open source and scalable software that will enable children in developing countries to teach themselves basic reading, writing and arithmetic within 15 months… the prize purse will be objectively awarded to the team that generates the best international standardized test scores within the group of participating children. (para. 1)

This paragraph epitomizes the promises of large-scale educational technology to empower children and positively impact the world, but at what cost? “Scalable software”, “teach themselves” and “standardized test scores” all represent terms that signal a need for critical analysis.  I spent hours searching for that analysis. I found many articles from news outlets celebrating this contest (Basulto, 2014; Shapshak, 2016),  but only a single author raising concerns. Watters (2014) spotted the potential problems with the Global Learning XPRIZE in terms of the tools proposed, language used and power relationships immediately. She expressed concerns about

how the XPRIZE imagines this problem will be solved. That is, it won’t be solved locally. It won’t be solved by children or by communities in the developing world. It won’t be solved by people even, but by software. It will be imposed from elsewhere — from engineers. And likely from engineers from a different geographic location and almost certainly from a different economic class and from a different culture. (para. 3)

What happens when software engineers begin to believe that they can solve complex social problems in which they have neither background nor context? What happens to us, to our world, when we start to believe that they can too?  Three years after Watters’ prediction, five finalists were announced: Three from the United States, one from the United Kingdom and one from India; they are currently field testing on thousands of Tanzanian children in isolated villages. Watters was right; with the support of the United Nations and the government of Tanzania, the “solution” to illiteracy will be imposed from elsewhere via software loaded onto tablets (XPRIZE Foundation, 2018b). This contest prioritizes a top-down approach to knowledge and knowledge production. Moreover, it normalizes a deficit discourse in which these children and their communities do not possess the abilities to solve their own problems (Kayumova, McGuire & Cardello, 2018).

The Global Learning XPRIZE is but a single example of a growing movement to embrace personalized and autonomous learning via new digital platforms in a world where scale and quantification in education have become normalized (Eisner, 2013; McRae, 2013; Roberts-Mahoney, Means & Garrison, 2016). Moreover, despite the XPRIZE’s nod to objectivity, there is ample evidence that both technology and education are neither neutral nor objective (Cottom, 2016; Gilliard, 2017).

A deeper look into the Global Learning XPRIZE funders identifies where those large capital investments are coming from: Elon Musk and the Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation are among the prize’s benefactors (XPRIZE Foundation, 2018c). This is not DeVos’s first such contribution. In Michigan, DeVos contributed millions of dollars to an “ideological lobby that has zealously championed free-market education reform for decades, with little regard for the outcome” (Strauss, 2016, para. 11). DeVos’s philanthropic track record supports Selwyn and Facer’s (2013) contention that “digital technologies are now an integral component of the new governance of educational institutions and those who work within them along neoliberal principles… of control” (p. 4).

Revisiting the technologies

As I struggled to organize my thoughts around the XPRIZE and the lack of critical engagement it has attracted, it became clear that “technology” in the sense of hardware and software was not the problem. Marx (2010) explained:

In contemporary discourse, private and public, technologies are habitually represented by “things”… By consigning technologies to the realm of things, this well-established iconography distracts attention from the human—socio-economic and political—relations which largely determine who uses them and for what purposes. (p. 576)

To make sense of the XPRIZE and other large-scale educational technologies projects therefore requires a move beyond “a technology of things” to more carefully consider the complex interactions and power dynamics that surround those things.

When seeking to better understand power relationships and re-center the importance of interactions, turning to Foucault is often helpful. Foucault (1988) identified four main types of technologies that are in constant interaction with one another. These four technologies include production, sign systems, power and self. The technologies of production involve the ability to produce, transform, or manipulate things, whereas the technologies of sign systems include language and meaning making. The third set of technologies relate to power and its ability to determine the conduct of individuals and submit them to domination. Finally, he identified the technologies of self through which permit individuals autonomously effect actions “on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being” (p.2).

Like Foucault, Skinner (1971) was interested in ideas of interactions and power dynamics. Both men believed that the behaviour of a person is shaped by their interactions with the world and others in it. In fact, Foucault’s technologies of domination (power, sign system and production) align well with Skinner’s technology of behaviour. Based on his early lab experiments using rats and pigeons, Skinner believed that methods of control, including operant conditioning and schedules of reinforcement, could induce both individuals and entire societies to behave in prescribed ways (Rutherford, 2017). For Skinner, there was no technologies of self; he rejected the idea of individual autonomy and instead embraced the notion that all human behaviour could be explained by outside stimuli. Moreover, he felt that once externalities were understood, they should be manipulated to control the behaviour of people. In terms of education, he equated teaching children to training pigeons in his lab and sought to bring learning behaviors under more direct control through careful management and sequencing of learning tasks supported by positive reinforcement (Skinner, 1968). Skinner’s work has had a profound impact within both education and computer science particularly in the realms of behaviour management, personalized learning and programmed instruction and computer-based learning (Driscoll, 2005).

