The Technology of Learning: A Conversation With Clark Quinn

Oh, boy. Last week, Dr. Clark Quinn joined me for an enlightening, wide-ranging discussion of learning, technology, and ways students and teachers can increase engagement and motivation in a year that many people consider a learning disaster.

The first seven people to show up were high school students! I was so excited that I took a screen shot:



Hours later, after the day’s last Zoom meeting ended, it was time to upload and transcribe the video of the webinar, and to create notes and links for all the ideas and resources Clark (he told us to call him “Clark” instead of “Dr. Quinn”) mentioned. I was excited to review everything and dig in.

I couldn’t find the recording. I looked again. I reloaded Finder. The recording wasn’t there.

All that wisdom. All those sudden remembrances. Smiles. Sparks of insight.


When technology doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to — especially because of our mistakes, like not saving our work, forgetting a password, or, as suspected in this case, failing to click ‘Record’ — it’s natural to respond from the limbic system in our brain, which is more closely associated with emotion than rational thinking.

FEEL that for a moment. You’re on deadline and you’re almost finished. You’re feeling great, and then *ZAP!* you have nothing. It’s a physical sensation: a gut punch that makes you weak in the knees. It’s sadness, anger, grief, embarrassment. It’s as intense as hitting your thumb with a hammer. You want to yell and curse out loud. Your computer is the enemy. It has betrayed you, and you want to destroy it. But the computer stares back at you in a dumb, slack-jawed sort of way that reminds you it only does what you tell it to do, which is even more infuriating.

Brokenness is a storyteller.

Right now many of us feel this way about a lot of things.  Somehow, we’ve come to believe that technology should solve our problems, but it doesn’t. Somehow, we’ve come to believe that we should be doing everything better, but we’re not.

We can’t let it end there. We have to learn our way through this moment in history, and this school year, and in the process we will improve ourselves. As Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”

Lots of people quote that first part, because it aligns with our cultural values of resiliency, perseverance, and our desire for ultimate victory. Fewer people quote what Hemingway wrote next: “But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

Brokenness is a storyteller. A broken nose tells the story of a fight, or a slip and fall in a parking lot. Have you ever noticed a nick in a piece of furniture or a hole in a wall, and wondered what happened there?

The Japanese practice of kintsugi embraces breaking and elevates repair to an art form. When a vase breaks, it is pieced back together and the cracks are filled in with a mix of lacquer and gold or silver dust. The effect is beautiful, and the fractures become part of the history that the object shares with the person who sees it.

Showcasing brokenness, instead of hiding it or just throwing out the broken vase, is based on a world view known as wabi-sabi, which embraces impermanence and incompleteness. As Richard Powell wrote in his book Wabi Sabi Simple, “Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect” — looking at something with nostalgia, or compassion, or even a feeling of melancholy for what it once was or could have been is precisely what makes things meaningful and beautiful.

Today, losing the recording of the webinar becomes part of the learning I share with you. This blog post may not be a high-tech video with a neat timeline of notes and links. But if that’s disappointing and annoying, it’s only because I was expecting it to be something different.

I want to find my own way home.

The Stoics look at a glass and see it not as half full or empty, but already broken. That way, when it gets knocked off the counter and shatters, it’s simply fulfilling its destiny. My forgetting, and how I make sense of that forgetting, is now part of this story. The experience is different, and in some ways it’s better — after all, if I had recorded that conversation, I wouldn’t be thinking about these ideas or writing this blog post.

We may not control our circumstances, but we can control how we respond to our circumstances. Beating myself up or raging at my computer over the lost webinar was definitely an option. But what good would that do? How would it help me remember and use what I learned during my conversation with Clark?

The challenge to remember made me smile. I like mental gymnastics. Don’t tell me the answer to the riddle. Don’t turn on the GPS; I want to find my own way home.

The reason I wanted to talk with Clark in the first place was  to learn from his 30 years of experience in leading distance learning programs in Australia and the United States, so that I could share ideas and strategies with teachers and students.

Here are the highlights from the webinar as I remember them. If you remember them differently, especially if your name is Clark Quinn, please let me know.

