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The Secular Problem of Evil

It dawned on me the other day that secularists face their own problem of evil.  In a religious framework the problem of evil is why an all-good, all-powerful God lets bad things happen to good people.  Why do babies die?  Why do innocents suffer for the sins of their ancestors (e.g., Adam and Eve)?  Why do so many people starve while others have so much?  The answers here usually revolve around notions of sin, better after-lives to come, or the inscrutability of God.

Even if we leave God out of the picture, we still face a secular version of the problem of evil.   Humans have big brains and yet often they wreck harm on one and all.  How can it be that a “smart” species so often engages in stupidity that too often carries over to immorality?  If we are so smart, why have we not made better institutions and societies?

In the secular version of the problem we cannot blame God or appeal to notions of sin.  We have to appeal to some ideas about what makes humans human and how hard some of the problems we humans face are.  In other words, I am not going to blame us humans ourselves, but say that we face very hard problems and, thus, it is not surprising that we so often get things wrong or, at least, not right enough for us all to flourish.

We humans evolved from the same ancestor as Chimpanzees.  Chimpanzees are notoriously competitive.  In fact, their cognitive skills—which are considerable—have evolved to function in the environment of competition for food, mates, and dominance.  Humans surely have competiveness, as well.  But we also evolved the ability to cooperate and cognitive skills that function for cooperative endeavors.  This is what has allowed us to make cultures, institutions, cities, and states.

Cooperation on a large scale—that is, any sort that could lead to cultures, institutions, cities, and states—requires solving what I will call “hard continua problems”.  These are problems where too much of something is bad and too little of it is bad, but finding the “middle-ground” is hard.  The middle-ground is not a matter of “just right”, since the “sweet spot” must always adjust to multiple interacting variables, changing circumstances, and unforeseen problems.  Because of this complexity, the “middle ground” is, in actuality, a compromise among competing pressures and a point that is always being buffeted around a range of possibilities and prone to falling off at the too much side or the too little side.  It is a balancing act.

It is certainly possible that intelligence of a different sort than we humans have or some form of alien “higher intelligence” could solve such hard continua problems better than we do.  It is possible, too, that “machines” could help (or hurt) in solving such problems.  It is also possible that we can learn to do better—maybe even much better—in the future.  But, nonetheless, the problems are and will remain hard for any foreseeable future because of the nature of the world we human beings live in (i.e., it is complicated and made up of continua and not discrete variables for the most part).

At any rate, my own view is we are not doing all that well now and that we ought to meditate—at every level—on how to do better.  I would argue that it is the role of leaders to study and think through these hard problems in the name of change for the better.  It is the role of all of us to ensure that such leaders replace many of the ones we currently have.  And, remember, we are all leaders, or should be, in our own lives and endeavors.  “Followers” always customize, on the ground of practice, the policies of “leaders” and in doing so, they are, for better or worse, leading too and, actually, the only leaders that matter at that moment.

I will discuss six hard problems that we humans face and must solve if we are not to harm each other.  Each problem is a continuum where the problem is to find the “sweet spot” where we get the best results and, then, to adjust this sweet spot as we face change.  What makes this all the harder is that we must find and continually adjust sweet spots on all six continua as they, in turn, affect each other.

1.  LINKING: The first problem is linking or coupling.  In any system, if too many elements (people, tools, or people and tools) are linked in too many ways with too many other elements, the system is fragile.  Problems can spread and ramify quickly through the whole system and bring it down.  Systems with too many links can also too easily resonate into less than optimal static states.  On the other hand, if the elements are linked to too few other elements or are linked to too few diverse elements, the system cannot function optimally or can become an echo chamber.

2. OPTIMIZING.  Humans tend to seek to optimize any system they are in in order to succeed with their own goals in their own ways and with the least effort.  That is, humans seek to “game systems”.  Too much optimizing leads to ruining the system for all by cheating and, thus, changing the very nature and purpose of the system.  Too little optimizing, on the other hand, can lead to rigidity, route rule-following, and a lack of emergence and innovation.

3. BONDING.  Humans naturally bond to their kin and other people “like them”.  In doing so they create solidarity and nets of reciprocity necessary for survival.  Too much bonding can lead to inbred fear and exclusion of others (as well as over-valuing kin against the needs of groups and society, the very foundation of corruption).  Too little bonding, on the other hand, can lead to too little support for networks of reciprocity that can support us in times of need.

4.  FREEZING.  When human cooperate in large groups they cannot think about every variable all at once.  They have to off-load some cognitive work to routines.  So institutions often “freeze” good solutions so that people do not have to rethink them, but just follow procedures.  The problem is that as things change these frozen solutions can become poor ways of proceeding, but are followed nonetheless because we have ceased to think about them at a deep level.  Too much freezing or making it too difficult to unfreeze procedures can lead to rigidity and obstacles and obstructions on the path to success in a fast changing world.  Too little freezing or not freezing enough can lead to chaos as people reinvent the wheel over and over again or are forced to cognitive overload when solving new problems.

5.  COMFORT:  All humans tell stories and believe things that give them hope and comfort in a harsh world.  This is why humans can be so dismissive of evidence.  There is plenty of research that shows that too little comfort can lead to a lack of hope and illnesses like depression.  On the other hand, too much comfort can lead to illusions and a lack of attention to the world.  This, in turn, can lead to illness or isolation in echo chambers.

6.  CARING.  Humans cannot be effective in the world unless they care about what they do and feel what they do counts.  Too much caring about too many things and caring about too many less important things can lead to anxiety and tattered arteries.  Too little caring, on the other hand, can lead to indifference and free riders.

It is, indeed, hard for groups of humans—small or large—to hit sweet spots on each of these related continua.  It is harder yet to continuously inspect and re-set these sweet spots in the fact of human diversity and fast-paced change.  Sadly, no one discipline studies these hard problems and their inter-relatedness.  We need a new trans-discipline here, perhaps one called something like “Human Continua Studies” (HCS).

Getting these continua problems wrong leads to malaise, corruption, illness, and a lack of trust in groups, institutions, and society.  Often, too, these ill results are not just failures of effectiveness, but forces of harm that looks a good deal like what religious people call “evil”.


Linking: Too much leads to fragiliy. Too little leads to failure. Goal: Strength.

