How’s that sound?

Previously, I wrote about how terroir affects our learning and what we can do to improve the physical design of our learning spaces. In those posts I considered our visual and tactile experience of learning spaces. What about acoustic design?

Learning is challenging enough when you can hear what’s being said. But when the course material you’re trying to understand sounds like a mumbled recording of a garbled drive-through speaker played over an airport public address system, the experience is simply painful.

The Problem

We often personalize sub-optimal situations in learning. Instead of properly locating the issue, we blame each other.

Like drivers who get mad at each other because they fail to recognize the design flaws of on-ramps or merging lanes, teachers and students get frustrated with each other without accounting for the poor design of their acoustic environment.

Poor acoustics make things hard on transmitters and receivers alike. We use a lot of energy to correct for errors and separate the signal from the noise. Negative effects of bad acoustics include:

  • Worn out voices
  • Fatigue
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Elevated blood pressure and cortisol levels
  • Frustration and resentment

While it is true that some teachers and students could enunciate more clearly and use their voices more effectively, it is also true that most of us don’t understand acoustics well enough to know what’s happening in our environment or what could make it better.

We need to distinguish the acoustic environment from the people in it. Some teachers I know have purchased microphones to amplify their voices. Unless they address the surrounding issues, they will continue yelling on the freeway and contributing to the overall noise problem in a louder way.

Meanwhile, if someone is trying to share information and you can’t understand what they’re saying, you’ve both lost time, money, and opportunity.

The good news is that we can improve our acoustic environments. Here are a few observations and tips.

Your classroom or home office sounds (unintelligible…)

Have you ever been in a lecture or concert hall where the sound is clear without being loud, and the tone is warm and intimate no matter how far away you are from the stage?

Those rooms are created with tremendous care. Take for example Benaroya Hall, home to the Seattle Symphony. Benaroya Hall was completed in 1998 at a cost of $120 million. Gordon Hempton, author of One Square Inch of Silence, interviewed lead architect Mark Reddington, who worked on the project for 12 years. Here is what Reddington said:

“Reverberation is important for the way the symphonic hall works, and then there are characteristics of the room that diffuse the sound, which is also essential for symphonic hall acoustic quality. There are a number of characteristics of the room: the overall room geometry, the geometries of all the surfaces, the configuration of the balcony. (p.78)

That is not what your room sounds like. However, you can use some of the same basic principles to greatly improve the acoustics in your space at school and home.

A well-designed acoustic environment:

  • filters out external noise
  • has an RT 60 (reverberation time) of less than a second
  • allows for more direct signal (i.e., when the speaker is speaking, you can hear her voice without strain, as opposed to having to constantly separate original signal from echo/reverb as in a crowded gym)

Anything you do will be an improvement. When was the last time you did anything to lower the RT 60 in your learning space or just thought about what might create a cozy, intimate signal?

Acoustics are customizable

You can create different acoustic signatures depending on your purpose.

Scientific research makes it easier to understand and design acoustics on a budget.

In brief: Sound is compression of molecules in the air – if you want to slow/stop them, you need mass.

With all due respect to my cousin’s 1970s garage band, stapling eggshell cartons to walls isn’t enough.

Sound is energy – movement converted to heat which then dissipates – and, to repeat, absorbing that energy requires mass.

Unless you’re a bat get rid of the echo

For starters, mount some 1×2 slats on a wall with moving blankets underneath them. This creates a diffuser/absorber that attenuates energy in the mid-range (where the human voice is).

You can treat a ceiling and one wall in this way for about $20-50/square meter.

Make sure that parallel surfaces aren’t both bare – you want to minimize reflective echoes and reverberations.

If you want a better sounding room, install:

  1. a couch
  2. a tapestry
  3. acoustic panels (rock wool and cheap frames)

Now that you’ve added some mass that warms up the room and focuses on the human voice, it’s time to get rid of some noise clutter.

