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.