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Track Building: Building a Path to Education’s Future
Melanie Borrego, Ph.D.
Western Oregon University


In the film Under the Tuscan Sun, writer Frances Mayes purchases a charming,
dilapidated villa in Tuscany in the aftermath of a divorce. The film is about her fixing the large
house and in the process, fixing herself. At one point, she says despairingly, that she has
purchased a house for a life she does not and may never have. Her realtor responds with a
story about building train tracks across the Alps, ending with: "They say they built the train
tracks over the Alps between Vienna and Venice before there was a train that could make the
trip. They built it anyway. They knew one day a train would come" (Wells, 2004).
For educators and innovators interested in digital technologies and how they impact
education, certain things have become clear. First, educators are embarking upon an era of
unprecedented change, and next, that they have been preparing for this moment for a very
long time. These innovations in learning are not solely a creation of the unique historical
moment in which they find themselves. They are, in fact, the culmination of at least one
hundred years of learning theory. Current educational scholars and theorists are riding on
tracks built by those who had no idea how this change would occur, but who knew that it would
come. This revolution has been long awaited and is desperately needed.
Maria Montessori, John Holt, and Howard Gardner are examples of the kind of
innovators working in pedagogical theory before and during the nascent stages of the personal
computer/internet revolution. These were and are educators who saw that their contemporary
educational methods were not addressing what John Goodlad calls the “education gap,” which
he defines as “*T+he distance between man’s most noble visions of what he might become and
present levels of human functioning” (Goodlad, 2006, p. 19).

Montessori, in her landmark book The Montessori Method (1912), explained how she
had gone about reforming Italian preschool practices with a class of children previously labeled
“idiots,” who today would be termed “delayed.” Within a year, her students were outscoring
“normal” children on the Italian progress exams. She saw, even in the early 1900s, that school
should fit children, not the other way around. She saw that children were naturally active, and
had child-sized furniture made that could be moved around the room. She saw that children
craved actual experience, so she got them up from their seats and sent them to learning
stations, where the children were free to choose what they learned and could become actively
engaged with the subject of their interest. These all seem like obvious methods today, but they
are obvious because Montessori championed them and because they were such an immediate
and clear success.
What she also supported and has not been universally adopted, is the abolishing of
empty praise and prizes for academic achievement in the early grades. The one who wins the
prize, she claims, does not need it—his interest in the subject will keep him learning with or
without outside validation. The student who does not possess aptitude in that subject realizes
he will likely never win the prize and therefore envies the first student and worse, may stop
trying to learn the subject altogether.
[A] young student may become a great doctor if he is spurred to his study by an interest
which makes medicine his real vocation. But if he. . . is inspired by any material
advantage, he will never become a true master or a great doctor, and the world will
never make one step forward because of his work. . . . Everyone has a special tendency,
a special vocation . . . . The system of prizes may turn an individual aside from this
vocation, may make him choose a false road, for him a vain one, and forced to follow it,
the natural activity of a human being may be warped, lessened, even annihilated. . . .

Our joy is to touch, and conquer souls, and this is the one prize which can bring us a true
compensation. (Montessori, 1912, pp. 24-25)

Montessori was writing about younger children, but when students of any age are engrossed by
their work, such as the students who attend High Tech High in San Diego, California, it is easy to
see that she was accurate in this assessment as well. Children as well as adults must be
intellectually, emotionally, even sometimes physically absorbed by their learning for it to
matter to them. This sense of engagement and the feelings of accomplishment achieved
through completing a complex task or solving a thorny issue is the best prize learning has to
In a science class at High Tech High, biotechnology students learn how to create a DNA
signature. This is a lesson taught in many science classes around the country. This class,
however, then collaborated with African police officials from several different countries to use
DNA and bar coding technology to “tag” animals it is illegal to hunt. This provided police with
essential, real-time tracking evidence to arrest poachers who are decimating endangered
species. This real-world, real-time application of student work increases the intensity of the
learning and the students’ desire to “get it right” (Ellis, 2008). In this scenario, the goal of a
good grade simply is not as important as saving animals from extinction. Technology here is
being leveraged to create organic prizes, such as the satisfaction of doing meaningful work—
the prize Montessori claimed was the only kind that mattered.
Closer to home, HTH junior year students engage in internships in a variety of industries
across San Diego county, then produce a radio show, write how-to guides on locating and

