Throwing it out there

The two of us – Chris Fox and Kristin Rowe, Team History in Grade 8 with “Ancient Civilizations” – have enjoyed the early days of our new course. We have had lots of space to dream, and we’ve been throwing around big ideas and grand visions regarding flipped classrooms, reverse instruction, the mastery learning approach, vodcasting, and computational thinking, etc, and what we could do in an ideal world/school/classroom.

But the dream is about to end, because we have to nail it down to reality! At this point, we have identified our year-long IT/IL project as the best opportunity to stretch ourselves regarding IT integration. So far, we have been working in collaboration with our middle school librarian to dip into database research and note-taking with NoodleTools alongside our daily classroom instruction, for which the textbook provides a foundation. The recurring themes holding our civilization study and research together are the five common Essential Questions (EQs). So the question is, besides picking up valuable research habits along the way, what is the final product for which they are doing all this research?

First, let’s consider the path we have started down, and what else we hope to encounter on this road. Students have been steered towards school-subscription databases like  Encyclopedia Britannica and Grolier Online as well as an appropriately titled  Ancient Civilizations Reference Library eBook for information and note-taking.  We will continue to broaden the resources to which we point the students; for example, we are want students to become Google power-users with advanced searching capabilities, and we want students to develop a more critical approach regarding website evaluation as we set them loose beyond the school database boundary.

We are encouraging students to practice titling their notecards with the five thematic EQs and “tagging” their notecards to allow for later comparison of aspects of civilization, and we know we want to include this higher-level thinking – a more in-depth comparative study – as a key descriptor of the final project.

But perhaps we don’t need to narrow it down much further than this:

  1. We want a comparative project around the EQ themes.
  2. We want student choice to allow them to pick up whatever ideas have intrigued them through the year.

And perhaps the rest should be a matter of student choice. One of the points identified by ISTE and CSTA  as key to 21st century computational thinking is the idea that students should have exposure to a range of research tools and strategies  so that they are in a position to identify, analyze, and implement the most efficient and effective combination of steps and resources to achieve their goals. If we narrow it down too far, we are taking away the opportunity for students to work through the chaos of choice to good decision-making around the most appropriate means for the most effective end. And if we want students to be able to follow their passions and for their passion to come through in their final products, then they need plenty of choice regarding final presentation of their learning.

Thus, our task would be to clearly define the options and support them with a framework for the process of planning and preparing a final project of their own design.

As we continue to brainstorm how students could present their research products, we really want to give student options regarding what tools they can use.  Of course, we have the standard GoogleApps or Inspiration 9.0 resources, but we are interested in exposing the students to a wide variety.  In our research, we are pleasantly surprised to find so many great sites about web 2.0 tools.  One of our favorite sites is Web 2.0: Cool Tools for Schools. It provides a plethora of options, each with a unique twist on its special features.  For example, one program that is new to us is ClipGenerator. Students can create their own cool video clips, add music and images, plus their own photos, and finish with a professional film cut and animation.  What a great way to hook the audience with the research topic.

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The Simple Show describes applications for the tool and “how to” work with it:

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We are shooting for a new way to present research, using collaboration and creativity.  It would be easy to simply have students complete a traditional two or three page research paper with cover page and Works Cited, but we want to arm the students with tools in order to be truly successful as they move to Upper School and prepare for what lies ahead –  the resources and opportunities are endless.  So, we are excited for the first time to throw this challenge out there to the students and see how it goes!

In case you wondered, a real human wrote this blog…

Okay, so I stole that line from a New York Times article by Steve Lohr that caught my attention recently with this title: “In Case You Wondered, a Real Human Wrote This Column.” But plagiarism as the dirtiest deed in academia took on a whole new dimension as I read the following lead:

“WISCONSIN appears to be in the driver’s seat en route to a win, as it leads 51-10 after the third quarter. Wisconsin added to its lead when Russell Wilson found Jacob Pedersen for an eight-yard touchdown to make the score 44-3 … . ”

Nothing remarkable in these words, you might think. It’s just a news brief published about the third quarter status of a Wisconsin-U.N.L.V. football game earlier this month. Except that it was churned out within 60 seconds of the siren … composed by a computer.

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Now, GoogleTranslate blows my mind, but this is more like artificial intelligence at work, it seems to me. An Illinois company,  Narrative Science, has been experimenting with software that is smart enough to write sports articles and other such data-based news writing, and smarter again to write like a human being – not in some kind of formulaic, fill-in-the-blank style that has typified efforts like this computer-authored work in the past. The computers may not have reached the level of an advanced human wordsmith, but they certainly manage the lingo of your typical local sports journalist with ease.

I shouldn’t be shocked, I suppose. Just as computers are getting better and better at understanding human language as we input it, they are getting better and better at generating it themselves. It has taken considerable time, money and effort investment from people like Narrative Science’s founders,  Kris Hammond and Larry Birnbaum, who are both professors of journalism and computer science as well, and also co-directors of the Intelligent Information Laboratory at Northwestern University. But the results speak for themselves – literally!