The power you save should be your own

I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel
I was listening to the air conditioner hum
It went mmmmmm… -Warren Zevon

Lighting and consumer electronics bring a lot of noise into our lives. Air conditioners and refrigerators are obvious culprits, but there are more subtle, buzzy, high-pitched whiners that screw with us all the time.

You may not consciously notice a low-level odd order harmonic distortion unless you put your ear next to a wall power supply or meditate on a flickering fluorescent light tube, but that energy is constantly floating around you. Parts of your brain work hard to reconcile it but you can’t do anything with it, so you spend more energy trying harder to alternately resolve and ignore it.

Listening to information in that kind of environment is like looking through a dirty window. Cleaning it reveals a beautiful view and creates a calming effect. Listeners’ shoulders literally drop when they can hear messages they need without having to work so hard.


Most classrooms and home offices do not adequately filter out external noise, minimize odd order harmonic distortion, or adequately absorb echoes and reverberations.

The poor design of these learning environments create negative effects on people that impede learning.

We all need to learn more about our acoustic environments so that we can modify them in ways that support calm, focused, attentive listening.

Please Contact Me to learn more and continue the conversation.





Re(des)ign of terroir (part two): 7 ways to hack your headspace

You would think that school spaces would be designed to optimize learning.

You would be wrong.

School spaces are most often lessons in how not to design for learning.

I once taught a course on organizational team building for grad students in the Anderson School of Management at UCLA. We were scheduled in an austere room in the Math Sciences building, where the desks faced the front of the room in rows. Someone had bolted them to the floor. Students couldn’t turn to face each other. I couldn’t move more than a few steps without the students twisting in their seats to see me. It’s harder to build teams when everyone is physically forced to sit still and focus on a stationary authority figure.

Of the seventeen years I taught high school, fifteen were in classrooms that were called “portables.” Those trailers may have been portable in theory, but in practice they moldered right where they stood. They never moved and they never will.

When I taught on a San Fernando Valley campus in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the outside temperature was 106 degrees Fahrenheit, the classroom air conditioner was off, and the thermostat was locked.

Design Charette

The first step in designing something new is admitting there were problems with what came before.

The vast majority of school architecture can be summarized in one sentence: “This classroom sucks.”

At least that’s how I put it to students when we moved into a classroom together about five years ago:

Please understand: “This classroom sucks” is not a complaint. It is an honest observation, designed to build trust by acknowledging the shared reality of our experience. It is also an invitation to solve a problem.

Building with learners is more effective than building for them. Open-Source Learning engages each participant as a partner.

With that in mind, the following principles and elements of design provide starting points for designing learning spaces: home, office, classroom, coffee shop, park, and wherever else you like to read, think, write, and create.


Here are seven ideas to keep in mind as you design:

  1. The thing is not the thing
  2. Lightbulbs are more than metaphors
  3. Furnishing is a verb
  4. Get your shit off my stuff
  5. The only constant is change
  6. What are you, building?
  7. Learning is a gamble

1. The thing is not the thing

I’ve taught in classrooms that had a lot on the walls

and I’ve taught in classrooms that had next to nothing on the walls.

Both design elements engaged learners:

  • Each design was the product of shared purpose.
    • Students and I created the graffiti wall because we shared a desire to improve our space and make it our own. As we started, and the fumes grew stronger, I suddenly remembered how important ventilation is when using spray paint indoors. After the evacuation we all laughed – hard. We suffered for our art! That led to a conversation about planning, change, and loss. Students talked about moving under stress. Around that time, I gave away my stereo system to a friend’s son, so I brought in my CD jewel cases as a visual soundtrack.
  • Each design had specific meaning.
    • The medium. The graffiti wall featured a small plaque that explained the etymology of graffiti. I love graffiti. Graffiti is the oldest form of written communication and it reminds me of my childhood in Los Angeles. The home page of the Open-Source Learning Academy I’m leading now features graffiti I found on train cars in fields a few miles west of downtown Santa Maria, CA, where many of the learners live.
    • The message. Most of the graffiti on the classroom wall above consisted of quotes from authors. (The police who drew their guns and yelled at my students because they thought it was a crime scene didn’t know that.)

