Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Death of the Blog?

       This post is longer than usual, and for that I apologize. Perhaps I could have shortened it. In fact, I'm sure I could have. Yet, as should become clear to those of you who endure, the length reflects the theme.
       A few weeks ago, in a post of somewhat random thoughts, I mused about the current state of blogging. I noted that fewer and fewer posts seem to be showing up in my aggregator. Then, in a very unscientific experiment, I kept clicking on the little link at the top of this blog that says "Next blog." I most often--and it wasn't even close--came to blogs that hadn't been updated for many months, sometimes even years. Some announced their own demise. Others simply fizzled out. Saddest of all were the ones on which the final post declared one's sadness at not having blogged for a while, followed by a pledge to resume and keep it up, sort of a digital-literary New Year's resolution by February. Some were quite good. But one point above all depressed me a bit, something about which I've written before:

I find it incredibly disappointing when a blog dies, abandoned by its creator, no longer lovingly nourished through regular cerebral feelings. You can see it coming. The posts become less frequent, the content less stimulating, as if the author has begun to bore him- or herself. Though the author owes me nothing--and, I hate to admit, I did not encourage through comments or Tweets--I still feel somehow betrayed. When reading a book or article, you know it will end, even wonder how it will, appreciate the fabulous wrap up. But a blog seems to carry an inherent pledge of infinite development.(from "On Blogging During Break")
       I totally understand the challenge of maintaining a blog. I once confided: 

Writing this blog, I feel real pressure to ship at least once per week. As someone pointed out to me, “You create a monster; then you have to feed it.” At first this was easy: I was new to my school, wanted people to learn about me and my ideas, had plenty to say. It was purely rational, grounded in my cerebral cortex. Now, shipping has become harder. I find myself asking questions that, while logical, still drip with juices of the lizard brain. What am I going to say this week? Haven’t I already written about that? Is this worth posting on? What are people thinking about my posts? Have I gone too far in some of my points and overly offended someone? Would anyone notice if I didn’t post for a while? If I stopped posting at all? Why isn’t my mind working the way I want it to? When did I forget how to write?  (from "Taming My Lizard Brain: An Unforeseen Lesson from Blogging")

I compare that to Tweeting, something about which I was once skeptical but now embrace. It's really easy, almost automatic now. It's a wonderful way to share information, to compile quality resources, to engage in quality conversations during chats. It's amazing how well I feel I've come to know some people through Twitter although I've never met them or read anything else by them. That also may explain another trend I've noted in relation to the first. As I've noticed less blogging, I've noticed more Tweeting. And despite my love of the Twitter-sphere, that concerns me.
       In  ThinkingFast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman contends that our thought patterns operate in two ways--System 1 and System 2. System 1 consists of our automatic, almost instinctual reactions to things. They are often based on prior knowledge, assumptions, things we take for granted. System 2 involves deeper thinking; it is more reflective and analytical. Not surprisingly, Kahneman contends that we operate mainly per System 1. He says that this occurs in large part because we are intellectually lazy. But there are other reasons. Heuristics cause us to see things in certain ways. For example, the way information is presented can "anchor" us and influence how we respond. Other heuristics include availability, emotion, risk, sample size. We also have a poor grasp of statistics. I would add that we are simply busy, we want quick answers, and we haven't really been trained to think deeply. In "Some Thinking About Thinking" I relate this idea to education.
       I think we can use this framework as a way to think about Tweeting and blogging. While exceptions certainly exist, in general I would say that Tweeting equates to System 1 thinking and blogging to System 2 thinking. In anticipation of one argument against this, I acknowledge that good Tweeters will reveal the outcomes on System 2 thinking in many of their Tweets. Yet I'm focused on the process.
       For me the best blog posts have a meditative quality, as if the writer has peeled back his or her scalp and allowed you to see the neurons firing. Such posts echo the origins of the essay, its name derived from the Middle French essayer, which means to examine and to test. Part of the power lies in the struggle to construct that scaffolding, and it's why we hold in awe those who can do it so gracefully that we read the words and they seem so natural, so easy, so much what we want to say...but can't figure out how. They capture humans at their reflective best.
       It also captures the very essence of teaching and learning. Teaching, no matter what subject, boils down to an attempt to capture and to communicate an understanding. Math, for example, is much more than numeracy. Eventually it becomes a tool by which we can understand basic truths about the physical universe. Learning does not occur without at least a bit of reflection, when we take new information and figure how how it fits within existing schemata. Notice I said bit of reflection. Deeper, more powerful learning entails more extensive, more probing reflection. It's why, when I asked an admission director at a top liberal arts college what makes a student essay stand out, she told me a student's ability to truly reflect.
     I fear even the idea of our losing that. I see schools doing cool things with Tweeting and video and other forms of expression. They're wonderful and creative and often worthwhile. Yes, the notion of literacy is much more complex than it used to be. But what has gone by the wayside? I worry it's writing, something which often was not taught often and/or well enough anyway. I've argued for a long time--long before the days most of us had any idea about personal computers and the Internet-- that students need to be writing more in all their classes. And, as I argued in "Do Students Ever Get to Blog in Their Underwear?", it doesn't all need to be your typical academic writing. The important thing is the digging, the connecting; the discovery; as someone forgotten once said, and many have repeated, "I don't really know what I think until I write it." Ponder what I proposed in "Potential of Student Blogs."

