Reflections on Education. APOLOGUE -What if…? Learning in an Alternate Reality

This is the second post of a three-blog series about education. The idea is to discuss some current views and basically make you reflect. Don’t forget to read the prologue and the epilogue

For those of you who follow me, this post is going to be quite different. If you go back to the previous one I wrote, this one might be the complete opposite. It’s not really connected with English teaching or bilingual contexts necessarily. It’s more about a different world or timeline if you like. This is another version of André Hedlund from a different world talking to you.

Alternate reality, parallel universe, another dimension. These are common ways to refer to the idea that what we can see right before our eyes or experience through our other senses is not the whole truth. There are hidden worlds where existence can challenge our notion of how the universe works, where the laws of physics seem to break.

Marvel’s animated series on Disney+ capitalized on that. What if…? presents viewers with a glimpse of how events could’ve turned out if there was a change, often small, at a key moment of the saga in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What if Steve Rogers had never taken the super-soldier serum? What if Thor had been an only child?

This is certainly not the first time comic books – or fiction in general – play with the idea of alternate realities. Remember Thanos and the reality stone? Ever heard of DC’s villain Mister Mxyzptlk, a trickster who came from the fifth dimension and could warp reality? What about Superman’s Bizzaro World where things were diametrically opposite from things on earth?

If you’re not a comic book fan, I’m sure you’ve read or heard of Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne, or Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, or The Matrix by the Wachowski sisters – I’m excited to watch the new installment! You might be wondering why I’m talking about this. Well, what if I told you that this blog post will challenge many of the views I’ve been so fiercely defending in the last couple of years? Let’s say I stopped thinking teachers should learn the Science of Learning or base their practice on the Mind, Brain, and Education science. Let’s imagine for a second that teacher-centeredness and direct instruction should be prioritized.

Learning: whose responsibility is it?

What if instead of focusing on learning and helping students learn more effectively I told you that this is really about education?

I remember teaching at a very accredited language institution in São Paulo about ten years ago and having one of those talks with my students. We discussed who was in charge of their learning outcomes. Since we all agreed that it couldn’t be an either-or type answer, I mean, there was no one who single-handedly owned the learning process, we worked with the idea of a spectrum and two agents:

So basically the more you move the pointer to the right, the more responsibility the teacher has over students’ learning, as shown in the picture above. And that was certainly the impression most of my students were under. I asked them to think in terms of percentage and most of the time they’d say I was 80%, 70% in charge of their learning outcomes. In turn, they owned less than 50% of their learning process.

What happened to “I’ll meet you halfway”?

To me, it was quite clear at that time that I couldn’t possibly be in charge of my students’ learning outcomes to such a degree that they didn’t have to do much more than sitting there, listening to me, interacting with their peers, and doing their classwork. But something happened in the early 2010s. Did you notice that – especially in the last decade – we shifted the way we talked about school, schooling, education and started focusing on learning? I’m sure we can trace the origin of this shift many years before, probably around the 1980s, mainly when we look at the idea of educational reform and standardization with the rise of institutions that measured countries’ student achievement. But in my context in 2011, most of it had to do with a new book that gained momentum and everyone was talking about it: John Hattie’s Making Learning Visible.

In his book, Hattie ranks the most important influences on learning based on hundreds of meta-analyses. He looks at the effect sizes of these influences and claims his list helps inform the entire school ecosystem about what actually matters for good quality learning to take place. It is considered the largest collection of evidence-based research into what works in schools to improve learning.

Nevertheless, Hattie’s work has been criticized for, among other things, his poor statistical analysis, the inclusion of meta-analyses with major methodological issues, the simplification of concepts based on his interpretation, as well as downplaying factors that do have an important impact on achievement – such as socioeconomic status and class size. Perhaps the most important critique is that he attempted to measure a complex phenomenon such as learning by looking only at what goes on inside the classroom in, oftentimes, quite different school settings (Check out Rømer, 2019).

Be it as it may, Hattie’s influence on education is certainly visible. After all, people are still talking about Visible Learning and how to make sure students are learning. Back in 2011, I can still remember my director telling me and a bunch of other teachers that there was compelling research showing that class size didn’t matter that much. She also said that we needed to make an effort to reach every student and make sure that they were learning. As a matter of fact, that’s when I started noticing that everything was in fact about learning.

Learning this, learner that, lifelong learning, learning styles, learners’ preferences, learners’ identity. Effective learning, learner-centeredness, learning experiences, learning facilitators, learning outcomes. It really is all about learning nowadays.

However, in this alternate reality reflection of mine, André Hedlund from another dimension invites you to think for a second that maybe the purpose of education goes beyond learning. Let’s consider that our learners – let’s call them students – as diverse as they are, need not be the center of education and that education itself along with schools serve a higher purpose. Let’s assume that, as in the exercise proposed by me to my students, we could move back the pointer closer to the students’ end so that teachers didn’t have to make learning “easier” or “more fun” or go out of their way to learn skills or techniques to “always engage” their students. Let’s put learning aside for a moment and focus on teaching. What would happen?

