Jay Lemke is Senior Research Scientist and adjunct Professor of Communication at the University of California, San Diego, in the Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition. He was previously Professor at the University of Michigan, working in the Ph.D. programs in Science Education, Learning Technologies, and Literacy Language and Culture, and Professor and founding Executive Officer of the Ph.D. Program in Urban Education at the City University of New York. His research interests span all these fields and work in social theory and social semiotics, discourse analysis, video analysis, multimedia studies, games research, and most recently Design Research and the role of feeling in making meaning.


Against the Establishment of Curriculum

Standardized Curriculum is a 21st century Establishment of Religion.

Its imposition by law on all citizens is a violation of Freedom of Conscience and of the Constitutional ban on establishment of religion in the United States.

The core of religion and of the freedom of conscience, which the Constitution seeks to maintain inviolate, is in modern times, as famously argued by christian theologian Paul Tillich, whatever matter is of “ultimate concern” to each of us. In past centuries, and still for many people, that ultimate concern is a God and our relation to it. Today for many more people our “ultimate concern” may be: our personal and political relations with others; how to live responsibly as one species among many on a planet of limited resources; our destiny in deep time as the seed to spread beyond our one planet of origin; understanding the origins of life, conscience, and the visible and invisible cosmos, or the workings of life and matter past, present, and future; or any other Ultimate Concern which motivates our lives.

Ultimate Concern, framed as knowledge and understanding, may be for its own sake or as a means to some ultimate moral end, be that a traditional religious one or some other: the welfare and happiness of our families, communities, or humanity more widely; the exploration of the Universe or the universe of possible ways of life; the creation of new forms of life or intelligence; universal social justice; or whatever our conscience determines.

In all these cases, it is an ultimate issue of conscience and individual liberty that each of us grow as quickly as possible into as full a capacity as possible to make these judgments. Without the tyrrany that Government shall choose them for us, or hinder us in their pursuit, at whatever age, with arbitrary requirements of time and study in whose choice we are allowed no voice whatsoever until the third decade of our lives, and little enough even then.

It is simply fact that we are all fully capable of meaningful choice and the exercise of freedom of conscience, in ourselves and in dialogue and concert with – and dissent from – our families and communities, in ever-growing degree, throughout our lives, from our earliest years.

Against this, the tactic of delay is ever one of the most common tools of oppression. Wait, we are always told, do as we say until we decide that you are ready to be our equals and make your own choices. So said the State Socialists promising the never-came freedom of true Communism. So the European races said to all the other peoples of the world throughout their colonialist tyrrany. So men have said to women all through history until recent decades and in many parts of the world say still.

True Freedom of Conscience and judgment regarding the Ultimate and all the other concerns of our lives begins with life itself, and we ever have the human Right to assume the maximum choice we are capable of with all the support and assistance others can give us, and not merely the bare minimum that powerful others choose to allow us, or more often not allow us.

To enforce by Law a compulsory schooling in which we the citizen students have no vote or voice in the subjects, times, or methods imposed upon us is not only an immoral tyrrany in itself, it is also a profound abrogation of our rights of conscience and an anti-Constitutional establishment of secular religion.

I do not hold that the very youngest of us are equally able to exercise their freedom of conscience, but it should be self-evident that like all capacities this one grows and develops through our efforts to make choices and judgments with the assistance of others at every age. It is not for them to make all our choices and judgments for us and to delay and hinder us in the development of our own capacity. I do hold that throughout the second decade of life substantial and growing capacity does exist and is sufficient to participate as, at the start of that decade, an equal partner, and by its end as the predominant judge in matters of what to study, when, and in large part how.

The principle of freedom of conscience is not compatible with the imposition on younger citizens of a total curriculum lasting twelve years or more without their consent, without consultation or regard for their conscience or concerns. We may legitimately disagree as to how much consultation and freedom of choice at is most appropriate at each age, but it is a moral and developmental imperative that there be some consultation and freedom of choice at every age, and substantially more with each passing year. We need to vehemently dissent from the totalitarian movement to impose a single, uniform, non-consensual diktat regarding the whole content, timing, and methods of schooling on every single citizen in complete disrespect of our common humanity and universal freedom of conscience. We need to accept that a uniform national curriculum, or indeed separate state or local standardized curricula, codified in law represent an establishment of religion and an abrogration of freedom of conscience contrary to our Constitution. And then, perhaps, we can return to the project of creating a genuinely democratic system of education worthy of a free people.





Institutional Failure in the West

Education, Government, Religion, Business, Environment, Culture

I used to wonder how it could happen that whole societies, or at least their institutional structures could suddenly collapse, as history and archeology show us has happened repeatedly in the human experience. Now it doesn’t seem so incomprehensible.

There is a pervasive failure of fundamental social institutions here in the US, with other Western societies and those that emulate us being gradually dragged down along with us.

