Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Twitter (And Other Social Media): Our Ego-Inflation and Self-Promotion Device

Have you really thought about the nature of social media? Most of us use it. I've even praised it, but lately I have begun to really examine it and its use in my own life. We users of social media often forget that it has specific design characteristics whose purpose is perhaps not what we think.

For example, we have been fond of praising the ability of Twitter to allow us to connect with others. But is being "followed" or "following someone" a "connection?" Or, are we connected simply because the medium, in this case Twitter, has declared us connected? Connection, of course is in the words of the definer. We all have our versions of it, but I can't help but wonder if having former president Barack O'bama as a follower and on my followed list is truly a connection. In my thinking it's not. He and I have never exchanged a word. For all I know, a publicist is the one who made the decision of who ends up on his followed list. That certainly destroys in my mind any thought of authentic connection. If I really want to connect with someone, we certainly have to have more than a declaration from Twitter or a few brief word exchanges in the form of a Tweet. But is connection really the purpose of Twitter?

I really think the purpose, whether we Twitter users ever acknowledge it or not, is unabashedly self-promotion. It is one gigantic ego-inflation device where we can be someone and attempt to break out of our meager corners of the world and try to be a celebrity. Twitter's ego-inflation system is used by us to try to stir the world either up or in our direction. After all, in the United States, we currently have a "Tweeter-in-Chief" who knows too well about its ego-inflation abilities. He uses it as a blaring horn that declares for the world who he is and how great he is. Haven't we all felt a bit that same way when something we've posted on Twitter gets "retweeted" and "liked" many times? Our ego becomes a bit more inflated with each of these.

Perhaps we should give up the race for retweets and likes and more followers. After all, just the idea of these is truly more about us than we think. We wear these like medals. Some even like to remind others in their tweets just how many followers and unfollowers they have. If connecting with others were our true goal, it wouldn't be about the numbers of followers we have, nor would it be about how much of our Tweets echo about Twitterverse. It would be about the depth and authenticity of our relationships and discussions between other people in that world. Instead, we are prodded by this ego-inflation device to post in order to declare loudly what we want the world to see as us, but this "us" is simply a shadow in cyberspace.

What should we then do with Twitter? (Or Facebook, Instagram, etc. for that matter) I am not entirely ready to delete my accounts as Jaron Lanier recently argues in his book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. That seems draconian to me at this point, but it is worth consideration. Instead, I am going to own up to what Twitter (and social media) is, as I've come to see it. I might even conduct some experiments with it. For example, instead of just playing by Twitter's rules of "retweet" and "likes," I might seek NOT to have my tweets liked and retweeted. It is said that our world does not like to have reality thrown back into its face, so why not use Twitter and other social media as a means to question its created reality? Why not be truly real and post what we really are thinking instead of seeking validation of others through their liking and retweeting of what we have to say? Also, since Twitter seems to be a powerful "self-promotion" device as well as a idea-promotion device, perhaps I can use it authentically in that manner?

Considering the American character, is it really a surprise that social media like Twitter is an American invention? We've long since liked self-promoting ourselves through our own exceptionalist beliefs. We historically throughout our past have had leaders talk about us being a beacon to the rest of the world, a light in a world of darkness. Twitter, no doubt, provides us with a personal mega-horn, or so we think, to shout "What's happening?" in our lives and in our worlds that we think might serve as a beacon for others. But have we really stopped to think, are we really reading all those "tweets" in our timelines? Is anyone reading them? Or if we're reading them, are simply looking for words that also validate our view of the world? Then, because we've chosen whom to follow, these words are like the words of so many cyber-sycophants, only telling us what we want to hear?

Let's perhaps be critically honest and sober about our social media and not get caught in the hype. Twitter is designed with specific characteristics that can make it, not about connecting, but about ego-inflation and confirmation of our own little worlds. It isn't about global perspectives; it's about promoting ourselves and creating the world we ourselves want.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Time for a Little Heretical Thought in the Ed Tech World

If anyone has noticed, I have subtly changed the byline of this blog, for it once stated:
"Technology, Teaching, and Public School Advocate"
and now it simply states,
"Thoughts on Education, Literature, Politics, and Philosophy of Education."
Not that many even I feel I have to explain myself. Why the change? I lost my religion, or stated differently: I have increasingly began to feel as if "Technology" already has enough advocates and needs more critics.