In my last classroom, I put up the Banksy “Blank walls are a crime” print because I had just moved to a different room – again – and I figured it was a cheap lesson in irony. (The 45s on the top of the wall in the picture were a gift from a student who worked as a DJ – he thought the Banksy was “boring” and wanted to look at something that reminded him of music.)

2. Lightbulbs are more than metaphors

As George Lakoff and recent politics have made clear, metaphors are important. The lightbulb symbolizes that “aha!” moment of illumination. The traditional definition of “education” is a the process through which learners move from darkened states of ignorance toward enlightenment.

But you can also learn a lot in the dark. #bats also #people

Actually, it turns out that people can be productive in both light and dark, when they know the people in charge of the lighting are paying attention.

Not surprisingly, according to recent research, “Besides improving human performance, variable lighting CCTs also exert a great influence on both the physical and mental conditions of humans… However, such benefits of lighting have not yet been fully adopted in the educational environment. At the beginning of our research, we were shocked by the fact that the lighting facilities in educational environments were much poorer than we’d anticipated.”

The fluorescent lighting in schools is unpleasant. And, depending on the color temperature and maintenance (does yours flicker?), it can have negative health effects.

If you’re in charge of the lighting where you learn, be mindful. Sunlight is nice. Tasteful, energy-sucking incandescent bulbs are nice. Those gas-discharging tubes that heat mercury vapor and come in pairs to eliminate the flicker that always seems to happen anyway? They suck.


3. Furnishing is a verb

The day I put all the desks outside.

The day I stacked all the desks in the corner.

The days I put all the desks in groups, or concentric circles, or faced them toward the back wall.

The days I replaced the desks with Swiss balls, beanbag chairs, and garage sale sofas.

4. Get your shit off my stuff.

Bertrand Russell’s conjugation (a.k.a. “emotive conjugation“) is a way of using language to characterize our own beliefs/tendencies/possessions more charitably than others’. As George Carlin put it (the title of this section links to one of his video clips), “Have you ever noticed that their stuff is shit, and your shit is stuff?”

Language and things are both elements of design that can create spacious elegance or cluttered chaos.

‘Nuff said.

5. The only constant is change.

Redecorate. Paint. Get rid of some furniture. Get some new furniture.

As Emerson wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Just like considering new evidence and changing your mind hones critical thinking skills, changing up your routine – even taking a different way home or brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand – can keep your brain in good shape and lessen your chances of dementia later in life.

6. What are you, building?

Have you ever looked at a building and asked it a question: “What’s your point? Why are you here? Why do you look the way you do?”

Most school buildings are built in an architectural style I call “Late Stage Repurposed Barracks,” or “Mental Hospital Chic.” Mental Hospital Chic is characterized by:

  • Concrete exteriors and massive security fencing (concertina wire optional).
  • Long hallways that ensure visibility. (Why so many doors open outward, into those hallways, where pedestrians routinely run into them, one can only speculate.)
  • Tile flooring.
  • Pale, neutral, washed-out “colors” that are thought to be calming.
  • Mind-numbing uniformity.

Ask your building what it’s good at. Align the answer with the purpose/s you’re trying to accomplish.


7. Learning is a gamble.

When I taught in the classroom, I always closed the blinds.

The clock was covered with a sign that said, “It’s time.”

The single most effective behavior modification environment I’ve ever seen is the modern casino.

I wanted to increase the odds that learners would focus on ideas that didn’t have space elsewhere. When students entered my classrooms, they crossed a threshold into thinking, dreaming, wondering, and creating that – *ding!* – ended all too soon.

Was the design approach effective? Don’t take my word for it. Here’s how Vince Cruz put it back in 2013:


NOTE: If you’d like more specific design input or feedback on your particular learning situation, please feel free to Contact Me.

COMING UP NEXT WEEK: Acoustics for learning. (“Yeah. That sounds about right.”)







Reign of terroir (part one)

There are green chiles, and then there are Hatch, New Mexico green chiles.