What are the broader implications, though? What does this mean for journalism – already a beleaguered occupation. If the software’s advanced data mining can make sense of housing and real estate statistics, as well as quarterly financial results of local public companies, such that it can then generate automatic summary articles… Well, this kind of journalistic slog-work could certainly be passed off to a robot writer. But what happens to the flesh-and-blood people whose job has thus been replaced? And who else – what other occupation that we might have thought could only be handled by humans – is in the firing line? When it comes to education, where online  courses and universities (like University of the People or the Khan Academy) are sprouting up everywhere, this begs a couple of questions: Is this a good thing? And, what do we need teachers for anymore?

Of course, the inventors of this journalistic artificial intelligence tell us that there is no cause for alarm. The companies who have expressed interest in the technology so far say they are not looking to replace anybody; rather, they are looking at this software to publish information that simply hasn’t been published before – that nobody got around to reporting. If that’s the case, then this writing software, purely expository in nature, would be a step towards greater democratization of the news, making more local news (like youth sports) more accessible. This is GOOD news!

The same goes for the greater reach of quality education that online programs now offer. There are a lot of people who can now access the sort of education that would earlier have been unheard of for their socio-economic or geographical situation. And then there’s the “Flipped Classroom” approach to teaching. The salient point there is that teachers are still very much needed to facilitate the personalization of education, the hands-on activities, and the in-class peer-to-peer collaboration that is also vital to the social constructivist’ s way of thinking about learning. It’s just homework that has been enhanced!

Still, towards the end of the article about robot writers, Mr. Hammond could not help but push the envelope:

“In five years,” he says, “a computer program will win a Pulitzer Prize — and I’ll be damned if it’s not our technology.”

 

Stand and Deliver! Promises I have to keep regarding my new History course

History is as essential to human society as memory is to an individual.  It provides a framework within which we can explore and debate complex issues such as identity, morality, and reality. Examining the historical precursors to the modern world also provides a reference point for speculating about what is possible in the future. History is concerned with the entire range of human activities so it is a super-subject, a meta-subject, if you like, that embraces many other disciplines. It requires the rigor of a scientist, the persistence of a detective, and also the imagination of a novelist. So we are excited to share with you the details of our new Grade 8 History course!

Thus began my “Back to School Night” speech delivered to a theater full of Grade 8 parents one evening last month. Part quote/part paraphrase from Deakin University course materialsthat I had stumbled across from my old M.Ed. program, I guess I was in a fairly evangelical state of mind to be using such grand language!

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Certainly, I am finding a whole new excitement in my teaching this year. After seven years of teaching Humanities, a combination of Language Arts and Social Studies, the school administration decided to decouple these subjects and overhaul our K-12 Social Studies curriculum, so I put my hand up to develop the new Grade 8 course and get back to my first love: history.

Actually, I wasn’t really looking for a change,  but once our principal announced the new approach to these subjects, I suddenly felt that proverbial seven-year-itch and I knew I couldn’t stand another year of doing the same thing – another year of an intricately woven but therefore tightly-packed curriculum, a course that was increasingly unwieldy under the weight of our efforts to meet Language Arts standards as well as Social Studies standards (as well as general community expectations – exactly when are you teaching traditional grammar and Shakespeare? And how well are the students performing in those standardized tests?) as well as the sundry IT/IL goals we knew we should get around to…

But now I have a blank page on which to balance competing interests about what curriculum pieces, exactly, we should “uncover” (as opposed to “cover”)  in Grade 8 History. Our administrators have given us the content “headings” – ours will be an Ancient and Classical History course following the rise and decline of six great civilizations: Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China, and Rome. (This will serve as a foundational course for the two Grade 9 History options: History of Asia and AP World History). And I have been partnered with my wonderful colleague and good friend, Chris Fox, who is also sharing the Jeff Utecht COETAIL journey with me!

So, it’s back to the beginning with curriculum development. And, now that we have no excuses, it’s “back to the future” in terms of our priorities for teaching and learning. We know we simply have to infuse 21st century skills into our classroom practices.  And just last week with the BTSN presentation that Chris and I delivered, we know we have made a promise to the parents about the kind of critical thinking their children will practice as apprentice historians.

Again, we stated it in grand terms:

 As students progress through each civilization, they will be challenged to understand how different societies influenced and adapted to their environment, and how they developed tools, technology, and infrastructure to meet their needs. Students will learn about trade, competition, and conflict over resources. In addition, they will examine the evolution of belief systems and government systems which shaped the lives of individuals and drove creative expression and historical accomplishments. Combining a chronological and comparative approach, students will explore the interplay of all these factors in explaining the rise and fall of entire cultures and civilizations, and their enduring impact on the present day.

Using “Understanding by Design” and “Teaching for Understanding” principles espoused by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, and underpinning our school’s approach to curriculum writing, Chris and I have identified a common set of essential questions and understandings that will enable a comparative approach to our study of civilizations, even as we take them up in chronological order. We know, however, that this is just one of many design elements we need to employ in our course to develop the higher-order skills our students will need in their unknowable future of miscellaneous opportunity in an increasingly complex, demanding and competitive 21st century. As the Partnership for 21st Century Skills national  organization advocates, for our students to compete in the global  economy, their education needs to fuse the traditionally tested core subjects (the “three Rs”) with the “four Cs” (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation).