While I am sure no one really pays attention to such things,  I have increasingly felt that the "Ed Tech" evangelists have become less critical of technology, and in some ways have come to believe that it alone offers the "salvation of education" and our students. I myself could so be judged from my various blather on this blog as one of the "technology-faithful." Yet, time, experience, and thought has cost me my own uncritical faith in the power of the PC (or the Mac) to lead to educational paradise.

Neil Postman, that powerful critic of technology himself, perhaps had in mind the malady that inflicts the current "Ed Tech" world and education when described something called "Technopoly." He stated that "technopoly is a state of mind," and that it consists in the "deification of technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes it orders from technology." It also causes the "development of a new social order," leads to the "rapid dissolution of much associated with traditional beliefs," and sees technical progress as our "supreme achievement" as well as the means by which all our problems will be solved. To me, it would seem that Postman was actually describing the basic tenants of the current "Ed Tech" religion that in some appellations appears to be a "fundamentalist religion."

Don't get me wrong, I still embrace my iPhone and PC, for they allow me to do things that make life richer, easier, and efficient. I am no Luddite. But I have become a heretic of sorts when it comes to all this uncritical promotion of everything tech in education. The tenants of "ED Tech" fundamentalism should be questioned, and every time some educator, keynote speaker, tech salesman begins to sell their wares or promote their ideas, it is time lay aside our personal enthusiasm, or friendships, and our techno-enthusiasm and ask the heretical questions of whether what is said is really truth of dogma.

I no longer adhere to the doctrine that "deifies" technology as the answer to all our educational problems. I also no longer think that "disruption" and "innovation" with technology is always a good thing. Are we really trying to improve our students' education or are we simply trying to promote technology for its own sake. Perhaps we are also only using technology to promote ourselves instead of what is truly beneficial for our students. Do we really think more and better technology is going to finally educate all our students?

Dropping the "Technology advocate" part of my byline was important to me. Technology needs no advocate but our students do. There's enough commercial and tech industry salespersons and techno-fundamentalists out there advocating for the technology. What is sorely needed are us techno-heretics, who have a sober view of technology, and who are willing to question the tenants of Ed Tech fundamentalism.

Technology can either be tools that we use to enhance our lives and the education of our students, or they can become that which directs our lives. I choose the former.

Postman, N. (1993). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. Vintage: New York, NY.



Saturday, June 23, 2018

False Promise of Social Media: Confessions of a Former SM Evangelist

In some of my past blog posts, I’ve often talked about how social media fostered conversations and connections. I now confess: I’ve been wrong all these years. It does neither. Social media is more about self-promotion, dividing people, and making useless declarations than it is about connecting people.

To see this, just take a moment to examine your Facebook News Feeds and Twitter timelines. Both of these are riddled with posts from others mostly designed to insult and belittle those who are not part of our tribes and who believe different than we do. For more evidence of the true power of social media, just look at our President whose Twitter posts do more to keep America divided than ever. While we are all complicit in this division and disconnection, it is also inherent in the design flaws for social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. This is because these social media sites are constructed not to foster conversations nor connections. Instead, they are designed to foster shallow declarations, division and the celebration of whoever can make the most outrageous contributions.

In his book, Anti-Social Media: How Facebook Disconnects Use and Undermines Democracy, Siva Vaidhyanathan writes:
“Social media, and Facebook in particular, do not foster conversation. They favor declaration. They do not allow for deep deliberation. They spark shallow reaction."
As an avid social media user of over ten years, I’ve come to the same conclusions as Vaidhyanathan: social media isn’t bringing anyone together. It only provides people the opportunity to shout epithets and disparaging statements at each other, or post photos and anti-conservative or anti-liberal placards all in an effort to get a reaction from those of other tribes. Social media is not a place for civil discussions or deliberation about the issues that concern us. They are simply places where we can post statements that take political jabs towards those who are not of our tribe.

On many occasions I’ve tried to engage others in conversations and deliberations about various issues (just look back over my Twitter timeline), but it's mostly a waste of time. I’ve also been equally guilty of posting content that tries to incite a reaction from those who believe differently from myself.

The reality is that, on social media, no one convinces any one else of anything. When we use social media, we simply keep exchanging divisive nonsense back and forth, which is what both Twitter and Facebook want and need to exist. Both of these social media sites need users who engage with each other in order to survive. With their systems of “likes,” “retweets,” and “laughing faces,” Facebook and Twitter function like “levers in a Skinner box," as Vaidhyanathan puts it. They manipulate us to post more and more on their sites, and the more inflammatory and reactionary, the better for Facebook and Twitter. The more outrageous the better. Unfortunately, none of this "connection" results in the best interests of community.