Foucault (1988) spoke less directly about education but did acknowledge that each of his four technologies implied “certain modes of training and modification of individuals, not only in the obvious sense of acquiring certain skills but also in the sense of acquiring certain attitudes” (p. 2), an idea aligned with Skinner. Where Skinner rejected the idea of personal autonomy, however, Foucault instead emphasizes its importance. “Perhaps I’ve insisted too much in the technology of domination and power. I am more and more interested in the interaction between oneself and others… the history of how an individual acts upon himself” (p. 2).

I have spent a lot of time in the past few days re-reading and thinking about Foucault’s words. I was both intrigued and challenged by them. I now read them as two call to actions. First, pay attention to the interactions between training methods and technologies; second, do not neglect the technologies of self. He may in fact have been conceding that Skinner’s vision of achieving full control over human and society through a technology of behaviour could work. He was certainly not accepting that that would be a good outcome.

How do the technologies of Foucault and Skinner relate to African children receiving free tablets?  Educational technology is about far more than teaching illiterate kids to read as explained by Sanya, Desai, Callier and McCarthy (2018).

Explicitly and implicitly, educational systems ad institutions imbue value into specific histories, ideals, lives systems, ideologies, and futures. In these ways citizenship is defined in educative practices. These educative practices are not simply in the classroom, curricula, school policies and artifacts and rituals of everyday school life… They are also in the disciplining of students and teachers, determining what can and cannot be taught, and what knowledge is produced, valued, circulated, and censored. (p. 5)

Controlling education, in this case via large-scale educational technology, is an effective way to both accumulate and exert more control over entire populations. I submit that this is why Skinner was so interested in education and why Foucault expressed regret about not sooner exploring the methods of training and developing technologies of self. Education matters and who controls education matters.

What follows is a deeper exploration of the technologies at play within the context of large-scale educational technology, and specifically the Global Learning XPRIZE. I have opted to use Foucault’s classifications, partly because the delineation between the three technologies of domination offers a helpful framework, but also because I see Foucault’s technologies of self as a glimmer of hope. Where Friere (1996) encouraged resisting the banking method of teaching as a political act, Foucault’s technologies of self appear to advocate for a similar resistance on the basis of self-care. My preference for Foucault’s framework does not negate the real influence of Skinner’s ideologies. In fact, I fear that this particular tale will in fact be a Skinnerian tragedy.

Technologies of production

If there were one thing the Global Learning XPRIZE contest could do to empower Tanzanian children to take control of their own learning, it would be to connect them to the Internet. According to the proposed guidelines however, that will not happen.

The tablets will be equipped with wireless communications to receive from and transmit to a central in-village server. The tablets will not be connected to the Internet. This ensures that the Competition is a level playing field and mimics the real-world situation in the communities in which XPRIZE aims to be most helpful, i.e., places where there is no practical or affordable Internet access. (XPRIZE Foundation, 2015, p. 14)

For me, this paragraph may be the most troubling part of a terribly troubling contest. Not providing these children with access to the Internet guarantees that it will be the faraway software engineers who determine what is taught, what knowledge is produced and circulated and what is censored, fully subjectivizing these children’s learning. It also raises serious questions as to the purpose for this contest: why might ultra-wealthy, neo-liberals running a competition to improve literacy explicitly exclude Internet access?  Perhaps the contest funders are really not that interested in changing the status quo in instances in which the status quo works in their favour. Research cited in the contest guidelines (XPRIZE Foundation, 2015) provides more insight into the future that is envisioned.

Our vision is not only to support child-driven learning within each local community of children, but also to connect these learning communities eventually across the globe. In this way, children from different deployment sites will be able to discover, share and communicate with each other through specially designed apps that support children’s desire to create, communicate, and share with one another (Wolf, Gottward, Galyean & Morris, 2013, p. 12).

These researchers do not envision a world where all of its citizens have equal access to an open Internet, but instead one where they remain dependent on powerful technology companies to mediate their actions through a series of “deployment sites” and “specially designed apps.” Schneier (2013) described this type of relationship in which users’ privacy and security is tied to decisions over which they have no power and little knowledge as a form of “digital feudalism.” Meanwhile, these companies will gain unfettered access to interaction data of these children, information that can be used to further develop software that manipulates their behaviour and controls their worldview. It has already been documented that in some parts of the world, platforms, particularly Facebook, are so heavily used that they are believed to be the Internet (Benesch, 2014). Not connecting these XPRIZE children to at all, therefore, just represents one more step towards increased control of the technologies of production and sign systems by those with much power. Furthermore, this example demonstrates that as with other forms of oppression, intersectionality plays an important role in the distribution of the negative consequences, with the most severe negative impacts being felt by already marginalized groups (Gilliard, 2017).