 Check out this short, animated film about the “3Rs + 4Cs” approach:

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What it really means to embrace the 4Cs is elaborated upon in P21’s one-stop-shop for 21st century skills-related information, resources and community tools: Route 21. For one thing, the The 21st century Route 21 ideas challenge us to focus on the final statement I made to the parents – that we would connect this ancient history to the present day. More specifically, we need to make sure that our history course promotes understanding of academic content at much higher levels by weaving 21st century interdisciplinary themes through it – literacies like :  Global Awareness, Financial, Economic, Business and Entrepreneurial Literacy, Civic Literacy, Health Literacy, and Environmental Literacy.

Clearly, literacy is the buzz-word! Perhaps the most important aspect, however, is encouraging students to “buy into” the idea that this history course is not just about amassing the right GPA to be able to advance to a higher level option in the next grade level, but that the historical literacy they are developing is, itself, the goal.

We want students to realize that learning to “think like a historian” will provide them with a highly valuable and desirable skill-set to be competitive in their near and distant futures.

Once again, we sought to make this clear to parents when we canvassed the following history classroom practices:

  • Analyzing primary and secondary sources
    • which sets students up to be information detectives, sifting through evidence to be able to distinguish between fact and fiction, to identify perspective, exaggeration, and bias, and to evaluate the reliability of information sources
  • Analyzing cause and effect
    • connecting the dots between historical events and individual people, as well as the interplay of broader factors such as geography, economy, politics, religion, science and technology.
  • Practicing problem-solving and decision-making
    •  … particularly through…
  • Engaging in simulations and debates
    • ….and various role-playing activities that take students back to critical turning points in history, and which help to build understanding and empathy for people from other times, cultures and viewpoints
  • Advancing their research and information literacy skills …

…but that will the be the focus of the next blog. Meanwhile – phew! – we already have our hands full with all these promises and obligations about our new history course. That blank page on which to develop this year’s curriculum doesn’t seem so empty anymore!

Three Branches of Government – Many Ways of Looking at It

Visual aids have perhaps never been so important to my teaching of Social Studies concepts as when I taught about US Government this past month. In preparing and teaching this unit (Course 3 project) with my teaching partners, Chris and Erik, we rummaged into all the nooks and crannies of our visual literacy toolkit to pull out the following gems.

Students have a lot of persnickety tidbits of information to assimilate as they grapple with the idea of three branches of government  – the separation of powers, and the checks and balances. And while we would like them to be able to describe the range of responsibilities for each branch, we have more lofty goals than simply the recall of information. We want students to be able to describe what they know in metaphorical terms. We know that analogical reasoning is a higher-order thinking task, so students are set up to collaborate on a poster project for which they identify an appropriate three-part comparison and then explore just how far they can take those similarities.

Schoolhouse Rock! provides a handy example with “Three Ring Circus.”

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Then, with the goal in mind, we begin a series of lessons that seek to raise students’ awareness about the Constitution, how it works as a “rule book” for the game of government, describing the role of the various players and their “moves.” Below is one slide from our introductory PowerPoint:

This PowerPoint punctuates a rather long lecture on the history of the Constitution and how it came about (as we need to assume little or no prior knowledge of US Government), so we know we need to give students a chance to process all this verbal and visual information in a more collaborate, student-directed activity. Two Inspiration Webs serve this purpose. Pairs work with one computer between them to take a list of key vocabulary terms/concepts and add these into the web organization, adding text to explain connections:

Then, a more detailed slide show compares and contrasts features of the Three Branches, such as terms of office:

The remaining time is divided between further interactive activities such as three BrainPop video/quizzes (“The US Constitution”, “The Bill of Rights”, and “The Three Branches of Government”):

BrainPop “Three Branches of Government” (www.brainpop.com/socialstudies/usgovernmentandlaw/branchesofgovernment/)© 1999-2011 BrainPOP. All rights reserved. BrainPOP is a business name of FWD Media, Inc. Your use of the site indicates your agreement to be bound by our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

And students play interactive games from the excellent civics curriculum resource, iCivics, to review, apply, and self-assess what they have learned. Once again, we add the collaborative element by instructing students to work in pairs, so that decision-making is a shared meaning-making exercise.

In addition, we have charts and posters around the room for visual reference. The students’ own “Three Branches of Government Metaphor Poster Project” will become another one of these when they are finished; thus, students ultimately have the benefit of everybody’s collective creativity and metaphorical thinking … at a glance!



Digital Citizenship Lesson Buffet for Middle School – Course 2 Project

Our school is looking to develop the character education component of our homeroom time. One slice of the pie I’d like to sink my teeth into is digital citizenship. To be sure the message gets out to all students, I would be very pleased to see explicit teaching about rights & responsibility, security & safety, communication & etiquette become part of our homeroom advisory instruction.

Working with Alli and Becky, we sought to kickstart the process with a Digital Citizenship Lesson Buffet for the middle school – a list of links, lessons, and activities, organized into broad categories, that could be shared with the IT Department and MS Administration for future planning of character education delivery.