Social media has become a tool to divide rather than to bring together for substantive discussion. As an educator, I've been wrong about the potential of this 21st century technology. We as educators have an obligation to stop being "evangelists" for social media, and educate others, including our students on what social media has done and continues to do to American society. 

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Reading the Book "The Sun Does Shine": What Educational Leaders and Educators Can Learn from a Former Death Row Inmate

"You don't have to be locked up to occupy your mind and your days trying to rewrite a painful past or undo a terrible tragedy or make right a horrible wrong. But pain and tragedy and injustice happen--they happen to us all. I'd like to believe it's what you choose to do after such an experience that matters the most--that truly changes your life forever." Anthony Ray Hinton, The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row
Anthony Ray Hinton's book The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row is a emotionally riveting and reader-disturbing tale that every educator should read this summer. In it, Hinton tells the story of his life on death row in Alabama for the crime of murder that he did not commit. He was clearly convicted due to a racist justice system in which both law enforcement, district attorneys, and judges found him guilty of murder because of his skin color and because he was a convenient suspect. What's more, this wasn't something that occurred in the 1950s or 1960s. Hinton was convicted and sentenced to death row in the 1980s.

The real value of this book besides its portrait of a racism that is very much part of our country's fabric lies in the wisdom that Hinton shares throughout. It is clear that through the injustice he experienced, he has a lot to say that we should give attention to. For example, nowhere does Hinton capture both the injustice of his experience and what he learned than when he writes:
"My only crime was being born black, or being born black in Alabama. Everywhere I looked in this courtroom, I saw white faces--a sea of white faces. Wood walls, wood furniture, and white faces. The courtroom was impressive and intimidating. I felt like an uninvited guest in a rich man's library, It's hard to explain exactly what it feels like to be judged. There's a shame to it. Even when you know you're innocent. It still feels like you are coated in something dirty and evil. It made me feel guilty. It made me feel like my very soul was put on trial and found lacking. When it seems like the whole world thinks you're bad, it's hard to hang on to your goodness."
Elsewhere, Hinton shares additional wisdom about the experience of being Black in America:
"Innocent men don't run. Except sometimes innocent men need to run. This is true in Alabama and everywhere. If you're poor and black, sometimes your best and only chance is to run."
And:
"There was no good end to the running in my mind, but there were nights when it seemed like dying on the pavement would have been a whole lot easier than proving my innocence in a courtroom. I shouldn't have had to prove I was innocent--they were supposed to prove I was guilty--but not in this courtroom." 
Hinton's book offers readers one man's experience of what happens when the very institutions that are supposed to ensure justice and fairness align to carry out an injustice. It is this story that reminds us that the institutions we lead can be capable of the same.

Statements like this rightfully disturb our beliefs in what we often see as an infallible system of justice and government. It convicts us of often having a blind faith in our institutions and how it deals with citizens. Hinton's story loudly proclaims that the fight for making sure our institutions are just and fair is far from over. After all, Hinton was released in 2015, just about 3 years ago. In the story he tells, it took him 30 years to avoid execution and prove his innocence, when it was clear from the beginning to the system that convicted him that he was innocent.

Why should educators and school leaders read this one? We should read this book because much of the literature sold to us is about methodologies, technologies, and leadership strategies. If we simply only read that stuff, we forget that our institutions are still engaged in effectively providing opportunities for people, and that our institutions of education, like our justice system, can and does still act in ways that are unjust and unfair. By reading Hinton's story, not only do you learn from a very wise individual who shares what he learned from personal injustice, you also find your own personal faith in our institutions disturbed enough to realize they still get things wrong. Leadership is recognizing that both we and the institutions we lead still exist in contexts culturally and historically constituted, and that means, no matter our intentions, they still act in unjust ways.

As a side not, I am firmly convinced that being an effective leader is more than reading John Maxwell books, applying the tenets of leadership gurus like Stephen R. Cover, and the many other ideas and programs peddled in the leadership industry these days. Being an effective leader means encountering the uncomfortable---the disturbing---so that we find ourselves off-balance. In this state of being off-balance we discover that the world we thought we had figured out isn't really what we thought it was and that perhaps we can't really see things with the level of certainty our leadership gurus tell us we can. Therein lies the value in Hinton's book The Sun Does Shine. It effectively disturbs our world---especially the world of this white male who often sees things through that lens of privilege and culture. Anthony Ray Hinton's story of spending 30 years on death row for a crime he did not commit is one every educational leader should read.