Learnification and Business: making things more digestible and ready to consume

If we were in the Matrix right now, the Dutch educational philosopher Gert Biesta would probably be Morpheus. He’d be the one to offer us the two pills. If we chose the red one, like Neo did, we’d wake up to the reality – at least in Biesta’s mind – that has been hiding before our very own eyes. We’d leave the world of learnification and see the world of education once again.

Biesta defines learnification, which he deliberately chose to be an ugly term, as the shift from the language of schooling/education to the language of learning. He warns us about the dangers of this shift:

The quickest way to express what is at stake here is to say that the point of education is never that children or students learn, but that they learn something, that they learn this for particular purposes, and that they learn this from someone. The problem with the language of learning and with the wider ‘learnification’ of educational discourse is that it makes it far more difficult, if not impossible, to ask the crucial educational questions about content, purpose and relationships.

Biesta (2013, p. 36)

Are our students supposed to learn anything at their own pace? Aren’t there important facts, skills, and competencies that must be taught at school? Isn’t direct instruction and teacher-centeredness also important?

Biesta believes that education has become a commodity and that teachers and schools are seen as product/service providers. Education – turned into learning – has become a financial transaction. We have become obsessed with identifying intended learning outcomes, quantifying, diversifying, wrapping everything in a nice package, and selling it all as “positive learning experiences” according to the clients’ individual needs and on-demand. Students, and mainly their parents, have become customers.

The funny thing is that if we stop to analyze the effect of new business models on society in general, especially with the rise of social media, we’ll probably agree that consumerism has taken over and that quantity is more important than quality. Showing and having are more important than being. Things need to be easy, flexible and allow for users to do them at their own pace. As I discussed in another blog post:

[…] it feels like more and more people are looking for English solutions that promise the earth. As a matter of fact, working closely with the marketing department of my company has given me lots of insight into what people want to “consume”. Things need to be “instagrammable”. Tipsdropsword of the daythe difference between make and do, how to pronounce this or that5 ways to organize your study routine, etc.

[…]There is an enormous pressure on schools, and private teachers to offer solutions that are “instagrammable”. Become fluent in 18 months, We use a brand new method, Learn faster through NLP, Get access to an exclusive platform, Have lessons with native speakers, Receive daily tips on your phone, etc. Even more traditional schools, and teachers might feel compelled to put on a show to seduce new “clients”.

In this neoliberal economic model, along with the advancements in data availability and collection, we use metrics for everything in order to “determine” whether things are working and to make decisions about the directions of education. Everything is turned into numbers, Likert scales, bands, satisfaction surveys, and excel sheets. We try desperately to quantify our students learning to justify why their parents should keep paying the tuition or why our adult “learners” shouldn’t drop out. If the numbers indicate that something is not right about learning, we hurry to “customize a solution” that meets individual needs.

One of the major problems with this neoliberal approach to education is represented in the image below:

If you ask most teachers, particularly the ones who work at private schools, it feels that students are devoid of the responsibility they should have for their own learning. This movement of learnification seems to be asking teachers to become entertainers and to avoid confrontation with students and their parents. It’s asking teachers to never stop creating additional resources for students to “consume” when they want, if they need more, if they have difficulties, or if they don’t feel motivated in class.

In many schools all over the world, due to this educational reform, standardization of testing has been chosen to help school managers and policymakers ascertain whether students are learning or not. As a matter of fact, high-stakes tests are used to grant schools more or less funding depending on their students’ results. This has been forcing teachers to focus on preparing students for these tests to guarantee better results, thus, limiting what teachers can teach.

To make matters worse, in the pursuit to offer students with endless possibilities when it comes to “learning experiences”, schools are spending lots of money to incorporate digital technologies that don’t seem to really add that much, especially considering that lessons are planned to help students pass high-stakes tests. Remember the buzz of Interactive whiteboards? Remember what happened to them? Well, now we have VR goggles, personalized Learning Management Systems (LMS) with Artificial Intelligence (AI), which creates learners’ own learning path as they answer quizzes, as well as digital books with augmented reality, gamified learning platforms, etc. Notice how it’s not about the quality of the teaching staff any longer? It’s about resources, environments, and edtech. It’s about looks.

Another dimension just came to my mind. It’s the world depicted in the lyrics and video clip of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ hit Californication. You may remember that the band members are “trapped” in a video game that shows the frivolous pursuit of fame based on a notion that California is the place to copy. It plays with the words California + fornication and it describes how its way of life, as superficial and mundane as it may be, has become a mecca for celebrity wannabes filled with plastic surgery, sci-fi, and porn.