There are tomatoes, there are Roma tomatoes, there are San Marzano tomatoes, and then there are the Pomodoro San Marzano dell’Agro Sarnese-Nocerino from the Sarno Valley. If you cannot tell the difference, you are not allowed to make a Vera Pizza Napolitana. Ask anyone who is certified by the Associazione: the volcanic plains to the south of Mount Vesuvius impart a taste, no… a feel… I actually don’t know what it is. But those tomatoes are the bomb.

If you ever want to wind someone up and you don’t care if you get a word in for the next few minutes, tell an oenophile that wine grapes are wine grapes no matter where they’re grown. Then sit back and enjoy the ensuing lecture about how wine is all about the appellation, and how varietals respond to temperature differentiation, humidity, dry farming and biodynamics, proximity to a noisy highway, and your ignorance, you two buck Chuck-swigging neanderthal.

Fun fact: Champagne is only champagne if it comes from the Champagne wine region in northeast France. If it comes from anywhere else, it’s just carbonated (“sparkling”) wine.


Quality matters. Some things are inherently better than others. Appreciating this fact depends on both the thing itself and on the person who experiences the thing.

Since labels on both packages say “natural” etc., only a knowledgeable shopper can distinguish between a salmon that came from Copper River and one from a foul, fecal fish farm in Scotland. People who don’t know better often settle for inferior product or process.

If that last sentence comes across as judgemental, please rest assured: It most certainly is. You should be too. Sound judgement is a key to our survival. If that kid who went Into the Wild (book/ movie) had been able to tell which plants were OK to eat, he might have survived.

Here’s the way I put it in Academy of One:

The Breakfast Burrito Principle

There are two breakfast burritos on the table in front of you. One burrito is piping hot. Steam rises from the soft flour tortilla that embraces fresh cubed Yukon Gold potatoes, eggs from happy, local pastured hens, Hatch green chiles, and fresh cilantro from the garden.

The other burrito was processed two years ago by a frozen food company that took over a converted auto parts factory next to a waste water treatment plant. It smells like freezer. Someone froze it, let it thaw, froze it again, then microwaved it. The hardened ends are hot, but you can still see ice crystals in the middle. This burrito has blue spots and is hairy with mold.

We live in a “don’t judge me” culture, but in truth we should absolutely judge, especially when it comes to authenticity and quality. If you choose your burrito wisely, your breakfast will nourish you and give you pleasure. If you don’t, it will make you sick.

Anthropological terroir

Terroir influences our identities as people.

The August 1935 edition of The Rotarian championed the idea that, “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.” Fast forward to Snoop Dogg: “You can take the boy out the hood but you can’t take the homie out the boy.”

Studies in neuroplasticity have shown that our brains are malleable. We are capable of changing our perceptions and behaviors. However, we all start somewhere. Be it the farm or the hood, where you’re from shapes the lens through which you view the world.

My terroir

I am from Los Angeles. LA. The City of Angels. I was born in Encino and raised in Van Nuys and Northridge – the center of America’s Suburb, The San Fernando Valley. The Valley. Which explains my attitude that every other valley is just “a valley,” i.e., some other less well-known valley that requires a name. Need evidence? There is only one Valley Girl (Zappa’s song) and no one is confused about where she’s from. (Omigod I am so000… sure! Silicon? San Joaquin? Hudson? Ohio River? As IF. Gag me with a spoon.).

Wherever else I have lived or visited, LA remains a part of me. I am a creature of glittering broken glass in strip mall parking lots. I attended LA public schools from kindergarten to UCLA. Just as I carry the DNA of my parents, I carry the DNA of Hollywood storytelling, car culture, donut shops, tacos, and noir. Smog. Riots. Traffic. Earthquakes. Boob jobs and botox.

Your brain on terroir

Anthropological terroir is more than a matter of folklore or personal anecdotes. Our surroundings are our learning laboratories. Children who grow up in rural settings learn the world through weather, seasons, animals, and plants. In urban settings, children are confronted by lessons in economics, sociology, transportation, and sometimes criminology.

