Saturday, February 5, 2011

On Educational Fomentation

            For the past ten years or so, educational revolutionaries have relied on what seems an obvious truth: “The Internet changes everything!” For the ten years before that, technology in general.
            It really hasn’t, at least not in some very fundamental ways. That’s where most of these reformers miss the point in how to bring about what is desirable transformation. So to any educational reformers who happen to be reading, consider this free, friendly advice.

Rethink the attitude.
            Many reformers become revolutionary zealots who tend to process issues in binary code: Teachers who do this or that are great; those who don’t must be trained (like dogs) and adapt or be fired. They present points with a smugness that implies they pity anyone who just can’t get it. When pushed, they express disbelief that someone might not see this as clearly as they do. Also, people don’t particularly like dramatic change, particularly when told it’s necessary because they are doing things wrong. However, they often embrace a larger compelling purpose. Towards that end, encouragement trumps disparagement. Instead of daring people to leap off cliffs, help them take small steps. Recently Doug Johnson wrote about just this idea on his Blue Skunk Bog.

Rethink the logic.
            The usual argument goes this way: The world is changing in accelerating fashion; we have no way to know what the next few years will bring, let alone the next few decades. No question...but then the logic disintegrates. The reformer will invoke trends and futurists, proceeding to tell us what people will need in that unpredictable future.
Rethink the basic argument.
            Yes, digital technology has destabilized human culture. But the skills that reformers stress have long been basic facets of humanity. Indeed, they have been crucial to our very humanness.

·         Critical Thinking Skills. Weren’t these at the heart of Plato’s Dialogues? Wasn’t Jesus prompting these in his enigmatic preaching? John Dewey believed his practical philosophy of education should lead to social reform, a process that necessitates critical thinking. Art Costa has been writing about Habits of Mind—mental qualities necessary for critical thinking—since at least the early 1990s.

·         Creativity. Artistic and Intellectual. From at least the earliest cave paintings, people have used art to express the story of humanity. Our ability to use language is tied to our conception of tools, a merging of both types of creativity. The inventions that have sparked historical change—writing, clock, printing press, steam engine, microprocessor—are dramatic examples of how creativity has driven human progress.

·         Information Gathering. From the Royal Library in Ancient Alexandria to the U.S. Library of Congress, from the Capitoline Museums to the Smithsonian, we have a long history of creating glorious edifices to house and organize our collective knowledge. We do this because of our innate desire to learn. Nothing seems more natural than small children asking endless questions about everything they encounter.

·         Social Connectivity. The salons of Europe, coffeehouses of the 1950s and 1960s, the marketplaces of Ancient Greece and Modern Africa, neighbors chatting over the fence—we are social creatures interested in each other.

·         Collaborations. Early humans began to gather force when they gathered in small packs, and then we quickly developed societies for the common good. The Manhattan Project brought together many of the world’s greatest minds to end World War II more quickly. American’s Founding Fathers collaborated to create a governmental system generally resistant to the constant turmoil of others.

Rethink the Nature of Revolution.
            Are these skills likely to be even more vital in the future? No doubt. They are now essential rather than merely desirable. But as suggested above, the Internet has not changed their role in human progress. It has changed how much more easily people can exercise them. They now have tools and access which harness some of humans’ most desirable traits. Once people have experienced that power, they don’t want to give it up. Real revolution happens when the people rise.

            I’m not suggesting our students are ready to revolt in a way that changes schools drastically. (At least not yet.) I’m urging that we all rethink the essential argument. It’s not about some paradigmatic shift in the course of history. Instead, the call to action should focus on empowering students in ways that allow them to participate meaningfully in the long arc of human history.


Joel Backon said...

Mark, great post. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Tools change, but our goals for kids are the same. Did we miss something?

Mark Crotty said...

Hey, Joel. It's great to know that you're reading and to have you comment. You've been a voice I've long admired on the ised-l list-serv, and it's been a while since we've communicated.

I think we have missed something, and I think it happens because we're always afraid that we're missing something. Consequently, we focus on the wrong things.