Technologies of sign systems

The Global Learning XPRIZE might be taking place in Africa but creating the conditions in which this type of contest is celebrated is a global undertaking. It depends on educators, policy-makers and the public accepting foundational assumptions about an objective technology of things, the nature of education and corporate benevolence. I have already described the problems associated with treating technology as a thing set apart from current socio-cultural realities (Marx, 2010; Watters, 2014).

The XPRIZE also relies on the widely held assumption that corporations will act as good citizens. Our media systems are in fact built on this assumption (McMurria, 2008). In reality, what drives corporations is profit and profit is derived by controlling the largest possible market share. Corporate benevolence simply acts as a behind which ultra-large corporations and foundation can advance their neo-liberal agendas (Hursh, 2012).

Another assumption critical to ensuring support for the XPRIZE relates to the nature of education. In order to accept this contest as positive we must believe that education is primarily about teaching children specific skills and that basic literacy and numeracy are the most important of these skills. We must also believe that personalized learning is the best and/ or inevitable way of teaching those basic skills. Roberts-Mahoney, Means and Garrison (2016) found literature from a variety of government, corporate and research sources was found to be overwhelmingly positive with respects to the potential of personalized learning despite their lacking any evidence of its effectiveness; other systematic literature reviews concur (Bodily & Verbert, 2017; Ferguson & Clow, 2017). Similarly, Watters (2018) noted, “While there’s much hype about the revolutionizing of education through the creation… of various ‘teaching machines,’ that promise remains largely unfulfilled. Yet the push for more automation in education continues. (para. 3).

Without evidence to support these foundational beliefs, why then do they persist? They persist in part because they represent the type of violence that is “slow and long lasting, calamities that patiently dispense their devastation while remaining outside our flickering attention spans—and outside the purview of a spectacle-driven corporate media” (CITE). Moreover, that spectacle-driven corporate media is mostly controlled by the same powerful people who want us to continue to accept these assumptions as truths. They use the media to repeat these “truths” that they want us to believe. “If you repeat this fantasy, these predictions often enough, if you repeat it in front of powerful investors, university administrators, politicians, journalists, then the fantasy becomes factualized.” (Watters, 2016). And it is not just repetition, but repetition into a void of critical engagement. The conspicuous silence regarding the social, economic, political and cultural impacts of technology within education has further amplified the already powerful voices of elite venture capitalists like the XPRIZE benefactors (Selwyn & Facer, 2013).

Technologies of power

Big technology companies have amassed enormous sums of money, sophisticated technologies and political clout that translate into a tremendous amount of power (Doctorow, 2018). They also have an agenda, to de-stabilize public infrastructure and increase dependence on private corporations; this agenda includes education. Like Skinner, powerful neo-liberals like the XPRIZE funders understand that controlling education is an effective way to both accumulate and exert more control over entire populations. The Global Learning XPRIZE is only the latest in a series of efforts towards realizing this agenda (Selwyn, 2013). In fact, this contest shares much in common with the now defunct One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) campaign including Matt Keller who was previously the vice-president of the OLPC and is now the XPRIZE’s senior director. It appears that when the goal is important enough and one wields sufficient power, the answer to one failed project is to rebrand and repeat.

Over the lifespan of the program, the OLPC was heavily criticized. Many of these criticisms are equally applicable to the XPRIZE and included decision-makers who were disconnected from realities in the region, the reinforcement colonial patterns and an ideology that was entrenched in western ideals (Naughton, 2005; Brown, 2009; Brabazon, 2010; Allen, 2012). Other criticisms of OLPC appear to have served as “lessons learned” for the XPRIZE.  For example, it was educators who questioned the “goodness-of-fit” between the OLPC program and the school contexts within which the laptops were distributed and several governments were unwilling to partner with the program (Ananny & Winters, 2007; Padmanabhan & Wise, 2012; Selwyn, 2015). The Global Learning XPRIZE has found new ways to avoid these criticisms by circumventing educators and unwelcoming governments completely.

Since we formally partnered with UNESCO, they have been on the ground getting ready for this one-of-a-kind field test. From working closely with the Government of Tanzania in choosing the children, from selecting and working with the 141 “Village Mamas” — women from each village who have been empowered to ensure the smooth functioning of the test. (Keller, 2018)

They have partnered with a credible partner, will focus on implementation with a single supportive government and have hired local women rather than seeking support in schools. These “innovations” bring this contest one incremental step closer to neo-liberal goal of teacherless education (Selwyn, 2013; Keller, 2018). While these changes in approach are often highlighted as a positive, we do not to ask enough, “Positive for whom?” Clearly this approach is not positive for prospective or existing teachers who may face increasing precarity. Moreover, despite being celebrated as a success by Wolf et al. (2013), it is difficult to see how the children involved in these experiments are benefitting.

