DAILY INSIGHT: Summer Reading: Kenneth Burke's Permanence and Change, Part 1

By Jen LaMaster, CIO Advisor

Part 1: Trained Incapacity

In his book Permanence and Change, Kenneth Burke discusses the idea of “trained incapacity.” For Burke, trained incapacity infers training so ingrained in the learner’s orientation that the learned way of doing things efficiently works against future success. In a Pavlovian example utilizing chickens trained to a bell food signal and then receiving punishment for following the bell… Burke concludes, “With their past education to guide them, they would respond in a way which would defeat their own interests.” Or to use his human example: Business(people) who have been so trained in one form of competitive finance that they cannot see the value in alternative strategies and refuse to change strategies even if economic environment changes (hmmmm….can’t imagine what that would be like…).

As educational technologists, we too have our trained incapacities. Our orientation of school is still students in neat rows, quietly working on the same task to become the most efficient college student/worker/voter/adult. I am dismayed at the number of advertisements from technology vendors I receive that show rows of students with the same device sitting and staring at the screen. I am annoyed at 12-year-old interactive whiteboard technology touted as new and innovative when it is still a teacher at the front of the room making “knowledge” happen on a board. I start yelling when I read about tablets as textbook replacement—same model of read-and-answer-the-questions-at-the-end-of-the-chapter (with pencil) but using a device that could open the world if not locked down from gaining Internet access. School still looks like it did in 1920… only with more demands on electricity and a bit more shine. We respond to the shiny-pretty food bell as quickly as the chickens in Burke’s narrative.

Where do we block alternative practices with the phrases “It will never work” or “We tried that in the '90s” or “The students will just go to Facebook”? Where do we block alternative practices because it is noisy, messy and not in neat rows? Being open to growth is a Jesuit goal—a value we consciously strive for in all our graduates. As educators, let’s have the same openness to growth and change.

Our BYOT model is an alternative strategy. In dialogue with students, teachers, parents and vendors we have challenged orientations. We have asked people to let go of past educational orientation.

August 9th was a big day for Brebeuf – our first day of 1:1 BYOT. It’s frightening, challenging and exciting for me. A challenge to my 20+ years of training in education which is disorienting when all my past experience is also learning in neat, hushed rows. Neat, quiet, geo-specific rows are not the world our students will inhabit. I need to be open to alternatives to facilitate their movement into a world I cannot imagine. I challenge us all to reflect on where our training as educators and technologists incapacitates us and to be open to alternative strategies… and beware of those food-bells.

Jen LaMaster is director of faculty development at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School.

See this and other blogs by Jen at Ed Tech Reflections.