Friday, April 20, 2018

NC Legislator Suggests Arming Educators: Gun Worship Continues in the Tarheel State

In February, in the aftermath of the Stoneman Douglas, I posted my opinion about the idea of arming educators. (Arming Educators: A Bad, Smelly Idea That Won't Go Away) Now, even with two month's perspective and email exchanges and personal discussions with both proponents and opponents, it still smells as bad as it did then. Turning our schools into armed camps just isn't the answer. Yet, one of our very own North Carolina legislators is still sounding the call for gun-toting educators roaming the halls of our buildings. What's worse, he's saying that if they (the legislators) don't arm our teachers, administrators, and others within our schools, then "their blood will be on the hands" of the state legislators (see "NC Legislator Says Children's Blood 'Will Be On Our Hands' If State Doesn't Allow for Armed Teachers").

I can think of several things that could happen if guns were suddenly a prominent appliance within the school buildings, and none of them are good. One of these possible scenarios seems even more probably after a Stoneman Douglas teacher was arrested for leaving a loaded gun in a public restroom (see "Stoneman Douglas Teacher Arrested After Leaving Gun in Public Restroom"). I can only imagine an absent-minded and distracted teacher doing the same within a school by leaving a loaded gun on their desk or in a restroom. Or, a student wrestling away a gun from a teacher in anger, then unloading it on that teacher and anyone else standing by. The bottom line is that the potential for harm is greater than any possible deterrent value that gun might have.

But I honestly didn't mean for this post to get back into the argument about arming teachers; what I really wanted to point out that this NC legislator's argument and call to arm teachers points actually to the cause of all this violence in the first place.

It may be rather simple: We Americans put all our faith in the ability of firearms to solve all or most of our problems. After all, when our forefathers settled the score with the British, and when developing our Constitution, they made sure that if a pesky tyrannical government every arises again, "We'll be ready for'em." Our guns, with this way of thinking, are a necessary deterrent for anything seen as our enemy. That's often the spoken and unspoken rationale for the 2nd Amendment too. But perhaps at heart, we as Americans have settled so many of our differences with guns, and naturally, like Mr. Pittman, our North Carolina legislator, arming more and more of our populace is the answer. This kind of thinking may also provide some explanation for why we like words and phrases such as "Shoot first and ask questions later," or "Go ahead, make my day." We simply have an infallible faith in the power of Smith and Wesson as the means to solving our societal problems. That thinking will probably be the end of us though.

But getting back to Mr. Pittman's call for arming educators. It is still a "trainwreck" of an solution. It is also amazing how he can try to make a "moral" argument for carrying a weapon, but then again, that seems to be how we solve our problems.

The bottom line is that until we begin to see that our real enemy is ourselves, none of this gets resolved. Having a bunch of gun-toting teachers and administrators isn't the answer, unless, of course, your want to turn out schools into battlefields.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

How 21st Century School Leaders Can Tell If They Are Infected with "Metric Fixation"

"Metric fixation is the seemingly irresistible pressure to measure performance, to publicize it, and to reward it, often in the face of evidence that this just doesn't work very well." Jerry Muller, The Tyranny of Metrics
SUBTITLE:  HOW YOU CAN TELL IF YOU ARE INFECTED WITH METRIC FIXATION

Metric fixation is the incessant and unending belief that you can only tell if you've been successful if there's a measurement. In other words, results that are quantifiable are the only measure of success. If you're wondering whether or not you have the metric-fixation disease as a school leader, take a look at your present actions. If, at this time of year, you find yourself speaking of "Test-Prep Rallies" and of climbing on the roof of your building and eating chicken manure if all your students give their best on 'the tests', chances are you're badly infected. You have the metric fixation disease or what Muller (2018) simply calls "metric fixation." 

Actually, there are other symptoms too. First of all, if you believe that it is possible to replace entirely, professional judgment based on experience and talent with "numerical indicators of comparative performance based on standardized data," chances are, you are fully in the clutches of the disease of metric fixation. If you are in the fatal stages, numbers actually matter more than people do, and if the numbers conflict with reality, then you inevitably always go with the numbers.

Secondly, you're infected with metric fixation, you believe that by simply making metrics, or test results public, you can improve schools by just being accountable. This symptom of the metric fixation disease has been widespread since the days of No Child Left Behind. Your thirst for accountability and transparency is insatiable; you simply can't get enough, because you just can't have too much accountability.