Optimizing: Too much leads to destruction. Too little leads to rigidity. Goal: Innovation

Bonding: Too much leads to incest. Too little leads to death. Goal: Society.

Freezing: Too much leads to obstruction. Too little leads to chaos.  Goal: Order

Comforting: Too much leads to illness. Too little leads to illness.  Goal: Resilience

Caring: Too much leads to anxiety.  Too little leads to indifference.  Goal: Effectiveness


Good Fit in Good Video Games: Components in a System

At the level of programming, video games are algorithms.  At the level of invention, they are not.  In my view, a good video game demands a coherent, meaningful, and engaging fit between its game mechanics (the types of interactions the player has with the game in controlling play) and its content (what the game is primarily about).  Though sometimes seemingly simple, such matches often require design genius to invent.

For example, the game Flower repurposes an old game mechanic—moving things through rings—to a new purpose.  The movement becomes part of a game-poem about motion and renewal.  For those who have manipulated arcade characters like Sonic through rings, the new match is amazing.  Few even notice the ring mechanic directly, so well integrated is it into the content of the game (moving with the wind through the environment to bring it back to life). 

DragonBox uses a balance mechanic (arranging things in boxes on the two sides of the screen) to exemplify ideas about equivalence and balancing in algebraic equations.  The Thief games use an array of stealth mechanics (melting into darkness, hiding in shadows, moving silently, and so forth) to enact a content about being a super thief striking from the dark. 

Note, though, that a game mechanic must not just fit well with the content.  It must, as well, be engaging in its own right.  It must be fun to do and yield results that seem to follow from the mechanic almost effortlessly when the mechanic is mastered.  All players know that in games where they must master combos to enact fighting moves, mastery leads to a fluid fit among a quick action on the controller, a striking action on the part of the avatar, and a clear and coherent result to the player.  It is a thing of beauty.

On the other hand, one educational game (that will remain unnamed) flashes an algebraic equation on the screen every once in a while.  Players must solve the equation to move forward in the game.  But the game is an action and fighting game.  The game’s core mechanics (exploration and fighting) have nothing to do with algebra and the algebraic equations have nothing to do with the game’s core mechanics, though learning algebra is supposed to be the point of the game.  The game’s educational content (algebra) is an incoherent add-on to its play content, which is fighting.  This is exactly the opposite of a game like DragonBox.

The term “content” is a vexed one.  In a movie or book we take the content to be what the book or movie is about.  In a sport, like professional baseball, we take the content of playing the game to be solving baseball problems skillfully in competition.  The thing many a movie is about is its story, but the main point of playing a professional baseball game is skill and competition.  We can impose a story on a baseball game as we watch it—and for some viewers that, indeed, might be the game’s main content—but even for many viewers the main content of a game centers around watching and appreciating skill and competition.

In any media, content tends to have three aspects.  First, as we have just said, content is what the media is about.  War and Peace is about the French invasion of Russia in the Napoleonic era.  Authors and readers, or designers and players, can disagree how exactly to state the nature of the content and nuance can count here.  Content in the sense of what a particular piece of media is about is a matter of interpretation. 

Second, content comes in various types of genres.  Here too different interpretations can arise.  Many people read War and Peace as a novel.  But Tolstoy himself said it was not really a novel or an historical chronicle.  He viewed it in part as a philosophical discussion.  He also argued that much of Russian literature did not fit standard norms (genres).  Today, most critics would probably say that War and Peace is an historical novel (with lots of philosophy in it).

Third, an author or designer usually wants the content of his or her work to have an effect (or several different effects) on the reader or player.  Indeed, the author or designer may well want to have different effects at different parts of the media experience, as well as some overall effects from the whole.  Of course, readers and players can both also have idiosyncratic responses to content and, thus, experience effects the author or designer did not intend. One effect War and Peace has is to allow readers to experience the scope of war and history in highly cinematic terms, a new narrative technique that Tolstoy’s writing, along with that of others, helped to establish in the 19th century.

A game like Flower is about movement and renewal.  Its genre is we might say “game as poem”, though it is new enough in its form to be part of establishing a new genre.  One effect the game seems to intend is for the player to feel a sense of hope and exhilaration at the end of the game.   The dark middle sections of the game certainly change the initial up-beat mood of the game, cause a sense of dread and anticipation, and help set up the effect at the end as a form of reversal of fortunes and emotions.

Different types of games have different types of content for players.  DragonBox is about balance in an ultimately algebraic sense.  Call of Duty games are about solving problems in warfare.  Two Brothers is about physical and emotional collaboration.  Some games can be played by stealth or open fighting, in which case the game offers the player two different ways to play connected to two different contents.  Of course, individual players will interpret the main content in somewhat different and more nuanced ways. 

In good games, how we state the content (what the game is about) easily integrates what the game is about thematically and what the player does in the game in terms of the game mechanics in the game.  Call of Duty is about war and fighting, Flower about renewal through motion, Thief is about stealth and stealing, and DragonBox is about balance and equivalence.  Another way to put this is to say that in games content is usually about verbs (actions, doings).  It is important to see that the main content of a book or movie is often (though not always) a story.  But the main content of a game is often (though not always) not a story in the literary sense.  It is action.

There have been many vexed issues about the role of story in games.  Of course, for some games and for some players, game stories are like stories in literature or film.  They are plots written by someone else that the player enjoys discovering and understanding.  We can call this the “game’s story” (a game need not have one).  But here, too, in a good game, if it has a story, the story must, as a plot, fit well with what the player does and feels in the game. 

For example, in the first Call of Duty the player enacts historically-inspired scenes from World War 2.  The player plays as a British, a U.S., and then a Russian soldier.  When the player is part of the Russian force attacking Berlin, after unbelievable hardships, to win the long war, the player feels a real exhilaration that gives both cognitive and emotional insight into the story of World War 2, especially in regard to the role of the Russians.  The game has made the story of World War 2 fit well with what the player does and feels in the game.  The story deepens the game and the game deepens the story.

There are two more—and different—roles story or narrative can play in a game.  One is that the story—whether fully realized or not—can give lucidity and meaning to the game’s environment, problems, and actions.  Players use the story, often in bits and pieces as they discover things, to understand what they are doing, why they are doing it, how they should do it, and how they should feel about it.  We can call this function the “narrative lucidity function”.  In the first Deus Ex the player uncovers all sorts of information in notes on desks and through hacking computers.  This information gradually uncovers a story, but whether or not the player follows the story (and the player does not know how the story will end until the end of the game), the bits and pieces of the story the player uncovers give meaning and emotion to what the player is doing and to the world the player is in.