applying for these internships, and publish multimedia books about their experiences through
the help of tools like Blurb and iBooks. It is encouraging to note that HTH has been approved by
the State of California to issue credentials to new teachers, at least to those who teach in its
district (Educator Training: High Tech High, 2011). This public charter school now has a number
of other locations, including three elementary, four middle, and five high schools throughout
the county. It also offers two MOOCs in their areas of expertise, “New School Creation” and
“Deeper Learning 101” (High Tech High 2013).
A little more than fifty years after Montessori published her book, Holt, a teacher in both
public and private schools, noted that the children he taught were so afraid of getting an
answer wrong that they would not even try anymore. He noted that shame should not be a part
of the educational process, and that because shame was an integral part of the system, it was
actually hampering his students’ education. He was concerned that the educational system
meant to encourage learning was killing the natural curiosity and desire to learn with which
every child was born. He asserted in his first book How Children Fail (1964) that all children are
intelligent, a claim later echoed in Gardner’s Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple
Intelligences (1983).The children are not at fault for the decline of education, Holt claims, but
rather the unnatural system into which they have been placed: "The only difference between a
good student and a bad student is that the good student is careful not to forget what he
studied until after the test..."
…*S+chool should be a great smorgasbord of intellectual, artistic, creative, and athletic
activities, from which each child could take whatever he wanted, and as much as he
wanted, or as little. When Anna was in the sixth grade, the year after she was in my
class, I mentioned this idea to her. After describing very sketchily how such a school

might be run, and what the children might do, I said, "Tell me, what do you think of it?
Do you think it would work? Do you think the kids would learn anything?" She said, with
utmost conviction, "Oh yes, it would be wonderful!" She was silent for a minute or two,
perhaps remembering her own generally unhappy schooling. Then she said thoughtfully,
"You know, kids really like to learn; we just don't like being pushed around."
No, they don't; and we should be grateful for that. So let's stop pushing them around,
and give them a chance. (1964)

By the time Holt returned to edit his first book and update it, he had changed his mind about
reforming schools. He no longer felt it could be done. His attempts to reframe the current
system had led to accolades but no action. He resigned as a classroom teacher and became an
advocate of what had, until then, largely been a “hippie movement”: homeschooling, which he
called “unschooling.”
His vision of replacing the entire system is still considered a radical
If we put in every community . . .(perhaps in former school buildings), resource and
activity centers, citizens' clubs, full of spaces for many kinds of things to happen-
libraries, music rooms, theaters, sports facilities, workshops, meeting rooms - these
should be open to and used by young and old together. We made a terrible mistake
when (with the best of intentions) we separated children from adults and learning from
the rest of life, and one of our most urgent tasks is to take down the barriers we have
put between them and let them come back together... (1982)

In the rush of creativity generated by digital technologies and the internet, Holt might have
seen, with great relief and pleasure, the creation of schools such as San Diego’s High Tech High
and those following its lead. While there is not yet the level of community integration which
Holt advocated, there is such a community flourishing online. What even Holt could not have

foreseen is the international reach students have, facilitated by the digital tools and resources
now available.
One example is the teleconferencing service Skype, which offers not only free accounts
for teachers and students, but has also created and supports a free Skype for Education
program. Using this program, teachers can manage simultaneous connections with up to nine
discrete accounts. Teachers post their needs and ask for partners. For instance, a teacher in a
small fishing village on the coast of Australia asks for teachers in other kinds of cultures,
particularly Asian, to meet with her class to talk about how they live their lives. A popular
lesson plan is “Mystery Skype,” where classes in different regions call each other, ask each
other 20 questions in a bid to gather clues, and then have to use the answers and a map to
guess where the other class is located. Classes across the country and across the world meet to
share their experiences and to work on projects together. There is even a recording feature so
that classes whose time zones do not overlap during school hours can participate. Experts are
available in a number of subjects, increasing the depth and breadth of guest speaker pools, and
teachers who themselves have something to offer other classes can visit with students before
their day begins or during a study period.
Kate Messner, middle school teacher and author of the book The Brilliant Fall of Gianna
Z, chronicles how she was able to discuss her book with fifth graders on the other shore of Lake
Champlain and still be at work on time for her own seventh-grade homeroom. Because she
could use Skype, she was able to sit in her own classroom and hold a thirty-minute book
discussion with the remote fifth-graders before her own students arrived (Messner, 2009).

