Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Heed the Dodo

The massive historic sweep of Howard Rheingold’s Mind Amplifier: Can Our Digital Tools Make Us Smarter? pivots on a central premise: “…humans appear to be ‘natural-born cyborgs,’ biologically equipped to reprogram each other’s thinking machinery through culture” (Kindle edition, loc 65). Essentially, then, our evolution into modern human beings has been inextricably linked to our ability to learn. He argues, “It’s not just the mind-tools that matter when creating civilization shifters. Knowing how to use mind-tools is what reshapes thinking and bends history” (loc 29). Similarly, “…the human brain’s self-programming capabilities seem to have arisen from, and remain coupled to, a co-evolutionary upward spiral” (loc 104). Because of that, “The road to microchips started when humans began growing food instead of hunting for it” (loc 158).
It’s really much more than our having enjoyed all the benefits of the opposable thumb. But let’s go ahead and start someplace similar. Something inspired someone to use some object—stick, rock—as a simple tool or weapon. Scientists speculate this move and how it affected the cerebral cortex primed the pumps for the eventual emergence of language development. Both operate on similar types of abstraction and ideation. The flywheel began spinning and picked up speed. Once we began growing food, communities formed, leading to further language enhancement. Alphabetic communication and thinking naturally leads to abstract thinking, logical analysis, and classification systems. And so forth and so on…
Which brings us to today. As Rheingold sees the current situation: “We’re beginning to see how the process of using old tools to create new tools works. This means we can influence or exert control over the process of evolution of the extended mind rather than simply coping with it” (loc 90). More specifically:
The question now is how to incorporate what is known about the psychology of attention, the reprogramming of the neuroplastic capacity of the human brain, the effects of human-computer interfaces, tools for turning complex data into visualizations, and the collaborative affordances of online media to deliberately design the next level of abstraction. (loc 437)
And: “The design of computers to enhance cognitive functions of individuals becomes an order of magnitude more complicated when enhancing the cognitive functions of human social groups” (loc 470).
                Those passages raise gigantic, hairy, frightening, exciting questions. They demand our consideration, and answers aren’t likely to come very easily. The implications for human culture are massive, and they are approaching much faster than we may realize or want to believe. I’m fascinated by the topic and could go on and on.
                But for now, I want to zero in on one of those implications: What does this mean for schools? Or another way of putting it: Why school?
                It’s not a new question. I suspect it’s been around ever since there have been schools. When my wife attended the Harvard Graduate School of Education in the early 1990s, “Why school?” was an oft-repeated query. In this case, it pondered why education—more specifically, school—is one of the few compulsory things in the United States and just why that is. If it is going to be, we should keep re-examining the objectives and the practices. While I have not read Mike Rose’s Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us, my understanding is that he does so through both broad and narrow lenses. Browsing some reviews, I sense Rose focuses on rather eternal educational values.
In the wonderful Why School? How Education Must Change When Learning and Information are Everywhere, Will Richardson considers the question in a more pointed, historically immediate sense. He challenges: “…what’s the value of school now that opportunities for learning without it are exploding all around us?” (Kindle edition, loc 65). As he sees the world developing, “In this new story, real learning happens anytime, anywhere, with anyone we like—not just with a teacher and some sage-age peers, in a classroom, from September to June” (loc 53).
In answering the question, schools have to consider a power shift. Or at least a shift in control. Until recently, schools and teachers maintained power and control primarily because they were the means of access. Naturally, schools grew in forms that established this sense of control in both overt and more subtle ways. Departmentalization, classroom design, curricular organization, age groupings, standardization, rigid assessment criteria, library collections—each is hierarchical and prescriptive.
Now, however, the hierarchies are tumbling, the prescriptions being shredded. Literacy simply ain’t just the three R’s any more. Posing the right questions is just as important—maybe more important—than being able to answer the same old ones. Consumption still matters, but upon digestion one must be ready to contribute and collaborate. Connect with bigger experts than the ones at the front of the class, and put yourself out there for anyone to view and critique. And it’s all cheap and easy. The control has begun to shift, and learning is becoming the ultimate choose-your-own-adventure book.
So that “Why school?” question takes on an unprecedented urgency for all sorts of what seem obvious reasons. More schools are having those conversations and responding in positive fashion, but I don’t see it happening on a wide-enough or fast-enough basis. Many reasons exist, ones I have cited in many places throughout this blog.
Rheingold’s book provoked me to consider this entire issue from another angle. In this emerging world, schools still can have an absolutely vital role. But will they? Yes, if they heed a simple warning based on scientific history. It’s one I think particularly apropos for schools such as mine, to which people pay tuition.
Evolve or die.
I know that sounds dramatic, but consider what Rheingold lays out for us. At the risk of oversimplifying, when it comes to human intelligence, our evolution has come about through key intersection of existing human brain power and massive cultural/environmental factors. It is happening right now. Given the shifts outlined a few paragraphs back, schools need to figure out which useless appendages to shed and which make us fitter in a very conscious attempt to influence natural selection.
Reportedly the last dodo bird, considered a myth by some, was spotted on Mauritius Island in 1662. People speculate the dodo became flightless because of the abundant food sources and lack of predators on the island. It also never developed defense mechanisms, so hungry sailors armed with clubs and invasive species wiped them out within a century. Its extinction was not immediately noticed, and now the dodo exists only as a symbol of obsolescence.

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