Our educational institutions are massively failing to promote deep understanding, critical and creative thinking, or intellectual enthusiasm. To maintain the illusion of reform and improvement, they judge themselves by only the most superficial criteria. They are increasingly under-resourced relative to their primary functions and a growing and ever more diverse population, and there have been no new ideas for radical alternatives in the past 50 years. It seems increasingly evident that society’s powerbrokers do not want, and probably fear, effective education of democratic voters.

Our governmental institutions have been captured, or at least neutered, by private and corporate interests that clearly do fear the power of democratic governments to tax their wealth and restrict their unparalleled greed and willful ethical blindness. The power of money to influence elections through the mass media depends on having voters who were never educated in habits of critical thinking and who are deprived of access to facts about important issues. Governments have borrowed their way into near-bankruptcy because they know voters will not pay taxes to support the wars and corruption that keep politicians in power. Even the most well-meaning governments do not understand that what is in the government’s best interests (secrecy, spying on citizens’ communications, persecuting whistleblowers, preparing for every military possibility) is often not in the people’s best interests.

Our religious institutions are divided between boring, stale traditionalists and fanatically irrational purveyors of simplistic superstition and literal belief in inspiring but ahistorical legends. The rise of “fundamentalisms,” Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and even Buddhist exploits people’s gut revulsion at a society whose leaders value only wealth and power and have long since lost any sense of justice, generosity, harmony, wonder, or reverence.

Our economic institutions have turned from providing better goods and services to exploiting the microsecond volatility of complex computerized markets to allow those who can afford the technical access to drain wealth from everyone else, invisibly and giving nothing in return. The US economy and even moreso the smaller UK economy have become dangerously distorted by new financial “industries” that daily disprove the economic theories of rational allocation used to justify them. Meanwhile, the quality of goods and services accessible to all is falling, with a growing division of markets into high-end for the few and low-end for nearly everyone.

We scarcely even have institutions to cope with dangerous and increasingly global environmental destabilization. Financial and governmental interests do not want to take radical action to prevent the local and global disasters that we edge ever closer to. Future generations will revile them, and perhaps all of us, for centuries to come. No one wants to talk about the fundamental basis of environmental danger: unrestricted human population growth.

California: 2011 (top), 2014 (bottom) 

The arts and popular culture are among our most thriving institutions, but the growing separation of the elitist, backward-looking fine arts from the escapist, profit-driven, adolescent fantasies of mass popular culture is entombing the former in its cultural museums and reducing the latter to the function of the Roman gladiators. The rare exceptions are the gems of our era, but they gleam brighter because of the dreariness all around them.

These observations represent long-term trends at least since the 1980s and in many cases over much longer periods. All of the trends are accelerating. There are no effective economic, political, governmental, religious, or educational counter-movements to be seen. Democracy itself is waning; through apathy, the narrowing of channels for direct participation, mass disinformation campaigns, and the toxic paralysis of decision-making promoted by special interests.

The currently most promising ray of hope, internet democracy, is just marginally able to quickly assemble grass-roots coalitions large enough to frighten politicians into voting for the popular good. But by and large its successes also depend on splits within power elites, dependent on some supporting the internet initiatives. In the longer term, quietly and behind the scenes, the public interest is still defeated by less visible measures that subvert and undo visible and heralded victories. No radical change is going to come from this parallel popular democracy, which still depends ultimately on politicians more beholden in the short term to wealth and special interests than to the average voter. Signing petitions is not going to get capital gains taxed as ordinary income, re-distributive wealth taxes instituted, major reductions in military spending, or the closing down of domestic spying programs.

What will reverse these larger trends? It is hard to see any positive scenarios that are persuasive. Massive social unrest, major climate failures, famine, war, epidemics, economic collapse, and the other usual suspects can disassemble existing, failing institutions. Very unpleasantly. But what will come next? Can we imagine and create better economic, political, educational, environmental, moral and cultural institutions? How long will that take? And how many generations will suffer tragically before it happens?

Absent time travel, the judgment of history cannot harm us. But taking more serious responsibility for the world we bequeath to the future might ennoble us.

UChange Begins!

This winter and spring our UChange Network is beginning a pilot project in social innovation design at New York University’s MAGNET Center with Professor Ricki Goldman. We are aiming to expand this to a collaboration with the Oslo University College of Architecture and Design and the EngageLab at the University of Oslo, and eventually to other partner institutions.


A group of graduate students working with Ricki on designing social improvement projects for youth are developing a model online platform to connect young people who are willing to teach their special skills to those who are interested in learning them. At an early session, Ola Erstad from Oslo and I linked in by skype video chat to Ricki’s group at work. We tested out an app for recording the video call, while a student onsite documented with a higher quality video recorder.


Among the larger aims of the UChange project are a better understanding of collaboration and learning in the context of studio-based design work, and particularly insights into collaborations across age- and background- diversity. We will be documenting the collaborative design process with video and records of online contacts and dialogue, from multiple points-of-viewing, across multiple timescales, and with insights from theories of culture and social activity. You can follow some of this work on our FaceBook page. Other periodic updates will appear here.

We Need ChangeLabs for Learning!

Let’s bring researchers, designers, and learners together to re-imagine how to support learning in the 21st century.