Our terroir affects brain development. Psychologists at Oxford University and Duke University conducted a longitudinal study of more than two thousand twin children. Their analysis revealed that growing up in the city nearly doubled the likelihood of psychotic symptoms at age 12.

Built environments

Unlike the natural terrain that shapes the character of crops, or the cities into which we are born without a choice, people grow and learn in environments that are built for the purpose.

We shape our buildings. Thereafter, they shape us. -Winston Churchill

Architecture is more than static design. It is the lived experience of interacting in and with a space. How we use a room defines the room. How can a living room live up to its name if no one ever goes in there? Is a family room a family room if the family never spends time together in it?

Each of us develops habits and routines around how we engage with the spaces we inhabit. Architecture – especially in spaces where we are encouraged to achieve outcomes, both individually and collectively – aligns with our learned preferences, like the tumblers of a safe. We should be mindful of what’s worked, and what hasn’t, so that we can improve.

Otherwise we wind up trying to fit the Information Age into medieval design patterns.

As Marilynne Robinson wrote in her novel Gilead,Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations.”

The communicative value of design

Why is a midcentury modern design by Richard Neutra or a craftsman or prairie style design by Frank Lloyd Wright worth more money than a tract house in a master-planned development?

Well-done architecture is an art form, and art brings people together. When we experience a space that conveys values of care, humanity, and attention to detail, we feel valued and we want to reciprocate in appreciation.

Just like the terroir of crops, the terroir of intentional design expresses itself in the characteristics of the thing being made – we experience this in our living spaces through light, warmth, and a sense of organization.

Effective architectural design is an act of empathy.

Architecture communicates. Even relatively impersonal settings such as offices and government buildings convey senses of security, wealth, and status.

A lesson in architecture: school hates you

What does school’s architecture say?

  • Behave yourself.
  • Don’t get too comfortable.
  • You’re not worth the money.
  • “Portable” doesn’t mean what you think it means.

Apart from some notable, exclusive exceptions that prove the rule, the architecture of school is downright mean. Barracks/ mental hospital chic as defined by divisive spaces, right angles, hard surfaces, and muted pastels. Bells and buzzers echo off concrete. What kind of masochist would you have to be to design a space for yourself that looked and felt like this?

Effective architectural design is an act of empathy.

Our failure to design schools as learning spaces is a lost opportunity. As Sarah Williams Goldhagen writes in her wonderful book, Welcome To Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives,

“Research clearly demonstrates that design is central to effective learning environments. One recent study of of the learning progress of 751 pupils in classrooms in thirty-four different British schools identified six design parameters – color, choice, complexity, flexibility, light, and connectivity – that significantly affect learning, and demonstrated that on average, built environmental factors impact a student’s learning progress by an astonishing 25 percent. (italics in original) The difference in learning between a student in the best-designed classroom and one in the worst-designed classroom was equal to the progress that a typical student makes over an entire academic year.” (italics in original)

Free your mind and your ass will follow

Nothing in education is neutral. For example, school architecture is literally disintegrating. As I write this, Howard University students are living in tents to get away from the mold, roaches, and mice in their dorms, and a billionaire is proposing windowless mass housing at the University of California Santa Barbara.

[UPDATE: When you’re writing about deplorable school architecture and the ceiling literally falls in on students.]

We will not improve conditions by wishing they were different, or requesting that administrators make incremental changes. In the words of Buckminster Fuller, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

This is not as difficult as it sounds. Start the conversation with purpose. Focus on the architecture between your ears.

As Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote, “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.”

Open-Source Learning is the environment you build within yourself – you can manifest it elsewhere as you go.

Consider the student who moved our entire learning community to Yosemite.

Or the student who decided high school was a waste of time and took off.

Your life, your headspace

Coffee does not have a choice about where or how to grow – you do.

Preview of coming attractions

Next week’s post will present design principles you can immediately apply to level up your learning space. [Spoiler: Whether it’s a room in your house, or your school/office, it’s all in your head.]

If you have any questions, suggestions, or stories for Part Two, please feel free to Contact Me.