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We began by defining specific realms – digital citizenship traits. It didn’t take long for these divisions to prove themselves quite arbitrary as the online materials out there are myriad and, of course, do not necessarily follow our idea of compartmentalization!

Nevertheless, we came across many, many good online resources, initially with some assistance from a small taskforce of Grade 6 and 7 students in an after-school IT-interest club, sponsored by Becky and our MS IT Coordinator (who played an important advisory role in this project also).

The more we gathered, categorized, and annotated, the more we all got the feeling that we were barely scratching the surface of the awesome resources available. Even when we restricted ourselves to those freely available, without charge. Fully developed all-in-one programs do exist, of course, but our school is perhaps looking to use a more personalized, student/teacher-interest driven methodology, so this was another reason for our smorgasbord approach to the project.

We see the future of our project requiring the direction of coordinators and principals. However, we suggest that next steps would involve (hopefully student-directed) defining of the traits of digital citizenship. The materials also need to be transposed to some sort of articulated framework, i.e. which grade levels do what.

Long story short (project steps and further info are available below in the project document itself): Regardless of next steps at the next level of administration at our school, I am personally looking forward to using some of these ready-to-go, highly-interactive online resources at content-related intervals through the rest of this year, and hopefully next year as well, when our advisory program will take more concrete shape.

Here is our final Course 2 Project GoogleDoc template:

For Better and/or Worse

“Teachers have always had a responsibility to help their students grow out of youthful isolation, digital or not, and became intellectually curious about the wider world around them.”

The digital world is a challenge to me, to other educators – and to our students – but it is also one that we must adjust to, according to Carol Jago, President of the National Council of the Teachers of English. In a September interview, Jago said that “the digital world offers benefits but also pitfalls for education at all levels.” (Listen to the interview with Carol Jago: Download)

While our focus as educators should clearly be on enhancing our curriculum with Web 2.0 tools and other “edtech” innovations, we still need to be mindful of what students are doing with technology aside from our curriculum work, because it certainly has an impact on the quality of the work.

We know, for example, that young people absorb themselves for hours and hours at a time with online chatting, video-gaming, and variously dabbling with digital devices. A Kaiser Family Foundation study cited by Jago found that “people between the ages of eight and 18 spend an average of seven-and-a-half hours a day “plugged in” to digital devices.” Of course, this is going to get in the way of studying and homework. Jago echoes Prensky’s solution: teachers must figure out how to transpose those things that make gaming, texting, and Facebooking so fascinating into our instruction, (although she stops short of Prensky’s opinion that turning lessons into video games will go a long way to solve the problem).

Digital distractions are disparaged for another two-pronged problem they create. Not only do they distract from the time students have to sit down with a book and read, but as Jago worries, Web-based reading may also discourage deep, analytical reading.

But technology seems to be Janus-faced – for every problem created, a plethora of possible solutions open up. A Scholastic study released at the end of September found that many kids want to read books on digital devices and would do so more frequently if they had access to e-books. The findings from a survey of more than 2,000 children ages 6 to 17, and their parents, highlights the potential of e-readers, computers, and mobile devices for encouraging digitally-savvy students to read more.

Kids have embraced this technology ahead of their parents. The statistics showed many more kids had used e-readers than adults, and many more were interested in doing so. Obviously, young people viewed the same tools they use for socializing and gaming as opportunities to read.

Still, many parents worry. This study aligns very much with my own conversations at parent-teacher conferences over the past couple of years (and coming up again next week!). Parents really worry about whether their “modern multi-tasking adolescent” has the perseverance to get through an entire novel. They worry whether their sons and daughters have developed stunted attention spans, too engrossed in fast-moving ideas to voluntarily restrict themselves to recreational reading.

I am certainly sympathetic to these concerns. I guess my best response is to present research findings, such as were reconfirmed by the Scholastic study, that parents can still have a big impact on their children’s reading lives by providing interesting books to read at home and also by setting limits on time spent in front of the computer – particularly with the goal of ensuring kids get adequate sleep.

But there’s still more to worry about.

The report confirmed what many of us already suspect: that children are altogether too trusting about information they find on the Internet. The alarming statistic = 39 percent of children ages 9 to 17 said the information they found online was “always correct.” Obviously, this needs to be addressed through collaboration between library media specialists and classroom/core teachers in efforts to raise information literacy. We can’t just assume that somebody else in school is taking care of this – the alarming statistics are a salient warning. Better to reinforce website evaluation skills, for example, every year than assume another teacher or subject has got it covered.

How else is technology, or more specifically, social networking impacting our students’ lives? Well, again, both for better and for worse. The double-edged sword of perpetual connection was chronicled in an Associated Press-mtvU poll, released October 7. It showed that 57% of students said that life without technology would be more stressful, and yet a significant 25% said it would be “a relief.” The pressure to keep up with text messages and Facebook communication causes a lot of stress – this according to a majority of respondents. Waiting for replies to a message is also stressful, as is the process of interpreting messages. Nearly half of respondents worry if the messages they receive are jokes.