Without teleconferencing, this kind of guest lecture would have been expensive—the
elementary school would have had to track Messner down and issue an invitation, and then
Messner would have had to take the morning off and drive to the other location, asking the
school to find a substitute for her classes. These may not seem like significant obstacles, but
they are enough to make such collaboration infrequent. With free teleconferencing and a
growing list of authors and other experts willing to speak with students through
teleconferencing, these kinds of exciting experiences can happen for students on a regular
Skype hosts a number of other resources for teachers and students. School in the Cloud,
organized by Sugata Mitra, author of “The Hole in the Wall” project and professor of
educational technology at Newcastle University, is one of the more recent additions. Mitra’s
research has been largely focused on how students can “self-organize” their education when
presented with big questions they need to figure out how to answer (Mitra, 2010). This self-
organized learning environment, or SOLE, is key to Mitra’s vision of education—but it could not
happen without the immediate access to resources made possible by the internet. “Anyone can
create a Self-Organized Learning Environment—spark curiosity in children by asking them to
explore a ‘big’ question using the Internet and their ability to work together. Learning happens
spontaneously in these purposefully chaotic environments” (Mitra, 2014). Mitra’s vision of a
learner-driven education, or what he calls minimally invasive education (MIE) (Mitra, 2014), is
similar to the visions of Montessori, who thought teacher should be trained to observe, not
interfere, and Holt, whose students did not want to be pushed around, but to guide their own

learning. The difference is that Mitra’s theories are able to become a reality because the
technology now exists to support it.
In a Pop!Tech Conference talk given in 2008, writer and social critic Malcom Gladwell
argued that we are not maximizing our “human capitalization rate.” Using psychometrician
James Flynn’s model, Gladwell explained that this capitalization or “cap” rate “refers to the rate
at which a given community capitalizes on the human potential of those in its midst” (Gladwell,
2008). Often, he claimed, the obstacles to a higher rate of capitalization are arbitrary, such as
the location of a Los Angeles high school across gang lines in a poor neighborhood which means
that the boys who live there cannot attend high school without risking their lives. The school’s
cap rate for boys, Gladwell concludes, is zero. When society reduces the cap rate of potential
inventors, doctors, engineers, teachers, and businesspeople, it also reduces the number of
people upon whom it can rely for creative, innovative solutions to perplexing problems. The
SOLEs of which Mitra speaks are one such route around these artificial constraints for students
in dangerous neighborhoods, in remote areas around the world, and for those students who
simply want to pursue an educational journey under their own power.
In the past decade, many writers have been interested in the educational applications of
technology, from Stanford’s Larry Cuban, who in 2003 argued that schools had purchased too
many computers without any idea how to use them in Oversold and Underused to MIT’s Sherry
Turkle, who noted how far technology had come but also sounded a note of caution in her
book, Alone Together (2011). In between are Indiana University’s Curtis Bonk (2009) and
Harvard’s Clayton Christensen (2010), both champions of the revolutionary effects of

technology on education, Bonk through his advocacy for open source materials in his book The
World is Open and Christensen, Johnson, and Horn through their analysis of “disruption,” a
notion borrowed from their study of business cycles in their work, Disrupting Class.
Cuban’s book appeared in 2003, a year in which Web 2.0 was still on the horizon.
Schools had purchased vast numbers of computers, yet according to Cuban, most sat in the
corners of classrooms unused. Only among the very few instructors who had embraced the
technology and integrated it into their everyday routine did he see a glimmer of the kind of
power that technology would hold for students. These teachers, who thought technology could
fundamentally alter the way in which they taught
…[O]rganized their classes differently, lectured less, relied more on securing
information from sources other than the textbook, gave students more
independence, and acted more like a coach than a performer on stage. In
short, they said that in using technology they had become more student-centered
in their teaching; they had made fundamental changes in their pedagogy. (p. 95)