A few bad apples

The classroom conversation took place in 2014 but I remember it like it was yesterday: “OMG Dr. Preston that’s so cliché…”

Huh? I looked up from my desk to see one of my most successful seniors – who gained admission to Princeton, University of Michigan, UCSD, and UCSB, and earned a full ride at Ohio Wesleyan – staring at the apple next to my laptop.

I laughed and said, “You have got to be kidding me. Are you seriously profiling that apple because I’m a teacher? Can you imagine walking up to a member of any other group and talking about their food that way? What if this were a taco or a piece of fried chicken?”

Of course, it wasn’t, and I didn’t take (much) offense. She didn’t mean anything by it.

More recently, the “bad apples” saying has been used in the contexts of racism and culture wars. But both the saying and apples themselves have deeper meanings in education. Poor families have given apples to teachers since the 1700s in Europe, and it was common practice in the American west during the 1800s.

Times have changed. The vast majority of apples grown and sold in America now suck, and so do the vast majority of conditions surrounding the teaching profession. The quality of apples and the quality of teaching have declined for the same reasons.


The Red Delicious apple has been described as, “A crime against the apple… (that) has an unparalleled power to inspire visceral disgust… but really has no business in the mouth.”

In 1905, the United States Department of Agriculture published a bulletin entitled Nomenclature of the Apple: A Catalog of the Known Varieties Referred to in American Publications from 1804 to 1904. The document was over 400 pages long and listed approximately 17,000 different apple names. Even after deducting for poetic overlap in naming practices, Americans still grew 14,000 distinct varieties of apples in the 19th century. That’s FOURTEEN THOUSAND.

So why is it that when we go to a supermarket, there are only five types of apples on offer? Why are they all round, tasteless, acid-washed, waxed imitations of fruit? Where are the apples of yesteryear – the yellow Westfield Seek-No-Furthers; the purplish Black Oxfords; the massive, red-streaked Wolf Rivers; or Thomas Jefferson’s go-to fruits, the Esopus Spitzenburgs?

It’s not like customers like Red Delicious better than other varieties of apple. It is “the most produced and arguably the least popular apple in the United States.”

So, where did the good apples go?

As Rowan Jacobsen put it in Mother Jones, “Industrial agriculture crushed that world.”

More specifically, over two decades at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the Stark Nursery of Missouri spent about $750,000 on a marketing campaign to promote the Red Delicious. Growers across the country valued the cosmetic appeal more than the taste – it turns out sellers have different priorities than buyers.

So, even though the Red Delicious was becoming notorious for its thick, bruise-resistant skin and mushy, mealy, tasteless interior, by the 1980s it accounted for more than 75% of the crop produced in the state of Washington.


Q: “Hey there, David – what does this have to do with Open-Source Learning?”

A: All the problems in the world are the result of actions we take based on choices we make. The more information we have, and the more skills we have to analyze, question, synthesize, and use that information, the better our chances of making decisions that improve the quality of our lives.


First, consolidation sucks because it reduces the number of choices we have.

“Wait a second,” my friend said when I mentioned this to her. “I have hundreds of choices when I shop. Just look at all those brands!”

Brands are not choices. Stores-as-brands are not choices either.

If you just bought a pair of [Ray-Ban, Oakley, Vogue Eyewear, Persol, Oliver Peoples, Arnette, Costa del Mar and Alain Mikli, as well as licensed brands including Giorgio Armani, Burberry, Bulgari, Chanel, Coach, Dolce&Gabbana, Ferrari, Michael Kors, Prada, Ralph Lauren, Tiffany & Co., Valentino and Versace] sunglasses from one of 9,200 [LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, OPSM, Laubman & Pank, Spectacle Hut, GMO, Óticas Carol, Salmoiraghi & Viganò, Sunglass Hut] stores around the world…

… you just bought a Luxottica pair of sunglasses from a Luxottica store.

In the marketplace, reducing the number of choices reduces competition. Larger companies can achieve greater profit margins by reducing costs and raising prices in economies of scale, without worrying that they will lose market share to a competitor who makes a better product with better ingredients/materials.