News stories grab headlines with worst-case-scenario stories of cyber-bullying and suicide, but these are a drop in the ocean compared to the low-level but perpetual stress that comes from being tethered to technology.

On the other side of the equation, though, sites like Facebook provide new and increasingly popular avenues for seeking emotional support. Yet, the very public nature of social networking means that cries for help come at both the advantage and disadvantage of exposure. Young people are both more visible and more stressed about it because they can’t always control the information about themselves that’s available online.

More statistics from the study provide evidence that social networking is both a blessing and a curse. They show “a window into a world where 8 in 10 students say their lives are happy—yet 6 in 10 say they’ve recently felt too stressed to hang out with friends, an increase over the past two years. Similar numbers say they’ve been too agitated for school work. Twenty percent say they have a friend who has discussed suicide over the past year, and 13 percent say a friend has tried to kill himself or herself. Nine percent have considered it themselves.”

These are the complex forces at work in the minds and bodies that come into my classroom every day. I feel for these kids who don’t have the advantage of anonymity that we had. Flippant remarks I may once have made are lost in time (I like to think!); yet, they are permanent digital footprints for our students. Things that we used to say verbally are now online – permanently “out there” – and searchable.

The following video reinforces the point that kids have to think twice before posting anything online. I will use it in conjunction with the second video, which was greeted by stunned silence and then a very excited discussion last year when I shared it with my classes:

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Once again, I am reminded that educators are responsible for more than just their curriculum – the success our students show with our curriculum is utterly impacted by what is going on in their very public private lives. So their real and virtual lives are very much our concern as well.

The Costs of Constant Connection

A Newsweek article from August this year – “Lost in Electronica, The costs of ‘the chaos of constant connection’” – gave me pause. It asks us to re-think boredom – usually considered a bad thing – as a special privilege of the complex brain, and thus an aspect that distinguishes us from our animal friends. George Will posits that our capacity for boredom is essential to our humanity because it means we have the mental ability, and the space, to reflect and plan, space for empathetic thinking and community-action. A vital ingredient of global citizenship. And one that is increasingly absent in our constantly connected, constantly stimulated society.

Taking a cue from the evolutionist argument, Will suggests that our efforts to skirt boredom can be explained as the response of a brain formed in dangerous prehistoric times and wired to be constantly alert and vigilant. Our modern lifestyle has brought with it an unprecedented climate of safety and, thus, sedentary brain function, but our minds still seek stimulation and find respite from boredom in audio-visual entertainments. New technologies now allow young people’s brains to remain in an almost constant state of being “switched on” so that boredom can be utterly assuaged.

Will is actually reflecting on an article, “The case for boredom,” by clinical psychologist, Adam J. Cox, author of Boys of Few Words: Raising Our Sons to Communicate and Connect (Guilford, 2006) and No Mind Left Behind (Perigee, 2007). Cox describes the minds of today’s teenagers as obese with the sudden abundance of electronic stimuli. Just as human beings have gorged on the far greater quantities of salt, sugar, and fat that the modern diet allows in contrast to our genome’s formative times, our modern minds now crave “junk nourishment” in the “ubiquitous barrage of battery-powered stimuli delivered by phones, computers, and games” which together form an “addictive electronic narcotic.”

As with all things electronic, the last half century has seen an exponential increase of this phenomenon. Previously boredom might have troubled the brain after an hour or two of nothing much to do. But these days, kids feel bored far faster. As constant stimulation and amusement becomes the “new normal” boredom is disappearing, and with it, by definition, the “available resources for thought, reflection, and civil behavior.” With “excess amusement” young boys (for they were the focus of Cox’s clinical work) are induced into a “pleasant trance from which they do not care to be awakened” and from which they “fail to launch” from self-centered adolescence into the adult world. Cox reminds us that being a responsible and contributing citizen is rarely fun – “it requires patience, forethought, and some willingness to tolerate tedium.” Thus, less boredom is less opportunity to practice civility and civic-mindedness.

The ominous corollary is that our constantly connected young people are stuck in an “electronic playground” of hyperstimulation. In fact, with the diagnoses of learning and attention deficit disorders going through the roof, Cox argues that at some point we just have to drop the label “disorder” and call it, simply, the way we really are right now. And the way we are is amused into a sort of self-absorbed oblivion.

Concerns about how our society is “dumbing down” are not new. Bradbury, of course, was on to it in the 1950s. Neil Postman was still on about it in the 1980s (in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death), arguing that politics, religion – rational argument and the quality of information – had all been diluted and made subservient to entertainment. He writes that consumers have basically, and voluntarily, surrendered their rights in exchange for entertainment.

While Postman pointed the finger at television, Cox points out that the available electronic stimuli have multiplied, with dire consequences for the next generation: “Unlike reading and listening to stories, the blitz of electronica doesn’t build deeper listening skills or a greater range of emotional expression.” He says, “Not only does withdrawal into electronica enable them to bypass the confusion and pain of trying to give their emotions some coherence, it also helps them avoid the realities of being a flawed, vulnerable, ordinary human being.”