The young boy who taught everyone how to use the tablets initially became the unlikely hero of the village and took on the role of teacher over the last year. Similarly the older girls were clear teachers for the younger children in both villages. (p. 14).

In the absence of sufficient supports, these children have organized to support one another. As a result, in addition to acting as research subjects for programmatic software created without their input and outside their cultural context, these children are also expected to take on the roles of teachers; who needs public services and infrastructure when kids can do it for free?

Technologies of self

We know little about the children at the center of this “one-of-a-kind field test” except that they live in 141 villages in Tanzania. The 2015 proposed guidelines indicate that the research subjects would range in age from seven to 11 years old (XPRIZE Foundation, 2015), though anecdotal evidence points to them being younger. We also know that their national government, UNESCO and their parents have or will consent to their participation. There is no evidence however, that anyone has asked these children for their opinions at any point throughout this competition. Furthermore, the sensitive nature of the data that is being gathered seriously calls “into question the role of power imbalances, the lack of agency, the inability to provide genuine informed consent,” (p. 68, Jayaram, 2014). It is also unlikely that anyone has shared with either them or their parents that “while there is zero scientific evidence that personalized learning systems enhance educational efficacy, there is a growing body of research that suggests exposure to screen technologies is harmful for the cognitive, physical, and affective development of children and adolescents, (pp. 417-418, Roberts-Mahoney, 2015). ). This is the portrait of a child empowered to take control of their own learning in a neoliberal world and it is one that I find terrifying.

It is difficult to see what space these XPRIZE children have to act upon themselves; their technologies of self are severely limited. These children have been placed a situations where they have limited recourse for challenging the dominant technological practices and decisions being made on their behalf (Tzou, Scalone & Bell 2010). And while I will not underestimate the resiliency of children to make the best of difficult situations, they deserve better. From us as educators, educational technologists, policy makers and the public. The story of the Global Learning XPRIZE has not been an easy story to write largely due to the lack of critical discourse that makes the citation of previous relevant academic literature challenging. Moreover, many people will not want to read this story but not telling and not reading difficult stories does not make them go away. Instead, it is the condition in which they thrive.

Although the children at the center of this experiment have limited options to act upon themselves given the technologies of domination stacked against them, as onlookers and as consumers of technology products we do still possess the ability to act and effect change. It is however up to us to decide how we will enact our own technologies of self. Through actions we will or will not take can determine whether the end of this story is to be Foucauldian or Skinnerian; the more silent we remain the tighter the control of the technologies of domination become. If we want to change the outcome, we need to ask more questions, think more critically and challenge the powerful fantasies of large-scale technology solutions lest they become factualized.

The Little One

The XPRIZE man got off the train. A Little One and their Loved Ones took his place. One of the Loved Ones held the Little One up to see out the window as the train sped along. Neither of them spoke; they simply watched out the window together. The other Loved One spoke on the phone in Spanish, a language in which I recognize the sounds, but not the words. They transferred the Little One between them and smiled at each other. A stop (or two?) later one of them got off the train, then after two more stops, the other two also left the train. I wish I had whispered to them “thank you” as they departed.  

There was no website to gain more insight into this little vignette the next day, but there was a story. Why did they get on together, but get off separately? Where were they going? What did the little one see and think and learn as they stared out the window together in this tiny, undocumented and unfunded moment of caring and sharing? These are questions for which there are no answers, no data points, no predictive analysis. It is a mistake however to conclude that lacking these things mean it is without value. Instead, I propose that the power of that small moment is not in “what is known” but is instead linked to the comfort of accepting what can never be known. I could perhaps apply the technologies frameworks of Foucault (1988) and Skinner (1971) to this story. Clearly the Loved Ones had power over the Little One. And vice versa. Something, an event or life situation or a decision made by one of them led them to get off the train at different stops and I am sure the Little One learned something.

But in this telling of the story, I am the learner. I wanted to thank them, because in that small time and place together they taught me something, or perhaps retaught me something that I already should know: hope is easily restored if we stop chasing a better future and instead notice what just is already. This is a small story of what the pedagogy of small might be. I could perhaps seek to explain how the technologies of domination and self were at play, but that would be both hard work and nonsense; this is a pedagogical story rather than a technological one. What I did was notice. On a different day, when not contrasted by the XPRIZE man, I might have completely missed this story; that would have been my loss. By noticing, I as rewarded with a reminder of just how easily the ideas of large-scale technologies can be replaced with the small, human scale. The XPRIZE man got off the training and there they were ready to take his place. What if we already have all the alternatives that we seek, we just need to notice them and cherish them? I will have more to say about the pedagogy of small. The journey of this homecoming has just begun, a journey back to the people, places and ideas that I love most of all, a journey that is and will happily be intricately connected with a pedagogy of small.


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