The other role of story in a game—really a different type of story altogether—is that a player’s actions in a game, alone or with other players, creates a series of events that count as the “player’s story” (one his or her actions have “written”).  Furthermore, players in their own minds or to others, can narrativize these events further by imposing on them their own interpretations, plot lines, logic, emotions, and values in some coherent way.  We can call this story the “player’s story”.  In a game like Full Spectrum Warrior, the player has made multiple decisions about strategy and actions throughout the many campaigns in the game.  At the end of the day (and game) the player can put together as his or her own “war story”.

We can make a distinction between narrative and story.  Narrative is any series of actions or happenings unfolding in time: “The king died.  Then the queen died”.  Stories are narratives with plots.  A story has not just actions or happenings, it explains causes and effects and why things happened: “The king died.  In her grief, the queen killed herself”.  Not all games have stories, but they are all narratives.  In games things happen in time (the game narrative) and players do things in time (the player’s narrative).  In a game like Tetris, which has no story, we still have events of falling and stacking happening in the game and being accomplished by the player.  Games are a narrative form, but they do not have to be—but can be—a story form.

Another important element of games is level of difficulty.   Here, too, the level of difficulty must fit well with the other elements in the game.  A classic traditional video game is about solving problems that are meant to be challenging, whether the game be a Mario game or a Halo game.  Since the point is problem solving there must be some significant level of difficulty (who wants to solve problems that take no effort?). 

On the other hand, in a game like The Walking Dead the player’s actions (via the game’s mechanics) are meant to unfold and emotionally engage the player with a story and with decisions that help shape the story.  In a game like this, its main content is the game story, or, better put, discovering and engaging with the game story.  Since the point here is to see and feel the development and end of the story, a significant level of difficulty would be inappropriate.

One final element of games I want to discuss here is “reward”.  Games reward players in two ways that must fit together well with each other and with the other elements in the game: reward signals and deep rewards.  One reward players get is what I will call a “deep reward”—like learning something, a sense of mastery, new skills, reputation or status, or helping other—connected to the “reward signals” in the game, whether these are points, leveling up, special gear, or whatever.   A game soon wears thin for many players if the reward signals do not lead to and fit with a deeper reward that has some meaning for the player.  The little bell sound that goes off when you solve a problem in Zelda games is a perfect example of well-designed reward signals.  The bell sound caps off a solution as a reward signal at just the moment the player feels smart.  The bell does not take the sense of accomplishment away or seek to replace it, but simply celebrates it and tells the player the game is aware the player is smart.

Many role-playing games allow players to level up in multiple ways and display this leveling process (reward signals) in various ways.  When done well, this process can give players a satisfying visual representation of their progress, trajectory, and growing mastery.  They gain a sense of accomplishment, status, and worth in the game (deep rewards) and, by the way, they gain, as well, an analysis that allows them to better narrativize (storify) their trajectory through the game (the player’s story).  Such games can achieve a good fit among game mechanics, reward signals, deep rewards, and the player’s story.

My point—up to this point—is that video games are not a unified phenomenon.  There are no necessary and sufficient conditions for what is or is not a video game.  Furthermore, as the independent game industry has flourished, new types of games are evolving, widening what is already a “squishy concept”. 

The diversity of games means that when we do research on the effects or impact of games we need to specify the components of the game.  Games compare and contrast to each other component by component.  And the components interact with each other to form a system.  In the best games there is a good fit among the components, though even here we need a theory of the various and different forms of good fit that games can have, even as we design new ones.

When we compare games to other learning media, we must compare the different components of each and compare them as systems.  Asking how a game works for learning or other forms of impact is not like asking how vitamin E works in the human body.  Rather, it is like asking how blueberries work in the human body.  Blueberries are a myriad of chemicals (components) working together in complex interactions with each other and with the human body and its environment.

So we need a theory (really several different ones for different purposes) of the components of games (as we already have, albeit partial, theories of the components of blueberries at work in the human body) and how these components interact. Here I have offered but one quite partial (incomplete) theory.   

So, for example, a game like Two Brothers uses a novel joint control mechanic (controlling the movement of the two brothers simultaneously) to enact a content about collaborative problem solving.  The game has a game story about the two brothers seeking a remedy for their dying father.  The game needs to be difficult enough—and in the right way—to let the player experience the effort behind collaboration and joint control.  The rewards signals are the way the brothers pull off tricky physical moves together once the gamer has mastered the controls and the deep reward is a sense of emotional involvement and participation in the brother’s plight and bond. The sense of participation is partly based on the player’s having learned to manipulate sometimes tricky controls to facilitate the brothers’ journey.

A game like Call of Duty uses control mechanics that allow quick actions and reactions in chaotic settings to enact historically connected stories about warfare.  In my view, it is because of this mechanic, where players must react quickly on the basis of probalistic judgments that such games have been found to enhance a certain sort of math sense about things like frequency, distribution, and probability.

The reward signals are the classic staying alive and winning battles.  The deep reward, for me, is an appreciation of the messiness, chaos, and “excitement” of war gained without real death.  Vicarious experience is, of course, one of the deep rewards of literature, but in a game like Call of Duty it comes from action and not just story.

A game’s genre—and designers are inventing new ones all the time—is determined by how all the components above interact and fit together as a system.  In turn, a genre teaches players what to expect and how to play when confronted with a similar game.  Eventually a genre can become pretty cut and tried and a bit ritualized, as has happened in many real-time-strategy games as designers have perfected and even standardized their components.

A video game is, for me, a system in which the above components interact.  A good video game integrates and relates these elements together in interesting, meaningful, coherent, engaging ways.  The issue of “fit” (in the sense of fitting together) is all important.

Teaching Science

In education over the last few decades we have progressively underplayed and undervalued teaching and instruction.  This process has been abetted by liberals who celebrate “child-centered” classrooms and see overt teaching and instruction as oppressive.  It is abetted by conservatives who look at teaching as no more than test prep that might better be done by a machine.