But consider what could happen if each student's blog became truly personal, a place for musing and exploring and poking. A place not for trying to build a strong case, but a place for refining a big question while considering various options. A place for students to share with each other in a collaborative "big dig" that spills over into the classroom. A place where the teacher doesn't go looking to see if students have the right answer but a place to be surprised by what they know and are figuring out.
     I hope the assessment would focus on that. Of course, I want more of that to be happening everywhere, not just in blogs. In this case, a powerful blog becomes a multi-faceted symbol of a more modern education. It captures a new dynamic of individual and collective learning. It highlights a more necessary set of skills and attitudes. It marks a shift in the dominant voices of a class. It suggests a way in which each student can play a leading role in his or her own fashion. 

Even if not the sort of collaborative learning suggested by using blogs in this fashion, the larger goals remain paramount. We must help students develop the skills and attitudes integral to sustained, deep thought. Otherwise, too often we're content to skim along the surface. That's not just about individual growth. It's foundational to our growth as cultures and societies and a species. At the risk of being dramatic, evolve or die.
       Of course, all this really points to much more than a consideration of blogging versus Tweeting. It's about purpose. Values. It's about making sure making sure we always protect them. Ultimately, I see education as being about how we become better humans. Writing, whether for oneself or for an audience, is key to that. So when it comes to blogging, to riff off Mark Twain's famous line, I hope reports of its death are exaggerated.


Matt Edmonds said...

This strikes a chord with me. I've started several blogs over the past ten years or so, only to have them fizzle out in time. Eventually, I decide that starting over with an altogether new blog (new domain name, theme, etc.) will give me the energy to get going again. It never does. And most of those blogs end with exactly the type of post you mention: a almost desperate declaration of my better intentions for the future, as if I'm trying to convince myself that it will be different this time.

It helps, certainly, to know that others are reading. The times I've been able to sustain it longest have been when others encourage me via comments, etc. But I've finally given up hope of attracting a sizable readership. I've kept my current blog going for a while now (with very long periods of dormancy, mind you) by reminding myself that it's mainly for me. It's an outlet for my current thinking, and it eventually becomes a record of my previous thinking.

I value blogging for many of the reasons you mention--mainly because it is a space in which to "wonder aloud," so to speak--but I find that I rarely have the time to do that as deeply as I would like. Or, at least, other things crowd my to do list, and I don't make the time. I also read blogs less than I used to, for the same reason. (I've pared down my blog subscriptions, but yours made the cut!)

Anyway, thanks for writing this. I love the connection to Kahneman, and maybe--just maybe--this will inspire me to post something new.

Mark Crotty said...

Hi, Matt,

Thanks for your very thoughtful, insightful comment. I suspect your points would hold true for most people and their blogs. I know that I've had all the same thoughts at various times, and I often think of just abandoning this thing. I'm not sure why I don't, except perhaps for sheer stubborness and because I usually enjoy posting.Also, I've always done a great deal of writing for many reasons.

The irony is that this began as a way for folks in this school community to get to know me. Now, while I haven't done the analytics to prove it, I suspect most of my readers are from the larger indy school world.

Again, thanks for the comment. Let me know if you do a post, and I'll be sure to comment!