Finally, you are infected with metric fixation if you stubbornly hold on to the idea that you can motivate teachers and administrators by rewarding for having more acceptable test scores by giving them more pay and/or higher status. Merit pay lives on despite its never working in education al all. If you suffer from this symptom, you spend your time trying to dream up new ways to bribe and manipulate or penalize teachers in order to get the test scores you want, in spite of repeated evidence showing that such measures just doesn't work.

There is absolutely no doubt that many 21st century education leaders (and politicians) are infected with the metric-fixation disease. The mad illness persists in spite of the fact that no achievement gaps are closing, and no miraculous gains (in their own standardized tests) has occurred.  Perhaps its time find a cure for this persistent disease that is distorting education. The only vaccination against this malady is a sudden jolt of common sense and the realization that not everything worthwhile in this world is measurable. 

Muller, J. (2018). The Tyranny of Metrics, Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Liberal Arts & Humanities vs Science,Math and STEM: What If Educational Leaders Are On Wrong Side of History?

What if we as education leaders are wrong about all this hype about the supremacy of math and science as being the keys to our future and the futures of our students? What if all this STEM hype ends up being just another one of those fads that takes hold of education from time to time?

It's true that education leaders have been wrong before. Just tour some of the open education buildings constructed during the 60s and 70s, when well-meaning education leaders took the idea of open education to mean that education should take place in a physical environment without walls. What did they do? They built school buildings that did not have walls between classrooms. There are other times too when educational leaders have gotten it wrong as well, that's why the never-ending cycle of fads continue unabated. But what if we are also wrong about the current utilitarian fetish with all things math and science? Could it be that we are providing our students with plenty of technical skills, but also leaving them soul-less and unable to to even ask the bigger questions about our existence?

In his book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, William Deresiewicz makes a powerful argument for the value of the humanities and a liberal arts education. This argument is needed now, more than ever, as recent events in Wisconsin demonstrate. There, the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, has plans to drop 13 majors in the humanities and social sciences (see article here.) They are doing so to address declining enrollment problems and budget deficits. The real reason for dropping these majors? According to the Washington Post article, "The push away from the liberal arts and toward workplace skills is championed by conservatives who see many four-year colleges and universities as politically correct institutions that graduate too many students without practical job skills--but with liberal political views." In other words, these liberal arts programs are graduating students who engage in thinking that is found objectionable. Instead, what is desired are unthinking workers who will simply go their jobs each day and unquestioningly do as they are told.

There is real danger when educational leaders start talking just about employability, science, mathematics and utilitarian education. Our education system, from pre-kindergarten to the doctoral level needs and must have the humanities and liberal arts. As Deresiewicz points out, "In the liberal arts, you pursue the trail of inquiry wherever it leads. Truth, not use or reward, is the only criterion." Liberal arts and the humanities are important so that we do have individuals who can think beyond the existing boundaries and ask the tough questions about our lives, our society, and our world. If you want graduates who will simply engage in "inquiry that leads to pre-determined outcomes," then the answer is to make all education instrumental and utilitarian, where the focus is technical and on immediate employability.

I think Deresiewicz offers us powerful reasons to critique and not unquestioningly fall in line with the adoption of STEM and all that hype over math and science. He makes the case for a liberal arts education and its importance to the souls and well-being of our students, and our future. We do need both, and his words below are worth repeating at length:
"Practical utility, however, is not the ultimate purpose of a liberal arts education. Its ultimate purpose is to help you to learn to reflect in the widest and deepest sense, beyond the requirements of work and career: for the sake of citizenship, for the sake of living well with others, above all, for the sake of building a self that is strong and creative and free. That's why the humanities are central to a real college education. You don't build a self out of thin air, by gazing at your navel. You build it, in part, by encountering the ways that others have done so themselves. You build it, that is, with the help of the past. The humanities--history, philosophy, religious studies, above all, literature and the other arts--are the record of the ways that people have come to terms with being human. They address the questions that are proper to us, not as this or that kind of specialist, this or that kind of professional, but as individuals as such--the very questions we are apt to ask when we look up from our work and think about our lives. Questions of love, death, family, morality, time, truth, God, and everything else within the wide, starred universe of human experience." (p. 155-156, Excellent Sheep)
I can't but help but wonder that the hype over math and science, and especially STEM and the desire to devalue the humanities and liberal arts is all connected. No one is talking about teaching students to think critically and for themselves any more. No one speaks of asking students to inquire in the greater questions about our world--such as the environment, justice, morality--instead we simply want them to be able to solve 'technical problems" using science and math. We want them to be "good workers." Whatever happened to wanting them to be exemplary humans?