Over the last few decades we have seen mass consolidation in various fields and industries, including:

  • accounting
  • arcade/food/entertainment
  • satellite television
  • construction and engineering
  • household appliances
  • lighting and light bulbs
  • search engines
  • soda
  • tires
  • toilet paper, and
  • wireless telecommunications.

You would have thought the industry had learned its lesson. You would be wrong.

The most painful illusion of freedom of choice is in the grocery store, where it does the most everyday damage to our wallets and our health.


Almost every single brand in the grocery store is manufactured by one of nine conglomerates: Kraft, Nestle, Pepsico, P & G, General Mills, Unilever, Mars, Johnson & Johnson, and Coca-Cola. Oh, that artisanal/ regional/ natural brand you like so much? That was acquired by one of the big companies.

When it comes to our food supply, manufacturing consolidation sucks because it makes us vulnerable. Corporations prioritize industry and shareholder profit, not high-quality products. They use all sorts of toxic chemicals and cheap ingredients. They manufacture products – just as commercial farmers grow the Red Delicious – to make things attractive for purchase but unhealthy to consume. As a result, mass-produced food isn’t good for us to eat.

Consolidation of industrial agriculture is even more dangerous. Profit incentivizes large growers to produce fewer varieties of fruits and vegetables, but growing and relying on less variety makes populations vulnerable.

One million people died in Ireland during the potato famine. Just imagine if the poor had a potato alternative to the Phytophthora infestans – infested Irish Lumper.

Today – right now as you read this – the world’s food security is under attack by TR4, also known as Panama Disease. TR4 is the banana equivalent of Covid-19.

This isn’t the first time that disease has attacked bananas. In the 1950s, the industry was hit with “one of the worst botanical epidemics in human history.”

“The banana production system was weakly founded on the limited genetic diversity of one variety, making them susceptible to disease. You would have thought the industry had learned its lesson. You would be wrong.”

The healthiest natural systems are the most diverse.


In the same way variety is an asset to consumers in the market for everything from sunglasses to food, diverse and divergent thinking is an asset to any social system.

When organizational teams, families, and political parties have constructive disagreements, everyone gets the benefit of everyone else’s best thinking.

In fact, Tuckman’s famous framework of the stages of group development indicate that “storming” is a natural and necessary step toward high performance. Instead of being a conflict or even a competition, argument in this context can be a shared search for truth that brings everyone to a more informed understanding.

The alternative – the pressure to conform, to keep one’s mouth shut to consolidate thinking into one cohesive perspective – is groupthink. This is NEVER a good thing. A classic example of this inefficient, unproductive, irrational disease is the Bay of Pigs crisis.

Unfortunately, groupthink tends to rule school culture. Schedules and curricula are designed for lockstep compliance. Disagreement is conflated with insubordination.

Many of the good teachers – the independent, flavorful, creative, nonconformist thinkers who inspired and occasionally provoked – have gone the way of the good apples.

In their place, credential programs, publishers, and testing companies have manufactured the teaching equivalent of the Red Delicious. Flavorless, mushy conformists who look better from further away, who follow the same textbook training scripts and cry on cue when the local Honda dealership pays for the tank of gas they can’t afford. It’s not their fault – that’s just the way they were produced.

Open-Source Learning encourages diverse and divergent thinking. One year, a student joined my course in the spring semester and introduced himself to the class by arguing a point until the bell rang. Imagine his surprise when I named him Student of the Week.


The old adage is true enough: A few bad apples really can spoil the whole bunch. Especially if those bad apples are education administrators and the bunch are teachers and students.

But that’s not the last word on the subject. There is a path forward.

As I wrote in Academy of One,

“We can meet traditional academic standards and establish standards of intellectual and personal excellence, while simultaneously preserving learners’ freedom to embark on interdisciplinary learning journeys of their own. We can create optimal conditions for growth in the garden without requiring all the flowers to be the same.

