Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Please, No Learning Engineers

If Ben Johnson is as good as his word, right now, out in Utah, a bunch of teachers are having to put up with being called "learning engineers."

Johnson is the executive director at Treeside Charter School (K-6) in Provo, Utah. This is actually Year 2 in that job; previously, he's been a world languages department chair in Tyler, the president of his own consulting group, a principal, a learning coach, and , from 1990-1997, a Spanish teacher. He got his teacher education at Brigham Young and a Doctor of Education from the University of Phoenix. When he took this job, he walked right into the middle of a scandal involving naughty legislator Lincoln Filmore, who was putting his legislator hat on along with his head-of-a-charter-management-company hat and ending up with a pocketful of taxpayer loot. The feds were involved and Johnson did some housecleaning.

Treeside Charter (motto: Nurturing the leaders, lifelong learners, innovators, and artisans of tomorrow) was "inspired" by Waldorf schools, and their "head, heart and hands" approach appeals to me (perhaps because I was in 4-H growing up). You can see a very earnest ad  for them here. On the other hand, Johnson says he's known as "the Big Hearted Genius," which, like "whacky  " or "wise" or "beloved" seems like one of those things you should never, ever call yourself.

Johnson regularly posts for Edutopia, the George Lucas Educational Foundation site, and back in June he caused a minor stir by deciding that he wanted to rethink the teacher's role. It does not get off to a great start:

That idea of the teacher as a dispenser of knowledge is not, as we know, what teachers do these days. But because so much tradition and social history are connected to the word teacher, I suggest that we give serious thought to using a different term, one that fully describes what we do as teachers. 

That first sentence is kind of sprung (teachers don't do the idea of teachers), but even untangled, there's a lot to disagree with, as Blake Harvard, The Effortful Educator pointed out in "Just Call Me Teacher," one of the better responses to Johnson. The whole "dispenser of knowledge thing" is either exactly what teachers do, or what teachers never ever did, depending on what you think "dispensing knowledge" means, exactly. If you think it means being the expert grown-up guiding the learning of the class, then yeah, that's what teachers do. If you think it means standing up in the front of the room spewing out smartitude into students like a fountain spouting into a bunch of little pails, then, no, that's not what teachers ever did.

As for the second sentence, well-- a bicycle, because a vest has no sleeves. Why exactly does the attachment of tradition and social history mean that a new word is needed? But what did Johnson come up with as a term that "fully describes" what teachers do?

Learning engineer.

Gah. SMH.

Now, his real idea, which he arrives at a bit later, is to center school culture on student learning. This places his firmly among the forward-thinking thought leaders or 1992, pushing Outcome Based Education and declaring that all lesson plans and pedagogy must be centered on what the student will learn and be able to demonstrate.

But "learning engineer"??

Speaking of tradition and social history, "engineer" comes with its own freight, like the idea that it's all about focusing on systems and processes, often involving inanimate materials and rarely focused on the needs of live humans. When it does focus on humans, it tends to treat them like meat widgets to be managed and shaped according to the desires of the system managers (see "social engineering"). Engineering is an action that you do to something, not with it.

But Johnson has high hopes.

I envision that this new title will shift our thinking away from the traditional and toward incorporating the incredible skill, planning, imagination, and creativity required to design incredibly effective learning opportunities for students. For our learning engineers, creating learning environments that inspire students to discover and apply what they learn will be a priority. 

I am betting that most teachers who think of themselves as effective teachers consider part of their daily job to be "incorporating the incredible skill, planning, imagination, and creativity required to design incredibly effective learning opportunities for students." I envision a whole lot of teachers rolling their eyes really hard when Johnson floats this whole renaming business, though I suppose the charter could be staffed mostly with first year not-actually-teachers who don't know enough about the job, so maybe Johnson is trying to explain it to them.

Maybe this is the same rethinking that replaces teachers with caches or mentors or content delivery specialists who read out of scripts or just, you know, That Live Human Helps You When The Teaching Software Glitches.

Johnson has more genius rebranding ideas. Teaching assistants (who used to be "teachers' aides") will now be "learning assistants," and "lesson plans" will now be "learning plans." The learning plan should focus on the question "what are students doing to engage their heads, their hearts, and their hands?" Johnson was in the classroom in the 90s-- he has to know that he's recycling OBE here.

Sigh. And then there's this--

Additionally, I have found that when we help students become expert with the tools of learning—often-overlooked soft skills such as analysis, critical thinking, creativity, persistence, flexibility, curiosity, and expression—they enthusiastically use them to take charge of their own learning, which also works in disrupting the traditional model of teacher.

Since when is critical thinking a "soft skill"? Since when is curiosity any kind of skill? And what does it look like when a six-year-old takes charge of her own learning? My aunt ran an open school in the late sixties. Disrupting teachers so that students can take charge is problematic in many ways, but in this case, it's double problematic because Johnson also dreams of data-discussion heavy PLCs-- but if the teachers have been disrupted and the students are in charge of their learning, exactly how will any sort of usable and comparable data be generated. And what are engineers engineering? And why does Johnson think that renaming PLCs "communities of learning engineers" inspire his teachers-- and dammit, that's what they are-- to greater "knowledge, skills and effectiveness in inspiring learning"?

Then the wrap-up:

Working to transform embedded and long-standing traditions of what a teacher is perceived to do is perhaps the most difficult thing a transformative administrator must do. 

Nope. Although, since Johnson never explains what those embedded traditions are, it's hard to be sure. But I can think of many more difficult things that an administrator, transformational or otherwise, (and why isn't he called, say, an "engineering engineer") must do. Support his teachers. Create a safe environment that fosters learning. Makes sure that his people have whatever they need to do the work.

Though part of the solution may be changing terms to include the word learning, the true cultural shift occurs, I believe, when we focus on deliberately designing learning opportunities with the mindset of an engineer.

What exactly is the "mindset of an engineer" in Johnson's view? And why, exactly, does he find teachers so inadequate, so defective that they need to pretend to be another profession entirely. Why do we need to rethink their roles, and why shouldn't they be insulted that Johnson thinks it's necessary? I have many engineers in my family, and I love them all dearly. But an engineer is literally one who works on engines, "a person who designs, builds, or maintains engines, machines, or public works." I really hope Johnson didn't go through with this as school opened up this fall. Students are not widgets, schools are not factories, education is not best served by systems designed to push widgets into place, and teachers are not learning engineers.


  1. My teacher friends like "professional educator". Learning Engineer, um, no.

  2. I've been an engineer. I've been a teacher. I loved being a teacher, and I enjoy being an engineer. The the two professions are so different, that calling a teacher a "learning engineer" shows ignorance of both teaching and engineering. Calling a fish a mammal doesn't make it so; a fish will always be a fish, and never a mammal.

    Granted, there are some engineering practices that are useful in the classroom. But let's not change the name of one of the most honorable professions in the history of civilization, just to sound cool and progressive. Instead, let's call teachers teachers, let them teach (or "empower" then to teach, if you want to sound cool and progressive), and get out of their way.

    1. This is NOT a place that wants to sound progressive. This area is as conservative as they come. This school just wants to stand out in a clown car full of charter schools. That area's full of them.

  3. You also have to understand the location in Utah where this charter school is. This area of the state is even more "precious" than the rest of the state. Many of the people down there, while nice enough, are really sheltered, and into a lot of stuff that sounds new-agey, but with a hyper conservative bent. It's a weird place, and this isn't the first charter school in that area to do odd things like this.

  4. I don't, if bearing the label of "learning engineer" would've got me paid at the same daily rate of the average say petroleum engineer, I wouldn't mind it.