We have a well-developed field of “learning science”.  We know a good deal about how humans learn.  Yet, really, there is no such thing as a field of “teaching science”.  While teaching is most certainly an art and a cultural act, it is also the subject of strong empirically-based findings about what constitutes effective teaching that leads to learning and growth.  Nonetheless, when we deal with learning we tend to stress empirical findings, but when we deal with teaching we tend to stress reflection and multi-cultural tolerance.  This despite the fact that the evidence would seem to indicate that meta-cognitive thinking about empirical aspects of learning and the ability to adapt strategically to individual needs and various sorts of different life affiliations are equally or more important.   

Learning can, of course, occur in the absence of teaching.  But in the modern world we greatly underestimate the amount, type, and importance of teaching that goes on in and out of school and the role of adults in children’s learning.  Over the last few years there has been a great deal of celebration of out of school learning, especially in the context of digital and social media.  Much of this work makes it look like, out of school, there is a great deal of creative collaborative learning, but no teaching in the sense of instruction.  However if one looks at either upper-middle class families accelerating their kids or learning on interest-driven Internet sites, this is a great deal of teaching going on.  Interest-driven sites often have tutorials, lectures, mentoring, and what we in the learning sciences would call “worked examples”.  For some reason this aspect of digital culture has been much less studied than has learning in the digital world out of school.

Many empirically based principles about learning cannot even be stated without referencing teaching.  Take feedback as an example.  We know a great deal about what sorts of feedback do and not work to create good and highly motivated learning.  But this means someone—who we can call a teacher—must think, in practice, about these facts and implement them strategically, with due regard for everything else going on with individual learners and classrooms.  Meta-cognitively aware teachers are applied scientists. 

Some people believe when young people are learning from technological tools like video games or in other sorts of technologically-enhanced learning sites that there is no teaching and, thus, evidence that we do not need teachers.  They miss the fact that in any technologically-enhanced learning, the designer is a teacher, having designed into the media good principles of teaching and learning like how, why, and when to give feedback, if learning is to be effective.  Furthermore, technologies only work well in learning when they are part of larger learning systems that integrate other tools, forms of participation, and various curricular activities and forms of instruction.  Such systems require teachers as implementers, assessors, and instructors, but also as system designers or, at least, system customizers (to context, learners, cultures, and individual differences)

Though liberals tend to celebrate Vygotsky, especially his ideas about the Zone of Proximal Development, they usually miss or leave out his views on instruction.  Vygotsky argued that a good deal of education was based on a process of “re-regimenting” everyday concepts and language in terms of academic (and other forms of technical) language and models of thinking and dealing with the world for problem solving.  For this process to work, children must have rich and extensive experiences in and with the world and with everyday language and then must engage in a “translation” process to learn how different ways of knowing the world talk about and think about the world in new and different ways.  Vygotsky argued that this process required instruction.  And, indeed, no more than learners can learn French if they never hear it, children cannot learn the languages of knowledge production if they do not hear them and get clear models of how they work.  They get this from teachers.

Some mindless progressives have a “Build It and They Will Come” attitude toward learning.  Adults just need to resource a good learning space and get out of the way and the kids will come and learn.  This approach just makes the rich richer and the poor poorer.  Kids who have already learned elsewhere how to be proactive deliberate strategic learners thrive and others do not.  Teachers and teaching are required.  The job of a teacher (and a parent) is to build a certain “type of person”, people who become proactive deliberate learners and citizens who can teach themselves and collaborate with others to make the world better.

Below I list 14 principles of good teaching.   Elsewhere in my work I have listed good principles for learning.  See:

Here I am heavily indebted here to John Hattie and Gregory Yates’ new book Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn (Routledge 2013).  Teaching and learning go together.  The principles below are “evidence based” in the sense that they are strongly supported by evidence, not in the sense that they are strongly desired by ideology and governments.


1.  Good teachers are proactive learners about their own teaching and about what students are actually learning.  Such teachers are the most factor in education.

2.  Instruction via just-in-time and on-demand talk, modelling, feedback, and design of learning experiences is necessary not optional.

3.  The ultimate goal is to produce students who are proactive deliberate learners teaching themselves or seeking out teaching from others when and where they need it.

4.  People learn from experience and need experience to learn deeply.  But experience is best for learning when learners have a clear goal (which they share with a teacher or mentor) and are taught to engage in strategic thinking and deliberate practice in their learning from experience.

5.  Goals, intentions of lessons, and standards of mastery must be clear and shared by students and teachers.

6. Learners learn best—and seek and use feedback best—when they face challenges at the edge of but within their “regime of competence”.  Good teachers know how to manage this process for diverse leaners.

7.  Feedback is not praise but actionable information that helps the student know what to do next on a trajectory of manageable steps towards mastery. 

8.  Deep conceptual understanding requires some knowledge of facts to start with and work with (“Yes, Virginia, facts matter”).  The final goal is for the student not just to understand deeply, but to know as well how to produce knowledge and solve problems.

9.  Motivation must be nurtured and nurturing motivation involves affective, cognitive, and environmental variables working together; it involves, as well, the avoidance of factors that demotivate learners.  Good teachers create and manage and direct motivation.

10.  A mastery orientation is better than an achievement motivation.  Good teachers help learners learn to attribute success to effort not ability and engage in learning for its own sake, not just for praise, rewards, or status.

11.  Good teachers align the language and values of home and of school and ensure every family gets access to the language of school (just as Vygotsky argued they should).

12.  The cost of failure should not be so high that it discourages risk taking, exploration, and innovation.  Failure should be seen as valued form of learning.  Good teachers manage failure as a form of learning and not just assessment.

13.  Peer to peer learning and peers as teachers are crucial for the eventual production of proactive deliberate learners, but peer to peer learning and teaching needs to be well structured, well designed, and well resourced.

14.  Good teachers know their field (the content they are teaching) well, but understand it from a beginner’s and a learner’s perspective (something that “experts” are often quite bad at).


Let’s think a minute about the unlikely topic of playing video games.  Good gamers are “applied designers”.  They think at a meta-level about how a game is designed—how its rules interact—in order to leverage these rules and their interactions to accomplish their goals.  Good gamers often become “modders”, that is, they learn to use software which is freely available with the game to modify and redesign the game, even design a whole new game.  So, too, good teachers think at a meta-level about the design of learning and classrooms and the mod as necessary.  They have a language for instruction, learning, and content.  They are applied scientists and designers. 