  • Please call me ‘Clark’ and not ‘Dr. Quinn.’ [Note: This comment may seem minor, but it immediately set a comfortable tone, which is important to any learning experience. I have always appreciated accomplished people who don’t demand that we use their titles as some sort of sacrifice. When I started teaching high school I didn’t want to use my title either, partly because everyone who goes to a new school just wants to fit in.]
  • It’s important to remember that there is no such thing as virtual learning. There is learning in virtual environments, but the learning is very real.
  • There are only two problems with education today: curriculum, and pedagogy.
  • Organizational culture is a powerful influence. Schools and districts put enormous pressure on teachers. Teachers need to take more risks, but that’s hard in what I call a ‘Miranda Organization’ where whatever you say can and will be used against you.
  • You see it in what teachers don’t say in public, or even at meetings. The Sicilian Mafia has Omertà, the code of silence, but even they criticize their own out loud more than teachers do.
  • There is good literature on how organizational culture affects innovation and collaboration. Amy Edmondson talks about ’psychological safety’ and I think that’s important, especially in teaching, because you don’t have clear objective outcomes like profit by which you can measure success. It’s a process, and a lot of times teachers don’t feel comfortable asserting themselves.
  • I think she (Edmondson) has a new book about it. I liked her Teaming, which I reviewed here:
  • When it comes to curriculum, the textbook is about the worst you can do. There are so many other, better sources of information and ways to learn. Teachers should read the Cognitive Apprenticeship work that Allan Collins & John Seely Brown did (full article HERE). I wrote about it here:
  • It’s wrong to focus on statistics and standardization, because individual learners are so unique in terms of their interests and capacities. For more on this, read Todd Rose’s End of Average, which I also reviewed:
  • Life is interdisciplinary. The only place we isolate learning by subjects is in school.
  • Whatever students miss about school, it’s not learning. The classroom is the worst place to learn, and our thinking doesn’t follow a bell schedule. Think of all those times you thought of the right answer after class ended. There is actually a term for this in French: L’esprit d’escalier.
  • Students can master rich, complex concepts and skills when they see value and personal relevance in the experience.
  • Technology can be a wonderful tool to support connection and accelerated learning, but it’s not an end in itself. We should learn to use computers in order to support how we learn everything – not as a separate subject. Seymour Papert talked about learning to be a mathematician rather than learning mathematics. I think that showed up in his book Mindstorms . It’s been literally decades since there was a public focus on this; we need to get back to learners learning how to learn as a way of being in the world.
  • Today’s online learning practitioners haven’t been trained for the environment they have to work in now. It would help for them to read some of the studies, or at least a summary of the evidence like the one SRI did
  • Experienced, successful teachers and professors frequently comment on how backward the system is, and how learning could be more successful. Maybe administrators and policy makers should listen. Two pretty well-known examples are Roger Schank and John Taylor Gatto.
  • People learn best when they’re having fun. School is a game. Life is a game. It doesn’t have to be this bad. For structuring learning in terms of gaming I recommend Raph Koster’s book, Theory of Fun.
  • Recommending fun and questioning standardized curriculum and teaching are ways of improving learners’ chances at rigorously pursuing the understandings and skills that will help them actually get good at something. For more on the psychology of expertise, I recommend Anders Ericsson’s Peak.

How We Read

This is an updated version of a post I wrote for students on a course blog. You can see the original here.


It stands to reason that anyone who isn’t a professional reader (teacher/professor/editor/literary critic, e.g.) is an amateur.  One connotation of the word amateur is, “A person who doesn’t get paid for a particular talent.”  In a culture that overwhelmingly–and often erroneously–associates value with money, an amateur is often considered less proficient than a professional who gets paid for doing the same thing.

But it’s the second connotation of amateur that makes something worth doing and life worth living.  The word comes from a French derivation of the Latin verb for “love.”  Amateurs love what they do.  In fact, amateurism is often defined as, “the philosophy that elevates things done without self-interest above things done for pay.”  In this sense, although I have been paid for teaching, consulting, researching, and writing about learning for nearly 30 years, I am a proud amateur.

I’m thinking about this now because of some recent discussions with students about reading.  I understand how important it is to read what you love and to think about the text in your own way.  When I read for pleasure I want to suspend my disbelief and lose myself in the story.  I imagine the characters so intensely that sometimes when I turn the last page I actually miss them a little.  The furthest thing from my mind is whether I can write an essay explaining the author’s tone or theme with a thoughtful analysis of genre or techniques like anaphora or synecdoche.  In fact, analyzing a text in that way distracts me from most of what makes me want to pick up a book in the first place.

We are not alone in thinking this sort of analysis can make a person fall out of love with reading:

However, at this point in history, it’s easier to portray that idea in a movie, where appreciation of the beautiful approximates Schopenhauer‘s pure intellect free of any worldly agenda, than in the average real-world course where the pressures of life so often intrude.  Still, we all want to ensure successful learning (and of course, outcomes on exams, transcripts, etc.).  This demands that we account for our understanding of the tools and techniques authors use to convey their ideas and connect with our experience.  So, in addition to seeing a novel or poem as a work of art that speaks to the human condition

students also need to analyze technical elements of composition to form arguments based on their understanding of academic principles of writing.

Now, you may or may not be interested to know that Leonardo Da Vinci used over 30 layers of paint to add only about half a hair’s depth to a painting that looks like it has no brushstrokes.  But millions of people (including me) have stood just feet away from the painting, gawked in amazement, and wondered how Da Vinci did it.  For centuries this was considered a mystery of genius.  Finally, scientists applied specialized training and tools (flourescence spectrometry & emissiograph, among others) to reveal an art technique that requires its own specific vocabulary (sfumato) to accurately describe.