Because of the small number of teachers who embraced the potential of learning in this way,
Cuban argued for a moratorium on spending for computers and other technology in classrooms
until this phenomenon could be further studied. What Cuban could not have foreseen was that
within a few years, the computer itself would be viewed in a dramatically different way. Rather
than the computer as representative of all technology, the computer would become a portal to
the online world, where the actual learning would take place.

When the web matured from passive browsing to a more active production model,
providing agency and voice to whoever was willing to learn a few simple programs, it became
clear that technology was far more than a box on the table in the corner of a classroom.
Turkle’s book is separated into two sections, the first dealing with what she calls “the
robotic moment” (robotic/human relationships and whether such a thing is possible or
desirable), the second with human to human relationships and how they are impacted by other
forms of technology. In the first, she cautions that programmers are trying to make robots
which are indistinguishable from humans, including the ability to comprehend and issue
emotional cues in order to elicit certain responses. She argues persuasively that technology can
be used in such a way that it erodes the quality of human interaction. Humans are drawn to
relationships with robots because of a perception that they require less work than relationships
with other humans. However, any connection which may seem to exist between robots and
humans is actually a fantasy, one which could feed narcissistic impulses while starving one’s
better self. Without the difficult decisions, the inconvenient conversations, and the
requirement to put others first from time to time, Turkle asserts that individuals could not grow
and mature in ways essential to human health and happiness. In Gladwell’s terms, it would risk
minimizing one’s emotional capitalization rate.
In the same vein, Turkle claims that other, more pervasive personal technologies—
mobile phones and texting in particular—are alienating people from one another rather than
connecting them. She focuses on the misunderstanding that many teens (and adults) seem to
have that the quantity of one’s interactions is more significant than their quality. In fact, she

posits that the increasingly needy person at the other end of a text message is draining the
emotional power of the recipient, insisting upon instant response which allows no time for
reflection or attending to other areas of one’s life. Allowing children to participate in such social
networks, Turkle posits, requires that they plan sabbaticals from their technology in order to
preserve the quiet, reflective moments so essential to personal growth. This kind of pernicious
cycle, she says, is unhealthy, and cannot be allowed to persist.
While Cuban and Turkle are cautious and skeptical about the impact of digital
technologies, even (or perhaps especially) those aimed at students, Christensen et al. and Bonk
are unwavering in their praise of technology’s influence on education. For Christensen, the
business model of disruptive innovation, where non-consumers gain enough traction to unseat
consumers, is an exciting trend. His book cites the numerous businesses which have been
toppled by upstarts, and predict a similar kind of revolution, albeit at a slower pace, in
The way in which this revolution in education differs from the typical business model of
disruptive innovation is that no business institution has ever had to manage disruptive
innovation within its own walls. According to Christensen, they are typically replaced in the
market by newer, more nimble companies. Because schools are something of a monopoly, they
have been asked again and again in the last 100 years to change their mission and handle a new
way of doing things, which Christensen calls "moving the goal posts." He applauds the success
of the school system and the ways in which it has adapted, but warns that the current
disruptions have just begun. The idea that the school system has the ability to adapt contradicts