Good gamers actively seek out instruction from more advanced gamers and often seek out quite didactic strategy guides and “faq sheets”.  They consult digital “worked examples” on the Internet that demonstrate what good play looks like and how to solve certain sorts of problems.  They play the game in a rich world of support, including all sorts of just-in-time and on-demand instruction on interest-driven Internet sites. Good teachers create classrooms that work this way, as well, with many different tools and many different forms of instruction.

It is the norm in education that when we discover something that works—works for all learners—we eventually abandon it.  For example, there is plenty of evidence that “micro-teaching” works well as a tool in teacher training, but we rarely use it and even more rarely use it systematically.

To re-professionalize teaching, I believe we need the following things:

1.  A dynamic and ever-improving repository of worked examples of empirically-supported teaching.  This repository should be crowd-sourced by teachers. 

2.  Research on teaching that stresses empirical principles and impact in schools and in out of schools.

3.  Research on out of school teaching and not just out of school learning in families, community centers, museums, libraries, and other institutions.

4.  Research on how teaching and not just learning works with digital media and other technologies, not only as design principles but in terms of integration with other tools, forms of participation, curricular activities, and forms of instruction.

5.  Research the best ways to educate teachers as professionals and allow them to become deliberate learners of teaching and learning throughout their careers.


We have had from the National Academy of Education reports named: How People Learn, and What Students Know.  We need now reports titled How People Teach, and What Teachers Know.  We need not just Centers for Learning Science, but Centers for Teaching Science.  Of course, we need to remember that both learning and teaching are not just cognitive processes, they are affective, cultural, and social processes, as well, and all these processes are integrated and ultimately inextricable.  The science of teaching and the science of learning are not just cognitive science.  They are sciences of consequential human interactions.


Terms for Teaching/Learning in Sitsiuginal

There is a language—now with few speakers left—whose words for teaching and learning are interestingly different from English and other Western languages.  The language—“Sitsiuginal”—is spoken in rural villages outside Thimpu, Bhutan, though it was once more widely spread. 

The language received a modest amount of field study, done years ago, by only one linguist.  She was a good (but rather reclusive) field linguist, a person I knew a bit and greatly respected, a woman named Mallory Justine Jay, who published under the rather spiffy name M. J. Jay.  I liked this because it reminded me of my mother Kathleen Gee, Kay Gee, K.G.

“M. J.” (as people called her) published, with John Benjamins, a descriptive grammar of Sitsiuginal that was exemplary in associating some cultural information with grammatical aspects of the language.  Her book is long out of print—as, indeed, seems to be the fate of linguistic monographs these days—though I have long treasured my battered copy of her grammar.

At the time I knew M. J., I had no interest in education and worked on syntactic theory.  I was intrigued, though, that Sitsiguinal had a whole set of words that have the general meaning “one does X another does Y”.  These words mean that one person does something with the intention of having another person do something and the person actually does it for the betterment or improvement of both (there are another set of words that deal with neutral or negative joint action).  There is usually an assumption that the first actor is in a position to help the second and that the second person has sought out this help. 

These words, like other aspects of Sitsiguinal grammar, reflect a rather different view of action that Sitsiguinal culture has in comparison to English.  An action can be the joint result of more than one person acting together or in sequence.  In these cases the actor and the action are “joint people” engaged in “joint action” and “joint intentions”.

Recently, in looking again at “joint action words” in Sitsiguinal, I realized that the language has no separate words for teaching or learning.  It does have a variety of words that we would associate with teaching and learning.  These are all joint action words.  It is hard to translate these words into English, since they are very much caught up with the culture and practices of the Sitsiuginal people.  I try my best below, based on examples of actual uses of the words that M. J. gives her in grammar.  Some examples, among others:

 [Note: Sitsiuginal is a polysynthetic language—which means it combines multiple morphemes into one word.  Below I separate different morphemes from each other by a hyphen (“-“).  All these words have a final suffixal type morpheme enoe, which means “joint action for mutual benefit or betterment”.  The letters below are meant to have APA values, though I have to use characters from my keyboard to approximate APA symbols]:


“When one talks, another one heeds”.  The closest I can get here is to offer something like this: “when someone puts something in another person’s head with language, the other person takes it in with activity and effort” 


“When one shows another one discerns”.  Perhaps this could be put:  “when one person shows or models something for someone else, the other person sees its parts as they fit into the whole”.  Nreksidwohsenoe often involves diyhleytenoe in coordination.  This is treated by the Sitsiguinal as a higher-order joint action. 


“When one reacts another one reacts”.  This is even harder, perhaps something like this: “when one person offers another person a reaction that is explicitly designed to get a certain response helpful to the other (or both people), the other responds in an appropriate way”


“When one makes something another one uses it”.   This seems simple, but in Sitsiuginal culture it is more complicated.  Sitsiuginal people regularly create or rearrange spaces and environments for themselves and each other in order to facilitate certain practices.  The word tkaretningisedenoe means that the work of creating or rearranging the environment and the way others make use of it either match or bring out good things.  Sitsiuginal people view tools as sorts of mini “designed environments” that facilitate appropriate uses and products.

M. J. Jay’s grammar says nothing about formal schooling in Sitsiuginal culture, since her interest was in grammar and cultural action in the Sitsiuginal “public sphere”, so to speak.  She did once mention to me that formal schooling of the Western sort had been imposed on the Sitsiuginal people by the more dominant cultural groups around them by the time of her fieldwork.  I knew and cared nothing about education at the time and did not really know what this meant.  She mentioned, as well, that Sitsiuginal people used one of their “joint action” words for formal schooling, the word lel-lar-aep-neo which means “one acts another acts side by side”.  The suffix “neo” means “neutral joint action” (the suffix for “negative joint action” is neon).

Now, many years later, as someone interested in education, I wonder how different debates and theories of education, teaching, and learning would be if we spoke Sitsiuginal.  Would we research them differently?  Would we change how we teach and learn?  









We have a thing called “Learning Science”, but nothing called “Teaching Science”.   While we often hear that where there is no learning there is no teaching, in reality we engage in teaching and often study it with no evidence that it is leading to learning.  This is, I think, largely because “liberals” respect learning more than they respect teaching and tacitly believe the best learning takes place when teaching takes a back seat.  This is largely, I believe, a romanticization of children.  “Conservatives” tend to want to stress teaching as adult control and dominance and thus, often elide it with indoctrination.