In literature, perceptual discoveries about technique are more subjective. Therefore, they require more explanation than, “Whoa, just look at that emissiograph!”

Whether or not you care deeply about the techniques Shakespeare, Dickens, Faulkner, and other authors used to create their works, or what these works say or do that make them “classics” in the eyes of scholars, you will be asked to organize and present just such an argument.  Therefore, the question before us becomes: How do we preserve and grow our love of reading while simultaneously mastering the seemingly cold, objective business of analyzing a text in ways that demonstrate our understanding to scholars in the field?

Here’s how.

First: Please read books you love.  Take advantage of the Literature Analysis opportunity to choose your own titles.  It may be hard to find something that appeals right away, but help is available and it is possible.  If you actually exhaust every title and still don’t find something you like, er… well, you’ll be the first.

Second: Seek to better understand the books you don’t love.  Someone more experienced and knowledgeable than you thought they were worth reading; it’s your job to understand why.  Turning up your nose isn’t an option unless you want to look like that spoiled kid who only eats fish sticks.  Sushi isn’t for everyone, but you don’t have any business saying “ugh” unless you can (a) recognize the qualities of truly excellent sushi and (b) explain why the mouthful you just spit out isn’t it.  My students understand that the value of our opinions is a function of evidence and logic, not an inalienable right that others are obligated to accept because we are “entitled.”

Third: Reconsider how you define the word read.  When you were younger, reading in school probably suggested demonstrating basic skills, like sounding out words you didn’t recognize or remembering facts that proved you opened the book.  You were responsible for demonstrating what you saw on the page.  That’s a good first step, but it’s only the starting point of a cognitive process that involves decoding symbols to construct or derive meaning.  At this point we are using abstract concepts like literary techniques and connections between works to interpret what isn’t spelled out on the page.

This may be easier to illustrate with something that isn’t literature.  Years ago, my daughter and I sat in the kitchen and made picture frames out of popsicle sticks so we could display the drawings we’d made.  While we chatted about Curious George, I absent-mindedly drew some geometric designs on my popsicle sticks and glued them together.

Then I looked at them again and imagined what they might symbolize.  It turns out you can see the whole story of evolution and the rise and fall of civilization in these popsicle sticks.  Do you see it? Go clockwise from the bottom: the green primordial ooze; the rising oceans; the buildings of civilization; and the fragmented incompleteness of whatever comes next.

Did I intend this?  Don’t be ridiculous.  The only things going through my mind as I drew were thoughts like, “My kid is cute” and “This tiny, hard chair is putting my butt to sleep.”  Many authors didn’t intend for their work to be analyzed the way teachers and students do in school.  But since most of those authors are dead and we can’t ask them what they mean, we use culturally established tools to gain insight into what they wrote.  In the end, whatever tools we use, meaning is constructed by us as readers– I “read” the colors and shapes of my picture frame in such a way that they tell a story.  And, if I can meaningfully contextualize that argument, and present it logically and articulately, I can expand what you see when you look at the same text.  And I don’t have to resort to pop psychology or persuasive appeals that reek of because I said so.

Even though a reading sort of jumped out at me, though, it’s superficial and undeveloped.  I haven’t really discussed the symbology of each shape and color.  I don’t know the technical terms experts would use to do the job.  I loved Art History as a student, but I’m not an expert on art or the techniques that experts use to “read” paintings or sculptures.  Moments like this make me wish I was, if only so I could more effectively explain why my interpretation isn’t just a personal perspective.  This is the approach you should take to your interpretation of literature.  Although you can use textual examples to support and illustrate your interpretations, the meat of your arguments should depend on your understanding, not a summary of texts we can read for ourselves.

So, Fourth: Stop looking for the answers on the page and start developing the expertise and the confidence that will enable you to find them in yourselves.

This is a short life.  You are faced with too many demands and too little time.  Read. Love.  Understand.  Share.  Exams should be opportunities to show what you know, not performances to rehearse.  Practice tests can be a way to benchmark your improvement or bolster your confidence, but there is simply no substitute for reading and discussing great literature.  I’ve watched students dedicate themselves to the study of multiple choice and test prep instead of loving literature– they were some of our best and brightest, and tragically they missed the whole point.  Other students who weren’t known as academic powerhouses surprised themselves (and in some cases, me 🙂 by passing AP exams or graduate comps with flying colors.  They weren’t focused on outcomes, but on the pursuit of what they loved to the best of their abilities.  It happens every year.

Studying for a test or getting a grade is just the short-term goal.  The long-term goal– loving learning and reading as a lifelong opportunity to gain insight and achieve your potential– is infinitely more important.  To paraphrase the Chinese proverb, Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.  Don’t let technical analysis interfere with your love of reading.  Use it as a lens.

Long live the Amateur.

Sapere Aude.