Call them Change Labs, Design Studios, or Social Innovation Incubators, there’s a new way to make a better world. Everywhere today the model of Design Research is being used to promote innovation not just in products and services, but in cities and social institutions. Here’s the recipe: bring together the people who use the services with people who know how to make them better and create prototypes whose successes and failures can teach us what we can’t imagine.

Mindlab, Denmark

Complex adaptive system theory, simulation modeling, big-data research, in-depth local ethnographies of use, rapid prototyping, distributed intelligence, iterative-participatory design cycles – a perfect storm of innovation tools for the perfect mess of wicked problems our fast-change lives present us with.

And one wicked problem in particular: How do we re-imagine a social support system for learning that can do a better job than today’s failing schools and tradition-bound universities?

Kids in school are bored, smart kids don’t feel challenged, kids with problems are warehoused. Our one-size-fits-all curriculum doesn’t fit any world they will be living in. Students in universities spend four years getting deeply into debt meeting requirements for degrees that don’t get updated even once-a-decade. We separate the learning of science, mathematics, computer tools, and social issues from each other, re-creating the silos that hamper creative innovation. We teach politically safe literature when kids want to create their own, controversial media. Schools and universities both educate for the slow-changing world that spawned them, not the fast-changing one that’s about to test our best survival skills.

We can do better. We can identify who needs to be at the table, in the studio, on the net, listening, thinking, talking, playing, creating, critiquing, prototyping, evaluating, improving, innovating. They’re the people who know by experience just how bad things are. We need the people who can say what they need. And the people who know how to mobilize relevant research. The people who want to create and innovate to make a better learning system. The people with experience in bringing other people together to design better futures. The whole-system mix.

We can determine how such a change lab would work. How big or small should it be. Both locally and face-to-face and also networked and distributed in space and time.  We can generate its first new prototypes. We can propose the design brief it should start from. And we can start more than one.

Organizations, governments, and corporations need to realize that it doesn’t make sense to imagine more innovative communities, smarter cities, or better services without solving the problems of how to support the learning people will need to live productively in these challenging new worlds. Everyone recognizes that learning is the foundation for all the futures we want. Everyone knows that the education systems we have now are falling further and further behind people’s real needs.

We need ChangeLabs for learning, and we need them NOW!

Institute without Boundaries, Toronto 




Is Play the Best Way to Learn?

 If you want to use what you learn, and even improve on it, play may be the best way to learn.

 From the fall of 2010 to spring 2012, I coordinated a study of an after-school program where 1st to 5th graders learned to play computer games with visiting university undergraduates. In the beginning they played an “educational” game designed to lead players toward some of the standard goals of the school curriculum in math, science, and literacy. But after a long day at school, these kids were more interested in playing than learning, and so they taught us a thing or two about what learning looks like when you put play first.

The original game we all played together was Quest Atlantis, which is a very thoughtfully designed educational game that includes elements of fantasy worlds and moral choices as well as quests and missions oriented to school knowledge. It worked well enough in the beginning, but most of our kids were younger than it was designed for. The undergraduates helped them with reading beyond their level, but soon enough the kids were teaching them how to play the game – the fun way! Which meant a lot more exploration of the game’s rich fantasy worlds, and playing chase and hide-and-seek in them, and a lot less completing of the official missions.

Seeing that the kids wanted more freedom to create and play on their own terms, we had the game designers add an empty world, just grass and distant mountains, that the kids proceeded to fill up with their fantasy houses, buildings, people, and stories. They learned a lot about creating a virtual world, but the real point of the world was (1) it was theirs, and (2) it was a place to play.

By the start of the second year, we knew the kids wanted to play a wider range of games, and we allowed a screened selection of commercial games that also had good opportunities for learning along the way. In World of Goo, Minecraft, Portal, and Flight Simulator the kids again put play first, but also couldn’t help learning about structural engineering, strategy and defense, three-dimensional orientation in space, and the basics of flight. Gameplay was an extension of playing with their friends, old and new, younger and older. Kids taught kids the tricks of the games, and kids taught newly arriving undergraduates as well. They had a chance to be the leaders and teachers, but it was always about the fun of playing together.

What it is about play that Nature has discovered with kittens and puppies, monkeys and people? Why do we enjoy it so much? What benefit is so important that Nature builds play into our make-up through the feeling of enjoyment and pleasure we take in it? Play is not just about the fun we have. It’s also about the freedom to explore possibilities, to break rules and make new ones, to try things out in different ways. Learning something is of no use if you can’t figure out how to apply it flexibly in new situations. Playful learning makes sure that everything you learn is learned along with a range of variations and alternative possibilities, and with a desire to feel free to try out new ones. Playful learning is the foundation for practical use and for innovation and creative re-use of everything we learn through play. It’s not popular with the people who want to tell us exactly what we should learn because that’s the one right answer. But it sure is popular with kids, and maybe we should all learn the lesson they’re teaching us.

A more detailed discussion of this project and the role of emotions and play in learning is written up here.