Cuban, who insisted that the computer should have radically altered what teachers were doing,
but did not. Christensen suggests that this will not be a new model of teaching, but rather
educating students with new tools. Like, Cuban, he could not have foreseen the rapid rise in
alternative methods of instruction that have flourished in the past few years such as MOOCs
and Competency-Based education (CBE).
Unlike Christensen, It is unlikely that Bonk would subscribe to the idea that this
revolution is in any way “slow.” Playing off of the title of Thomas Friedman’s famous book, The
World is Flat, Bonk claims in his own text that the availability of rich, highly developed
educational materials online will offer education to every person on the globe who can access
it. While it may have taken some time to get here, the educational revolution is progressing
swiftly. He spends a good deal of time throughout The World is Open listing the many and
varied open source programs available for use by educators--a list which is prodigious and
growing exponentially. In contrast to Turkle, he views the explosion in social networking as an
exciting way to experience new places. Where Turkle laments the loss of personal letters to
blogging, Bonk explains that a blog written by a college student on an excavation of Hope,
British Columbia, offers a colorful glimpse of a part of the world most of us will never see (Bonk,
2009, p. 1). Whereas Cuban laments the cost of machines which are sitting idle, Bonk writes of
the increasing use of the internet, whether through computers, tablets, or phones (p. 293). The
availability of learning resources such as MIT’s OCW (now EdX,a collaboration of more than 30
universities) for teachers, their students, and autodidacts around the world has, he argues,
“opened” the pleasures and riches of a world-class education to anyone who desires it.

Some counter that access is a problem in many countries around the world. While Bonk
does agree, saying that “no one should be satisfied until everyone has access to the Web of
Learning and uses it to accomplish something meaningful” (406), he also cites the example of
Lucifer Chu, who spent $500,000 of his own money to translate MIT’s courses into simple
Chinese and the existence of “seventy-five or eighty” mirror sites that already exist “in the
Sahara region of Africa” (p. 170; p.163). Commercial interest, too, is helping to expand access. A
number of companies, including Facebook, Samsung, and Qualcomm have started a nonprofit,, whose mission is to improve service so that fewer phone towers are required and
more data can be downloaded. While Mark Zuckerberg speaks about building better cell phone
towers so that fewer of them cover a much greater distance, Tech Crunch reports that his
company, Facebook, is currently in talks to purchase Titan Aerospace, makers of drones that
function as atmospheric satellites. These satellites are solar powered, can remain in use for five
years without having to land, and can perform most of the functions of traditional, orbital
satellites at a lower cost. Facebook is interested in having the company produce a large volume
of these drones to use as internet access points across the continent of Africa: “The company
would start by building 11,000 of these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)” (Perez, Constine,
In the end, then, Cuban seems to think that building tracks for a future he could not yet
see was not a wise use of resources; Turkle and Christensen et al. thought track building
inevitable, but both were cautious about moving forward too quickly. Bonk fully embraces track
building, for he sees the way in which connecting two places such as Vienna and Venice opens
the world. In this case, he sees the potential to connect not two cities, but all cities. He likely

would be joined by visionary educators from the past such as Montessori and Holt in welcoming
the revolutionary impact of the web and digital technologies on education and sends out a call
to action for those integrating this new, “open” world into their educational cosmology.
This no longer Plato’s planet or my grandfather’s; this is actually your
learning planet now….As the Grail Knight said in the 1989 movie
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, “choose wisely.” If you do,

Montessori and Holt helped to build the tracks now in use, but this is not a time for rest. It is
instead a time to begin building new tracks for the next generation of students, even though it
is not entirely clear where they will be headed.

Christensen, C., Johnson, C., Horn, M. (2010). Disrupting class, expanded edition:
How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns.
New York: McGraw-Hill.

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Davidson, C. and Goldberg, D. T. (2009) The future of learning institutions in a digital
age. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
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York: Basic Books.
Goodlad, J. (2006). What schools are for. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappan International.
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Lindsay, G. (2011, June). “The corporate latter.” Spirit, 68-73.
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happen via Skype (here’s a list of authors who do it for free). School Library Journal.
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Mitra, Sugata. (2010 July). The child-driven education. TedTalks. Retrieved from:
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from each other. New York: Basic Books.
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This should not be confused with the more recent homeschooling movement also called “unschooling” where
parents allow the child to lead his or her own education, deciding what and/whether to learn. Holt merely meant
that the child would learn outside the confines of the public or private school system.