Will adds further concern to this social phenomenon of stunted maturity with findings from the field of neuroscience. Brain scientists have shown that the “mature” brain is not a finished product and can, in fact, be rewired by intense and prolonged experiences. “Some research suggests that the constant short-term stimulation of flitting to and fro among digital promptings can impede long-term memory on which important forms of intelligence depend.”

Thus, Will expands Cox’s concerns to embrace us all. He argues that it is not just young boys and not even just the next generation who have all too successfully beaten away boredom. “Adults of both sexes, too, seem insatiably hungry for handheld devices that deliver limitless distractions.”

“We are in the midst of a sudden and vast social experiment involving myriad new means of keeping boredom at bay. And we may yet rue the day we surrendered to the insistent urge to do so.”

So, what do we make of Cox and Will, Postman and Bradbury? Are these just old guys on the un-cool side of the generation gap? Or have they got a (frightfully) good handle on the nature of the next generation?

Perhaps we could simply put it all down to that digital divide between natives and immigrants (to use Mark Prensky’s terminology to distinguish between people born before and after the advent of the computer). Digital immigrants stand out for their predigital dispositions; Prensky calls these digital “accents” in a blog for Edutopia (“Adopt and Adapt: Shaping Tech for the Classroom”). Having come to technology later in life, they tend to downplay the importance of new tools, concepts, and practices made possible in the new digital world, such as the importance of online relationships as compared to face-to-face ones. He states unequivocally, “Such outmoded perspectives are serious barriers to our students’ 21st-century progress.” Prensky positions himself squarely on the side of the natives in his 2006 book, Don’t Bother Me Mom–I’m Learning!, which champions the educational benefits of video game play. He argues that children “are almost certainly learning more positive, useful things for their future from their video and computer games than they learn in school!”

Educationally speaking, therefore, should I be glitz-ing up my teaching with technology? Should I be seeking to engage my students through entertainment? Video games and social networking sites – are these really my best allies in teaching and learning? Should I be making such efforts to go to where the kids are – “hanging out, messing around, geeking out” online – that education looks a whole lot like what kids are already doing with technology? So students don’t even notice when I am slipping in a bit of teaching on the side?
Or is it okay if learning is a bit boring sometimes?

“To be able to delay immediate satisfaction for the sake of future consequences has long been considered an essential achievement of human development.” So sayeth Shoda, Mischel, and Peake in reporting their famous (1990) experiment on delayed gratification in the American Psychological Associations journal, Development Psychology (Predicting Adolescent Cognitive and Self-Regulatory Competencies From Preschool Delay of Gratification: Identifying Diagnostic Conditions). So, should I put that marshmallow (or Oreo cookie in some replications of this experiment) on the desk in front of them? Or is a little bit of delayed gratification (and hard slog) a good thing for my students?

Certainly there seem to be some serious differences of opinion on either side of the digital divide when it comes to information obtained over the internet and concepts of originality – intellectual property and copyright. Some say that many digital age students simply do not understand that using words they did not write is a serious offense. If these digital natives have an “accent” then it is decidedly colloquial. Lazy, even.

On the one side, there is the perspective that the vast buffet of online information is open to the global community and therefore counts, basically, as common knowledge. Cutting and pasting has canceled out the concept of authorship. Digital natives – who have grown up with file-sharing, web-linking, and Wikipedia – assume that the information “out there” is available for anyone to take. This puts them profoundly at odds with educators and older adults who bluntly call this plagiarism.

A New York Times article (“Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in Digital Age” August 2010) claims that the number of university students who believe that copying from the Web constitutes “serious cheating” is declining. The Western concept of intellectual property rights and singular authorship seems to be on the way out. It’s been with us for a while, anyway – since the Enlightenment, one could argue. So is this simply a natural waxing and waning of an ideal? Or is it the typical lack of discipline we tend to find in younger generations? Inevitable paradigm shift? Or “Generation Plagiarism” impatient for a fast-food, corner-cutting solution to the problem that writing is difficult and good writing takes time and practice? One university official in the article reported that a majority of plagiarism cases at his university involved students who knew perfectly well that they need to credit the writing of others. They copied intentionally, he said, knowing it was wrong. They were just unwilling to apply themselves to the writing process.

Or did they just recognize that it was wrong in the eyes of the old dudes in charge? In the same article, it was argued that notions of originality and authenticity have changed with the popularity of the “mash-up.” Student writing now tends to mimic the sampling, combining, and synthesizing that is more and more evident in music, TV shows, and YouTube videos.

Students themselves are less interested in creating a unique identity as young people were in the 1960s. Instead, they try on different personas like they try on different outfits, enabled by social networking and file-sharing technology. Borrowing freely from whatever’s out there, this might just be a new model young person: “If you are not so worried about presenting yourself as absolutely unique, then it’s O.K. if you say other people’s words, it’s O.K. if you say things you don’t believe, it’s O.K. if you write papers you couldn’t care less about because they accomplish the task, which is turning something in and getting a grade. And it’s O.K. if you put words out there without getting any credit.”