We all largely believe (or act as if we did) that “real” teaching requires learning, but we do not believe “real” learning requires teaching.  But it does.  It will not do to spend money or effort on creating better learning spaces for every child, if we do not also spend money or effort on creating better teaching for every child.

What is teaching?  I will define it in terms of acts.  Overt or direct teaching is made up of one or more of the following acts: 1) just-in-time (when it can be put to use) or on-demand (when learners know they need a larger block of information) telling; 2) modelling and illustration, often with talk or devices that focus the attention of learners; 3) actionable feedback that lets learners know or make a good guess about what to do next in a trajectory of growth; 4) designing of environments, tools, media, and participatory structures to guide learners via language, modelling, illustration, and feedback.  Good teachers constantly seek feedback from learners and the learners’ actions to know whether what they are doing is successful and to garner ideas about what is the best thing to do next. In a sense, learners become teachers of teachers in good teachers' classrooms.

Here is the meaning that “teaching must lead to learning” should, in my view, actually have: teachers need to motivate students to actively process and engage with what the teacher is doing and the ideas the teacher is teaching and teachers need to be sure that they are getting such active processing and engagement.  Active processing and engagement is not the same thing as “good behavior” or looking as if one is “paying attention”.

I will count as a teacher anyone who purposely engages in one of the acts I have defined as teaching in order to help someone learn something.  This could be a parent, teacher in school, peer, or a well-designed environment, media, tool or technology.

Good gamers, when they are playing a video game, actively think about the design of the game and how they can leverage it for their own progress.  The game is very much teaching, but it is well-designed to get feedback from the player as to whether the player is actively engaging with the game.

We often romanticize out-of-school learning by capturing the moments where certain kids excel and leaving out the past history of teaching that has helped lead to this excellence.  We make something look easy that was initially hard.  Good and effective learning of something new is hard and that is why we need teachers and teaching.

The goal of teaching is the production of a “deliberate learner”, which could just as well—even better—be called a “deliberate teacher”.  When people become, in a domain, deliberate learners, they are teachers of themselves.  They are not learning and making further progress just by practicing or engaging in activity (if this is all they do, they may well just stay at the same level of excellence forever).  They are using language, modelling and illustrating, feedback from self and environment, and actively designing their own environments and tools for new challenges that can lead them towards greater mastery.  If and when things get too hard again, they go look for a teacher.  Good teaching creates deliberate learners/teachers.  We should not forget that when we look at the amazing things such deliberate learners/teachers do.



14 Principles of Good Teaching

Some progressives have a “Build It and They Will Come” attitude toward learning.  Adults just need to resource a good learning space and get out of the way and the kids will come and learn.  This approach just makes the rich richer and the poor poorer.  Kids who have already learned elsewhere how to be proactive deliberate strategic learners thrive and others do not.  Teachers and teaching are required.  The job of a teacher (and a parent) is to build a certain “type of person”, people who become proactive deliberate learners and citizens who can teach themselves and collaborate with others to make the world better.

Below I list 14 principles of good teaching.   Elsewhere in my work I have listed good principles for learning.  See:

Here are the principles for teaching.  I am heavily indebted here to John Hattie and Gregory Yates’ new book Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn (Routledge 2013).  Teaching and learning go together.


1.  Good Teachers are the Most Important Factor in Education

Good teachers are proactive learners about their own teaching and about what students are actually learning.


2.  Instruction, Strategy Training, and Extended Deliberative Practice are Necessary not Optional

Instruction via just-in-time and on-demand talk, modelling, feedback, and design of learning experiences.


3.  The Ultimate Goal is Proactive Deliberate Learners

The goal is students who become proactive deliberate learners teaching themselves.


4.  Learning from Experience Requires Clear Goals and Deliberate Practice

People learn from experience best when they have a clear goal and are taught to engage in strategic thinking and deliberate practice in the experience.


5. Lucidity is Crucial

Goals, intentions of lessons, and standards of mastery must be clear and shared by students and teachers.


6. Challenging but Attainable Goals are Best for Learning 

Learners learn best—and seek and use feedback best—when they fact challenges at the edge of but within their “regime of competence”. 


7.  Copious Feedback is Necessary

Feedback is not praise but actionable information that helps the student know what to do next on a trajectory of manageable steps towards mastery. 


8.  Surface Learning, Deep Learning, and Construction of Knowledge

Deep conceptual understanding requires some knowledge of facts to work with.  The final goal is for the student not just to understand deeply, but to know as well how to produce knowledge and solve problems.


9. Motivation must be Nurtured

Nurturing motivation involves affective, cognitive, and environmental variables working together; it involves as well the avoidance of factors that demotivate learners.


10.  A Mastery Orientation is Better than an Achievement Motivation

Attribute success to effort not ability and engage in learning for its own sake, not just for praise, rewards, or status.


11.  Language of Home and School

Align the language and values of home and of school; ensure every family gets access to the language of school.


12.  Room to Fail

The cost of failure should not be so high that it discourages risk taking, exploration, and innovation.  Failure should be seen as valued form of learning.


13.  Peers as Teachers

 Peer to peer learning and peers as teachers are crucial for the eventual production of proactive deliberate learners, but peer to peer learning and teaching needs to be well structured, well designed, and well resourced.


14.  Teachers Think Like Expert Novices

Good teachers know their field (the content they are teaching) well, but understand it from a beginner’s and a learner’s perspective.

The Importance of Teaching In and Out of School

It is common today to see positive accounts of out-of-school learning compared to negative accounts of in-school learning.  Too often, though, these comparisons are between good examples of out-of-school learning and bad examples of in-school teaching.  What is needed are comparisons of good out of school learning to good in-school teaching.

 It is also common today to discuss out of school learning as “informal” and in-school learning as “formal”.  The comparison usually assumes that out of school learning has no teachers and in-school learning is teacher-directed.   In reality, though, I would argue there are four categories here: out of school informal learning, out of school formal learning, in school formal learning, and in school informal learning.  Furthermore, there is almost always teaching going on in all these forms of learning.

 Some people contrast school as a place where adults intervene (teachers) and out of school learning as a place where adults do not intervene and kids “geek out”.  However, most out of school learning involves media designed by adults.  Video games and card games like Magic the Gathering, for example, are designed by adults as a direct intervention into young people’s learning (if only because if they cannot learn the game, they cannot play it and will not buy further products like it).