“Having high standards is not the same thing as standardizing school or evaluating its effectiveness through the use of standardized tests. Encouraging each learner to achieve their fullest potential is the highest standard – and one that by definition rejects standardization.

“For over a decade, students in Open-Source Learning networks have proven that individually created learning is the solution to a schooling world where conformity to one-size-fits all approaches have become the problem.”

Divergent thinking – intellectual diversity – is the antidote to consolidation and conformity.






EdTech of the dead

Every reference I can find for the etymology of the word technology has to do with, “art, skill, or craft.” Technique comes from the same root. Any system of making or doing requires qualities such as dedication, skill, and patience. Technique/technology may or may not involve tools.

But whenever I hear people talk about education technology, they focus on the latest software that promises to accelerate learning.

Halloween Tech

In this way, EdTech is a lot like Halloween Tech. On Halloween, people dress up as something they’re not and demand treats for their effort. We act as if the ritual is perfectly normal, because tradition. Instead of unmasking the pretenders and asking about their life choices, we ask how they made their costumes. Then we throw treats in their pillowcases, plastic pumpkins, IPOs, and crypto wallets.

Maybe it’s because we don’t know better. Or we’re afraid they’ll TP our house.

Halloween is commercial. Like many American(ized) holidays, Halloween emphasizes consuming crap made of plastic, sugar, and alcohol. It’s about the celebrant. Lower your inhibitions and get crazy, yeah baby.

Apart from Ichabod Crane and the Great Pumpkin, it seems that hardly anyone knows the history of Halloween anymore.

Open-Source Learning is more aligned with the spirit of Los Dias de los Muertos.

Dias de los Muertos Tech

Los Dias de los Muertos represents the unification of worlds and an evolution of celebration.

Watching the light dim and things die in nature led multiple cultures to believe that the veil between the physical world and the spiritual world is thin at this time of year. Like Beltaine and Samhain in Ireland, Los Dios de los Muertos celebrates the thinner boundary between worlds that makes it easier for the spirits to join us in celebration.

The Tech de los Muertos is designed to reveal, not to conceal. We wear costumes and build ofrendas to invite the spirits and each other into connection.

The ways we design and construct ofrendas combine pre-Hispanic Aztec rituals with more recent additions from Catholicism and popular culture. Posada didn’t draw La Catrina until the early 1900s. However, the marigolds – called cempasúchil by the Aztecs – have been calling the dead home for centuries.

The ofrendas we build, the food we make, the clothes and makeup we wear, and the music we play – these are all forms of social media, ways we bring our attention to sharing senses of belonging and meaning.

This is the ofrenda in my house:

Open-Source Learning Tech

When they’re sitting in closed classrooms, students are no more connected to the off-campus community than we are to the spiritual world. Or Antarctica.

Open-Source Learning thins the veil between the learning community and the outside world. We can connect with peers, resources, and even mentors in faraway realms that were once closed to us.

The OSL tech game is bigger than the players and it’s all about integrity. When we curate our learning, we’re not dressing up as something we’re not – we are creating offerings that put ideas, skills, and people on display. To paraphrase (the spirit of) Newton, if we can see further it’s because we are standing on the shoulders of giants, many of whom are no longer with us.

Lastly, OSL – like Los Dias de los Muertos – is all about using the tools of our age to tell a story compelling enough to bring worlds together. A decade ago we used the public internet. As tools and popular culture evolved, so have we: Blogs. Mind maps. Digital whiteboards. Etherpads.

Today we are developing our own open source protocol – not a platform – because we understand this is about more than tools. It’s a process. First, we acknowledge each other and work to clarify our purpose. Then we select the right tools for the job, and we purposefully use those tools to bring our visions to life.

Students are passive, obedient players of the school game. Shuffling around with their backpacks hoping for a treat. If there is a zombie apocalypse it’s going to start in passing period hallways.

Today – every day, really – we invite the learning dead to unite in the world of the living thinkers. Join us! Explore and curate an interdisciplinary legacy that will be remembered as long as there is a server to store it.

Open-Source Learning: the EdTech of the Dead.