Of course, this kind of “us and them, either/or” talk is dramatic and thought-provoking, but it doesn’t really reflect what I’m thinking. Indeed, when it comes to technology in education, the polarized perspective is neither reasonable nor practical. The genie is already out of the bottle – the laptops are already in their hands at TAS. Indeed, the students in my classroom do not know a pre-MySpace/Napster era.

Now, for me, it’s about tapping into the potential of electronica to enhance education through its powers of motivation and customization and collaboration. AND balancing this with some old-fashioned discipline of the mental, social, and physical variety. Why? Because the gatekeepers are still the old dudes. The college admissions officers still care (somewhat) about school grades and SAT scores. But the revolution is coming and the students will be leading it. So, as Jeff Utecht commented during his TEDxTalk, I need to be socially networked, personal-learning-network-connected, or just frequenting Facebook, to see it coming!

Technology & Twisted Fiction: Does Bradbury’s twisted future have anything left to teach us?

I’m looking forward to helping Ray Bradbury exercise his dystopic demons again this year. I have been studying his Fahrenheit 451 with my students for the past six years and invariably he leaves them worrying and wondering, at least a little, about the state of our society.

This is the unit of work that our group of three Grade 8 English/Social Studies teachers has identified for enriching with technology to meet our Course 1 goals, and our teaching goals too, of course.

It amazes me, actually, that students engage at all with Bradbury’s metaphor-manic prose. As I explain to the students, whose eyes have just about rolled to the back of their heads by the end of page 2, this novel is really the author’s soapbox stand. It’s an urgent message he wants to get out to all of us about censorship and conformity, about misguided attempts to find happiness, about loss of humanity, about being entertained into mental oblivion … And about the impact of technology on society. He could have gone into politics, or the music industry, or taken to graffitiing important monuments with his message. But instead he wrote a book. I am pretty blunt – I don’t promise a compelling plot or rich characterization (after all, they have just been indulged with John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men). I tell them they will have to read Fahrenheit 451 as detectives. They need to wade through the clues of Bradbury’s literary puzzle, and take in the sprinkling of storyline on the side, to unearth the rich themes which are strikingly relevant today for a book that was written in the early 1950s about a future imagined in the 24th century.

For much of the story we see technology perverted to the whims of a faceless, nameless all-powerful government/media monopoly that seeks to maintain control through a devious mix of censorship and entertainment. These “authorities” have taken advantage of the citizens’ increasing laziness about wanting to know what’s going in the world, about wanting to truly learn about life, warts and all. Instead, people are increasingly satisfied to be passive, unquestioning recipients of a wave of empty factoids that are steadily beamed at them through interactive big-screen TVs that have substituted for walls in people’s homes, and also through the radio earbuds (iPod precursors?!) which they wear constantly, plugging up their ears to the point that citizens have learned to lip-read so as to avoid the necessity of dividing their attention between the gripping infotainment streamed directly to their ears and the people they live and work amongst (but with which they don’t really engage). Not only has technology enabled mental laziness, it also facilitates physical laziness by taking over basic daily functions, such as passing the breakfast toast from toaster to plate. It also comes into play when it’s time to pick up the pieces of the citizens’ sad, empty lives. Drug overdoses are so frequent, that doctors no longer attend this kind of emergency; instead, a machine has been invented to do the stomach-pumping and blood transfusions, and it requires only a machine operator to plug it in and turn it on. Citizens are both willingly and unwittingly giving up their autonomy to technology.

Bradbury’s futuristic society seems to be a sad and sorry mix of George Orwell’s 1984, in which the citizens are oppressed by their government, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which citizens are oppressed through their addiction to amusement. It is all very oppressive!

Fortunately, the last stages of the book reveal an alternative future. One rebel has developed a two-way radio earbud so he can stay in contact with his new friend, the protagonist, and so together they can fight the forces of evil. And finally, at the end of the novel, our hero meets a group of outcasts who seem to have technology firmly in hand – quite literally, in the case of the televisions, which have been downsized into hand-held devices, handy for news updates but also easy to put down and walk away from.

This leads me to wonder how easy it is for us to walk away from technology these days. It is a question I put to our students and we have, for a number of years now, conducted our own social experiment with a voluntary technology fast – or, rather, e-media fast.

Every now and then, I read of other teachers and students pondering the same question. Just this month a high school in Portland, Oregon, attempted their own “fast” to prompt the same kind of self-reflection: “Students at Portland’s Lincoln High School unplug, experience life without technology”. Ironically, by switching off, kids are prompted to switch on their consciousness: “You don’t have to go live in the woods, but you have to be conscious about how you use these electronics,” one student reported in the article. “When people are educated about what they’re doing, that’s when they can make a personal decision to change.”

My own students have recounted widely varying personal responses. (We have tried to do it over a holiday period, because some level of laptop use would be required on a typical school day.) Some highly active kids just get on with their physical activity – no big deal. Highly social kids organize get-togethers in real time and space, instead of cyberspace – they plan sleepovers, bake cookies, and hang out together. For some, it takes organization and effort to stave off the boredom and disconnection they feel without technology. For others, it is surprisingly tough and they quit early. A small group invariably reports that they know they couldn’t get on with life without technology, and so what? They don’t have to contemplate a life without technology, anyway, so what’s the point? They are self-confessed addicts, but the addiction seems pretty harmless. Or is it?