 Most any interest-driven site on the Internet will show examples of both informal and formal learning.  A Yu-Gi-Oh site will have discussions and matches where people can learn informally and will also contain tutorials where they can learn more formally.  Most schools will show examples of both formal and informal learning.  In mathematics, for example, a teacher may give a lecture, but in another activity the teacher may have students engage in collaborative problem solving under their own steam.

 Why are teachers and teaching necessary?  Vygotsky gave a good answer to this question long ago.  When I have to learn something new I have to learn two things: a new skill and the “right” way to do it.  What counts as the “right” way to do something is determined by the social groups who do it.  We do not as asocial individuals determine what counts as a good reading of an Emily Dickinson poem, what counts as a good way to carry out an experiment, what counts as a proof in mathematics, what counts as French cooking, or what counts as playing a video game well.  These are all things connected to practices of groups who determine among themselves how things should be interpreted and what counts as “appropriate” and “good”.

 Even if you want to react against the norms and practices of a group, you cannot do so until you understand them sufficiently to undermine them.  It is hard to critique and resist what you do not know and understand.

 When I am a beginner, a teacher helps me to do together with him or her something that I cannot yet do alone (let’s call this “scaffolding”) AND imposes his or her interpretation (from a given social group) on what we are jointly doing.  This is Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and, yes, there is direction and even “colonization” in the zone.  As a beginning birder I, in fact, want to be colonized by the group.  Colonization is only bad when we did not ask for it.  Otherwise it is necessary.

 Anything or any person who can allow us to do together what we cannot yet do alone and that imposes an interpretation from a social group on us, an interpretation we do not yet have and cannot make up and enforce on our own, is a “teacher”.  This could be a more advanced peer (or peers), an adult (or adults), or it can be the design of a medium or technology for learning.  Teaching involves scaffolding and imposing an interpretation.  The goal of good teaching is to lead learners to be able to teach themselves.  I will discuss self-teaching below, but people do not usually start with self-teaching.  Often when we romanticize young people learning out of school, we do so by ignoring the role teaching played earlier in the course of their learning.

 When we leave self-teaching aside, we can discuss formal and informal learning in and out of school, all four categories of which involve both teachers and learners.  Here are some examples:

 1.         Informal out of school learning: Children learning to play Yu-Gi-Oh by playing it with others or against a computer.  The teacher here is the peer group or the computer and the design of the game (which guides learning and action)

 2.         Formal out of school learning:  A child consulting a tutorial on Yu-Gi-Oh online or being given explicit help or information by a peer while playing.  The teacher here is the tutorial or the peer.

 3.         Formal in school learning.  A teacher giving a lecture or a demonstration in school.  The teacher here is the teacher, whether the “official” teacher or someone else (e.g., a parent, peer, or visitor).

 4.         Informal in school learning.  Children engage in a collaborative problem solving practice.  The teacher here is the peer group and the design that the teacher has put in place for collaborative learning.

 So what really is the distinction between “formal” and “informal”?  It is not the presence or absence of teachers and teaching.  Formal learning involves overt instruction, whether it occurs in or out of school.  Informal learning does not.  Often formal and informal learning alternate within the same activity.  Teaching can involve overt instruction (and, thus, be formal) or it can involve resourcing learners with the tools and participatory structure and practices they need to engage in individual or peer learning without formal instruction.  We often forget that when young people do things together, some adult has already intervened, whether a parent, teacher, or designer.  Some people who have come before and were “experts” of some sort have resourced and helped structure the activity.

 What is instruction and why it is necessary?  Instruction is overt showing (modelling) or telling or both together.  Why is it necessary?  Instruction is often useful and necessary for imposing an interpretation.  It is also often useful and necessary for “marrying” language and the world so that learners can articulate what they know and proactively manage their own learning, problem solving, and engagements with the world. 

 At some level most learning involves and is even a form of language learning.  When we learn to bird, to do physics, or to cook, we learn a language that goes with birding, physics, and cooking.  The language allows us to turn some of our tacit knowledge into overt knowledge, to think about what we are doing at a meta-level, and to manage our own learning and engagement.

 Most forms of learning involve learning to see the world in new way, often by using new tools and joining new groups.   When we learn to bird, we learn to see and identify and talk about birds in new ways.  When we do physics, we learn to see and identify and talk about the physical world in new way.  When are learn to cook, we learn to see and identify and talk about food in a new way.  When we play the video game Portal, we learn to see and identify and talk about the virtual world of a game in a new way, thanks to the portal gun the game gives us and the game’s design (which teaches).

 Learning a new language—a new way with words—is also a form of colonization.  The language—which was invented and is sustained by some social group—imposes an interpretation on the world and what we do in and with it. 

 We often hear that people learn “from experience”.  This is both right and wrong.  It is true that is hard to learn how to marry news forms of language to the world when you have never mucked around in the world the language is about.  Words do not mean by definitions in terms of other words, they mean by being associated with images, actions, experiences, practices one has been part of.  However, people learn best when they know what to pay attention to in an experience, how to manage that attention, and when they have a clear goal and know what it means to accomplish that goal up to some standard set by a social group.  This is to say, that learners need to engage in deliberate and mindful goal-directed practice in the world, not just in experience.   This requires initially teaching as modelling and instruction and resourcing.  Good teachers prepare students for experience and constrain and design the experiences for optimal learning.

 I said above that the goal of teaching—in and out school—should often be to allow the learner to eventually become a self-teacher.  What is a self-teacher?  A self-teacher is a person who can manage their own learning by seeking out challenges, design their own experiences for the best results, and manage their own deliberate and sustained practice and persist past failure and frustration.  This is the goal of good in school teaching and the goal of the highest value-added out of school learning.

 In our rush to decry the horrors of our test-prep schools and romanticize the creativity and passion of kids out of school, we have often left teachers and teaching out.  The research in education has shown that good teachers are the most important influence on student achievement and that a bad teacher can have bad results on a student for years.  Sadly, lots of teaching in the United States is, while not necessarily bad, mediocre, thanks to the poor training most Schools of Education give and the lack of professional autonomy under which most teachers today must suffer.  This blinds us to that fact that good teaching looks a lot alike in and out of school.  It blinds us to the fact that adults, peers, and designers instruct and resource for learning.  It blinds us to the necessity of instruction as fundamental to the Zone of Proximal Development and to the induction of young people into the world of social groups and the standards they have set for mastery and problem solving in the world.