Learnification seems to be paradoxically related to standardization. I say paradoxically because we should think that focusing on “learners’ individual needs” would lead to greater personalization and differentiation. Instead, it usually means that educational solution providers can come to any school with a standard package that often includes “flexible/customized learning”, “innovative edtech”, “digital platforms”, “high-quality materials”, which basically follow the same structure, “ongoing pedagogical support”, “continuous professional development”, “premade tests” and more. It normally disregards the social, historical, and political contexts and assumes that things can be “fixed” with a method, more resources, more technology, and more training.

What if…?

By now you must be thinking:

Is this the same guy who created the Learning Cosmos Conceptual Framework? The guy who has discussed again and again how teachers should understand the learning process to make sure they give their students the best possible chance at learning?

Yep, that’s me. Same old me with new thoughts in my brain. That’s why I said this is the parallel universe version of me. Someone who’s woken up from the Matrix into the real world perhaps or someone who’s been sucked into a wormhole and traveled to another dimension. I’m not saying I’m 100% on board with Biesta’s ideas or that I think we need to turn that pointer back to where our students are always. I’m just entertaining this thought here with you.

What if we didn’t make learning experiences available on-demand 24/7 like Netflix and actually required our students to be physically/mentally there at a specific date and time?

What if we focused on teaching rather than learning? What if we made sure our teachers had the proper qualification and we trusted them to deliver the lessons? What if they weren’t afraid to confront students’ ideas to make them think?

What if we didn’t care that much about making things easy or fun? What if the school environment was actually a place to make students uncomfortable with facts that go against those propagated by their families?

What if we stopped obsessing with metrics and shifted our focus to the value of schooling? What if we realized that being at school teaches students things like respect, patience, self-control, empathy, how to deal with frustrations, proactiveness, how to deal with failure, etc?

What if schools realized that the product or outcomes of education could come many years after? What if education was an end in itself and not a means to get a job or keep children busy while their parents work? What if it was more about skills rather than content, which can be more easily measured?

I don’t know what would happen if these alternate realities actually happened. If there’s anything we learned from all those comic books, books, series, and movies it’s that a minor change at a crucial point in time can transform everything. I have to say, however, that I still believe we should learn more about learning and how we can help our students learn better. But I also ponder about where to draw the line. Where can we say “this is more your responsibility than mine”? Or “I can’t transform my every lesson into a fun experience. Life is not all about fun”?

What if learning, I mean what we really do learn, can’t be made visible easily? In my Learning Cosmos article, I say that:

the Learning Cosmos is open to your reflections and ideas of what should be included, what might overlap, and what should be removed or changed. Our knowledge about the universe is being constantly updated and new models are proposed all the time. I only ask you not to look at this framework (or any, to be fair) as a prescriptivist and deterministic tool that you can use to label your learners. That’s not its purpose. I don’t think we could ever transform this into a psychometric scale to assign a score to the learning experience at any given school

The real version of me from planet earth in 2021 in our current reality/timeline believes that there’s no harm in learning about learning. I actually think it can be enormously helpful. But this André Hedlund also realizes that many of the issues we face as teachers cannot be solved by us in the classroom alone. A lot of it is beyond our reach. It has to do with our current economic model, the structure of our society, the mindset of our students and their families, the way we devise the curriculum, and the tools we use to assess our pupils. This André also thinks that education is not just about learning content. It’s about meeting people, thinking freely and reflecting, understanding our place in the world, mutual understanding.

If you’re wondering what I think this parallel universe where teaching regains its place and where education/schooling becomes the focus would be like, I must say I’d be hard-pressed to answer. After all, we live in an era of data, standardization, and measuring. We need parameters to say whether someone has what it takes to move on to the next stage of their educational journey, to get a scholarship or a job. My guess is that in this alternate reality we’d focus more on educating ourselves to understand the world, the universe, and one another. However, there’s an infinite number of possible realities and many of them can turn out to be way worse than ours.

What do you think?


Biesta, G. (2013). Giving teaching back to education: Responding to the disappearance of the teacher. Phenomenology & Practice, 6 (2), 35-49.

Rømer, T. A. (2019). A critique of John Hattie’s theory of Visible Learning. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 51(6), 587-598

4 thoughts on “Reflections on Education. APOLOGUE -What if…? Learning in an Alternate Reality”

    1. I’m very glad to know you liked my reflection, Philip. Thank you for sharing your own text. I’ll definitely check it out. And I couldn’t agree more. We need to read Biesta more often in our industry.

  1. Pingback: Reflections on Education. PROLOGUE – Making Thinking and Learning Visible – EDCrocks

  2. Pingback: Reflections on Education. EPILOGUE – Hey! Teachers! Leave them Kids Alone – EDCrocks

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