Opening Up

“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein”

~Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith

Unfortunately, although I now have the relative luxury of my laptop and Microsoft Office Word 2007, I don’t feel that the writing is coming any easier. And Mr. Smith was making these dramatic claims as a sportswriter, after all. Isn’t that simply a matter of collecting clichés? Whereas I, on the other hand, am tasked with writing something worth reading on the subject of education and how we can turbo-charge it with digital power-tools.

I have tormented myself with inaction over this blogging assignment since it was first proposed by Jeff. The tech part I feel I can figure out by myself or with the help of a kindly middle school IT coordinator in exchange for extra play dates/babysitting for her young children. And the education part – no worries there. I love it. I got into teaching for the learning.

It’s the composing and exposing of myself that is excruciating for me.

William Wordsworth isn’t much help: “Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart,” he says. Thanks for that. It’s the echoing emptiness in my head that makes me so hyper-aware of my heartbeat anyway, and I’m already heavy-breathing (or maybe it would be classed as hyperventilating now) about the prospect of 8 blogs and a looming end-of-course deadline.

A word is not the same with one writer as with another. One tears it from his guts. The other pulls it out of his overcoat pocket.  ~Charles Peguy

That’s more like it. I picture my incredibly intelligent colleagues with fingers fairly flying over their keyboards as their reflections on teaching through technology enliven the blogosphere. Their wisdom – complete thoughts, rich sentences – sprout forth fully formed …Meanwhile, my process is more of the gut-wrenching, hara-kiri variety.

Surely writing would come more easily at this point if I felt I had anything of value to say, anything to add to the already loud chorus out there about digital tools and their potential for pushing us into a new paradigm for understanding teaching and learning. But why should I add my timorous voice to the bold banter of the expert bloggers out there?

Okay, so I understand the point of writing – on a personal level. I am a teacher of writing, after all. For years I have been explaining to the raised eyebrows in my classroom that we write to think. We write to give ourselves pause for thought. (A looooong pause, in my case.) We write to think more deeply. The writing process should be a process of personal discovery, of learning. To promote critical thinking and earnest self-analysis is the bottom line of our mission as teachers, right?

The new NETs for Teachers get to this, of course: “teachers should promote student reflection … to reveal and clarify students’ conceptual understanding and thinking, planning and creative processes” (1c). Can you guess which tid-bit I conveniently exchanged for an ellipsis?

And, yes, if it’s good for them, it’s good for me too. Of course, I’m going to want to distance myself from the type of teacher parodied in this YouTube clip: When I become a teacher YouTube Preview Image (which is pretty much a video version of the old, offensive adage: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”)

But I haven’t just been asked to write for me. I’m writing for my peers, and whoever else stumbles across me out there in cyberspace. This scares the pants off me. Now it’s a whole other ball game. We’re talking not only about writing to think, or writing as a dialogue between student and teacher, but writing to PUBLISH. And this is where I wrestle with the value of blogging for me. I have always considered that the role of a writer (a writer who seeks a public audience, that is, publication) is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say. (Referentially and deferentially yours ~Anaïs Nin) If I don’t have anything new to bring, why bring it? I know a bit of blog cross-referencing and name-mentioning is a nice form of flattery for other bloggers, but that’s just Commenting, not Writing.

Shelly Blake-Plock, in his post on Why Teachers Should blog (from TeachPaperless blog) describes a poor wretch of a student in his education class who sounds a lot like me. The student complained that he had nothing to blog about because he had nothing to offer to advance the discussion. Blake-Plock says his student is wrong. To blog is to teach yourself to think, he says, and then goes on to admonish the student for over-thinking. Stop it, he says. Don’t think too much, just write. Just bare your brains out there. Be embarrassed. Be confronted by your own inadequacies, amplified exponentially by the very public nature of your idiocy. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, have another go. Think again. Grow. And grow up. That’s the point of the exercise.

But is failure a prerequisite for greater understanding? Must that failure be on a grand scale, in front of a broad readership, which includes the people I have to front up to work with tomorrow?

Must we struggle, must we fail, must we do it spectacularly and in public?

Haven’t some significant contributors to human progress done so without epic failure or even initial embarrassment? Have their endeavors always been collaborative? Haven’t they had space to think/invent/compose in private? Or at least to determine their audience – who the great work is revealed to, and when? Do I owe myself and/or my students some space to do the same? Or should we be forced into the full glare of the online world on somebody else’s timetable?

Blake-Pock declares that it is teachers who have “the power to teach a generation that to fully live and to fully know one’s self is to fully live and to fully know one’s self in the public conversation.” Wow! Is public success and failure the only kind that really counts? Is there no personal, private triumph? (Heck, I’m feeling a small victory coming on as I near the end of this post!) Just because we can – because we have this vehicle, this world wide web, to reach across the globe – is there an imperative to do so?

Can’t we just read our history (and an expert’s top 10 list of expert blogs on the subject) and learn from the mistakes of others?

(Please?)