America has a STEM mania. 

We want our schools and colleges to focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. This is where all the funding is. A blue-ribbon commission in Texas even suggested we should charge more tuition for courses in the Humanities, since they don’t lead to jobs and should not be subsidized by taxpayers. 

All this in country where:

1.  The majority of people do not believe in evolution.

 2.  A good percentage of people think the earth is less than 10,000 years old and that dinosaurs and humans lived on earth at the same time.

 3.  The media treats the truth of global warming as a 50/50 deal when 35,000 scientific papers argue for it and less than 30 argue against it.

 4.  We push “evidence-based education” but not “evidence-based going to war”.

 5.  People are and sick and dying from fracking, but it is illegal to expose what chemicals are in fracking water and waste.

 6.  Congress, politicians, and CEOs distain evidence in the name of greed and short-term profit.

 7.  We use technology and engineering to make drones to kill even our own citizens, but not to solve the problems of oil and global warming.

 8.  The 2008 recession was caused by experts in economics (like Alan Greenspan) and by politicians, economists, and CEO’s ignoring “moral hazard” (i.e., ignoring ethics, human nature, and simple rationality).

 9.  A great many people think a single-celled embryo is a living human being.

 10.  Businesses disdain government regulation but run to government for handouts, subsidies, and protection from market forces

 11.  We say we believe in free markets and virtually have none amidst monopolies, price fixing, lobbyists, and government subsidies.

 12.  We allow hospitals to keep data they collect on surgeries from consumers so these consumers cannot make intelligent choices.

 13.  States continue to slash universities budgets.

 14.  We use so many poorly regulated toxic chemicals in our environment that Americans have more toxic waste in their blood than other people on earth.

 15.  We are the fattest people on earth but lard our stores with processed food that barely counts as food in any nutritional sense and is created by “food scientists”.

 16.  We have the highest inequality in the world when the evidence shows clearly that such a high level of inequality is bad for the economy and for everyone’s health in the society.

 17.  We have many rich CEOs who want to balance the budget by cutting food stamps for the poor.

18. We have close to the worst health statistics in the developed world, but keep claiming we have the best health system in the world and spend a good deal more on health than do most other developed countries.

19.  We keep saying America is the land of social opportunity when social mobilty is now lower in America than in many countries in Europe ("the old country").,

20  We say anyone can make it in Amerca if they work hard enough,then give poor schools to poor children and ensure our children are not in them

21.  We treat our teachers and college faculty with disdain.


Some will say “But this is why we need STEM.” 

I will say, “No, this is why we do not have it and why we cannot take the push for STEM at face value”. 

Imagine what a society would be like that said it liked science, but disdained it in the name of greed, and thought humanities and ethics were a waste of taxpayer money. 

You do not have to imagine that society. 

You live in it.

Ten Commandments for Educators

1.         Reform Society          

You cannot have good schools in a bad society.  Good schools require supported teachers, teachers who have professional responsibility (not punitive accountability).  Good schools also require high levels of equality and civic participation in society.  We have neither of these in the U.S. today.  Schools cannot save society, but society can save schools.


2.         Forget Jobs

Most of the jobs in a developed country are service jobs.  Today workers have lost unions, wages, and benefits, but gained in productivity.  They largely exist to be exploited for profit and stock prices.  Further, the shape of jobs, the job market, and the world changes so fast today---and is in such crisis—that no school or college knows enough to “train” students for jobs.  Schools should make people smart (see below).


3.         Get “Grit"

The most important “skill” a young person can acquire for success in school and society is “grit”.  I define “grit” as the ability to use motivation, interest, and passion to persist past failure to gain lots and lots of practice in a domain important to the learner and to society.


4.         Ensure Experience

Humans learn through experiences in the world (using their minds, bodies, emotions, and relationships and interactions with others, as well as with smart tools and technologies).  They do not learn through experiences in classrooms or books, unless these experiences are based on experiences in the world.  The words in classrooms and books are given real meaning by the actions, goals, experiences, and problems to which they are attached—and by which they are given real meaning—in the physical and social world.  Classrooms should not be a bunch of game manuals without the games.


 5.         Build Learning Systems

Technologies, including literacy, are tools meant to serve learning, problem solving, and actions and interactions in the world.  Technologies are not good or bad and not important in their own right.  They are good only when used as tools within larger well-designed learning and problem-solving systems, systems which are never based on one tool or technology, but on a well-integrated set of tools, technologies, interactions, and practices.


 6.         Supersize Minds

In our complex, high-risk, fast changing, global world individual intelligence and individual narrow experts acting on their own are dangerous.  The modern world is full of complex systems, complex problems, and dangers that require that we super-size minds.  Extended Minds are systems where individuals are networked with each other and with good tools and technologies in good environments so they leverage different forms of knowledge for collective intelligence in the service of good.


 7.         Teach Self Defense

Our society today is filled with scams, cheating, greed, and exploitation.  Inequality is at an all-time high and governments and corporations operate only in terms of short-term interests.   People need to know how to avoid being duped by the rich, the powerful, and the greedy.


 8.         Produce Producers

The Maker Movement and the plethora of interest- and passion-driven spaces on the Internet and in the world give many more people the power to make, produce, and participate than ever before, even outside the strictures of institutions, experts, and formal credentials.  Producing and proactively participating are core self-protection skills.


 9.         Teach Students How to Count

Societies, like ours, that are full of people who feel they do not count, that they are not agents, and that what they do does not really matter to their society have poor health.  Thiis is true both for the rich and the poor in a highly unequal society, In a developed country not everyone can gain their primary sense of agency and of counting via a job.   But they can still gain a sense of agency and counting outside of work in civic participation and as members of interest- and passion-driven affinity spaces.


 10.      Encourage Failure

Failure is crucial to learning.  If the cost of failure is not too high, it allows people to take risks, innovate, try new styles, and quickly “map the maze” to solve problems.  History has made it clear that no matter how many times someone has failed in or out of school, the “game” is not over until it’s over.  Never ever count anyone out—you will look bad as a footnote in the biography that lionizes them after they are dead.





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